For the past few months, would-be supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign have been systematically harassing feminist and anti-racist activists who are even remotely critical of Sanders. These “BernieBros”—as they were originally dubbed, according to the Atlantic, by its associate editor Robinson Meyer—generally rely on two primary arguments. They claim that feminist concerns are a distraction from the work of “real” political change, and that voters and activists of color who raise questions about Sanders’ platform don’t know what’s good for them because Sanders represents the change they actually need. Eventually, Sanders himself responded to condemn the “bros,” saying “We don’t want that crap” in a CNN interview earlier this month.
And yet people still deny their existence, suggesting that Sanders was browbeaten into his declaration by a press corps running with a made-up story.
Despite the testimonies of many who have been personally targeted by these individuals, a number of white leftist men have queued up to say that the whole situation is an exaggerated ploy manufactured by journalists in the pocket of Hillary Clinton. The net effect of this, besides fomenting mistrust of harassment victims, is to absolve the left from any responsibility for its failings, and to pretend that our ideologies inoculate us from engaging in harm.
Recently, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald doubled down on these ideas in an op-ed for the Intercept, arguing that the entire idea of “BernieBros” was constructed by Clinton supporters to scupper the Sanders campaign.
Greenwald focused on trying to debunk the individual claims of harassment by writers like the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, claiming that they were either exaggerating about the extent of it or misattributing abusive comments to Sanders’ supporters. He went on to suggest that “pro-Clinton” journalists cited each other’s thinly sourced claims about BernieBro harassment rather than verifying its existence.
Completely absent from Greenwald’s truculent analysis is any real discussion of the leftward critiques of the campaign from those who have found Sanders’ positions on racial and gender politics lacking for someone claiming to head a “revolution.” If he had included it, his article would’ve been impossible to write in its current form. He would have had to contend with a long history of anti-racist and feminist activists being antagonized by overly aggressive, mostly white Sanders supporters, going back far longer than Greenwald supposes—and the targets were not generally white women with press platforms, as he suggests, but often young activists of color.
No mention is made, for example, of the Black Lives Matter protests at Netroots Nation ‘15, which were aimed at Sanders, Gov. Martin O’Malley, and other presidential candidates for their lack of acknowledgement of police violence and mass incarceration; nor of the fact that Ta Nehisi-Coates, a radically minded writer and critic if ever there was one, criticized Sanders for not supporting reparations for slavery—and was inundated with BernieBros for his trouble, several of which he retweeted onto his Twitter timeline as evidence of a structural problem. One wrote: “Your credibility gone, you’ll forever be known as a #Clintonista/just another Village Idiot,” never mind Coates’ scathing critiques of Clinton’s support of carceral policies. Coates later told Democracy Now! that he is planning to vote for Sanders.
Nor is there acknowledgment of how tech journalist and legal analyst Sarah Jeong found herself swarmed by violently angry Sanders supporters after she tweeted criticism of Sanders’ record on race. Despite her position as a confirmed Sanders voter, the abuse—which included rape and death threats—became so noxious and torrential that Jeong had to lock her Twitter account. In his article Greenwald even cites Carl Beijer, a columnist for the Baltimore Post Examiner and one of the prominent leftist men ginning up and justifying harassment against her.
Jeong noted to Quartz that the elevated abuse she faced “is a foreseeable consequence” of people like Beijer “framing my harassment as a moral good.” One of Beijer’s comments on Twitter, posted in defense of a friend he claimed Jeong labeled a “shitposter,” read “you’re an unfunny bougie laughingstock & you failed the bar b/c you’re dumb.” His reply to Jeong’s general critiques of Sanders supporters (of which, I must remind you, she is one): “delete your account you bougie oaf.” I honestly didn’t think anyone used “bougie” as an un-ironic insult anymore.
The same genre of nonsense befell Jamil Smith, former editor at the New Republic, whose critical essay on Sanders was met with a flood of abusive derision that became outright racist. The now-deleted Twitter account of Portland4Bernie accused Smith of “race-baiting.”
