Updated at 11:56 a.m. ET on January 31
AMES, IOWA—National news outlets have published a series of news articles and commentary recently devoted to the idea that Senator Bernie Sanders’s supporters are singularly cruel.
This week, The New York Times dedicated 3,000 words to the subject, delineating the threats and insults sent by Sanders’s “internet army” since 2016 to its opponents online. The Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin unfavorably compared his supporters to those of Donald Trump, remarking that Sanders’s is “the most divisive campaign in the primary.” A Daily Beast story warned that Sanders’s “toxic wedge of fandom … threatens to distract from his campaign and turn off potential supporters.”
Yet in the face of negative coverage, Team Bernie does not seem particularly distressed, perhaps because they don’t see it as a threat to the campaign. Sanders staffers have dismissed the accusations on social media and in interviews. Written guidance from the campaign, obtained by The Atlantic, instructs volunteers to tell any voters who ask that supporters’ “Bernie bro” reputation “is a media-driven perception.”
Sanders fans and volunteers I’ve spoken with are not especially concerned either—they don’t see these reports as damaging to their guy. “Each political campaign probably has their bro-y moments,” Emily Ernst, a graduate student, told me outside a Sanders rally at the Ames City Auditorium last weekend. “That’s to be expected,” said her friend, standing beside her, who declined to give his name. “There will always be some people who will be like that, but I don’t think it’s something to be concerned about.”
Supporters’ “bro-y” reputation took root during the 2016 election. The “Bernie Bro,” a term my colleague Robinson Meyer coined back in 2015 (not without regret), once referred to a member of a small band of Sanders devotees who were male, and well, kind of bro-y—they gave off an air of fratty masculinity. But the label quickly morphed into something much darker, used to describe someone who perpetrates (mostly) online harassment.
During the 2016 campaign, some Sanders supporters sent vile messages to female journalists, and threatened several writers and lawmakers. More recently, as the Times described, online followers went after a progressive activist who’d endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren, and the father of a Parkland shooting victim who’d criticized Sanders’s position on guns. And earlier this month, Sanders fans across social media directed a flood of hostile memes and snake emojis toward Warren and her voters after she accused Sanders of saying a woman could not win the presidential election.
Sanders has denounced this kind of conduct. “I want to be clear that I condemn bullying and harassment of any kind and in any space,” he wrote in a letter to surrogates last year. Other than that message, though—which was echoed in the written guidance—the Sanders campaign has met the criticism with a kind of collective shrug. Any negative reputation that’s attached to Sanders’s supporters doesn’t appear to be having a significant impact on his electoral success, and the senator’s team is responding accordingly. “It’s very Twitter-focused, and it seems to be an issue that is largely weaponized online, rather than affecting people on the ground,” Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’s national press secretary, told me.
“A kind of malaise that has emerged over the last 40 years with politics as usual creates real genuine frustration and real angst and real bitterness,” a senior adviser to Sanders, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, told me. “For [Sanders], there’s no reason to diminish or tamp down on an organic energy of dissatisfaction and frustration which he himself, I think, shares.” (Staffers have also suggested that Sanders’s people are being unfairly targeted, when fans of other candidates have participated in similar behavior.)
Some of the Sanders backers I interviewed recently weren’t even aware of the extent of the criticism directed toward the candidate’s supporters. Outside the Ames rally last weekend, a mixture of curious Iowans and Sanders die-hards stood shivering in the cold as they waited to get inside the auditorium. There, I met Nick Moser, a college student from Granger, and I read him a few lines from Hillary Clinton’s recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, in which she expressed reluctance to support Sanders as the Democratic nominee because of “his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women.” Granger raised his eyebrows. “I think that’s probably one of the dumbest things I’ve heard, in all honesty,” he said. His friend Grace Stackhouse, who plans to caucus for Warren next week, let out a laugh. “That’s a little bit broad of a statement to say about an entire group of supporters!”
At least one Sanders fan—Jim Rock, an arborist from Ames—outright rejected the idea that the candidate’s voters have been responsible for online harassment. “It’s not true,” Rock said matter-of-factly. “It’s all a corporate, made-up lie.” And a significant number of the supporters I talked with hadn’t heard about Bernie bros at all. “It sounds like it’s a Twitter phenomenon?” Michael Halloran, who lives in Des Moines, told me with a confused look. “Neither of us are on Twitter,” he added, gesturing to his wife, “so we’ve not seen any of that.”
Their lack of awareness makes sense, says Deen Freelon, a University of North Carolina professor who studies political expression through digital media. “One thing observed in research about online harassment is it really doesn’t take that many people to have a very large impact, even if it was just a small portion of Bernie’s audience that was doing this.”
Ultimately, Freelon said, it’s a numbers game. “Sanders’s online audience is much, much larger than Elizabeth Warren’s or Joe Biden’s by an order of several million,” he added. Since early 2019, Facebook pages supporting Sanders, for example, have generated more than 290 million interactions, while pages for Warren and Biden have generated 20 million and 9 million interactions, respectively, according to one analysis. “You get a larger group, there’s going to be more douchebags in it than the smaller group,” Freelon said.
Still, there is a real risk that—if enough people hear about them—the online attacks could scare off voters at a time when the stakes are especially high for Sanders. With three days to go until the Iowa caucuses, the Vermont senator is among the Democratic-primary leaders, but no contender’s status is locked in. And down the line, if Sanders wins the party nomination, he will have to persuade supporters of his erstwhile opponents to back him in November. That task will be much more difficult if those people view Sanders’s backers as bullies.
Sheng Ly, who works in IT at Iowa State University, laughed dryly when I asked him about the idea that Sanders followers have formed an online army. “They don’t see what other people see in Bernie,” Ly said, referring to the candidate’s critics. “When they use that terminology, it’s their way of being dismissive of all that Bernie has done and all the people that support him.”