The Evidence That Makes The ‘Bernie Bro’ Smear Look All The Worse


There’s strikingly little evidence to indicate Bernie Sanders’ supporters are particularly sexist. By contrast, there’s every reason to think Clinton’s campaign has pushed the talking point, writes Michael Brull.

Last week I argued that there was some evidence that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was connected to the tawdry smears of the “Bernie Bros”. These were claims that Sander’s supporters are white males, whose political views and actions are driven by sexism. This worked as an effective way to claim the moral high ground for Clinton supporters, without Clinton needing to support or offer any relevant policy concessions. It served to divert attention from Clinton’s reactionary and imperialist policies, and from the scrutiny Clinton has been under for the millions of dollars she has received from Wall Street for her speeches to the big banks. Yet the Clinton campaign’s cynical manipulation of the issue of sexism for partisan gain, whilst serving the interests of America’s one percent, has mostly escaped critical scrutiny.

Since writing my article, I’ve come across some more evidence that I think corroborates my thesis.

In my article, I noted that Clinton herself mostly avoided accusations of sexism. Trump’s gratuitous insults to women are legion, but Clinton has mostly avoided accusing him of sexism, other than recently riffing off his accusation that she plays the woman card. Clinton also implied Sanders was being sexist for saying in a debate that it was not constructive to shout about gun policy. I argued that Clinton had mostly avoided these kinds of claims because accusations of sexism, particular accusations regarded as unwarranted and politically motivated, can result in serious declines in male support.

Another point I made was that claims of the Bernie Bro – that is, Bernie supporters being white men motivated by sexism, and constantly engaged in sexist harassment of Clinton and her supporters – could only hold water if there was something distinctive about Sanders’ supporters. Every candidate has millions of supporters. In a country of over 300 million, it is to be expected that each candidate will have supporters who are rude, obnoxious, sexist, and racist. The remarkable thing would be if any had supporters who were all perfect and unimpeachable human beings. For Sanders’ supporters to be distinctive, they would have to be particularly sexist or particularly abusive.

The only quantitative study I am aware of was written about in the Washington Post. It found that of over 100,000 tweets analysed, only about 54 including gendered slurs directed at Clinton came from male supporters of Sanders. That is, it seems the Bernie Bro, far from being a common phenomenon, is rather rare. There has never been anything beyond vague, and often unreliable anecdotal evidence, suggesting there is something distinctively sexist and abusive about supporters of Sanders.

The new evidence I think worth noting is as follows.

On May 2, Clinton supporter Michelle Goldberg wrote another article attacking Sanders in online publication Slate. At one point, she made an interesting admission: “A source close to the Clinton campaign tells me that because Sanders has high favourability numbers with Democrats, Clinton would have damaged herself by attacking him”. That is, Clinton didn’t attack Sanders because it would have been electorally unwise. Luckily for her, there has been a profusion of purportedly independent media allies attacking Sanders, who are strangely similar in their attacks, as Carl Beijer has repeatedly shown. Aside from pro-Clinton Political Action Committee (PAC) Correct the Record, which brags about confronting 5,000 Bernie Bros on social media, there is Blue Nation Review. This is a blog which has been taken over by David Brock. Identified by Daily Beast as Clinton’s “hit man”, he “controls a network of pro-Hillary PACs and nonprofits”, and the “richly funded pro-Clinton super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century”. Thus, Clinton doesn’t need to attack Sanders supporters herself. Her functionaries have found ways to do so at arm’s length.

And why attack Sander’s supporters?

A survey of social media use in the US sheds some light on this.

Supporters graphic

Firstly, the survey shows how aggressive a candidate’s supporters are. The most aggressive are Donald Trump’s, with 57 per cent “very aggressive” (strikingly, 35 per cent of Trump supporters agree!). Clinton supporters are the second most aggressive, with 30 per cent saying they’re “very aggressive”, and only 52 per cent saying “not that aggressive”. Then comes Cruz. Sanders supporters are not the most mild. Yet only 16 per cent – a bit less than half of Clinton’s number – are regarded as “very aggressive” on social media”, and 68 per cent are regarded as not that aggressive. Of Republican supporters, 21 per cent think Sanders supporters are very aggressive, as opposed to 43 per cent who think Clinton supporters are very aggressive.

Interestingly, only 15 per cent of women think Sanders supporters are very aggressive, as opposed to 18 per cent of men who think they’re very aggressive. The fact that every candidate has “very aggressive” supporters likely reflects the way in which political discussions are often conducted online, stripped of some of the inhibitions that naturally occur in face-to-face conversations. Funnily enough, 28 per cent of women thought Clinton supporters were very aggressive. That is, almost twice as many women regard Clinton’s supporters as “very aggressive”, as compared to Sanders’ supporters. Again, this suggests that whatever the Bernie Bro smear is based on – and that smear received plenty of traction among progressive media – it is not based in any observable empirical evidence about Sanders supporters being distinctive in abusiveness or sexism.

The survey concludes with perhaps the most enlightening part. 54 per cent of Americans wanted presidential candidates to “take more of a stand against the aggressive behaviour of their supporters”. Democrats (63 per cent) were more likely than Republicans to hold this view (50 per cent). And women were more likely to hold this view than men. That is, urging candidates to object to their own aggressive supporters is most likely to appeal to female Democrats. And a campaign that recognised this reality, and found a way to attack another candidate’s supporters would be making a particularly shrewd appeal to that demographic.

To summarise, the evidence shows that Sanders fans are not particularly sexist, abusive or aggressive. Indeed, they appear to be about half as aggressive as Clinton supporters, according to women in the US. The Clinton campaign has not directly complained about Sanders’ supporters. Yet plenty of her supporters in the media have done so. And it so happens that Clinton has an array of operatives attached to her campaign who confront “Bernie Bros” online and write attack pieces along similar lines, pushing similar messages about how awful Sanders is. They all happen to operate from arm’s length from Clinton. And her campaign has admitted that they think it would be tactically unwise for her to be seen to attacking Sanders, due to his popularity among Democrats. It now turns out, surveys show that women Democrats think that presidential campaign should urge their supporters to be less aggressive on social media.

It’s almost as though Clinton’s campaign cynically crafted a dog whistle. It appeals to Democrat voting women in the primaries, in a way that seems feminist, without offering any real concessions to women. It also offers plausible deniability, as Clinton herself stays at a respectable distance from the smears, which have crumbled under every empirical study attempted thus far. Clinton doesn’t lose any popularity for attacking Sanders, or for using the issue of sexism for narrow political gain.

It’s very likely at this point that Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. Whatever effectiveness these tactics have had, any subsequent exposure to them may affect public perceptions of feminism, and the legitimacy of Clinton if she wins the presidency. Her backers on Wall Street, by contrast, are unlikely to be too troubled by her campaign’s tactics.

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).