Opinion: Bernie Sanders Is A Straight White Man. Does That Matter?

During the Las Vegas Democratic presidential primary debate last month, former mayor Pete Buttigieg — who yesterday dropped out of the race — accused Sen. Bernie Sanders of a failure in leadership when it comes to reigning in his army of supposedly toxic supporters.

“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,” Buttigieg said.

It was Sen. Elizabeth Warren to whom the question about Bernie Bros was first directed, and to her credit she didn’t opt to smear the diverse coalition of progressive voters working to elect Sanders — likely realizing that they’re potential constituents who value many of the same things she does. Instead, she pivoted to point out who, in her view, was the biggest threat on that stage to Democratic unity and progress: former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. But for other candidates, the opportunity to pile on the Democratic frontrunner for the actions of his most visibly and vocally aggressive followers — who, granted, probably aren’t Russian bots, as Sanders has insinuated — was too good to pass up.

After Buttigieg got in a few jabs, the Vermont senator pointed out (correctly) that the black women involved in leading his campaign are also victims of “vicious, racist, sexist attacks” from other candidates’ supporters. Though they’d rather not admit it, every single candidate in the race has been able to claim quite a few asshole surrogates and supporters (including Buttigieg!).

It is true, however, that Sanders’ fans — of whom there are many, especially the young and Very Online — are particularly loud on social media. Sanders has wholeheartedly condemned the harassment and bullying carried out in his name since the “Bros” first became a problem for him back in 2016, after which his top aides privately reached out to senior officials at opposing campaigns to apologize for the sexist and racist swarms. Still, by this point, the Bro narrative has been rather exhaustively overhyped, to the extent that the campaign insists it’s become a distraction and a smear.

Particularly because he’s an old white guy — and a cranky one, at that — Sanders is frequently assumed to inspire the worst and most bigoted impulses in the people who support him, regardless of their own race and gender. One Sanders skeptic claims he is “a man who defines himself around his anger, and he attracts a lot of men who define themselves around their anger, many of whom do, in fact, use it as a license to act abusively.” Another explains his rapidly expanding, diversifying base with the theory that “some young women and some young people of color want to be more like angry white men.” Bernie fans who aren’t men must have “internalized misogyny,” this theory goes, while his many supporters of color have “internalized white supremacy.”

When (white male) identity and its resultant “toxic masculinity” is assumed to be the driving force of a candidate’s campaign, it follows that a woman candidate would offer something radically different. Amy Klobuchar, who has reportedly run “a workplace controlled by fear, anger, and shame” in which she “demeaned and berated her staff almost daily, subjecting them to bouts of explosive rage and regular humiliation,” even went so far at the Las Vegas debate as to suggest that we could stop sexism on the internet by nominating a woman for president.

The whole exchange in Vegas perfectly illustrated how a certain brand of neoliberal identity politics, popularized in the Obama era, feels increasingly insufficient to address the most pressing issues of our time. We might all agree, for example, that social media has contributed to the poisoning of our political discourse. But to imply that a woman Democratic nominee in 2020 would stop or even slow sexism (online or otherwise), when Hillary Clinton’s candidacy did nothing of the kind, strikes me as more than a little delusional.