Bernie Bros And Vagina Voters: Is Democratic Unity Possible?

(Photo: Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

Bradley Butterfield Professor, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Font Size:

Like many Bernie fans, now that our man has finally given in and endorsed “that woman,” I’m working today on feeling that old “unity” thing that Hillary’s supporters have been talking about ever since they prematurely wrote the writing on the wall our side was supposed to have read over a month ago. The fact that the man in charge of the New York Times editorial page, Andrew Rosenthal, penned and published a contemptuous piece about Bernie and his endorsement speech in the online edition of the paper just hours after the event hasn’t made the task any easier — but it’s reminded me of some things that are going to need to come unstuck from my craw anyway before I’ll be able to get it done.

To wit: remember Gloria Steinem’s “Bernie Girls just want to have fun” (my translation) dis on Bernie’s female supporters? Well, shortly thereafter Paul Krugman got a dig in on Bernie’s male advocates. He called us “Bernie Bros.”

Yes, he went there.

While Krugman did clarify that he was only referring to Bernie’s “worst followers” (akin to the way people who use the N-word clarify that they’re just referring to “the worst of them”), he also wrote that “Bernie is becoming a Bernie Bro” … at which point I imagined him calling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of another movement for equality, the N-word.

No, I’m not claiming that “Bernie Bro” was anywhere near as insulting as the N-word, but from where I was standing, calling the man leading the most significant movement for social justice of our time a slur you use to signify “the worst of them” is a major insult. “Bro” culture is frat boy culture, California-stoner style, synonymous in most progressive minds with mindless partying and rampant sexism. “Bernie Bro” is a slur that implies we’re not even true progressives.

Krugman’s dis got me wondering why the Clintonites didn’t have a comparable dis for Bernie’s female supporters. Why not a nifty insulting moniker for the ladies? Didn’t they have equal rights? No, like now old-fashioned housewives, they were expected to hide themselves under the protective banner of their male counterparts, the Bernie Bros, despite doing roughly half the work of promoting Bernie.

Then it came to light that the Clinton campaign had a PAC called “Correct the Record” (run by former right-wing smear-artist-turned-Clintonite David Brock), the purpose of which was essentially to distort the record on Bernie Sanders and his supporters by advancing the Bernie Bro narrative and “the idea that Sanders supporters are little more than a sexist cult.”

The Bernie Bro, as I’d suspected, was a linguistic kill shot: a deliberate attempt to create a negative caricature of a person or group so as to more easily scapegoat and defeat them. Trump effectively used linguistic kill shots against his rivals – “Lyin’ Ted,” “Lil’ Marco” “Low Energy Jeb” – but even he never used this technique to scapegoat their supporters (who he hopes will one day vote for him). This is the same technique Republicans have long employed against the Democratic Party by calling it “the Democrat Party” (encouraging the association of Democrats with rats), and now Hillary’s Democrats were using the same technique against members of their own party.

White men like me should by all means acknowledge white male privilege and promote equality, but any time you call a group of people – especially a relatively powerless group (e.g., Camp Sanders) fighting against a relatively powerful group (e.g., Camp Clinton) – a name they don’t call themselves, there’s something dirty going on. I personally hadn’t even encountered any of these so-called “Bernie Bros,” with their rude, sexist behavior (unless criticizing Hillary is in and of itself rude and sexist behavior), and we didn’t even have an insulting kill word for her supporters like they had for us, did we?

Then the phrase “Vagina Voter” started popping up. Like Orwell’s “duckspeak,” it appeared to have two meanings: a compliment when used by its practitioners, a misogynist slur when used by its critics. Hillary’s fans have their own valid reasons for preferring her, even if those reasons include the simple fact that she’s a woman, but unless they welcome the term “Vagina Voters,” then it’s meant as an insult – and insulting other candidates’ supporters because they happen to disagree with us is both dirty and a losing game. It punches below the argument-line, disparaging the individual making the argument. And it’s a losing game because nobody ever won an argument by disparaging his or her opponent (at least not if they hoped to achieve “unity” with them afterwards).

I consider myself a neo-pragmatist, which means I don’t think there’s a single “politically correct” view – just different ways of seeing. If someone wants me to see things their way, they have to offer me compelling reasons, not just berate me for having an illegitimate perspective. We waste time when we fight over whose perspective is True (which can only mean that the other’s is False) as opposed to discussing where to go and how to get there. If we take care of democracy, as Richard Rorty argued, what is True will take care of itself, and taking care of democracy was exactly what Bernie’s movement was proposing. I still feel that incremental adjustments to the oligarchy will no longer do. You can call Bernie’s supporters idealistic, but idealism has become the new pragmatism: the best way to get where we want to go.

I recently wrote a book called Idiot Boys: A Memoir containing something of a catalogue of idiot boy archetypes from my childhood, and I don’t doubt that the “Bernie Bro” is one of the many idiot man archetypes operating out there today. We are all of us idiots for life, especially us men. But there’s nothing idiotic, or sexist, about the revolution Bernie started. He may have lost the nomination, but Bernie Sanders is the New Sincerity in politics. Anyone who watched those debates could see it, and what he’s done and can still do effectively is to offer a convincing assessment of the present and a vision for the future, a “New New Deal,” as Seth Abramson puts it, that is more compelling to the next generation than the old pragmatism of the Clinton era, even if it ends up getting put on hold another four years.

So, Hillary fans, a word of advice: stop with the narrative that Hillary’s detractors are just sexists. Some of us still have very good reasons for doubting her that it’s best not to provoke us into reciting again at this point, if party unity is what you’re hoping for. Start treating us Bernie Bros, and Bro-ettes, as your actual brothers, and sisters, who may see things differently, but whom you still need to get along with, before we all get Trumped.

Professor Bradley Butterfield, author of Idiot Boys: A Memoir, teaches courses in western literature, philosophy and the art of memoir at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Connect with him on FacebookGoodreads, and at www.bradleybutterfield.com