Everywhere, it seems, supporters of Bernie Sanders, branded by their critics as “Bernie Bros,” are accused of harassment. Their online bullying, Philadelphia’s Lindy Li has said, forced her recent resignation as treasurer for Pennsylvania Young Democrats. Sanders supporters reportedly carpet-bombed the social media feed of Elizabeth Warren with snake emojis and GIFs. A Kamala Harris backer attributed an Instagram post wishing him brain cancer to a Sanders fanatic.
Such charges trouble me. While I supported Sanders in 2016, now that he is running again, I have no interest in associating myself with a bunch of hooligans — if indeed that’s what they truly are.
But are they? I decided it was time to experience Team Sanders in the flesh, to decide whether he is a candidate I’m still willing to back.
On Feb. 11, the day of the New Hampshire Democratic primary, I climbed into my pickup and headed north from my home in Massachusetts to the Granite State. My plan was to attend the big Sanders rally that evening in Manchester, at the athletic field house on the campus of Southern New Hampshire University.
From my seat on the wooden bleachers, I first noticed that the crew of Sanders volunteers setting up for the rally consisted of roughly equal numbers of young women and young men. A somewhat older crowd, on average, joined me in the stands, but as with the volunteers, the division between male and female was fairly equal. This, at least here in New Hampshire, was one myth easily exposed: The “Bros,” as the tag is meant to suggest, are not all a certain kind of young male, a baseball cap worn backward.
The rally began innocently enough, with crowd chants of “Green New Deal” and “Bernie Beats Trump.” The atmosphere grew tense, though, as Bernie’s lead in the returns steadily narrowed, Pete Buttigieg threatening to overtake him. But Sanders held on, and a lusty chorus of boos, followed by the chant “Wall Street Pete,” greeted Buttigieg as he appeared on the hall’s giant video screen for his concession speech.
The scorn faithfully reflected Sanders’ rhetorical targeting of Buttigieg as the pet candidate of billionaire campaign donors. Yet this was as mean as the evening got — all in all, not particularly rambunctious for a mass gathering of several thousand adherents to a common political cause. Sanders clambered onto the stage to claim victory to the strains, not of a fight-song anthem, but of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”: Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together…
I departed the arena with the reflection that nothing I had experienced gave off the “authoritarian” vibe that detractors say they detect in the Sanders movement as a left-wing correspondent to the Trump right-wing, nativist cause.
A week later, I joined two dozen or so Sanders backers at a tavern in the town of Weymouth, Mass., south of Boston. Beer mugs in hand, Bernie buttons on display, the group had convened to watch the Democratic candidates’ debate in Las Vegas, days before the Nevada caucus. Here was an opportunity to speak individually with his avid fans.
Nothing I had experienced gave off the “authoritarian” vibe that detractors say they detect in the Sanders movement.
Two themes surfaced in these conversations. The first is a profound sense of disenchantment with the political system as it is now constructed — and in particular, with the corrupting influence of big money on our politics. The second theme, a counterpoint to the first, is a sense of idealism as to the potential for change.
“It is important to start this — we have to start somewhere,” Meghan Zbikowski, a mom, 40 years old, raising two young daughters, said. With her small, steady donations she is among the legions giving the Sanders campaign its financially sustainable path. She recently told a friend that yes, she is a “Bernie Bro,” an active embrace of the imposed nickname so as to remove its sting.
The idealism of the Sanders enthusiasts I met is tempered by realism. The movement is really about “shifting the Overton Window,” 18-year-old Colby Scarbrough informed me as we shared a plate of fries. The phrase, named for the political thinker Joseph Overton — a libertarian, not a democratic socialist of the Sanders type — refers to the possibility of bringing ideas that are often thought of as radical and unacceptable into the frame of the attainable. Sanders supporters I spoke with uniformly regard his signature embrace of national health insurance — Medicare For All — as exactly this type of idea.
A high-school senior, headed to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the fall to study computer science, Scarbrough readily conceded that some Sanders backers were guilty of online bullying: “I see them as well.” He insisted, though, that these abuses were committed by “a small minority” of Bernie supporters. And he added that he, too, was the butt of attacks on social media, from classmates who trolled him as a communist. These gibes, he said, come with “the territory” of the online landscape — and haven’t stopped him from wearing a Bernie sweatshirt to school.
As I reflect on my immersion into Bernie world, the raucous social media conduct of some Sanders backers strikes me as a fairly minor matter in the broad scheme of things. Here is a worthier worry: As the caucuses and primaries roll on, with Super Tuesday on March 3 and the Pennsylvania primary on April 28, Sanders stands a good chance of gathering more pledged delegates than any of his rivals — but he may yet fall short of the majority needed to win the nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic national convention in Milwaukee in July. Party leaders, fearful Sanders would lose to Trump, might try to award the prize to some other candidate on a second ballot.
And if that happens, the hopefulness of the Sanders movement, as I witnessed in my experiences in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, can be expected, especially in already-heated online communities, to curdle into anger, its ingrained suspicions of a crooked political system heartbreakingly confirmed. These sentiments could be especially strongly felt if the party turns to multibillionaire Michael Bloomberg as an “anyone but Bernie” fallback.
Bloomberg is a “hard no,” Xavier Wilson, a 25-year old Sanders campaign volunteer, told me, adding he would sit out the general election if Bloomberg is the nominee. We were chatting in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury on the day after Sanders’ victory in the Nevada caucus. Wilson, a student at a music conservatory, is black and gay. Asked about the “Bernie Bros” label, he said: “I’m not a white angry man. It invisibilizes people who look like me and don’t fit into that narrative.”
Yet Bloomberg, in his paid advertising, invokes “Bernie’s Angry Bros” as a reason to oppose Sanders, and Mayor Pete raises similar concerns. This strikes me as a cynical political tactic on the part of Sanders’ rivals, intended to tar all Sanders backers with the same brush.
In a generally rancid political environment, the idealism I found on display within the Sanders cause is a bright flower in the turf, in need of nourishing, not crushing. My journey to gauge the hearts — and tempers — of Bernie supporters did not lead me to bullying bros. It led me to a political movement I can and still believe in.
Paul Starobin is the author of “A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age” (PublicAffairs, 2020).