Meanwhile, Elon James White, CEO of This Week in Blackness (TWiB!) Media, told the BBC: “I’ve gotten everything from ‘shill’, ‘paid infiltrator’, to flat out having somebody actually call me a N***** in the midst of this.” Imani Gandy, White’s co-host for the TWiB! Prime podcast and senior legal analyst for Rewire, has been facing an ongoing torrent of vitriol from Sanders’ supporters convinced she’s all but a paid-up Clinton staffer.
Even so, Greenwald maintains, “The reason pro-Clinton journalists are targeted with vile abuse online has nothing specifically to do with the Sanders campaign or its supporters. It has everything to do with the internet.”
First and foremost, this ignores the fact that most of the targets I’ve mentioned thus far are not pro-Clinton; they’re either undecided or equally critical of Clinton as they are of Sanders. But secondly, and even more importantly, if we think harassment is the inevitable consequence of online social interaction, it absolves us as individuals from doing anything about it. Even while admitting the abuse exists, Greenwald chalks it up to the inevitable actions of random trolls with no connection to any larger force in the world: the unavoidable waste product of online discussion. In a major article about abuse being faced primarily by women and people of color, Greenwald indulges in one of the most tired forms of apologia for harassment.
All this, in service of concocting a vision of a conspiracy against Sen. Sanders by plugged-in writers and journos who are secretly in the tank for Clinton. Apparently, it’s not harassment, it’s actually about ethics in journalism. Now where have we heard that before?
This rhetoric is by no means limited to Greenwald, however. An activist who spoke to Rewire on the condition that her name not be used described a sustained campaign of harassment and abuse by individuals in the progressive movement that began after Black Lives Matter activists protested at Netroots Nation last summer. Their actions shook up a presidential forum featuring Sanders and Martin O’Malley, provoking dismissive and bewildered reactions from the mostly white crowd, some of whom saw the Black Lives Matter protesters as “ungrateful” for Sanders’ putative radicalism. This was the immaculate conception of the toxic Sanders supporter, who continued to resurface through tweets and social media personas for months.
“Even raising questions is seen as a ‘coordinated attack’ on Sanders’ candidacy or all Sanders supporters,” the anonymous activist said. “These are not just Twitter eggs being annoying on public social media. These include prominent figures who are doing and saying abusive things elsewhere.”
Responses like Greenwald’s, she said, are “infuriating and galling. The victim-blaming is off the charts. Why is it so hard for them to accept that there are problematic people in their tribe?”
“If they care about the progressive movement, this is a terrible move,” she said. “Denying the existence of BernieBros is not helpful to the campaign. It’s shitting on victims. How dare they accuse victims of faking the harassment, being oversensitive, or confusing Republican fakers with Sanders supporters?”
“To their credit, Sanders campaign people are finally acknowledging the problem,” she said. “BernieBro ‘truthers’ aren’t helping them, and that’s also a disservice to all the Sanders supporters who are wonderful and thoughtful.”
“This should be irrelevant, but I’m not even backing either candidate yet,” she continued. “I’m ambivalent about both, although like most Dem voters, I would be happy with either candidate as the nominee. And no, I’m not on the payroll of any campaign or related organization. I just want the abuse to stop.”
Feminist writer Sady Doyle, who is an open and proud Clinton supporter, has also received a great deal of abuse for her trouble. Last week, she wrote with characteristic insight about progressivism’s longstanding inability to tolerate women who speak forthrightly on gender politics. She links the “BernieBro” phenomenon to the fact that progressive men prefer to focus on political struggles that do not personally implicate them, like class issues:
I don’t need to look to Bernie Sanders himself for the question of whether feminism is part of progress. I can get the answer when a young man who calls himself a “secular progressive, against bigotry of all kinds,” with a picture of Bernie Sanders as his banner image, Tweets to call me a “regressive feminazi,” and an example of “sheer female ignorance.” I can get the answer when Shane Ryan angrily asserts that sexism has no influence on this election, that any attempt to address or analyze sexism aimed at Hillary Clinton or her supporters is just an attempt to “turn the discussion away from the political, and toward the personal,” and that sexism, in fact, is not political at all: “Talk about sexism, and at the very least you aren’t talking about politics,” he writes.
