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1/19/20

Why they hate Bernie's supporters

Ever since he launched his Democratic primary bid in 2015, Bernie Sanders has been subject to relentless, aggressive attempts to delegitimize his candidacy. Any one of these attacks, if they stuck, would have completely vilified Sanders as an extremist, or a racist, or a sexist, or corrupt, or an operative of the Kremlin, or a crypto-Republican, and so on. But they have not stuck, and that's why Bernie Sanders remains one of the most popular politicians in our country.

Why haven't they stuck? The short answer is "because none of it is true," but that's just too simple - after all, in political life, reputations are constantly destroyed with attacks that aren't true. That's how the right destroys politicians all the time.

The actual answer: Sanders has endured, at least in part, because every one of these attacks has been met with overwhelming resistance by his supporters.
Today, there is an entire canon of anti-Sanders narratives that most people - even his more respectable critics - agree are unfair, or counterfactual, or reactionary, or patently absurd. But these attacks didn't come out of nowhere, and they didn't just spontaneously go away. They moved into our discourse when people with platforms began circulating them, and they went away because people who support Bernie Sanders shut them down.

That's why Sanders is still overwhelmingly popular, and it's also why - among so many media elites, campaign operatives, professional activists, and rank-and-file centrists - Sanders supporters are so reviled.


Simple example: consider the fight for Sanders' signature initiative, Medicare for All. Four years ago, Sanders' plan was met with overwhelming opposition by his opponents and critics. Hillary Clinton famously declared that his plan "will never, ever come to pass"; Ezra Klein dismissed it as "vague and unrealistic"; John Podesta complained that it "sucks, but we live in a leftie alternative universe"; and Paul Krugman called it a "magical unicorn." That last line in particular became a popular way to ridicule Sanders and his supporters, and was echoed among both liberal, right-wing, and mainstream pundits.

From there, it's easy to understand how this debate played out. Critics in the media leaned hard on their prestige and authority as politics-and-policy knowers; supporters of Sanders were ridiculed as hopelessly naive and out of touch with political realities; and Sanders voters, predictably, attacked these claims to expertise and savvy and accused their opponents of taking a right-wing centrist position.

Today, the politics have changed significantly. Medicare for All has become such a mainstream policy proposal that Sanders is in serious contention for the nomination; even its opponents have adopted its branding in order to co-opt its popularity. Yes, the details remain a topic of serious debate. But it is no longer politically tenable to just dismiss Medicare for All as a "magical unicorns" proposal, and this is at least in part because Sanders supporters have refused to let Bernie's opponents do so.

But have supporters of Sanders been vindicated in this debate? Of course not. There has been a shift in conventional wisdom about Medicare for All - but there has not been a corresponding reassessment of those who ridiculed it only a few years ago. Nor has there been a reassessment of the behavior of Sanders supporters, who stridently defended his proposal against aggressive and often contemptuous criticism. Media personalities continue to resent Sanders supporters as the people who challenged their expertise and savvy. And though many Clinton deadenders have (at least ostensibly) come to accept the viability of Medicare for All, they are embarrassed that they were fighting it just a few years ago - and they resent Sanders supporters for it.

It is easy enough to point out that the characterization of Sanders supporters as rude and aggressive has always been overblown, but this focus on their behavior misses the point. Sanders supporters were always going to be smeared as combative and disrespectful because we're a relatively powerless constituency fighting against the agenda of the powerful. To the extent that we've succeeded, mainstream pundits and centrist voters have been forced to admit on occasion that Sanders is a legitimate candidate with a serious agenda. But they've admitted this grudgingly - and for the foreseeable future, supporters of Sanders will be the target of that grudge.