On the morning after Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, the #NeverWarren hashtag starting trending as (some) supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders went on the attack (and the media amplified those attacks). The anti-Sen. Elizabeth Warren missives took many forms, including a small snake emojis mob. But the aggressive tenor was familiar.
Sometimes we have to weigh whether or not it’s even worth writing something that could incur the wrath of a political figure’s devout following.
Time and again, we see how backlash on social media is used to bully people into submission and silence criticism. For writers and commentators like me, sometimes we have to weigh whether or not it’s even worth writing something that could incur the wrath of a political figure’s devout following. The backlash is important because it gives us insights into the nature of the political debate on social media — who has power, and how that power is wielded. And it’s also important to talk about the voices who may be keeping silent — and why.
The attacks against Warren come from the same corners of social media that disparage Democrats (like myself) as being “puppets,” “centrist,” “anti-Semitic, and “ageist” for having the audacity to question or scrutinize their chosen leader. People of color and women who dare to disagree with Sanders’ political assertions have often borne the brunt of this abuse.
This hyper-vocal faction of Sanders supporters — colloquially known as “Bernie Bros” — never went away after the 2016 presidential election. In my personal experience, these bros are almost overwhelmingly white men. And they share, like Trump's ardent supporters, a desire to “put me in my place.”
Disturbingly, there are times where you really can’t distinguish between the tone and tactics of Trump’s #MAGA nation and Sanders’ “Bros.” We don’t want to give political cyberbullies undue attention. Indeed, racism and sexism from the cult of Trump is pretty much expected at this point; after all, they are taking cues from their leader. But in the case of Sanders supporters and anyone claiming to be a “progressive,” this type of toxicity should not be tolerated.
Bernie Twitter operates under the self-righteous guise of being the true progressives of the internet. This smugness distinguishes their tweets. But there’s nothing progressive about attacking members of your own party who may have reservations about the presidential candidate you’re supporting. There’s also nothing progressive about having so little tolerance for different opinions that even the hint of opposition is enough to incite a virtual mob, as I and even John Legend have discovered firsthand.
Earlier this week, Sanders supporters made the #RefundWarren hashtag trend as they demanded the Warren campaign provide refunds — retaliation for Warren not backing down from her claim that Sanders told her women weren’t electable. When confronted with the opportunity to attack Sanders at the debate, Warren took the high road, saying, “Bernie is my friend.” But she also noted, accurately, that “the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.” Even this mild confidence was found unpalatable by Bernie Twitter. They, too, wanted to put this apparent enemy in her place.
It should concern Democrats who have spent the past four years lamenting Trump’s deteriorating effect on political discourse that the supporters of a major liberal presidential candidate conduct themselves with such intolerance. And as Trump’s supporters have shown us already, violent rhetoric has ripple effects.
Certainly, Sanders hasn’t encouraged the ugliness that his supporters display and I am confident they do not reflect his politics or the kind of discourse he wants as the would-be standard bearer for the Democratic Party. Giving him that benefit of the doubt, he needs to vehemently denounce the tactics being deployed on his behalf, in his name, in real time. Calling for civility and respectful dialogue requires more than the occasional comment, it will take vigilant admonition.
Look, I’m not pretending that Twitter isn’t a dumpster fire. But I will say that as a person of color, I have never been attacked in such a heinous way by the supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar or former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Candidates must set a standard of conduct for their supporters, and if it’s not met, it must be denounced. Trump is unwilling to do this, but Democrats shouldn’t sink to the same subbasement.
Virtual lynch mobs are not something people of color or women — or anyone — should have to just live with. And it’s a problem of course that extends far outside the realm of the political commentariat. Luckily, the stakes for me remain far lower than, say, someone who has had their livelihood impacted or their safety threatened. But if this trend continues, I have a hard time accepting that Sanders is truly our best bet for social progress.