Perhaps you have noticed the uptick in alibiing for the bad behavior of the Bernie Bros. Two excuses are currently making the rounds on social media.

Caricature of Senator Bernie Sanders

The first is the plea that the supporters of Bernie Sanders are rude because they are pious, aggressive because they are outraged, and rhetorically intemperate because they are politically innocent. That denial of individual moral responsibility is of course the same excuse offered for the evil done by the members of every mass movement intent on imposing its beliefs on the rest of society. True Believers can believe themselves to be engaged in a holy cause, blind to their own unconscious motivations and unable to restrain their worst impulses because they have submerged their wills in the functional equivalent of a hive mind.

Those offering the first excuse often note that the disinhibition of online communication makes the formation of virtual mobs very easy. What those offering this alibi fail to acknowledge is that it is these factors which make the bad behavior of the Bernie Bros more rather than less obnoxious. They obviously derive as much satisfaction from the chaotic circulation of similar messages as they do from the specific content of any particular message. The jouissance is in attacking the victim not the victim’s ideas.

The second excuse is that the Bernie Bros are not a real phenomenon, that the stereotype of the rude, aggressive, rhetorically intemperate, social media mobbing Bernie Bro is simply a reflection of the fact that Sanders supporters are more likely to use social media. Thus the supporters of rival Democratic presidential candidates are just as abusive but less numerous. A rather naïve content analysis of sampled twitter posts is being used to support the claim.

What the second excuse elides is that larger numbers matter because they affect the frequency and intensity of online mobbing. For that reason alone you are more likely to be targeted for a social media pile-on by Sanders supporters than Biden supporters.

Research on workplace bullying by Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry suggests another possible reason. Victims of workplace mobbing are typically high achieving employees committed to doing their jobs while the perpetrators are typically lower achieving “yes men” who present various degrees of malignant narcissism. If you have even been subjected to online mobbing by the Bernie Bros or their counterparts among Trump supporters, you will no doubt recall recognizing symptoms of malignant narcissism.

What Duffy and Sperry also point up is that workplace bullying is more likely to occur in organizations that ignore or minimize the problem. Here the parallel is to the Sanders Campaign, which has largely failed to discourage the excesses of its militant followers. Bernie Sanders deserves a measure of credit for saying publically that his followers should be responsible: “If there are a few people who make ugly remarks … I disown those people, they are not part of our movement.” The problem is that his angriest supporters still think they are a part of his mass movement. There is no evidence that his other followers have ever bothered to call them out. Instead they have exhibited the bystander effect. Or worse, they have endorsed some version of the alibiing.

Do the Bernie Bros even matter now that the 2020 Sanders campaign is a spent force? In the near term many are still doing their schtick, which will unintentionally or intentionally benefit the 2020 Trump campaign. Over the long term, the problem is that they have been politically socialized to think their incivility is a legitimate form of political participation. Alas, we are likely to see more of it in future elections.


Image Credit: Caricature of Senator Bernie Sanders created by DonkeyHotey (flickr/Creative Commons).

John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.