We Need to Move Beyond the 'Bernie Bros'

So much political energy is wasted on a non-issue.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Arizona. Courtesy of Flickr by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

It is often assumed with little evidence that Bernie Sanders is uniquely possessive of a base of devout, loud and angry support. Most commonly known as the “Bernie Bros”, this group of mostly-online Sanders supporters has long been deemed an irreconcilable part of the progressive movement–the theory goes, that this group is majorly constituted of political hobbyists who’ve no interest but to coerce everyone else into supporting Sanders, while neglecting the crucial work of grassroots coalition-building. Several recent findings have come to put a dent in that thesis, suggesting that every candidate has their own class of ‘Bros’, resurfacing the question of anti-Bernie bias in mainstream media and its implications on the tone of national political coverage of his campaign.

The first piece of any rebuttal to the uniqueness of Bernie Bros is an assessment of the self-sorting mechanisms of temperament in political rhetoric–much has been said about Bernie Sanders “shouting” and “screaming” but as some have noted, it is merely him raising his voice as was custom in erstwhile conventions of public speaking, while signaling discontent with the status quo. Bernie Bros operate from a similar vantage point–there’s no disputing that the ideas expressed by Sanders have been dismissed for the longest time as “unfeasible” in a world where it seems like the youth are standing on ever shakier financial grounds. Since politics have increasingly become not only a pursuit of ideas, but an identity to be assumed, expressed and defended, to see Bernie Bros defend their claim to a stronger welfare state, universal healthcare and free college with the same fervor as Sanders himself is not all that surprising.

But to concede that Sanders supporters are the only ones passionately arguing for their ideas is demonstrably false. Research out of Harvard seems to corroborate what many were suspecting, but weren’t quite sure if it’s true–Bernie Sanders isn’t the only candidate with a contingent of passionate followers online, making it all-the-more puzzling why he’s often singled out in these conversations.

There’s a multitude of ways this selective perceptivity could be interpreted, but one plausible explanation could be an impulsive reaction to demands of civility by becoming instead more uncivil–Ezra Klein outlined the larger phenomenon at play in his book “Why We’re Polarized” by highlighting the numerous ways both the left and the right drift further apart to signal hostility towards each other. Similarly, the American far-left views it as crucial to their identity to contrast their behavior against the center-left through negative polarization–this means that the more Bernie Bros are told to act in a civil manner, the more they’re compelled to do precisely the opposite.

What further spoils the pot is that the bases of other candidates aren’t necessarily that much more civil–they’ve just taken on a strategic notion of civility, one that manifests itself in select expedient instances, very much making Sanders a one-man party in practicing political honesty. This puts those who’ve long advocated for ‘meeting halfway through’ and ‘striking compromises’ at an impasse–the operating premise of the Sanders campaign is that a maximalist approach is as effective a method of legislation as it is of political campaigning. In the rare instance where his rhetoric is even remotely comparable to that of Trump’s, Bernie Sanders is correct in assessing that Washington has become so chronically haunted by the spectre of incrementalism, that the imminent danger of global threats like climate change wouldn’t be responsive to anything shy of sudden and radical change.

Furthermore, what might be a tad surprising to political observers in the United States to realize, is that the movement to get Bernie Sanders elected is global–the left across the world is coming under assault as nationalistic and quasi-authoritarian far-right regimes are assuming greater control. A victory against Donald Trump by someone who proudly dons the label of a democratic socialist scores a big ideological win for the American left, but it also signals to populations across the world that it is not unrealistic to pine for a government that is firstmost concerned with its citizens’ well-being–this elevates Bernie Sanders from American politician status to a global patron saint of the left’s ideas. It marks a symbolic clash of a humane form of government against the persistence of neoliberalism to see Joe Biden’s ambitions of becoming president maintained by the outgoing generation–for Bernie Bros, even with minority status among Sanders’ base, the fate of our young and bright is far too costly to waste on obliging disingenuous calls to civility.

The conventional wisdom in punditry circles is that Bernie Bros are a weakness of the Sanders campaign–but what if that’s not the case? The impetus for supporting Biden at this point is the conceit that better outcomes could not be achieved, and that a continuation of a would-be Obama 3rd term is what’s needed to heal America’s soul–Bernie Bros, contrary to ‘Bros’ of other candidates, are not convinced by the potential for compromise with an unyielding Republican Senate majority. An agenda to tackle economic, racial and social justice is one that everyone will benefit from — including those who are allergic to a Sanders presidency— and it is perhaps most baffling of all that people would rather settle for less to ratify their commitment to civility, rather than swallow their pride and ask for more even if it meant conceding to the Bernie Bros thesis of political change.