Behind Bernie Sanders, a passionate grassroots army – with a sting

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
A supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a doll of the candidate at a campaign rally in El Paso, Texas, on Feb. 22, 2020.
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What makes Bernie Sanders’ supporters so passionate? They form a grassroots army unmatched by any other Democratic campaign, and have propelled the iconoclastic Vermont senator’s improbable rise to the front of the 2020 Democratic field, with a double-digit win in Nevada.

Yes, they like the idea of free college, free health care, and forgiving student debt. But it’s not just about what he can do for them; he’s encouraged them to get involved in democracy themselves – as a powerful antidote for those feeling demoralized. “I feel like he’s showing us how to fight for ourselves,” says Marie Duggan, an economics professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire.

A fraction of Sanders supporters have drawn criticism for how they wage this battle – wielding profanity and menacing threats across the increasingly coarse Twitterverse, where Senator Sanders has more followers than his four top rivals combined. “There’s a lot of slander of Bernie supporters by people who seem outraged by our passion,” tweeted one supporter advocating “Medicare for All” after losing her mother and watching her dad fall into financial ruin. “Do they ever stop to ask ‘Why are these people so energized?’”

Why We Wrote This

Senator Sanders’ grassroots army has made him the Democratic front-runner. But the party faces a conundrum over his most ardent foot soldiers, whom the senator so far has failed to rein in.

The supporters who have propelled Bernie Sanders to the front of the Democratic field range from septuagenarian social justice warriors to millennials saddled with student debt. But they share this: The iconoclastic senator from Vermont has awakened in them a sense of empowerment, at a time when liberals have been feeling particularly demoralized. Many put it in Kennedyesque terms, saying it isn’t just about what he can do for them – it’s about what they can do for their democracy.

“He’s asking us to create a popular movement that will be strong enough to change the system and make it works for us,” says Marie Duggan, an economics professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire. “I feel like he’s showing us how to fight for ourselves.”

In his most resounding show of force yet, Mr. Sanders won the Nevada caucuses over the weekend by more than 25 points, finishing far ahead of his closest rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Why We Wrote This

Senator Sanders’ grassroots army has made him the Democratic front-runner. But the party faces a conundrum over his most ardent foot soldiers, whom the senator so far has failed to rein in.

That win was powered by a grassroots army of passionate fans who host “Bern Baby Bern” disco parties and bake cookies featuring the senator’s unruly white hair in frosting. Despite many having very limited budgets, they respond, over and over, to the Sanders campaign’s relentless requests to donate, collectively giving him nearly $75 million in small donations – by far the most of any Democratic campaign.

And they enthusiastically advance his cause on social media, where Mr. Sanders commands a Twitter following of 10.6 million – more than that of his four top rivals combined. The disproportionately young and digitally savvy cadre of supporters has been instrumental to the improbable rise of a democratic socialist, whose digital game dwarfs that of his Democratic rivals and has inspired many to get involved in politics for the first time.

At the same time, there’s a darker side to some of this enthusiasm. Some Sanders devotees have sparked concern within the Democratic tent for vitriolic and even menacing rhetoric toward political opponents, raising questions about the extent to which Mr. Sanders should be held accountable for all his supporters’ behavior.

While the senator has repeatedly condemned any harassment or violence in his name, his campaign – like the Trump campaign in 2016 – faces a particular challenge as it’s bringing in people who feel disenfranchised and tend to distrust the system, says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. 

“His campaign is in a unique position to inspire people who would not otherwise be involved in politics,” says Professor Levin. And although that’s clearly a positive thing, some of his supporters also tend to operate from an anti-institutional framework – and may be willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve their goals. “We have to beware of the ‘any means necessary’ people,” he says.

Mike Segar/Reuters
Supporters cheer Sen. Bernie Sanders in El Paso, Texas, on Feb. 22, 2020.

“I’m one of the Bros”

Shelby Parham, a young Latina administrative assistant in Chicago, writes in her Twitter bio: “I like Bernie… I’m one of the Bros.”

That’s a reference to a pejorative term coined during the 2016 campaign for Mr. Sanders’ passionate and at times combative online army. Ms. Parham sees the term in a different light.

“The media tries to paint Bernie supporters as the left-wing Trump supporters – as being aggressive, mean Twitter hacks who just can’t leave people alone or respect other people’s decisions,” says Ms. Parham. “But ... to me, a Bernie Bro is a die-hard supporter that will be the ones to go knocking on doors. We’re the ones who have been with him and will stay with him.” 

Before work, after work, and whenever she has a break at work, she pulls out her phone to tweet or retweet pro-Bernie material. Sometimes when she really “indulges,” she says, laughing, she will retweet as often as 30 times an hour.

