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The debate over “Bernie Bros” isn’t about Bernie Sanders at all

Bernie Sanders supporters at a rally in Manassas, Virginia, in September 2015.
Bernie Sanders supporters at a rally in Manassas, Virginia, in September 2015.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

What do we talk about when we talk about "Bernie Bros"?

Officially, the term "Bernie Bro" first came to prominence in an October 2015 Atlantic article by Robinson Meyer that poked fun at a certain type of Bernie Sanders supporter: young, male, and oh-so-very earnest.

But soon the term started to shift in meaning, and became a way to discuss young male Sanders supporters who were a little too, shall we say, bro-ish when it came to women. That included some who wrote about Hillary Clinton using gendered and tone-deaf language, like Walker Bragman, who wrote in Salon that "Hillary's personality repels me" and accused Clinton of believing "that gender is a substitute for policy positions"; and blogger Ben Norton, who infantilized her supporters as a "high-school clique."

But the live controversy over the alleged bros’ existence and activities didn’t begin until months later, after many women began to notice that when they criticized Sanders online or praised Hillary Clinton, male Sanders supporters would reliably turn up in swarms to tell them they were wrong. And that this swarming occasionally escalated further, into misogynistic abuse that was upsetting or even frightening for them.

Several women, including some who were themselves Sanders supporters, pointed this out online. A greater number noticed that they’d had the same experience, sighed, and resignedly added "Bernie Sanders" to the category of things women tweet about at their own peril, along with "feminism," "guns," "Muslims," "pop culture," and "probably everything else."

The Sanders campaign, to its credit, took swift and sensible steps to try to improve its followers’ behavior. And there is absolutely no reason to believe that this slice of online abusers represents the views of either Sanders or the bulk of his supporters, who have better things to do than fight on social media. But some prominent Sanders supporters perceived the complaints about Bernie Bros as a threat to the Vermont democratic socialist’s candidacy, and decided that they needed to set the record straight.

And so, predictably, the "Not All Men" portion of the debate followed. Contributions ranged from measured but only marginally relevant to the issue of abuse (actually, the real divide between Sanders and Clinton supporters isn’t gender but age) to bonkers (Glenn Greenwald going Full Greenwald, claiming that the entire Bernie Bro narrative was a "concoction" by "pro-Clinton journalists," a "cheap campaign tactic masquerading as journalism and social activism").

But those efforts weren’t just an unnecessary fight against a perceived media-industry-wide campaign to discredit Bernie Sanders that didn't actually exist. They were actively counterproductive. The women who complained about their treatment were talking about their own lives, and how the insults and harassment had affected them. And so the debunkers, intentionally or not, sent the message that the really important thing here was not women’s experiences but rather how they might affect a man.

Why the Bernie Bro debunkers can stand down

Sanders supporter with "Bernie" shaved head

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

A number of leftist (male) writers, pundits, and rank-and-file Sanders fans have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into changing the zero minds who believe that Sanders shouldn’t get to be president because they read on the internet that his supporters are an all-male strike force of online misogyny.

Back in October, Matt Bruenig took the nascent Bernie Bro gender critique seriously, rolling out a series of charts in Jacobin to prove that the real divide among Democratic primary voters is about age, not gender. He has stayed on the case ever since. Freddie deBoer, writing on his personal blog, assured Sanders supporters that they shouldn't worry that "a few dozen people on Twitter" could really be a problem for the candidacy of a Jewish socialist from Vermont. And now, of course, there is Greenwald warning of the false-flag operation by Clintonista journalists.

I am here to tell them that they can stand down: There’s no need to defend Sanders’s campaign against such charges or to attack Clinton's for secretly fomenting them. This isn't going to hurt Sanders, because that was never what this was about in the first place.

The kerfuffle over harassment by Sanders supporters isn’t about Bernie. Nor is it about who gets to be president or whose supporters are better. Rather, it’s about the way the Democratic primary — from TV media coverage to online debates that are only tangentially related — is just one more thing that tells American women the depressing truth about what’s it’s like to be a woman trying to do things in America today.

