New findings from The Economist show that women under 45 make up a larger share of Bernie Sanders’ base than do men in their same age group, contradicting a popular narrative that says the 2020 Democratic candidate's supporters are overwhelmingly white and male, to the virtual exclusion of other groups.
This narrative often hinges on the “Bernie Bro,” a term Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer coined during the 2016 election to describe a type of mansplaining internet harasser that some came to see as representative of all Sanders voters. Bernie Bros were a “mob” flooding the Twitter mentions of Hillary Clinton supporters; they were “sexist,” even “enthusiastically” so; and they were loud and aggressive when expressing their uncompromising support for their candidate.
Polling has continually proven that Sanders’ base is much more diverse than the figure of the Bernie Bro would suggest: An analysis of polling between November 2018 and March 2019 found both that Sanders was more popular among people of color than among white people, and that women supported Sanders just as much as men did, “if not more,” according to Vox. Earlier this month, a Univision Noticias poll found Sanders was the candidate Latino voters favored most after current Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden. And The Economist’s latest numbers show Sanders in the number-two spot behind Biden with Hispanic and Black voters.
Yet the Bernie Bro concept continues to endure, much to the chagrin of Sanders’ women supporters, who say it ignores a significant portion of the Vermont senator’s base.
“It’s really frustrating to see that the idea of the ‘Bernie Bro’ is still so pervasive,” said 24-year-old Megan Magray, a reproductive health advocate. She also serves as a co-coordinator for NYC-DSA’s Brooklyn electoral communications committee. “It’s insulting to see women, women of color, and people of color being erased from his campaign because they’re really integral to it.”
Mari Toro, a 27-year-old community advocate and data entry specialist in Boston, told VICE she didn’t find the perception of Sanders’ base frustrating so much as she found it irrelevant. As a young Puerto Rican woman, the description of a supposedly archetypal white male Sanders supporter simply didn’t apply to her.
“I felt the same way I feel about most internet rumors or stories that I have no connection or affinity for,” Toro said. “I didn’t even come to resent it—I didn’t feel the epithet characterized me or my fellow supporters at all.”
Sanders supporters may be facing even more scrutiny this cycle than in 2016. With Sanders running against not just one woman candidate, but five—it was six until Kirsten Gillibrand dropped out of the race—some say that there’s no reason to vote for a white man when there are so many women to choose from. This argument can get more specific for Elizabeth Warren supporters, some of whom argue that the Massachusetts senator’s politics are nearly identical to Sanders, so why not vote for her instead?
“Why would Democratic voters choose Sanders when Warren is running?” Guardian columnist Moira Donegan wrote the day after Sanders announced his presidential bid in February. “The two are not ideologically identical, but the differences between their major policy stances…are relatively minor, especially compared to the rest of the field.”
Whether there are consequential differences between Warren and Sanders’ campaign platforms is an ongoing subject of debate on the left, particularly as Warren has begun to edge past Sanders in the polls.
Mia Arievitch, a 24-year-old socialist who attends the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies, believes Sanders and Warren are running completely different presidential campaigns, with Sanders focusing on grassroots movement-building while Warren homes in on federal policy. Lauren Christianson, a native Wisconsinite now based in New York, said that while she loves Warren for “supporting many of the same progressive platforms as Bernie,” she doesn’t find her to be “as progressive” as Sanders. Magray said she believes there’s a “wide gulf” between the two candidates’ politics, emphasizing that Sanders is a democratic socialist while Warren is a self-professed capitalist “to her bones.”
But quibbles over progressive bonafides aside, these women object to the underlying principle that gender should play such a prominent role in deciding who to vote for. When Sanders’ women supporters encounter the belief that they should vote for a woman candidate because they themselves are women, feelings of resentment arise.
“People cling to the idea that if we have a woman in power she’ll enact more feminist policies,” Arievitch said. “There are so many of Bernie’s plans that you would have to totally ignore to say he wouldn’t benefit women or women of color or working-class people. What is your definition of feminism if it’s what the person’s identity is who’s enacting the policies that matters most?”
Magray is also skeptical of the reasoning that a woman in the White House is an undeniable good for all women, and she rejects the notion that voting for a woman is an inherently feminist choice. Feminists who push these talking points are buying into an individualistic “girlboss mentality,” Magray said.
"There’s a strain of feminism that’s really focusing on empowering individual women to serve as inspiring figureheads,” Magray continued. “It’s not about lifting women out of poverty through socialism and anti-capitalist movements."
A significant share of Sanders supporters—Magray included—consider Warren their second choice, and if she wins the party’s nomination, would cast a ballot for her with little to no hesitation. But in the meantime, many of them will continue to be frustrated by the way Sanders’ supporters are portrayed, and the looming specter of the Bernie Bro.
In 2016, the idea that Sanders supporters were, by default, white and male made Christianson “feel like [she] had to choose between being a woman and supporting the candidate who inspired me the most.”
“It was also a quick way to stop any conversation about actual policy and ideals,” she added. “I hated it. I still hate it.”
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