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don’t bernsplain me bro: an analysis of the ‘bernie bro’ phenomenon

It has been said that in a clash between rhetoric and aggression, the pen is mightier than the sword. But in today’s society, there are very few among us who have not traded in the Stabilo for a Samsung or the Artline for an Apple. We have entered into an age where the thumb is now mightier than the pen. With the mere use of a digit or two, we now have the ability to express our opinions, whether through a monosyllabic ‘like’ on social media, or a voluble thesis on the state of the contemporary era. This, I will admit, is not a new phenomenon in many areas of our life – our finances, education and pizza delivery orders have found a valued place in the online sphere, but never before has it so profoundly affected our political perspective. In the 2016 Presidential race, we see social media, now more than ever before, as the most prominent platform for hopeful candidates to accrue supporters. So what does this newly reconnoitred virtual battleground mean for the outcome of the political war?

The obvious subject of this article would be Donald Trump, the business tycoon-cum-ringleader of the media circus, who has either expertly or unwittingly used the social networking world to his advantage. Dominating our newsfeeds time and again with his controversially outrageous opinions, Trump has captured public attention with tweets such as ‘If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?’ However, loathe to provide any additional platform to the fool’s gold of the Republican Party, my focus will be on the effect that social media has had on the race for the Democratic nomination, fiercely contested by Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Hillary Clinton.

Unlike the brick and mortar turf oft-canvassed by candidates of the past, in the online domain, tropology is ubiquitous. The millennial fascination with the use of tropes or ‘memes’ has influenced the campaigning psyche, demanding (read: allowing) a candidate to elucidate their policy in a manner that engages younger demographics, or cast their opponent’s candidacy in a less desirable light. For Hillary, the choice of rhetoric is simple. Undoubtedly, the congresswoman holds the plight of women in business close to her heart, as it is one that she herself has had to face, and done so independently of her connections in a position as a congressional legal counsel in Chicago. Therefore, institutional sexism is a trope through which she has – and will continue to – rely on for the Democratic nomination. Serving as testament to this prediction, during Hillary’s contest for the nomination in 2008, supporters of her political adversary, then-Senator Barack Obama, were labelled as ‘Obama-Boys’, a term coined in a 2008 Salon headline. This term, without the proliferation of modern-day social media, was used largely in works of political commentary to denote the sexism directed at the female candidate by those who were ideologically opposed to the prospect of a woman in the White House. Now, eight years later, we have seen the exact same phenomenon resurface, this time with the flagrant aid of social media. The ‘Bernie Bro’ has become a legitimate concern among members of both campaigns, coined by an article in the Atlantic last October to once again symbolise the white, male misogynist reacting against the emasculating figure of a woman in power.

The ‘Bernie Bro’, as illustrated in his baptismal article, is ‘someone you may only have encountered if you’re somewhat similar to him: white; well-educated; middle-class (or, delicately, “upper middle-class”); and aware of NPR podcasts and jangly bearded bands’. This sardonic if not somewhat caustic depiction of a hipster leftie-hack has escalated to become a representation of a male supremacist-dominated mentality. This sentiment is indeed a legitimate concern, especially for feminists of both genders participating in the Sanders campaign.

Naturally, the ‘Bernie Bro’ thesis sparked a defence of Sanders supporters, with sceptics who see the entire narrative as a few (equally unacceptable) anecdotes blown out of proportion, if not a coordinated campaign of defamation. Female Sanders supporters, in particular, have voiced frustration at being dismissed by the Clinton people as irrelevant, or even, as feminist icon Gloria Steinem said in a statement she has since withdrawn, just desperate for male approval.

The truth is, most polls reflect that the majority of Sanders’ millennial supporters are actually young women. Bernie is even beating out the former First Lady for their support, enjoying a 20 percent lead among women between 18 and 35 years old over Hillary. Compare this to his lead among young men, where Sanders is only beating Clinton by four percentage points – barely outside the margin of error. Based on these numbers, a young male is actually more likely to support Clinton than a young woman.

Interestingly, the Hillary campaign has decided to engage with the ‘Bernie Bro’ phenomenon, not by distancing themselves and denigrating it from afar, but rather embracing it in their own #unique way. Peter Daou (advisor to the Clinton Global Initiative) and Tom Watson (founder of CauseWired) launched #HillaryMen on the eve of the Congresswoman announcing that she would run for President, and claim they are uniting ‘fathers, brothers and husbands’ to incite momentum for the induction of the  first female President. A pragmatic political play by the Hillary camp if nothing else, it is possible to level criticism at the Congresswoman by suggesting that instead of using Clinton’s candidacy to enrich feminist sentimentality, many of her supporters are leveraging it to shame Senator Sanders. Equal pay and equal rights for women in America – along with many other issues perpetuating sexism and inequality in our society – appear to be falling by the wayside in favour of debasing stereotypes like the ‘Bernie Bro’.

Is it true that this vitriolic, chauvinistic keyboard-warrior is a fantastical invention of the Hillary campaign, changing face depending on who her political adversary of the day is? Of course not. Sexism is rife in our society (in case you didn’t notice), and particularly so at the institutional level. I have sympathy for any woman engaging in high-profile politics due to the disproportionate amount of hostility and gender-based discrimination. I have sympathy for any woman engaging her political interests in a public space due to the disproportionate amount of judgement and unsolicited arbitration of her ideologies. I have sympathy for any woman, whether she is supporting Bernie or Hillary, who feels as though she has to rationalise her decisions to a public that is ready to demonise her no matter what.

NB: I am a supporter of Bernie Sanders. I strongly believe in his social and economic policy, and look forward to world leaders receiving the message that left-wing ideology is not synonymous with inelectability. I am proud of his consistent support of women’s and minorities issues throughout his political career. Have I used social media to promote the fact that I #FeelTheBern? Sure. But this does not mean that I identify with the widely propagated ‘Bernie Bro’ stereotype, or take issue with either candidate on the basis of their gender.

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