“Bernie Bros”: The Democratic Party Against Sanders

Justin Secor, Contributing Writer

About a month ago, while scrolling through Twitter, I saw an advertisement from the now-defunct Mike Bloomberg for President campaign. It appeared because a few of the centrist Democrats that I knew had liked and retweeted it. Within seconds of clicking on the video, I recognized its place within the popular media narrative. The video was about “Bernie Bros,” supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who engage in online harassment and abuse directed towards candidates who don’t agree with his particular brand of democratic socialism. The video highlights tweets that could be characterized as what people my age call “shitposting,” e.g. calling Elizabeth Warren a snake, Pete Buttigieg a rat, Bloomberg a racist and a sexist, Joe Biden creepy and expressing at times violent tendencies towards these candidates, their politics and their supporters. The video also highlights different media reactions and headlines from The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune, among others, which read “Are you being attacked by a Bernie Bro or a Bernie Bot?” and “Is Bernie Sanders’ angry army what Democrats really want?” as a bell tolls in the background. Finally, the video ends with Sanders (I-VT) announcing in a speech that “it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse,” followed by two words in bold: “Really? Really.”

The association being made between Sanders’ politics and his supporters’ harassment is logically dizzying. It at once shows the enraged supporters of Sanders, but attempts to then correlate their speech and statements with Sanders’ candidacy. It is portrayed as if he embodies that exact lack of moral decorum, doubting his ability to work effectively as an executive. This idea of the “Bernie Bro ” is nothing new. Within mainstream media circles, the idea of the Bernie Bro has become almost a given since the 2016 election; categorized as universally being young white men who are easy to anger and willing to spew bigoted, sexist remarks towards those who contest their viewpoints. They disrupt the “civility” that the Democratic establishment wants to project. Statistically however, the model of the Bernie Bro meets a brick wall. Within recent polling, supporters of Senator Sanders’ candidacy prove to be more diverse, both economically and racially, have the same numbers of both men and women supporting when compared to other candidates (around 50-50) and have higher support from LGTBQ+ voters. The statistics suggest that the “Bernie Bro ” category doesn’t hold water, yet Sanders’ presidential opponents continue to use this argument to disavow him, as if his supporters’ actions say anything about the candidate’s character or policy proposals. Attach this same argument on any other candidate and it immediately falls apart. Even though supporters of Senator Warren, Senator Klobuchar, former Mayor Buttigeig and current frontrunner Vice President Joe Biden have participated in equally vitriolic online harassment, they somehow aren’t subject to the same fallacy. So why does the media and the Democratic establishment want to discredit Sanders by way of his worst supporters?

In many ways this can be characterized through a model proposed by French philosopher Michel Foucault: biopower. In his book “The Birth of Biopower,” Foucault argues that biopower emerged as a tool during the technological developments of 18th and 19th centuries that allowed for systems of authority “‘make’ live and ‘let’ die,” “to take control of life, to manage it… to explore and reduce biological accidents and possibilities.” Foucault’s model introduces a different interpretation of modern political-society: that it is entirely reified and legitimized through authoritative power. In this sense, those in power create systems and rules that not only secure said power but prevent the underclasses from obtaining that same authority. Consequently (as Foucault demonstrates in “History of Sexuality” and “Discipline and Punish”), different social systems, from prisons to schools to the economy to the concept of sex itself, have been formulated and designed to exert this control on a societal scale by breaking up, dividing and conquering. These systems ultimately replicate themselves through the unconscious ideologies ingrained into governmental and social models. So how does this concept relate to “Bernie Bros?”

In “Resistance and Biopower: Shame, Cynicism, and Struggle in the Era of Neoliberalism and the Alt-Right,” philosopher and Macalester German Professor A. Kiarina Kordela argues that the liberal establishment uses moralizing politics in order to exert power over the broad political sphere. The left’s overt moralization became especially prominent since the appearance of Trump’s shameless alt-right politics in 2015, but found their origins with the Democratic party of the 1990s. After the Cold War, as Francis Fukuyama argues in his book “The End of History and The Last Man,” it was thought that the last global ideological battles had been fought and that liberal-capitalist free market democracy had won, constituting an “end” to history. Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” politics that embraced universality and compromise as key values in his  administration highlight this exact philosophy, likely best coined by the term “neoliberalism.” These neoliberal ideologies also advocated that those on the margins could be brought to this new utopia through their own commodification, representation and universal participation in these capitalist structures. A key cultural object that highlights this ideology is Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” where compromise, political battles of wits and working towards the benefit of the entire country were highlighted as characteristics of both political parties.

These ideals carried strongly into the Obama administration, which failed to compromise with Republican legislative stagnation and conservative protest towards even modest policy reform. With Trump’s candidacy, the political right became even less compromising, less decorous and expressed direct attacks against minority groups and denial of facts. During these years, liberals and Democrats could only respond to these barriers through what Kordela calls “biopolitical pacifism,” where morality becomes the model through which the left is able to establish their own contrary power. She writes that this “morality entails that the ultimate criterion for defining the enemy (subhuman) is the moral inferiority of not respecting human life as such. This puts in the same subhuman boat the alt-right and anybody who takes any value and antithesis (e.g., social class) seriously so as to be willing to fight.” An example of this can be seen in the responses to the separation of migrant children at the U.S. border with Mexico. The left gained significant political influence by not only exposing the injustice but by calling the practice morally wrong. This proved a viable strategy in 2018, when the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives. They were able to use morality as a way to manipulate and establish broad political power.

