On Monday, just as Bernie Sanders was poised to win the New Hampshire primary, Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd took the opportunity to complain about the candidate’s online supporters, quoting a right-wing writer who called them Bernie’s “digital brownshirt brigade.”
The language was extreme, especially given that Bernie’s extended family was killed in the Holocaust by actual Nazis, but the theme wasn’t new: cable news pundit or other mainstream media personality compares Bernie supporters online to a dangerous mob, motivated by contempt and driven to cruelty, prevented from storming the fortress only by the bulwarks of centrism.
One reason why this theme is so popular is that the professional pundit class is genuinely startled and stung by the phenomenon of ordinary people being nasty to them online about politics, their very own area of expertise. One detects a note of injury in Chuck Todd’s lament when he says, “We’ve all been on the receiving end of the Bernie online brigade.” In fact, only three days prior Todd had faced a backlash online from Bernie supporters after defending the honor of billionaires on air. No doubt he was airing a personal grievance.
To understand why mainstream media personalities so often let slip that they feel unnerved and wounded by Bernie’s online supporters, we should register two major recent cultural changes. First, social media has altered the fundamental dynamic of political journalism and opinion. Whereas for decades having opinions about politics in public was the province of a well-paid and generally well-respected profession, it is now a pursuit undertaken by millions who lack the requisite pedigree and connections.
The “Bernie’s brigade” complaint is, at least in part, a howl of frustration from the mainstream punditry, which had grown accustomed to delivering assessments without being assessed back — or, at least, not that they could see. On social media, specifically Twitter, people not only disagree with them but mock them. Nothing is quite so threatening to the professional cognoscenti as mass irreverence. The whole point of a pundit is that people take their opinion seriously; social media threatens to expose their authority as a farce.
But this doesn’t answer the question: why Bernie supporters? This is where the second major social change comes in. At the same time that ordinary people are finding new venues to register disagreement and disapproval, class consciousness is on the rise. Crudely defined, class consciousness means awareness that you belong to a class, that your class is locked in struggle with another class, that the privileges enjoyed by the other class come at your class’s expense, and that for your class to advance it must do battle with the other class. Needless to say, it necessarily entails a degree of antagonism.
The mainstream media is owned and operated by the capitalist class and has always carried water for the wealthy. The more class consciousness rises, the more the mainstream media comes under fire for its obvious class bias. By the very nature of his campaign, Bernie Sanders’s supporters are the most class-conscious bloc in the United States. They are therefore the most likely to be critical when, for example, someone like Chuck Todd explains why billionaires are a good and necessary feature of society.
In sum, the media industry’s internal class dynamics have led it into open conflict with the new working-class movement that has coalesced around the Bernie Sanders campaign, and social media platforms have facilitated an expression of that conflict that feels personally hurtful and professionally threatening to the industry’s top personalities. That’s why they don’t like Bernie supporters. Everything else is all just ex post facto justification for lashing out at the troublesome multitude.
But we would be mistaken to chalk the whole thing up to sheer reflex. Just as the “Bernie bro” narrative was hatched inside the Hillary Clinton campaign, it’s likely that people who want to defeat Sanders and his movement have decided intentionally to hammer the related “Bernie’s online swarm” theme. That is, it’s probably not all coming from a place of panic and contempt. It’s also probably coming, at least in part, from a place of strategy.
And if that’s the case, we have to give Sanders’s opponents credit, because it is strategic. Republican strategist Karl Rove used to say that it’s best to hit your opponents not where they’re weakest, but where they’re strongest. If you want to take a candidate down, identify their biggest selling-point and muddy the waters around it. It’s decent advice.
Bernie’s biggest strength is his large and dedicated support base. He has the most “sticky support” of any candidate by a long shot: his supporters believe in his political vision and they’re not shopping around. His supporters also take his slogan “Not Me, Us” to heart. They believe they are part of a movement — that Bernie’s victory creates new opportunities to fight harder.
If Bernie wins the presidency, his core supporters don’t expect him merely to act on their behalf. Instead, quite unlike Obama’s fan base in 2008, they’ve largely internalized the idea that they’ll have to organize and fight for health care, housing, education, a secure retirement, a sustainable planet, social justice, and peace. And they believe that fight has already begun, in the form of the campaign itself. His core supporters are not pulling for a candidate; they’re trying to transform society. It’s a different dynamic than that of any other political campaign, and harder to beat.
Donald Trump gets it. On Tuesday he said, “Frankly I’d rather run against Bloomberg than Bernie Sanders, because Sanders has real followers. Whether you like him or not, whether you agree with him or not — I happen to think it’s terrible what he says. But he has followers.” Bernie would object to the characterization of his supporters as followers, but the point stands.
So this is Bernie’s strong suit. If you’re using the Rove playbook, how do you transform this strength into a weakness? There are two ways: First, you can focus on an unflattering epiphenomenon. Because Bernie has the largest base of self-identified supporters, and because they generally have internet access, it’s not impossible to find examples of Bernie supporters actually behaving badly online. One tactic is to hold these up as emblematic of the entire movement. This can be accomplished by finding, for example, a handful of sexist comments and using them to demonstrate that Bernie supporters have a tendency to target women for abuse, or by claiming to have been harassed when in fact you have only been insulted.
The second way to flip the script is to cast the entire central phenomenon in a negative light. People for whom Bernie’s message resonates do not view politics as a hobby, and they are not mild-mannered. It’s possible to recast their personal passion and the mass-political character of their movement as a frightening example of Trump-like populism, or a creepy cult, or a chaotic throng, or authoritarian column. It’s possible to reframe their message of compassion and solidarity in struggle as a message of divisiveness and hate. That’s what Chuck Todd opted to do. Whether he was carrying out an intentional strategy or simply tending his wounded pride matters little: it has the Rove effect, rhetorically transforming a strong advantage into a potential drawback.
If you’ve been canvassing all weekend in the cold, if you’ve been donating hard-earned money to a campaign you believe has the potential to transform your life, if you finally feel like the country might be about to emerge from its capitalist-realist coma and you’re trying as hard as you can to contribute to the movement that’s throttling it awake, it can be demoralizing to see yourself caricatured as a bigot, a dupe, or a tyrant. That demoralization is at least part of the point.
But you have a choice. You can let them shame and demoralize you out of your enthusiasm and your belief, or you can double down because you understand their attacks mean you’re on the path to victory.
Doubling down doesn’t mean being meaner on Twitter, though in my view you have no responsibility to be nicer to pundits who defend the existence of billionaires either. It means that however you choose to engage online, you must get organized. It means you must canvass, phonebank, donate, and join an organization that embodies the highest ideals of the campaign and will be there after it’s over, win or lose.
It means you must work to take this movement all the way, with a passion and fury your opponents can hardly comprehend, much less extinguish.