Much has been written about the political fault lines shaking the Republican Party this election season. Perhaps because the left hasn’t fielded a candidate anywhere near as bombastic and polarizing as Donald Trump, less has been said about similar tensions rending the Democratic Party.
Those tensions might, in fact, have gone largely unnoticed were it not for the Berniebros. That’s a political taxonomy that slipped into the popular lexicon last October when the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer described an informal fraternity of young, white, educated, middle-class men whose intense and knowing political support sometimes leads them to browbeat anyone with insufficient enthusiasm for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. In online circles like Twitter and Reddit, Berniebros are the specter haunting Sanders’ run. Even the campaign itself seems concerned that overzealous supporters may alienate women and voters of color, on whom the Bros have a reputation for venting their enthusiasm and/or spleens.
Whether Berniebros are an actual phenomenon, and to what extent, as well as whether its even fair or constructive to talk about them — all are matters of dispute in some circles. As of late, that dispute has grown in both volume and rancor, but the answers may be of secondary importance. More than the Bros themselves, it is the debate that has exposed troubling fractures within the Democrat electorate.
Thus, when Salon’s Amanda Marcotte recently suggested that unacknowledged sexism may explain the way the youth vote breaks between Sanders and his rival, Hillary Clinton, Matt Bruenig retorted by calling Marcotte “a hack for Hillary.” Starting with the argument that Berniebros aren’t likely to sway primary voters, Fredrik deBoer similarly built to a broadside against “economically and socially privileged” journalists who are “sheltered from the consequences of politics” and can thus afford to approach the subject as a joke. And, in one of the most celebrated rejoinders to the Berniebro label, Glenn Greenwald expanded the hack charge to nearly every journalist writing about Berniebros, framing the topic as an attempt “to inherently delegitimize all critics of Hillary Clinton by accusing them of, or at least associating them with, sexism…” In response, many of the journalists dragged by that net countered that the tenor of those objections made the men who wrote them resemble the very Bros they had set out to disprove.
Apart from their accord on the question of Berniebros, what connects Bruenig, deBoer, and Greenwald is their work on issues along what may be described as the socialist spectrum, ranging from economic inequality to the effects of a state monopoly on power. By contrast, many of the writers they’ve taken to task for reiterating the Berniebro theme are known for covering topics generally lumped under the heading of social justice. When Marcotte writes that young male Democrats may not be “feminist enough” to content themselves with a woman candidate, or when Ta-Nehisi Coates spars with Twitter users aggrieved by his critique of Sanders’ position on reparations, their political interests center on the way that contemporary social norms perpetuate disparities that have historically fallen more heavily on some groups than on others. The root of their complaint against Berniebros is the range of ways (some so subtle as to be almost invisible to the uninitiated) in which their own identities are thrown back at them as a dismissal of their political convictions.
Similarly, when would-be debunkers point to the Berniebro label as a tactic for dismissing their own political convictions, they are echoing that complaint, albeit in defense of an appreciably different view of the issues. Whomever is right, both are arguing, in effect, that the other is looking for an excuse to ignore or sideline their concerns. The result is a crack in the coalition that has long defined the American left.
The Democratic Party that emerged from the Civil War was committed to a platform composed of two planks. On the one hand, there was support for the working class, as against the coterie of mostly Northern, mostly Republican industrialists and financiers enriched by the Union war effort. On the other, there was white supremacy, held like a grudge against the Grand Old Party’s policy, under Lincoln, of abolition. But with millions of black freedmen entering the paid workforce and the international labor movement rapidly embracing the cause of racial and gender equality, one of those planks was bound to give way.
By the middle of the 20th century, commitment to white supremacy had weakened enough to make the Democratic Party attractive to the burgeoning Civil Rights and student movements. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy, many young Democrats rallied around Senator George McGovern as the most progressive candidate for the 1968 Democratic nomination. Despite a strong showing by McGovern’s anti-war bloc at that year’s convention, delegates gave the nomination to Johnson’s hawkish vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Disappointed by the results, the new generation of Democrats successfully lobbied for changes in the nomination rules governing the party’s convention, allowing McGovern to secure the 1972 nomination.
