In April of 2008 the writing was on the wall for the Clinton campaign. The once in a lifetime charisma and the inspirational tone of upstart Barack Obama was just about to bring a presidential campaign a decade in the making to a halt.
The Clinton camp responded in the way only those who are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory could. They went on the attack and they tried a lot of different angles. Things got pretty nasty in 2008, I would argue even more so than 2016. Which is probably why only 12% of Sanders voters ended up supporting Trump in the general versus as many as 24% of Clinton voters who backed McCain. The 2008 primary was a mud slinging affair.
The Clinton camp went scorched Earth as Obama took the lead. They did their best to highlight his “inexperience” AKA his opposition to the war in Iraq. They tried to attack Obama as too radical, Clinton even went as far as likening herself to LBJ who she claimed “actually delivered” civil rights reform. A statement which inspired many a criticism of her minimization of MLK in an attempt to paint herself as the rightful champion of the civil rights movement going forward.
There are dozens of like moments one could draw on to show how nasty it got in 2008. Whether it was Hillary offhandedly saying “white, hard working Americans” support her over Obama; or Bill Clinton joking to Ted Kennedy that Obama was “the type of guy who would be getting them coffee a few years ago.” There are plenty of Clinton 08 attacks to point out. There is even a case to be made the Clinton camp started birtherism in the run up to the South Carolina primary.
The list goes on, this isn’t re-litigate 2008, though that’s probably worth doing. It’s not even to highlight how nasty it got, although again, probably worth doing. For our purposes, we’re just going to look at one specific narrative, that of the “Obama Boy,” a trope which should be familiar to all Bernie Bros or those erased by the implication that all Bernie supporters are all young white sexists with rose emojis in their twitter handles.
Before taking a deeper look at this narrative, I want to say, this isn’t may attempt to let potentially sexist Obama voters or Bernie voters slide. And those voters certainly exist. As do sexist or racist Hillary or Trump voters (or insert any other politician really, they are supported by literally millions of voters after all). So again, don’t let legitimate sexism off the hook, but we need to take a closer look at this narrative and whether there is something to it if we’re going to push back against legitimate sexism.
It also should be noted that there is a reason the Bernie bro moniker is still around and the Obama Boy narrative died with the primary. It’s the same reason the PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) voters weren’t weaponized and used against Hillary Clinton in 2016 despite the fact as many as 24% of her primary voters supported John McCain. It’s because the Obama-Boy and Bernie Bro narratives were both wheeled out very intentionally to shield and justify power. They were very clearly created and used to protect Hillary Clinton and the center of the Democratic Party more generally.
Just looking at how the narrative started in both 2008 and 2016 proves as much, at least in my mind.
In both cases it began as curiously similar columns from columnists in left wing outlets. For example, in 2008 Salon published an article titled, “Hey Obama Boys, Back Off Already!” Which goes pretty much how you might expect, especially if you lived through the attacks against Bernie Sanders and his supporters in 2016
To pull a quote from the article, “these young men get glassy eyes and start spitting out vague things about how Barack Obama is going to save humanity, really have you seen their eyes? It’s this faraway look, it’s scary.” That’s just one choice quote (and yes, it’s real) here’s another that is similarly hyperbolic and ridiculous. “I feel something that makes me viscerally angry and afraid, the viscousness of the rebuttals to any suggestion that Obama and Clinton’s positions are roughly equal.. The outright dismissal of any support of her… The whole Hillary Clinton is a monster theme is just so virulent.” Again, the Obama-Boy narrative looks pretty familiar, even though it died with the 2008 primary.
Now, that’s just one article and if these trends were limited to just one article, it probably wouldn’t be a huge deal. However, this article is one of many, matched by statements from the Clinton camp and their surrogates, both in 2008 and 2016.
From comments by campaign officials calling Civil Rights leader John Lewis’s endorsement of Obama, “the guys sticking together.” To Jake Tapper’s article titled “Is Obama Using Sexist Language?” which speculated Obama would not have used “sexist campaign rhetoric” (poorly defined in the article and hardly unpacked) against John Edwards. Another article from the period, by the Telegraph, interviewed many of the aforementioned PUMA voters, many of whom cited “the sexism of the Obama campaign” as their reason for supporting the strong feminist John McCain instead. (Sarcasm, in case you missed it.)
