This post is a response to Jessie Singal’s For The Love Of God Can We Please Stop Talking About “Bernie Bros”?
In the 2016 election cycle, I worked for Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Those months are a blur. In October 2015 I was an eager volunteer in a student group at the University of Colorado Boulder; within two months the campaign hired me as their first field organizer in the state. Four months of working 16-hour days, seven days a week with a large, devoted team of volunteers, resulted in Sanders winning the caucus in my territory by 20.2 percentage points. Satisfied (and tired), I left the campaign to finish my Bachelor’s degree in sociology.
And then, inexplicably, I was harassed by a “Bernie Bro.”
What happened to me took place on Facebook, not Twitter. The abuser was neither a man or under 30. They weren’t a bot or an abstract Russian operative; I knew this person well. And as a former staffer, I was certainly no critic of Bernie. This was, without question, an attack. A harmful attack.
So, when Jesse Singal asked the question, “for the love of God, can we please stop talking about Bernie Bros?” (Public Seminar, January 21, 2020), my answer was an emphatic no.
Even Bernie has had to keep talking about this subject. Before Super Tuesday, he rebuked the behavior of Bernie Bros at a CNN town hall, and he told an interviewer on PBS that “anybody making personal attacks against anybody else in my name is not part of my movement.”
But the thing is, that isn’t true. Bernie Bros are a substantive part of the larger social network of Sanders’ followers. We don’t meaningfully know how numerous they are as a group, but they are certainly active. The campaign even had to fire a staffer who allegedly harassed people Bernie Bro-style from a private Twitter account.
To stop these bullies, we mustn’t stop talking about them — instead, we should study them.
We need to know – with valid data, and not conjecture or “hot takes” — why they do what they do, how many there are, and if they are really that different from harassers who support other candidates (and new data suggests they’re not).
We need to know if most Bernie Bros are just bots or Russian operatives, as some suggest, or if they are, as I suspect, largely real people — including individuals who are not white, not male, not young, or not interacting solely on Twitter (Facebook also has a Bernie Bros. problem).
I speak as a sociologist. As one of my all-time favorite teachers, Professor Fred Anderson, says, when we study society, “you can’t make anything up, and you can’t leave anything out.”
One of the most basic assumptions of sociology is that there is a dialectical relationship between the individual and society. A good sociologist doesn’t ignore entire groups of people. And without proper sampling and mindful methodology, we can’t say anything substantive about what “average Bernie Bros” are like, or who they are. Reductionist accounts such as Singal’s, along with the majority of media attention directed at this phenomenon, wash over important differentiations, and perpetuate a myth that the harassers are just young, white men who “tweet at” people online.
If we rely on a popularizing myth, or on merely anecdotal evidence, we are likely to oversimplify who Bernie Bros are, and what they do.
Studying them, on the other hand, offers a productive way forward.
Perhaps you think that, as a sociologist, I should be able to step back from Singal’s question and take it as just another data point to analyze in this phenomenon. But that’s the funny thing about sociology — we are what we study. I am a sociologist who studies Bernie Sanders’ supporters and I am a person who was harassed by a “Bernie Bro.” I cannot separate these two perspectives.
As a result, Singal’s essay made me mad as hell. Asking that the discussion about Bernie Bros cease is an affront to every single person who has ever been harassed by them. We should never stop talking about abuse — no matter its form — even the storms of snake emojis directed at Elizabeth Warren on Twitter. We know harassment is happening, we know Bernie Bros do it (and deny that they do), and it needs to stop.
Not talking about harassment won’t make it stop.
It’s not strange that many people want to ignore or dismiss the importance of online harassment. The impulse for humans to be passive about experiences they don’t understand, especially when they don’t feel personally impacted, is common. From a historical perspective, the challenge to raise consciousness about grievances, especially amongst those privileged to not experience hardship or abuse personally, is present in all social justice movements.
Because of this, figuring out how to talk about Bernie Bros is complex and difficult. But we need to try, so that we can work to stop the abuse.
And sociology provides a way to do so.
Sociology teaches us how to step back and take in a larger view of our lives, and how to talk about society in a way that strikes a balance between our personal judgments and a posture of analysis that seeks objectivity. The American sociologist C. Wright Mills called this “the sociological imagination.” For scholars doing the kind of ethnographic, qualitative research that I do, there is no way to isolate our personal allegiances from our research agendas.
This back and forth dialogue between research and our personal lives is what constitutes sociological study. No matter how many times social science textbooks say that research should be objective, nearly everyone accepts (or they should) that there is no such thing as value-free research. We live amongst the thing we study — society. We are the thing we study — people. We cannot put ourselves or any social variable in a vacuum. Just as there is a dialectical relationship between the individual and society, our personal allegiances and our research agendas are closely woven together.
Today, I continue to study Sanders’ volunteers and supporters as a scholar. My insider status as a former staffer with personal experience of the campaign (and a Bernie Bro) combined, with my outsider status as a researcher today provides me with reflexivity and healthy skepticism. Through a sociological lens, I can see the Sanders movement — and the work his supporters do to construct and cultivate the movement — from an illuminating distance.
This insider/outsider status has inspired me to ask questions about Sanders partisans like: what motivates their devotion? Is it really all about Bernie — or something else? How do they perform their devotion? For some, it’s donating $2.70, phone banking, or holding lighted signs on overpasses; for others, its incessant social media posting.
And for Bernie Bros, it’s harassment.
Why would a Sanders partisan resort to harassment, while other supporters are content to donate money, make phone calls, or wave signs?
The sociological imperative is that we take nothing as given. And before any of my questions can be answered, I must step back and define what I mean by the phrase “Bernie Bro.” The current definition I’m working with is: “Bernie Bro is a pejorative label applied to a person who aggressively supports Bernie Sanders, who censoriously judges other people’s devotion to Sanders, and who then harasses people who they feel do not support Sanders aggressively enough. This harassment has largely taken place online, on both Twitter and Facebook; however, we need to consider that it takes place in face-to-face encounters, as well.”
This definition is a work in progress. We need to continue that back and forth process of reflection as we refine it. One thing that is certain is that any definition of a Bernie Bro must go beyond the young/white/male/Twitter construct, and clearly differentiate them from the standard toxicity of political campaigning (as any longtime political operative will tell you, campaigns are often competitive and interpersonally torturous.) We also need to differentiate them from Sanders supporters who do not harass other people — including some who are even working to appropriate the term, and turn it into something positive. For example, the progressive commentator Benjamin Dixon uses the term “Bernie Bruh” in an effort to highlight support for Sanders among African Americans. And for non-threatening supporters and Bernie Bros alike, we need to understand them as simultaneous phenomena, and even historically (remember Obama Boys ?) If we don’t, we risk erasing valid, important individual experiences from journalistic accounts and academic archives.
Of course, there are real limits to the sort of immersive ethnographic research I do, as there are to deeply-reported journalistic accounts of the Bernie Bros. Despite those limits, though, we need to try. We owe it to those who have been harassed.
But let me be clear: we can never stop talking about Bernie Bros.
Anne Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Yale University, and her research explores charisma in religion, politics, and culture.