Like Humphrey before him, McGovern ultimately lost the race to Nixon. In the long term, though, the changes wrought by McGovern’s supporters shifted the balance of influence within the DNC away from labor and union dominance. For nearly half a century since, the Democratic Party has consisted of alliances between workers, women, minorities and the young, each championing the others’ interests in exchange for support of their own.
In many ways, the Clinton–Sanders contest feels tailor-made to test the strength of those alliances. True to the legacy of the late-20th century Democratic coalition, Clinton is running on a portfolio of issues built to consolidate support from multiple voting blocs. Sanders, by contrast, is a firebrand democratic socialist whose campaign is built around a centerpiece of sweeping economic reform. The appeal exerted by either platform is, in large part, the result of political and social movements that have, since the early Nineties, reshaped the traditional Democratic initiatives — in particular, third wave feminism, the Occupy movement, and Black Lives Matter.
Increasingly, the relationship between Clinton and Sanders supporters is complicated by a growing but often invisible misalignment in the American left. The more enduring significance of the Berniebro controversy may be the way in which draws out the contours of that misalignment. The traditional Democratic coalition ensured that both the socially- and economically-minded segments of the Democratic Party cooperated to serve one another’s interests, but the Clinton-Sanders contest exacerbates the ways in which those imperatives sometimes conflict with one another. So, on the one hand, Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, as well as the financial ties created by what one writer has called “the Clinton System,” blunt her appeal to those for whom across-the-board economic and foreign policy reform are priorities. At the same time, even when Sanders’ points back to his involvement in the social revolutions of the Sixties, he tends to stress economic themes over matters of social justice — as when, for example, he recently stressed the influence of socialism on Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism.
Up to now, acrimony over those different priorities has surfaced mostly in minor ways, as when Clinton hinted that one of Sanders’ comments might have been sexist, or in the continuing debate over whether Sanders should “go negative.” But with the race tightening — Sanders declared the results of the Iowa caucus “a virtual tie” — supporters from either camp are likely to place ever more weight on the imperatives that differentiate the two candidates. In doing so, they cast ever more light on disagreements within the Democratic Party itself.
For Clinton, who cut her political teeth campaigning for McGovern in ’72, all this must have a strange resonance. In much the same way that the Obama presidency broke ground for black Americans, a win for Clinton would symbolize the progress feminists have achieved by way of the Democratic coalitions that grew out of that era. But she now finds herself in much the same position that Humphrey assumed in ’68: an administration veteran and the acknowledged establishment choice, fending off a nomination challenge fueled by a new generation of voters.
Taking that historical echo as a guide, even a failed Sanders campaign could result in another long term shift for Democrats. Much as McGovern supporters did in anticipation of the ’72 primaries, disappointed Sanders youth could mobilize to make the Party more amenable to some future candidate in the same mold. That, in turn, might well deepen divisions over which brand of justice — social or economic — poses the more urgent demand on the party.
Any effort to sort out those differences are bound to be complicated by the larger struggle with their party’s traditional rival. As I wrote in “The Anxious Defenders of Liberalism,” much of the tactical language conservatives have used against the left since World War II was adapted from the left’s own internal disputes. The acrimony arising from the Berniebro debate is almost sure to furnish Republicans with new accusations — especially since some participants, like deBoer, are already being cited in Republican publications as confirmation of illiberalism on the left. Even Greenwald, who is, by all appearances, skeptical of the rhetoric leveled against “political correctness,” echoes a popular conservative talking point when he decries the Berniebros label as a tool for “delegitimizing” other liberals.
More than the possibility that Republicans will turn these arguments against them, though, the bigger threat to the left is that these fractures might foretell greater disunity down the road. If they can’t find a secure basis for maintaining the alliances that have held the Democratic Party together over the years, each distinct faction may soon find itself wielding only a fraction of the support on which they’ve come to rely. The more disruptive those divisions, the more influence Republicans will wield over the direction of U.S. governance.
Of course, that outcome depends on unity within the Republican Party. Much like Democrats, though, the GOP has long held together by a coalition of interests who don’t always see eye-to-eye. The rise of the Tea Party and the colossal disruption of the Trump campaign have, likewise, rendered the permanence of that coalition in doubt. If, as it happens, neither party can mend those fault lines, the next four years may bring significant changes to the American political landscape as a whole.