These are just a few examples of many. And again, this isn’t to downplay real sexism or sexual harassment. It’s to highlight how these narratives are created and weaponized to justify power. In both campaigns Clinton and the establishment used charges of sexism to beat back more progressive upstarts. When Obama won, the party worked to reconcile the base and the narrative disappeared. With Bernie, the party knew and knows today there will be no such reconciliation. So the Bernie Bro narrative remains. As devoid of any basis in empirical fact as it was in 2008, but as potent a stick to use in Twitter discourse as ever.
As we laid out in our Debunking the Bernie Bro Myth article, characterizing Bernie supporters as all or overwhelmingly male is incredibly inaccurate. For example poll after poll in 2016 showed Bernie Sanders with a 15% to 25% lead on Clinton amongst women under 45. Exit polls bore out similar results in almost every state. I think it’s telling that both the Obama-Boy and Bernie Bro narratives are based almost entirely on personal anecdotes, because again, in campaigns with millions of people, it’s easy to find a few sexists. Especially when they’re consistently the most vocal online. It’s harder to get a nuanced view of who actually supported Obama and who supports Bernie today and then claim either was a male dominated movement. It’s simply not factually accurate.
Both narratives are almost entirely anecdotal and as was the case with the Obama-Boy line, the idea of the Bernie Bro was parroted by the media with gusto and willed into existence.
For example, Emily Nussbaum, a TV critic with the New Yorker, infamously claimed she was “called a psycho” by “the feel the bern crowd.” The Intercept detailed just how the narrative grew from there. It should be noted the original “psycho” comment was from a GOP state congressman’s account, which was later discovered just to be a far right troll posing as a GOP state rep. So not a “Bernie Bro” in the slightest.
However, this didn’t stop Emily Cohn in Mashable from citing Nussbaum’s incident as proof of the Bernie Bro sexism. Cohn’s work was cited by The New Republic’s Jamil Smith who was in turn cited by Wonkette’s Kaili Joy Gray. Effectively creating a twitter troll to media pipeline that legitimized the Bernie Bro narrative and brought it to millions of people. And it all happened in a fashion remarkably similar to the beginnings of the Obama-Boy attack.
It’s not just the anecdotal nature of the “sexism” and the media’s handling thereof. The way in which high profile Clinton surrogates pushed the Obama Boy and Bernie Bro narratives is remarkably similar between campaigns as well.
Specifically, the way in which the Clinton campaign weaponized the clout of prominent feminists like Gloria Steinem. In 2008 Steinem published a column in the New York Times titled “Women Are Never Front Runner.” Steinem makes the case that gender held back Hillary Clinton more than race held back Barack Obama. Obviously that’s a highly debatable proposition, and it has been debated a lot since. However, more important for this article, the Steinem piece echoes her attack on Bernie Sanders and more specifically the young women that support him.
Steinem claimed in 2008 of young women who supported Obama, “what worries me is that some women, especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system,” implying young women failed to see sexism, followed by a quip on how “women over 50 or 60, who disproportionately supported Clinton,” prove that women “get more radical with age.” As if it goes without saying that Clinton would have done more to dismantle the patriarchy than Barack Obama or that her policies were in any other meaningful way “more progressive.”
In fact many feminists at the time pushed back along those lines, arguing Obama was actually the more progressive candidate. Groups such as the New York Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama campaigned on that proposition. It was also the position of those who pushed back against Steinem when she made similar remarks about the Bernie campaign and its supporters in 2016.
In 2016 Steinem similarly claimed young women who supported Bernie simply believed they could escape sexism. She took it a step further and said they just wanted to “hang with the boys” implying they weren’t actually invested in Bernie’s movement or his vision of change. Again, minimizing women who support Bernie and furthering the Bernie Bro narrative, at least implicitly. Once again, there is a reason we don’t still hear about Obama Boys or the “sexism” of Obama’s base. It’s because he’s a party politician. The Clinton’s and the Democrats pushed to undo the damage the Obama is sexist narrative used in the primary. They were rewarded with a secretary of state spot and watered down policy amenable to the power structure of the Democratic Party and those who fund it, respectively.
There will be no such effort for Bernie. Even if he wins, the Bernie Bro narrative is here to stay. It’s a useful tool to sow division and stave off structural change. But it’s not based on empirical fact. Instead anecdotes, parroted to protect the powerful.