Monday, October 26, 2015

A political etymology of the Bernie slurs

In recent months, Hillary Clinton's media surrogates have rallied around a profoundly revealing effort to villify supporters of Bernie Sanders. The effort is telling first as a testament to the abysmal failure of efforts to attack Sanders himself: when attempts to cast him as a sexist, a racist and an economic materialist have failed, critics have invariably shifted the accusation to vague complaints about people who support him.

Perhaps even more telling, however, is the rather less substantive but increasingly popular attempt to compare Sanders supporters to other marginalized constituencies. Notably, these moves are almost always attempts to reverse standing criticism. Thus for example most of the earliest references to "Berniebots" come from supporters of Ron and Rand Paul:


Clearly, this is just an attempt to repurpose the "Paultard" and "Paulbot" slurs that Paul supporters have endured since at least 2008. What I'd like to reflect on here is the fundamentally reactionary psychology at work. The critique here is entirely derivative: it emerges not from a substantive assessment of Sanders supporters, but instead mimics another critique, albeit one severed from its original subject (Ron Paul). As Barthes wrote about this kind of right-wing rhetoric, it "is constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things; in it, things lose the memory that they were once made." It is, in other words, an empty burn, and the Paulites are only using it because they hope that we'll associate Sanders with everything we dislike about them.

The reality that mobilizes this sort of attack is not historical reality - it is the psychological reality of ressentiment. Haggerty is aggrieved, not only because he has been hurt by ridicule, but because he believes that the right to ridicule is fundamentally his and has been unjustly stolen. When he commandeers that ridicule, it is at heart an act of bitter, compulsive revanchism; it is the reflexive backwards-looking entitlement that definitively governs the reactionary mind, and any rationalizations are just being backfilled to justify it.

This psychology is worth remembering when we consider another unlikeable constitutency Sanders supporters are being compared to: the PUMAs. Autodadict politics-knower Amanda Marcotte:
[PUMA]...were a small subset of Clinton supporters who became so sure of the dark motives of Obama supporters that some ended up turning their backs on the Democrats entirely. But their real impact was during the primary season, where they left an indelible impression, especially online....This time around, it’s not Clinton supporters who are the problem, but her detractors. As I wrote on Thursday, some Sanders supporters have taken to trading ugly accusations, verging on conspiracy theory...
It's true that PUMAs occasionally indulged in conspiracy theories, but Marcotte is misunderstanding them here on a fundamental level. The PUMAs were not a cause of Clinton's problems so much as a reaction to her problems. They only emerged when it became clear that she had a significant chance of losing the nomination to Barack Obama. What people found so revolting about the PUMAs was not their occasional flights of rhetoric so much as their sense of absolute, deranged and occasionally racist entitlement - definitively expressed in their threat to vote against Obama if he won the nomination (hence their acronym, Party Unity My Ass).

Marcotte, meanwhile, seems to think that what people really hated about PUMAs was their audacious lack of deference to the expertise of our elite media politics-knowers. Thus "Sanders supporters are posting memes accusing the media of conspiring against their candidate...As with the PUMAs of 2008"! Hilariously, Marcotte thinks this outrageous show of insufficient obesiance makes them "run a strong chance of running off undecided voters who don't want to align themselves with a campaign that is attracting such maniacs [people who question journalists]".

Here, it's hard to miss the parallels to the Paulite attack. In both, we find the attempt to reverse historical criticism by severing it from its actual history. And beneath both, we find the same resentment and entitlement. Clinton's media surrogates are painfully aware of the conventional wisdom that many of her loudest supporters are unprincipled media shills; Marcotte herself has been pushing back on that since 2008, when she argued that the PUMAs were actually just secret Republicans. Calling Bernie supporters PUMAs is a purely reactive attempt to co-opt criticism that Marcotte finds extraordinarily scathing, particularly since it rejects both her claim to expertise and Clinton's entitlement to office.

Obviously not all of the slurs leveled at Sanders and his followers express psychology this toxic and perverse; but when Clintonites start throwing around words like "PUMAs" and "Berniebots," it's worth considering where those terms come from and the reactionary politics behind them.