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Rise of the Broletariat: a Gramscian Analysis of the Bernie Bro Narrative

Posted on March 3rd, 2020 in Bernie Bro, Theory by James Deal
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Since the 2016 Democratic Primary, one specter has haunted Sanders' campaign like no other, that of the 'Bernie Bro'. While this is certainly not a new phenomenon, it has been increasingly utilized as an attack against Sanders' grassroots movement as he has become the candidate to beat. Given the frequency of these attacks, it seems worth exploring the origins of the Bernie Bro narrative, how this attack has been perpetuated by the establishment and media, what the media's motive is in terms of advancing this attack on him, and analyzing the reality of Sanders' online supporters as well as the supporters of other mainstream candidates.

ClintonCourtesy: Tim Pierce

Hillary Clinton went into the 2016 primary as the presumed winner, having the advantage of being half of a political dynasty, as well as the backing of the Democratic Party's establishment and its Chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Yet, despite Clinton's structural advantages, Sanders raised over $228 million, won 23 states (not including several near wins), and received approximately 43% of the popular vote. Sanders' electoral success was largely due to his:

"articulation of the connection between social inequality and capitalism, an effective message because most Americans' lived experience features no recovery, but instead is characterized by pauperization and class decomposition. Working within the confines of American electoral politics, where form drives substance, Sanders followed a simple but effective strategy of making excessively reasonable moral demands that reform would not provide, thus showing the limitations of the present social structure."

Sanders' platform, beyond criticisms of price and feasibility, was largely untouchable by Clinton's campaign. Calling for reform of the current system would be insufficient in addressing the systemic issues of Capitalism that Sanders' ideology centered upon addressing. This necessitated that the Clinton campaign develop a strategy to undermine and dismiss Sanders' political revolution; thus, the Bernie Bro narrative was born.

"[In] a move reminiscent of neo-conservatives shielding their unreasonable support of Israel by accusing critics of anti-Semitism," Hillary's campaign created the narrative of the sexist, predominantly white, disaffected, angry male 'Bernie Bro' and began, "reflexively (and unironically) applying it to anyone who speaks ill of Hillary Clinton, even when they know nothing else about the people they're smearing, including their gender, age, or sexual orientation." This is especially problematic given the implication that Sanders' supporters are exclusively white, college-aged males when, in reality, Sanders has the most diverse coalition of supporters:

"The independent senator from Vermont is backed by 28 percent of black, non-white Hispanic and Asian voters, according to the latest polling data from Monmouth University. Biden came in second with support from 20 percent, or 8 points less than Sanders."

Not to mention that Sanders' supporters under 45 are not a majority male:

"findings from The Economist show that women under 45 make up a larger share of Bernie Sanders' base than do men in their same age group, contradicting a popular narrative that says the 2020 Democratic candidate's supporters are overwhelmingly white and male, to the virtual exclusion of other groups."
BernieCourtesy: Jackson Lanier (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Not only is Sanders' revolution the widest and most diverse grassroots movement, but it's fundamentally premised on empathy and compassion. "Not me. Us." Sanders' campaign slogan embodies the core values of his political ideology. It's not about voting selfishly to serve our personal best interests, but rather to elect the only candidate that will truly fight for the best interests of every individual in society. It's absurd to claim that Sanders or his supporters owe an apology for vehemently fighting to ensure no human being should be homeless, nobody should have to die because they can't afford medical care, and nobody should have to choose between food and rent because their job doesn't pay a living wage while CEOs makes millions.

It is clear what political purpose the Bernie Bro narrative serves, which explains why candidates in the 2020 Democratic Primary have been so ready to continue making claims that undoubtedly serve to erase the voices of countless women and people of color. What bears further investigation is the media's role in perpetuating the Bernie Bros narrative. Given the demographic data of Sanders' supporters alone is more than sufficient to dispel the notion of Bernie Bros, it seems there must be some greater motive to the continued use of this tactic as an attack on Sanders' campaign and supporters. 

At first glance, Sanders presents two threats to large media corporations and their owners. First, Bernie stands adamantly opposed to the consolidation of media outlets:

"We should discourage media market consolidation and create space for diverse and substantive journalism. We should encourage competition between cable companies in order to lower prices. We should support local, independent media outlets."

This stance threatens the profits of the 6 corporations that control over 90% of the media. Beyond the impact on the profit of these 6 corporations, Sanders' stance further threatens their ability to control the discourse of Americans, including what social and political issues we are (and are not) exposed to in the media, how these issues are framed, and how the proposed solutions to these issues will be framed (if they are discussed at all). If this is disturbing to you, you're not alone, as Sanders has spoken about how immensely dangerous this concentration of media ownership is:

"Why is it that the mainstream media sees politics as entertainment, and largely ignores the major crises facing our country? The answer lies in the fact that corporate media is owned by, well, large multinational corporations. These powerful corporations also have an agenda, and it would be naive not to believe that their views and needs impact coverage of issues important to them… And let us also not forget that the leading personalities we see on television are themselves, in most cases, multimillionaires with very generous contracts. That does not make them evil or bad people. It just makes them very wealthy, corporate employees who bring to their jobs the perspective that very wealthy corporate employees bring."

Already, it is beginning to be clear why the Media would have a strong motive to smear the Sanders campaign by any means necessary in order to prevent his election, preserving their current position of power.

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Any analysis of the media's role in perpetuating the Bernie Bro narrative would be remiss in its failure to delve into the works of social and political theorists, such as Antonio Gramsci, in order to detail how the media serves as a tool of those in power to reinforce prevailing social and political norms.