This is the crux of the issue, I’d say, and why this is much bigger than Sen. Sanders or the 2016 election. For progressive and leftist men, class politics (and, occasionally, the politics of Western imperialism) often trumps all else, rendering them unwilling to see an intersectional approach as anything other than a narrow-minded distraction. To them, class politics are the fulcrum upon which all oppression is balanced. As they see it, if one were to knock out that fulcrum, all else will come tumbling down—never mind what happened in the Soviet Union.
As long as they pursue this political aim, nothing else matters to the same degree: not rape, not sexual assault or harassment, not the devaluing of women’s work, not online harassment’s unequal impact on women or people of color, not police violence, not de facto segregation or the erosion of voting rights legislation, not abortion, not forced sterilization.
There are a few things that must be said, however. First and foremost: “BernieBro” is a terrible term. For one thing, it obscures a dynamic where white women who support Sanders harass Black critics of all genders. Its jokey tone is also unequal to the seriousness of what it describes. There can be no doubt that the term creates confusion, and it has been deployed in ways that suggest it refers to all Sanders voters, which is both counterproductive and does violence to any empirical understanding of what’s happening here. Remember, this often involves Sanders supporters attacking their own.
Furthermore, it is equally true that Hillary Clinton and her more prominent backers have come to use a very reductive view of feminism in a toxic fashion, one that overwhelmingly centers the experiences of white women. We’ve just come off of a week where former Secretary of State Madeline Albright suggested that women who didn’t support Clinton were among those “going to hell” for not helping other women, and veteran activist Gloria Steinem argued that young women broke strongly for Sanders because “that’s where the boys are” (she followed this up by sharing a few transphobic chuckles with Bill Maher). To say this fell flat with young women—myself included—is an understatement.
Analyzing the origins of this nonsense merits a fuller discussion, some of which is thankfully being had elsewhere. Writer and activist Mikki Kendall, for instance, sees a correspondence between the racist rhetoric that mushroomed around Clinton’s campaign in 2008 and the millennial-baiting that’s now occurring. There is an unwillingness to admit the fact that young women are making genuine arguments against both the implications of such gaffes and the compromises Clinton herself has made throughout her career—supporting war, drone strikes, tough-on-crime policies, accepting the donations of America’s super-rich, and so on.
Clearly, Sanders supporters are not the only ones being reductive, nor are they the only ones refusing to prioritize issues in their support that affect people of color.
But it is important to point out that this does not cancel out or justify the ongoing problem with toxic Sanders supporters and the longstanding leftist faultline it reveals. Leftism harbors many an anti-feminist, and more than a few people who see movements like Black Lives Matter as an anti-revolutionary distraction. These individuals sneer at people for “voting against their interests,” a line used against Black critics of Sanders so frequently that New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently inveighed against the phenomenon, which he amusingly dubbed “Bernie-splaining.” Even I have had Sanders supporters tweet “but did you know he marched with MLK?” at me in earnest, after I suggested that the senator should keep improving his racial politics.
The people who throw around “bourgeois” and “liberal” as an insult to any political ethic or idea they dislike; who clamor for a violent revolution that never takes into account the needs of the actual working class or, say, people with disabilities; the folks who think that classism is the one oppression to rule them all; who think sneering at Walmart shoppers is radical praxis? They are an issue that will remain with us long after 2016 has come and gone. In the meantime, however, allowing the narrative of “rich white Clintonista journalists are inventing BernieBros” to go unchallenged merely contributes to a culture of disbelief and silencing around both the issue of online harassment and white, male hegemony in leftist spaces.
It has not escaped my notice, after all, that the people getting hit hardest by these waves of abuse aren’t white men. That means something we should be paying attention to.