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The Bernie Bro is dead – but people are still trying to resurrect him

This time around, Bernie Sanders supporters are more female and less white than any of the leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates

Louis Staples
Monday 19 August 2019 18:25 BST
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Bernie Sanders and Cardi B sat down at The TEN Nail Bar in Detroit

Concerned citizens across the political spectrum are often guilty of wishfully thinking that, if they say something over and over (and over) again, it’ll magically become true. But new data from the Pew Research Center has refuted one of the most beloved political narratives of recent years. The research reveals that, contrary to popular belief, Bernie Sanders supporters are more female and less white than any of the leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. So much for the male, stale and pale Bernie Bro.

Based on polls of registered Democrat or “Democrat-leaning” voters, just 49 per cent of Sanders supporters are white. Elsewhere, white people account for 56 per cent of Joe Biden’s supporters, with Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren tallying at 59 per cent and 71 per cent respectively.

More women support Sanders than his two female frontrunner opponents too. Women make up 53 per cent of Sanders supporters, compared to 49 per cent of Warren supporters and 48 per cent of those who support Biden and Harris.

When Sanders ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination, his supporters were characterised as disproportionately white and male. The Bernie Bro stereotype – young, “woke” white men who aren’t as progressive as they seem when it comes to issues affecting women, people of colour and LGBT+ people, but keen to appear so in public – was used by his critics to downplay the Vermont senator’s popularity with voters.

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Sanders was often portrayed as having a “woman problem” during that time. When he has slipped up, this perception has underpinned the intense anger towards him. Remember the outrage when he “shushed” Clinton during a debate? Or when he was the opening night speaker at the 2017 Women’s Convention? Neither of those were proud moments – but the way in which they were held up as examples of his “brocialist” status weren’t entirely ingenuous either.

The Bernie Bro narrative also lurks beneath the theory that Sanders and his supporters are to blame for thwarting the first credible bid for president by a woman candidate. Many hold Sanders responsible for tainting Hillary Clinton’s campaign beyond repair by staying in the race for too long and providing the fodder for Trump’s “crooked Hillary” attacks. If Sanders had conceded earlier and more of his supporters had backed Clinton, the thinking goes, America would have a relatively progressive, historically important female president right now rather than an egocentric reality TV star.

In 2016, there were genuine reasons to suspect that Sanders’ supporter base was mostly white. For one thing, he represents Vermont – America’s whitest state – whereas Hillary Clinton had previously served as the senator for New York. With this in mind, it’s not surprising Clinton had stronger links with African American community leaders, nor that she was more prepared to reach out to minority voters.

The states won by each candidate also point to a racial divide. Clinton won a staggering 82 per cent of the vote in Mississippi – America’s second blackest state where African Americans make up almost 40 per cent of the population. She obliterated Sanders in states with similar demographics such as Alabama (78 per cent), Georgia (71 per cent) and Louisiana (71 per cent). Sanders, on the other hand, won by big margins five of the seven whitest states in America: New Hampshire, West Virginia, Maine, Idaho and his home state of Vermont.

Despite social media movements like #BernieMadeMeWhite, which saw Sanders supporters mocking the idea that his supporters were mostly white, polling data from 2016 does reveal a divide. YouGov polling from June 2016 – just before the Democratic convention, where Clinton was confirmed as the nominee – revealed that Sanders was more popular with white voters under 44 than Clinton, with 60 per cent backing him. Non-white voters under 44 were split evenly. Yet in voters over 45, there is a much bigger racial disparity, with almost 80 per cent of older non-white voters backing Clinton. With these factors considered, it’s clear that the Bernie Bro stereotype didn’t appear from nowhere – even if it may not be true now, in 2019.

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In terms of false political narratives, there is certainly a distinction between blatant lies – which are regularly spread by President Trump – and political narratives which are incorrect but genuinely presumed to be real. They are believable, and they come from kernels of truth. No one necessarily set out to mislead by spreading them or discussing them. But when they persist after they have stopped being true, they can become incredibly damaging.

In increasingly divided times, we can often find ourselves relying on stereotypes or preconceptions in order to make sense of the world, particularly with regards to the uncertain political landscape. But the labels we apply to people – or boxes we put them – really matter. We can’t hope to address the divides in politics, or people’s motivations for voting a certain way or supporting certain policies, if our worldview is distorted by false information.

If Sanders ever did have a problem with women and people of colour, in the 2020 race this appears no longer to be the case. So critics of Sanders should now steer clear of peddling the Bernie Bro narrative. It is, as Trump would say, fake news – and it could do undue damage to the campaign against the current president.

Whether it be the idea that Trump voters are all “economically anxious” working class people – when in reality wealthy white voters handed him victory and Clinton won the majority of votes of the lowest paid Americans – or the idea that Bernie Bros are powering the Sanders revolution, we have a responsibility to interrogate our assumptions with actual facts this time round. Because if we don’t, are we any better than the most notorious purveyor of “alternative facts” himself?

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