Beyond Hillary-bots and Bernie-bros: Why Democrats Need to Get Past Stereotypes and Ad Hominem Attacks

A hard-fought election is always bound to bring animosity to the fore; it’s a very human and particularly American tendency to identify personally with a chosen candidate, so strongly that you might start to feel that you are the candidate. Thus, in 2016 we have a situation where a sociopathic demagogue candidate can boast of his ability to shoot people without losing his followers’ loyalty. And on the opposing side, the vitriol between two candidates’ followers has reached a decibel level that is so high, even Bernie Sanders’ team has asked his supporters to tone it down.

Here’s why it gets so personal: For women voters of many stripes, there’s palpable excitement about Clinton — and understandable fear that a sexist double standard will sabotage her chances. The attacks she’s weathered over 20 years have made many women, of many generations, feel fiercely protective of her even as they are simultaneously  frustrated with her words and choices: “her story moves me, on that level, simply as an example of a woman who got every misogynist trick in the world thrown at her, and who didn’t let it slow her down,” Sady Doyle recently wrote.

Clinton’s struggle is indeed emblematic of many of our struggles, particularly in the workplace. Because she has had to craft both her persona and platform in the glare of gender discrimination, it can be thorny to parse out which attacks she faces are gendered, and which are legitimate.  Meanwhile, the right wing is actively trying to exploit her vulnerabilities, attacking Clinton from the left in a way they hope will get the attention of her opponents, a tactic is likely to add to a sense of paranoia among her supporters.

On the other hand, we have reached this point partly because we have, as we did in 2008, two candidates with whom it’s tempting to personally identify. Sanders’ candidacy doesn’t have the same history-making potential as Barack Obama’s, but for people who identify with the capital-L Left or with the most progressive wing of the party — not to mention socialist Jews and Vermont-style hippies —  Sanders is the first feasible politician in a long time, maybe ever, who actually sounds like those groups on a cultural level.

The idea of voting while not having to compromise one’s belief system is understandably intoxicating, particularly to young or first-time voters, which explains the older Sanders’ popularity with students and young people. And there’s paranoia on both sides! The Clintons’ coziness with many “establishments,” from finance to the DNC, as well as the reality that big corporate interests have a controlling stake in much of the media, has led to a strain of pro-Sanders paranoia in which everyone who supports Clinton is a shill or being paid. (Maybe it needs to be said: this is not the case.)

One of the sad results of the online back-and-forth has been an erasure of anyone who supports Bernie who’s not a socialist bro and anyone who supports Hillary who’s not, for better or worse, a corporatist mom. And when feuds on Twitter get picked up by thinkpieces and thinkpieces get picked up by cable news, internal spats become the horse-race narrative. The supporters become the candidates’ surrogates and everyone is made uncomfortable.

And the current narrative isn’t just anecdotally false; the numbers don’t bear it out. As Tim Dickinson pointed out, polling shows that “bros” aren’t carrying Sanders’ candidacy: “Voting-age women under the age of 35 now favor Sanders by 20 percentage points over Clinton. You read that right: Young female voters support Bernie Sanders by an expansive margin. ” He continued:

The poll, published Monday in USA Today, was conducted among more than 1,000 young adults by the polling firm Ipsos. Sanders leads broadly among voting-age millennial Democrats and Independents: 46 percent to 35 percent for Clinton. But Sanders’ advantage among young, voting-age men — a modest 4 percentage points — is barely outside the margin of error. Far from being a drag on on Clinton’s candidacy, this poll suggests, young men are the demographic keeping her in the hunt among millennials.

Today, Jill Abramson wrote a piece in the Guardian about Clinton’s troubles securing young women’s excitement. “Shattering ‘that highest, hardest glass ceiling’, as Clinton so elegantly put it in her 2008 concession speech, doesn’t seem revolutionary to some younger women,” Abramson writes. “Income inequality is a bigger concern in what may turn out to be a post-gender election.” It’s an interesting take that, again, erases some truths. I’ve seen Instagrams of Iowa volunteers for Clinton that consist of dozens of very excited young women, and the support for Clinton on my own social media feed is very much centered around millennial and Generation X feminists.

This is maddening. I know lots of radical women who are thrilled by Bernie while also standing up against sexism towards Hillary, as well as plenty of men who think Hillary is the practical, experienced choice and dismiss Bernie supporters. Not to mention the fact that there exist plenty of anti-racist, disaffected, or radical activists who are dubious of both candidates, or about Democratic party politics in general.

Of course, some of the stereotypes aren’t just conjured out of nowhere. A small but loud group of Sanders supporters online bear a passing resemblance to the supporters of a certain “movement” to secure “ethics in gaming journalism” that is a front for awful harassment. It’s a terrible look to let progressive zeal turn personal and negative, so much so that the campaign has to intervene (as we saw above). As a result, too, it’s frustrating to see so many Clinton supporters assume that all their opponents are “bros” when the female Sanders supporters are shouting, “Hey, look at me!”

No doubt the “bro” stereotype feels real when you are being mobbed by tweeters who demand that you feel the Bern. In that sense, the Bernie bros remind me of another group of angry supporters from 2008, the PUMAs (standing for Party Unity My Ass), a vocal contingent of Clintonites who refused to support Obama in the general election. They were not representative, but they sucked up the air from a more interesting, nuanced debate and thereby rendered more sensible voters invisible. In this particular race, we can’t fully chop up the supporters by demographics without erasing many voters who are acting ethically and open-mindedly in support or the other candidates.

There’s little candidates themselves can do besides ask for unity and decorum, particularly if people stubbornly insist on treating a politician like a favorite pop star who is presumed infallible, and howling at anyone who dares reveal him or her to be human. So it’s up to supporters of both candidates to remember that they are the politicians, not us, and do the hard but crucial work of separating legitimate critiques from spurious ones. Neither a Hillary-bot nor a Bernie-bro be.