However, despite taking a moral left-wing position with regards to immigration and other political areas, on topics such as universal healthcare, the Green New Deal, instituting universal higher education and placing higher taxes on the super-rich, the Democratic establishment reacted more coolly. They couldn’t move further to the left because the party itself ultimately supports the status-quo of neoliberal American capitalism: the maintenance of liberal, free market democracy, with modest social reforms to make more people happy. Yet this status quo maintenance failed within the past 10 years as after the 2008 financial crisis, economic unrest within the “free market” boiled to the surface. All the while, the neoliberal-political center continued down the third way path for capitalism, embracing ideas such as feminism, LGBTQ+ rights and racial equality, but not choosing to fix any of the structural problems that marginalize those groups in the first place. Sanders meanwhile took the moral position in favor of policies that stood to change the structure of American capitalism. This is not to say that Sanders’ policies or Democractic Socialist platform present the definitive solution to the structural problems that continue marginalizing these groups, but they nonetheless propose the most significant overhauls that could deliver the best path towards a more just, equitable and sustainable system. 

Even though Sanders poses this threat to the Democratic party’s third way politics, the establishment could not prove themselves more moral when compared to Sanders’ political positions, as those aforementioned policies stand to do the most material good if implemented. The more moderate candidates who oppose Sanders, the so-called “establishment candidates,” began to draw attention from ardent Sanders supporters, who knew that given their political and economic positions, merely a return to pre-Trump status quo wouldn’t be enough to legitimately help them. Often these people are the most marginalized within society such as women, people of color and the financially insecure. They began to criticize, attack and satirize the candidacies of other contenders and their oftentimes strongly neoliberal policies, as in their minds only Sanders’ policy positions stood to help them the most. In many cases, they don’t have the means of expression to “properly” criticize other candidates, so they turn towards righteous indignation as their megaphone, as their way to speak truth to power. However, the Democrats managed to employ biopolitical pacifism, not towards Sanders himself, but towards his supporters. Just as in the aforementioned advertisement, Sanders’ supporters are portrayed as morally inferior, as a class of people who can be written off because of their outrage towards policies that do not stand to help them.

The Democratic establishment thus attempts to use these moral biopolitics in order to manipulate and control the political outcomes of this election. Their disregard for the most marginalized was further proven when days before Super Tuesday, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigeig dropped out of the race and endorsed Joe Biden, the very pinnacle of centrist “third-way” political neoliberalism, citing electability and the potential to restore honor to the oval office. This led to big wins and illustrated the deep divides between political moderates and progressives. 

The center will try to reinforce its political power by whatever means necessary. Ideologically this was seen in a CNN debate following Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday win between Bernie Sanders supporter, Our Revolution Chair and Former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner and Washington Post Columnist and CNN commentator Hillary Rosen, who supports Joe Biden. In this exchange, Rosen chose to correct Turner, a professor of African-American history, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” specifically commenting how King only criticized “the silence of white moderates” and chastised Turner for “using King’s words against Joe Biden.” Turner’s point was that Joe Biden’s candidacy stood only to support the inaction, that he stood to reinforce white complacency with the system, highlighted by King writing that it is “the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action…’” This kind of “ethical” retort on the part of the establishment to the rise of more moral politics elicit this kind of interaction. Rosen tried to levy Dr. King’s legacy as a champion for civil rights in order to establish her own moral authority over Turner, a black woman and active civil rights advocate, and silence her in the process. Kordela writes that the Democratic center is “forced to engage in this moralization of politics and the construction of their opposition as morally inferior, because this is the sole way remaining to them to act politically—as long as they follow the rules of biopower.

The result of these political attacks ultimately accumulated: Sanders candidacy has been stymied and all but extinguished. Biden has become the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and FiveThirtyEight as of writing gives Sanders a less than 1% chance to compete for the Presidency. In using these biopolitical methods, the Democrats and liberals lump Sanders’ supporters into what 2016 Nominee Hillary Clinton would call “a basket of deplorables,” as people who are morally and ideologically bereft, as if their anger towards other candidates and their policies are neither logically nor emotionally justified. Because the narrative has been reinforced and reiterated by the media, an illogical correlation between Sanders’ and his supporters’ “anger” was formed. Biopolitics fundamentally seeks to divide and control political and social groups so as to create in-groups and out-groups. Through the Democrats moralizing politics and neoliberal capitalist standing, Sanders’ supporters, many of whom exist at society’s margins, become disowned by the establishment, made to “let die ” in Foucault’s words. The Democrats insist that it is the Sanders’ supporters who stand to divide the party’s unity. But so long as the party continues to act in accordance with these biopolitics of pacifism and morally disown its most vulnerable supporters, who legitimately stands to divide and destroy the progressive political coalition?

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