Judging candidates’ supporters

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On Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Nevada, one moderator asked, “Are Senator Sanders and his supporters making it harder for Democrats to unify?” Somehow the “Bernie Bro,” a pejorative term used to describe Sanders supporters, became a debate-worthy issue in the election — but it shouldn’t be.

First, Sanders' supporters shouldn’t be generalized only as malignant online bullies. On Twitter, the platform most cited by people criticizing the candidate’s supporters, only 60 percent of users lean Democratic. What’s more, only 13 percent of tweets are explicitly about national politics. Of that 13 percent, 97 percent of them are made by the chronically online top 10 percent of users (of which 65 percent are women). It doesn’t make sense to view such a small slice of people on a platform that only 22 percent of American adults use as representative of Sanders’ base. Even then, you’d have to assume every single one of those extremely online Democratic users supports him.

What happened to the adage of “Twitter isn’t real life?" What’s more likely to be happening here is that because political journalists and campaign operatives are spending so much time on Twitter, the “shouting class” on the platform is distorting their view of what a Sanders supporter looks like. If Biden supporters were more active on social media, we would’ve likely seen stories about the “Biden Bro”, given that survey data from September found his supporters held the highest levels of both “hostile sexism” and “racial resentment” among supporters of the leading Democratic candidates.

However, even if we were to assume that there’s something unique about the Sanders supporter that makes them angry and harmful, Sanders is not his supporters. He doesn’t encourage his supporters to post and message any of the hostile things that people feature as examples of their toxicity.

Some pundits and politicians have used hateful tweets from Sanders supporters to equate him to Trump, but that argument is ignorant at best and deceitful at worst. Unlike Trump, Sanders doesn’t single out people to personally bully. Unlike Trump, he hasn’t gone along with a supporter when they said at a rally that they should shoot people. Unlike Trump, he doesn't call for his political rivals to be jailed. Unlike Trump, Sanders’ rallies don’t likely contribute to an increase in area hate crimes. Sanders’ rhetoric is not like Trump’s rhetoric.

That hasn’t stopped Michael Bloomberg’s campaign from using a small share of his supporters’ tweets as a point of attack, using them to criticize Sanders as divisive and inciting hate. Last Monday, Bloomberg posted a digital ad with a compilation of angry tweets (presumed from Sanders supporters) attacking Democratic candidates. That video is itself a microcosm as to why it’s a bad argument to attack Sanders through his supporters. The ad ends with a clip of Sanders saying, “It is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.” It showed how Sanders doesn’t behave like the very people they’re trying to tie him to. Bloomberg’s campaign account tweeted a similar compilation of Bernie Bro tweets on Saturday, many of which were found out to be from Trump supporters.

Pete Buttigieg similarly tried to use the angry Bernie Bro narrative against Sanders during the Democratic debate on Wednesday, arguing, “I think you have to accept some responsibility and ask yourself what it is about your campaign, in particular, that seems to be motivating this behavior more than others.” But this argument still assumes that Sanders is doing something to motivate people to act in a certain way. I don’t see what that is, but if there is something about Sanders’ campaign, I wish Buttigieg just said what it was instead of posing a rhetorical question.

Framing this around “leadership,” as Buttigieg does, misses the reasons for why Bernie Bros are angry in the first place, and it’s not because of what Bernie Sanders says or does. Typically young, they are facing enormous pressures that aren’t being addressed. Their student debt has dramatically increased. They have less wealth than Baby Boomers did at their age, even though they have more education. They see an oncoming climate crisis that they are going to have to live with while the government response has been limited. They are angry at what they see as an unjust system destroying their generation’s hopes.
The stereotypical, extremely-online Sanders supporter would be mad and aggressive with or without Bernie Sanders. He has little to nothing to do with their behavior.

As a general rule, don’t judge a candidate exclusively by who votes for them.