Bernie Bros are a myth. They’re also the most annoying people on the left. To put the ‘Bro’ to bed, first we must understand its staying power.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigns with Bernie Sanders in 2019. Photo by Matt A.J., via Flickr.

What if I told you that Bernie Bros don’t exist?

If you’re like many progressives, (including many friends in my social media feeds), you might agree with this statement wholeheartedly. Some evidence you might cite to corroborate this take:

Not only are all of these things true, reports have suggested that in 2016, the “Bernie Bro” narrative was amplified online by troll accounts that were later revealed to have aggressively reinforced the reductive and inaccurate notion that Bernie’s supporters were overwhelmingly white, male, and ready for a fight. Finally, one might point out how corporate media coverage, which has been increasingly blatant about its preference for anyone-but-Bernie, has been complicit in perpetuating the narrative for its own benefit.

Given all of this evidence, perhaps one would not be remiss for concluding that in fact the “Bernie Bro” narrative is mostly just a harmful, divisive stereotype. At the very least, one could conclude that “Bernie Bros” are in no way representative of Bernie supporters on the whole.

And yet…

If you’re like many of my other friends, many of whom also consider themselves very progressive, you might disagree vehemently with what I just said, even if you think the evidence I just provided is sound.

Meme depicting Hillary Clinton wearing an Elizabeth Warren mask.

If you’re one of the people who believes that “Bernie Bros” are something beyond a harmful media stereotype, your evidence almost certainly stems from your own experience with people who embody the “Bernie Bro” stereotype. Maybe someone in your life that you thought you could trust shared a sexist meme, like the one pictured here, which portrays the only two women to ever come within spitting distance of the US presidency as being fundamentally the same person. Perhaps you experienced harassment on Twitter for posting something less-than-exalting about Bernie Sanders (or more-than-dehumanizing about Elizabeth Warren) and got piled on. Then, when you tried to talk about that experience, maybe you got told you were wrong for thinking you’d ever had it in the first place.

To wit: harassment from Bernie supporters absolutely happens. Some of that harassment might come from targeted campaigns, but a lot of it definitely comes from real people. To deny this is, in effect, to become the very stereotype you’re saying doesn’t exist.

In order to put the “Bernie Bro” to bed, we have to understand not only the construction of the myth, but the reasons for its staying power. Sure, the origin of the “Bernie Bro” probably lies in a media narrative that was created to undermine Bernie’s 2016 campaign, which was then amplified by troll accounts and capitalist media in order to sow discord on the left. But the reason this tactic has been so successful is that a certain percentage of people in any fandom can be counted on to behave like absolute shits if they feel like the object of their fandom is under attack. This, combined with the fact that a disproportionate amount of the online harassment that occurs is directed at women (especially Black women), has created a situation where what was once a myth feels, to many people, to be an accurate description of their experiences online.

In other words, the “Bernie Bro” myth became a reality the moment people started embodying the stereotype.

The “Bernie Bro” myth became a reality the moment people started embodying the stereotype.

One of the things that makes the “Bernie Bro” such a brilliant weaponized narrative is a kind of cognitive shortcut known as the availability heuristic. Simply put, the availability heuristic is what makes us see more of something once we’ve got a mental category to put it in. Like the protagonist of The Number 23, who suddenly sees the number 23 everywhere once he is told to look for its significance, the “Bernie Bro” category gives us a readymade name for when an overzealous Bernie fan starts getting annoyingly argumentative.

Then, when we call a the person who’s Bro-ing out on us a “Bro,” more often than not, we get an extremely defensive response that confirms all the worst stereotypes we have about “Bernie Bros” and then some.

Failing to understand how this mechanism works, unfortunately, opens many of us (especially men who fit the “Bernie Bro” demographic) to the risk of unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype in someone else’s mind, thus strengthening the overall effectiveness of the narrative as a weaponized discourse.

Think of one of those finger traps that get tighter as you try to pull out of it. Every time we respond to someone’s experience of harassment with “BERNIE BROS AREN’T REAL!” or caption a photo of non-white, non-male Bernie supporters, “HMMMM, are these your Bernie Bros?” the narrative gets more deeply ingrained…and more annoying for everyone involved.

Just like the finger game, there’s a way out of the trap, but it’s counterintuitive. The way out is to respond to the perceived challenge by moving closer in rather than further away. Responding with compassion not only subverts the “Bernie Bro” narrative but creates the possibility of real communication. Telling someone, “I’m sorry that happened to you” is excellent praxis. It acknowledges that something did indeed happen, and that you are sorry that it happened. This will help give that person a reason to trust you when you say, “Bernie himself told his supporters to cool it with the harassment, and I agree with him,” or “the reason I’m fired up about this is because things feel really hopeless right now, and I think we should be working together.” Show them this article if you have to. And then turn the attention you might spend fighting on social media into canvassing, phonebanking, etc.

Telling someone, “I’m sorry that happened to you” is excellent praxis. It acknowledges that something did indeed happen, and that you are sorry that it happened.

Ultimately, I would love for us to put the Bro to bed because we need the progressive left to unify, and the Bernie Bro trope is a mechanism designed to make us ruin our own chances of doing just that. But in order to do that, we have to understand the ways in which many of us unwittingly give the mechanism its strength by embodying the stereotype that others find so aggressive, combative, and annoying.

If we don’t want it to exist, we have to do better than pretending it away.

We have to learn how not to become it.

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

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