American politics has never appeared more divided than it is now and has been in the past several years. Within the Democratic Party, Bernie and other progressives wish to, "wage a moral and political war against the billionaires," which contrasts starkly to the position of Pelosi, and other establishment Democrats, who argue, "we're capitalists, that's just the way it is." Similarly, George Bush, Boehner, and other Republicans have expressed dismay in the death of the Republican Party with the election of Trump.

"It should be no surprise that these observations and testimonies emerge at the crest of massive capital consolidation, where class warfare 'from above' has created intense social inequality which has stratified the American social structure, a revanche in the wake of the 2008 recession."

These conditions have led to conflict amongst the various groups in power in an attempt to gain hegemony and establish an economic system that most benefits their accumulation of capital. Gramsci analyzed instances like this, noting:

"A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity), and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them."

These "incurable structural contradictions" are increasingly clear in the growing divide both within the Democratic Party as well as between the Democratic and Republican Parties. In 2016, Clinton's campaign and the subsequent 'reform' of the DNC's nomination process can be understood as the bourgeoisie's attempts, "to cure them, within certain limits," in order to resolve these structural contradictions. The persistence of such contradictions after the initial attempts to reform from within the current system are evidence of the crisis' continuation. 

"At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organizational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognized by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic 'men of destiny'."
Trump RallyCourtesy: Gage Skidmore

Gramsci's argument provides a framework that allows us to better understand how Trump's populist movement was able to take root in the conditions preceding and surrounding the 2016 election. Trump mobilized the anger and resentment of a large swath of the electorate that considered themselves to be forgotten and, in doing so, was able to win the presidential election as an outsider against a veteran of the political establishment.

Sanders' political movement also came about and experienced success in a similar manner to Trump's. While Sanders' platform emphasizes unity and compassion, uniting to fight for the common good of the working masses, he also seeks to establish himself and his platform as being representative of those left out of politics or those who feel marginalized and forgotten by society. Sanders' charisma and rhetoric serve to skewer the political values of the ruling elite, calling for a return to policies that benefit the average person rather than the interests of the wealthy, bourgeoisie, capitalist elites. The core distinction in the movements of Trump and Sanders lies in Sanders' platform of compassion, inclusion, and altruism; Sanders calls for us to fight for those we don't know, while Trump represents fighting for self-interest.

Not me. Us.

Although we have seen the implication of cultural hegemony on the rise of populist political movements, the role of the media in attacking these movements and promoting the neoliberal agenda has largely not been discussed to this point. Interestingly, there is a substantial amount of research into the role of the media in promoting the agenda of the bourgeoisie. Given that the media is the primary avenue for the masses to stay informed on current social and political issues, their control of what issues are discussed (or not discussed), how these issues are framed, and the approach to addressing these issues ultimately controls the political and social beliefs of the masses. Gramsci elaborates on this:

"[The] bourgeois newspaper (whatever its hue) is an instrument of struggle motivated by ideas and interests that are contrary to his. Everything that is published is influenced by one idea: that of serving the dominant class, and which is ineluctably translated into a fact: that of combating the laboring class. And in fact, from the first to the last line the bourgeois newspaper smells of and reveals this preoccupation."
Media OwnershipMedia Consolidation. Courtesy: Fortune.com

This presents a particular problem when 90% of the media is controlled by just 6 corporations. The values and ideologies of the elite, bourgeoisie, individuals who own and control these corporations are diffused to the masses through the media outlets. In turn, this ultimately serves to shape the values of the masses to be aligned with the values of the ruling elites.

"And so every day this same worker is able to personally see that the bourgeois newspapers tell even the simplest of facts in a way that favors the bourgeois class and damns the working class and its politics. Has a strike broken out? The workers are always wrong as far as the bourgeois newspapers are concerned. Is there a demonstration? The demonstrators are always wrong, solely because they are workers they are always hotheads, rioters, hoodlums. The government passes a law? It's always good, useful and just, even if it's...not. And if there's an electoral, political or administrative struggle? The best programs and candidates are always those of the bourgeois parties."

Thus, the media's persistent use of the Bernie Bro's narrative is no more than an attempt to undermine the populist movement Sanders has created. The news outlets will continue to use this rhetoric in spite of evidence that the Sanders' campaign has the most diverse coalition of all the candidates in the race because it serves to reinforce the system that benefits their accumulation of capital. We can also see this manipulation of the news cycle in the media's refusal to address issues that Bernie's campaign seeks to address; this is why issues such as poverty, the homeless, the absurdity of health insurance and prescription drug expenses, etc. are rarely discussed and, when they are brought up, are discussed in light of reforming these issues within the current system as opposed to addressing the systemic issues inherent to capitalism that make the continuation of these problems inevitable on our current path.

Ultimately, "This is not to say there were no Sanders supporters who were toxic and said awful things in his name, but rather to suggest that the amorphous term 'Bernie Bros' came to encompass both real and imagined abuses." The vast majority of Sanders' coalition is fighting passionately but remains civil in their discourse surrounding the election. The same can be said of any other campaign as their supporters primarily attempt to engage in meaningful civil discourse, with occasional small subsects of their base using hateful, vitriol rhetoric. Regardless, these issues are not unique to the Sanders campaign nor especially common amongst his coalition. The prevalence of the Bernie Bro's narrative is merely a result of the ruling class desiring to preserve their power within the current political, economic, and social systems by undermining the movement that seeks to address the systemic issues that have allowed for their accumulation of capital and the gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth in contemporary America.