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February 01, 2016

'Bernie Bro' narrative offends like the online comments that sparked it

Concocting potentially election-defining issues out of man-cave molehills is an electoral travesty

After 21 years in this business, it’s become pretty easy to detect how journalistic narratives take on lives of their own, particularly in the blood-sport world of political coverage.

Here’s the tl;dr simplified version: A campaign (or its chatty support unit) zeroes in on reporters friendly to hearing them out. They then share (or leak) a story or concept that is then pursued, validated thanks to the provided roadmap and, ultimately, shared widely – at the ideal time – with (or without) indicating from where it came.

In some cases, there’s a trend to which the leaker can point as evidence: “Look at these rumblings of the issue: Don’t you want to get out in front of this with exclusive – but anonymous – comments?!”

Journalistic competitors – and political watchers/sites/bloggers – then piggyback their own version so as not to look bad for their bosses and readers/viewers/listeners. With critical mass reached, that initial whisper becomes – in the eyes of many – a vetted, legitimate reality of the campaign itself.

All of which brings us to today, the Monday on which voters in Iowa will caucus their way into international headlines.

What better way to concoct a "Let's stick it to 'em like they've stuck it to us for way too long, ladies!" rallying cry.

The two narratives that, I believe, followed that path to legitimacy are these: Misogynistic “Bernie Bros” with a penchant for “mansplaining” are haranguing every last female Hillary Clinton supporter online and Bernie Sanders’ level of electability is nil due, in part, to them. (I’ll avoid discussing similar storylines from the GOP primary field since I have exactly nil experience on the Ringling Brothers beat.)

Take this quote from a story headlined “The bros who love Bernie Sanders have become a sexist mob” for instance:

"They're a mob, and it's not positive toward their candidate, it's trying to tear you down from supporting Hillary," said one chief of staff for a Democratic member of Congress who's endorsed Clinton.

Or this snippet from “Bernie Sanders supporters get a bad reputation online”:

After the 25 January Democratic town hall, Emily Nussbaum, television critic for the New Yorker magazine, tweeted some positive feedback for Hillary Clinton. 

"I'm into Hillary, obviously, but I genuinely thought she did really well tonight," Ms Nussbaum wrote. 

About a half an hour later, she followed up with this: "Man, the Feel The Bern crew (as opposed to Bern himself) is such a drag. Say anything pro-Hil & they yell 'bitch' & 'psycho.' V idealistic!"

It doesn’t take much for stories like that – and the realities on which they are or aren’t based – to become an untenable storyline for the opposition, especially when they’re co-opted from race to gender.

In America 2016, these can become fatal blows, and the more exaggerated the issues become, the more difficult they can be to reverse, which is why the Sanders campaign was forced to take a public stand.

Now, I’m not a woman tweeting support of Clinton, so I can’t offer first-hand rebuttals or denials. I wouldn’t anyway, since I’m sure there are many seeds of truth at the root of an amplified story.

However, I’ve had enough Twitter run-ins to know, however, that this isn’t a “Bernie Bro” issue.

We live in politically tempestuous times and giving the ignorant of all genders, colors and ideologies immediate access to a social-media microphone means anytime anybody posts anything steeped in politics, the blowback is all but assured. That is the real issue at play here.

It was a stroke of genius for Hillary-minded folks to frame it as a “Bernie Bro” thing, though, since all it takes is a single match to start a gender-based flame war in America today. And, hell, she is trying to be America’s first-ever female president. What better way to concoct a "Let's stick it to 'em like they've stuck it to us for way too long, ladies!" rallying cry?

By the time the 1,000th story is written, Bernie-Bro harassment is a fact that can be applied to anybody who questions the Clinton campaign in any way, shape or form. It matters not if it’s a small percentage of a candidate’s overall supporters' demographic.

Online cretins have already become the campaign’s public face at a pivotal juncture – which was the point of taking a megaphone to it in the first place. Well, that, and sparking the Phase Two story about whether Sanders is even electable in the first place. (“He is” is all I have to say about that for the time being.)

It’s the type of dynamic that left me pondering whether I should write this piece in the first place. After all, I’m a white male who doesn’t support the Clinton campaign. Would typing that last sentence leave me branded as a misogynistic hater for life? When I worry about writing something, the level of societal bullying/intimidation is profound.

So, it was nice to see Glenn Greenwald’s “The ‘Bernie Bros' Narrative: a Cheap Campaign Tactic Masquerading as Journalism and Social Activism” on Sunday.

Already derided as "the Odyssey of white male privilege," it aggressively dives deeper and minimizes complaints further than I’d be willing to go. But, there are some cogent points therein. I’ll quote four of them here:

1. “A crucial tactical prong of this innuendo is that any attempt to refute it is itself proof of insensitivity to sexism if not sexism itself.”

2. “The goal is to inherently delegitimize all critics of Hillary Clinton by accusing them of, or at least associating them with, sexism, thus distracting attention away from Clinton’s policy views, funding, and political history and directing it toward the online behavior of anonymous, random, isolated people on the internet claiming to be Sanders supporters.”

3. “Just as neocons have long sought to exploit ‘anti-Semitism’ accusations as a means of deterring and delegitimizing criticisms of Israel (thus weakening and trivializing the ability to combat that very real menace), Clinton media supporters are cynically exploiting serious and disturbing phenomena and weaponizing them as tools for the Clinton campaign.”

4. “The pro-Clinton establishment media first created this narrative about the Sanders campaign, then seized on its being forced to respond to it — the narrative they created — as vindication that they were right all along.”

Spot-on, times four.

Deflecting away from policy conversations (i.e. hiding from debates until you desperately realize that was a very bad move) to hone in on supporter-behavior his high-school level stuff. 

If the best you can do is yell and scream branded code-words about how a limited number of the other candidate’s supporters angrily violate the tenets of an ideal world – while not even realizing that you’ve become a tool of that initial source’s intentions – you’re as much an obstacle to progress as they are.

If thinking that way makes me a “Bernie Bro,” so be it.

Disagree that an intentionally election-defining issue has been made out of man-cave hills? Let’s chat in the comments section about it. I won’t conflate your opinions as being emblematic of every online Hillary Sis. That's a promise.

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