O reader, hear my plea: I am the victim of semantic drift.
Four months ago, I coined the term “Berniebro” to describe a phenomenon I saw on Facebook: Men, mostly my age, mostly of my background, mostly with my political beliefs, were hectoring their friends about how great Bernie was even when their friends wanted to do something else, like talk about the NBA.
In the post, I tried to gently suggest that maybe there were other ways to advance Sanders’s beliefs, many of which I share. I hinted, too, that I was not talking about every Sanders supporter. I did this subtly, by writing: “The Berniebro is not every Sanders supporter.”
Then, 28,000 people shared the story on Facebook. The Berniebro was alive! Immediately, I started getting emails: Why did I hate progressivism? Why did I joke about politics? And how dare I generalize about every Bernie Sanders supporter?
But the worst was yet to come. For now that the Berniebro lived in the world, it started to grow and change, and I remained its Dr. Frankenstein. In November, Rebecca Traister used Berniebro to refer to leftist writers who expressed their grievances with Hillary Clinton in sexist ways. Then other writers employed it to other ends. “Berniebro” came to imply that some men only supported Sanders because he was male. Then it stood in for the roving horde of Twitter users who respond to any sufficiently prominent skepticism about Bernie with outrage, alarm, and hate.
By last weekend, I could not log in without seeing some mention of Berniebro—and, with it, a dispute about its meaning. The Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman deployed the Berniebro label, then econbloggers fought about it. After a Sanders campaign director asked supporters to tone it down online, Mashable and BuzzFeed and the British Actual Broadcasting Corporation ran stories about the terror of Berniebros.
Eventually the Pulitzer-winning Glenn Greenwald waded into the pool, declaring that “the Berniebro narrative” was “a blatant, manipulative scam,” a “journalistic disgrace,” and a “campaign tactic masquerading as journalism.” Everyone was mean on the Internet, he said. Suck it up.
My little coinage was all grown up, and it had spawned a full-on intraleft crisis. Cue the thinkpieces. Amanda Hess at Slate said that “everyone is wrong about the Berniebros,” pointing out that online harassment (which is real) should be framed as a tech story, not a campaign-horserace story. Vox argued that the Berniebro debate really isn’t about Bernie at all. And poor Gawker appeared less concerned than confused as it asked: “What Is a Berniebro?”
It is not an idle question.
So here I am: The prodigal father has returned. And I think I have a solution to all this—or, at least, to the Berniebro problem. The Berniebrosplosion doesn’t betray a unique crisis in civility, nor a long-term problem for the Democratic base. It signifies, rather, something much simpler: category collapse.
The Internet is impoverished of vocabulary. People want to describe the emerging Sanders coalition, yet when they reach their hands behind the veil of language, they come out grasping only “Berniebro.”
The republic clearly needs a new terminology to describe all the varied elements of Sanders’s support. And until such a time as a permanent solution can be found, I have some provisional candidates.
Once, Berniebros seemed to make up a sizable chunk of the candidate’s base. But now many more voters have joined the fold. For instance, the parents of Berniebros who are slowly coming around to their child’s enthusiasm—I propose that these are the Bernieboomers. Meanwhile, the girlfriends and boyfriends of Berniebros who allow themselves to be dragged to Sanders events are, of course, Bernieboos. But be careful not to confuse them with a Berniebeau: There’s only one of those, and her name is Jane Sanders.
Campaign staffers who ferry equipment and banners from rally to rally earn the title of Bernieburro. They have to take special care when lugging the expensive speaker system, the BernieBose. After events, they complain to each other about Clinton supporters who show up only to ask impertinently about guns and socialism—they call them the Berniefauxs. And when they find themselves sweating on 60-degree afternoons—even in New Hampshire, in February—they discuss this year’s remarkable Berniño.
Some Sanders volunteers like the candidate for his long-time support for children’s public television. On second reference, call these the Barneybros. (You may be tempted to call them an Erniebro, but don’t. That’s Bert.) Police officers who find themselves drifting left are Bernieblues. The Sanders supporter who wanted to give more than the $27 average donation, but who only had $30 in their bank account, is Berniebroke. Other staffers made greater commitments: Some traveled from the United Kingdom to work for the candidate. When these volunteers hail from Scotland, they’re Berniebrogues, but when they’re tall, high-cheek-boned thespians from England, Berniedict Caucusbatch is preferred.
BernieO’s contain eight essential vitamins and minerals and they’re part of this balanced breakfast. After a day of healthy eating, splurge on Berniefroyo. Or for the more carnivorous progressive, go for some Bernieback Ribs and maybe a night in front of the Great British Bern Off.
The Burlingtonian who can’t stop playing Germanic lullabies is a Berniebrahms. The Resistance’s best democratic-socialist pilot is BerniePoe. And last but not least, the only minimalist Japanese clothing retailer that supports real progressivism is Berniqlo.
Phew. Hopefully all that may do some good. (Credit for at least half of those puns goes to my friend, Matt Connolly, a true and loyal BernieBard.) But before I close, I want to address one final issue: Some commentators have tried to invent similar slang for Clinton supporters. Often this slang is gendered female (think “Hillaryharpies”) to demonstrate how arbitrary and hurtful the “Berniebro” label is. But these attempts, first, miss that “bro” is not really an epithet, nor particularly hurtful—and, second, they do not understand the central trait of the Berniebro.
The Berniebro, as originally conceived, was a tragic figure; his loyalty and dudeish certainty made him a poor proxy for his favorite candidate. But what’s tragic about some Hillary voters is not really gendered in the same way or at all. The tragic Hillary voter, the truly pitiable figure, is the Democrat who would love to line up behind Bernie’s sunny ideals but knows that he just isn’t electable. I speak, of course, of the Hillarealist.