The lesson for political commentators over the last few months has been clear: Write about senator Bernie Sanders at your own peril.
Any assessment of the Democratic presidential candidate, who narrowly lost the Iowa primary to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton on Feb. 1, will inevitably be picked apart by a crew of sharp-tongued Sanders defenders who patrol the political web day and night. These chosen few have taken it upon themselves to safeguard the narrative virtue of their candidate, flooding Twitter feeds and comments sections with accusations of lazy reporting, establishment bias, and even receiving payoffs from the Clinton campaign. They are the Bernie Bros, and they will not be silenced.
I myself have written a few pieces about the Vermont senator, varying in perspective. And I’ve found that even coverage that tips toward the positive garners a torrent of strongly worded reader responses, from “Your article is misleading” to “Has Hillary offered you a job in the White House press corps?” (That’s not how the press corps works, if anyone was wondering.) In fact, I receive exponentially more criticism when I write about Sanders than any other candidate. And I’ve essentially called Ted Cruz a sociopath, and straight-up called Donald Trump a fascist.
These interactions have been more irritating than anything else—though I’ve significantly worn out Twitter’s mute function. I don’t feel especially threatened by Bernie Bros, and any large-scale negative attention directed toward my inbox typically lasts a few hours at most.
The women writers who dare question or criticize Sanders have it much worse. A subset of Sanders’s supporters have been known to orchestrate campaigns of relentless, misogynistic harassment against them. The phenomenon is so widespread that Cosmopolitan’s Prachi Gupta put together a comprehensive roundup of the women who’ve been targeted—one of whom, Sarah Jeong, a writer for Vice, temporarily locked her Twitter account to stanch the flow of vitriol.
Funnily enough, Jeong actually considers herself a Sanders supporter. And this highlights a significant inconsistency at the root of the Bernie Bro problem.
A number of vocal Sanders supporters prefer to deny the existence of Bernie Bros altogether. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, for example, considers the meme a “blatant, manipulative scam” attributed to “Clinton media operatives” who are “campaigning for their candidate under the guise of journalism and social-issue activism.” Others dismiss the Bernie Bros moniker because there’s nothing traditionally “bro-y” about Sanders’s overall support base. But the most common talking point trotted out is also the most nonsensical: Sanders supporters aren’t all men, ipso facto, the Bernie Bro is a myth.
But pointing to the existence of women supporters is hardly a sufficient refutation of misogyny within political movements. Who else enjoys a significant female support base? A slew of anti-choice politicians across America.
Obviously, Sanders is incomparable to these types—he’s an excellent advocate for women. Articulating the problem of Bernie Bros is simply meant to be an indictment of a certain type of Sanders supporter who most definitely exists–and who is doing real damage to the brand.
Denying the Bernie Bro problem only exacerbates it. Doing so may well alienate Democratic primary voters who are on the fence, because it suggests the campaign isn’t inclusive to people with slightly different views or honest questions about the senator’s proposed policies. And it’s an even bigger issue for the rest of Sanders’s supporters. Bernie Bros are only a small faction of the group, but they’ve become highly visible. This means Sanders’ broader support base risks being unfairly painted as condescending, uncompromising, and unwelcoming. If the majority of Sanders’ supporters continue to submit themselves to the rhetorical leadership of Bernie Bros and those who gloss over the problem, these characterizations will only become harder to shake.
This is an outcome the movement cannot afford. Should Sanders secure the Democratic nomination later this year, it will likely be by a close margin. He’ll need the full support of Clinton’s followers to take the White House in November. And he’s unlikely to get it if his base is hijacked by a small number of vitriolic Clinton-haters and women-bashers.
Bernie Bros are a problem that requires confrontation. Any movement that lays claim to legitimate progressivism cannot simultaneously ignore evident, chronic trends of misogynistic harassment within its ranks. At the end of the day, ignoring Bernie Bros is indistinguishable from outright endorsing them.
To its credit, the official Sanders campaign has made an effort to neutralize misogyny and cultivate respect among its supporters:
But the campaign can only do so much. The onus of shifting perspective, of showcasing the movement’s inclusiveness, lies on—I hate to say it—“the silent majority.” Bernie Bros and their deniers don’t constitute anywhere near a significant portion of the base. Now’s the time to prove it.