Other Sanders supporters wield four-letter words far more frequently against his critics, sometimes with threatening undertones.

David Klion, a journalist in Brooklyn with nearly 60,000 Twitter followers, created a firestorm when he tweeted on Feb. 13: “Libs who are flirting with Bloomberg now should be aware that they are going on lists. Next time they pretend to care about racism or sexual harassment or really anything other than money and power, we will remember what they were doing right now and we will remind everyone.”

After the Culinary Workers Union of Nevada warned its 60,000 members in a flyer that they could lose their hard-won health care insurance under Sanders’ “Medicare for All” policy, self-proclaimed Bernie supporters unleashed a barrage of attacks against two union leaders, both minority women.

“This is your chance to fix your mistake before the millions and millions of Bernie Sanders supporters will find you and end your ability to earn a living,” said one email obtained by the Nevada Independent, calling the women “corrupt [expletive]s” and “fascist imbeciles.”

When questioned by Pete Buttigieg at last week’s Las Vegas debate over the issue, Mr. Sanders said that out of his 10.6 million Twitter followers, “99.9% of them are decent human beings, are working people, are people who believe in justice, compassion, and love. And if there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people. They are not part of our movement.”

In the hours after the debate, a Monitor analysis of responses to pinned tweets from Mr. Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg found that the vast majority of negative responses came from pro-Sanders accounts.

Mr. Sanders also intimated that perhaps Russian trolls were to blame. Two days later, The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials told Mr. Sanders that Russia was seeking to boost his campaign. But even if Russian actors are seeking to exploit divides within the Democratic electorate, in keeping with their aim of sowing discord in American democracy, at least some of the most prominent antagonists are high-profile Sanders surrogates and verified Twitter users who are very much American.

And, to a certain extent, that’s not surprising given that Mr. Sanders is drawing from the most progressive flank of the party – or even outside the party’s traditional bounds.

“What you end up getting when you’re sampling from the fringes is you end up with the people who are more interested in radical change,” says University of Maryland sociologist Dana R. Fisher, whose recent book “American Resistance” looks at how left-leaning activism has grown since Donald Trump took office. But, she adds, “I don’t think [Mr. Sanders] is cultivating it at all.”

Sanders supporters say they, too, have been subjected to vicious attacks, and deny the premise that their camp disproportionately displays offensive online behavior. Many describe the “Bernie Bro” narrative as deliberately seeded by their detractors – first by the Clinton campaign in the 2016 cycle, and now others within the Democratic Party.

“We recognize that our opponents in the establishment would like to perpetuate a false myth to discount the breadth and diversity of our supporters – and we categorically reject it,” says Sarah Ford, deputy communications director for the Sanders campaign. “As the senator has said loudly and clearly, there is no room in the political revolution for abuse and harassment online, and we must live our values of love and compassion.”

“It definitely radicalized me”

Sanders rallies are the political version of a rock concert, only the star has shaggy white hair and glasses. The senator did make an album once, in 1987, but when singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” he sounded pretty much the same way he does when shouting his political demands – hunched over, gripping the mic with his left hand and waving his right.

Somehow, in an era when older white males are not cool, he always brings down the house. Before mothers holding babies in slings across their chests, and students waving his face on sticks, before upscale women in fancy coats and scruffy men in ripped jeans, he barks out his call for free health care, free college, and equal pay for women. People whoop and pound the floor with their feet in rapid succession, until the din of democracy spills out into the silent streets of small towns across America.

Sanders supporters aren’t “angry just for being angry,” says David Robin, co-founder of New York City for Bernie Sanders 2020, and a digital strategist who does social media work for a number of progressive politicians and causes. “They’ve been screwed over by the system.”

Mr. Robin, who grew up in a lower-middle-class family and was assured by his high school counselor that there was no need to worry about taking out loans for college because he’d pay them back once he started working, graduated in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis with $40,000 in debt. The job market was tight, so he went back to school in hopes that getting an extra degree and giving the economy a couple years to bounce back would make it easier to find work.

He came away with a master’s degree in sociology and $137,000 in debt – driving him to join the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, his first foray into political activism. He says he’s paid income-adjusted installments on his loans consistently, but isn’t even keeping up with interest. He now owes $175,000.

“I’m just throwing money at this and it’s just getting worse and worse,” he says, citing a Brookings Institution report that estimated student loan default rates could reach 40% by 2023. “It definitely radicalized me.”

He shared his experience via #MyBernieStory, a collection of short videos and tweets in which supporters explain what drew them to Mr. Sanders – someone who they say actually understands and cares about their struggles. 

“There’s a lot of slander of Bernie supporters by people who seem outraged by our passion,” writes Lizzy Vivino in another #MyBernieStory thread. “Do they ever stop to ask ‘Why are these people so energized?’”

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