That’s what the earnest debunkers, whether they happen to support Bernie Sanders or not, are missing. When women talk about so-called "Bernie Bro" harassment on Twitter, just as when we talk about the sexism Clinton faces on the campaign trail and the not-so-subtle misogyny with which she’s discussed in TV news studios, we’re not really talking about who should be president. We’re talking about ourselves. About our own lives, our own frustrations, and the unfair barriers between us and the fulfillment of our own ambitions.

And so, when men inevitably show up to explain that we don’t know what we’re talking about, and to insist that it doesn’t matter anyway even if we’re right because we must have some ulterior motive for even mentioning this in the first place, and that Not All Men, and that perhaps it would be more constructive if we could just stop mentioning this, please and thank you, it doesn’t convince us that we were wrong.

Quite the opposite: It just provides yet another irritating example of the ways in which sexism is an all-too-available tool to those who are looking for an easy way to attack or silence women, whether they see that they are wielding it or not — and the ways in which the consequences for doing so are all too weakly and rarely felt.

Our Twitter fights, ourselves

Women do not need an ulterior motive or higher purpose to talk about what happens to them or to ask redress for things they find upsetting. But, as it happens, there is a bigger point here — it just happens to be one that has almost nothing to do with Bernie Sanders.

Rather, the so-called Bernie Bro dogpiling, like the sexist comments on this week’s Morning Joe and so many comments before that on the presidential suitability of Clinton's hair or the appropriateness of her tone, are just examples of the ways in which this primary campaign has been a reminder to so many American women that sexism is not only alive and well but an easily accessible, effective, and low-cost tool for anyone seeking to oppose a woman who tries to do anything.

When Hillary Clinton gets criticized for "shouting," even though Bernie Sanders is beloved for speaking in a register that seems calculated to drown out every Goldman Sachs banker in a 5-mile radius, we know what that really means — and that it means the same thing for us. When we hear that she’s not "likable," we know what that really means — and what it means for us. When we hear that she’s bossy, we know what that really means — and what it means for us.

And we also listen to the things that people say about Bernie Sanders, and we know what they mean too. As Courtney Enlow pointed out in her viral all-caps rant, we know what it means when Sanders supporters praise his authenticity and his rejection of superficial appearances. As Enlow put it in the paragraph that launched a thousand tweets:

THE DAY MY HUSBAND TOLD ME HE LIKED BERNIE, HE SAID, "I mean, how great is it to have a president who just doesn't even care how his hair looks" AND I EXPLODED "DO YOU THINK THERE EXISTS A WORLD WHERE A WOMAN COULD EVEN CONSIDER THAT?"

There doesn't exist such a world. Women know that because we have been watching Hillary for decades and have seen what has happened to her. But we also know that because we know there isn't a world where we don't have to care about how our hair looks. We know that we have all, at some point, encountered someone who decided our hairstyle was something we did to be hurtful, on purpose, and reacted accordingly.

Likewise, there doesn't exist a world in which Hillary could be running the kind of campaign that Bernie is running, even if she wanted to. As Rebecca Traister pointed out in New York magazine this week, "Here is a truth about America: nobody likes a woman who yells loudly about a revolution."

Indeed. And it's tempting to think that if we've learned anything from the Bernie Bro controversy, it's that America doesn't like a woman who types a quiet request for better treatment, either.

But perhaps there's a gentler lesson to be had here for the Sanders supporters so eager to protect their candidate: that not everything is about Bernie Sanders versus the establishment. The issue of online harassment predated Sanders's campaign, and it will still be around when it's over. The sexism that Clinton faces today wasn't invented especially for her, and it won't disappear if she's elected president — or if she isn't. These are problems for women because they affect our lives, not just because of which presidential campaign's supporters they might happen to make look better or worse on the internet.

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