I don’t remember the question I asked at the event in July 2014; it was probably about some economic challenge of low-wage millennial life. I do remember that the man onstage paused and scrunched his face in thought. “I don’t know,” he said finally, with a shrug and a chuckle. It was an impossible challenge to address, he told the union-hall crowd, but it shouldn’t have to be. His assessment was almost rudely direct, but I still approached him afterward to thank him for the answer. I expected a handshake and a perfunctory thanks for attending. Instead, he recognized me from my question and reached out to deliver a warm, grandfatherly hug. He seemed, even then, a contradiction: unsparingly blunt and honest about his own limitations on stage, concerned and kind face-to-face. He was, I thought, the exact opposite of what a politician needs to be to win a national race.
At the time, Bernie Sanders wasn’t yet officially a presidential candidate, and, as deeply as his message resonated with my own politics, I couldn’t imagine this self-declared socialist making any headway in a national race. After the implosion of Occupy Wall Street and five years struggling to make headway on economic justice issues while organizing against the tide of a concessions-heavy, post-recession economy, I couldn’t summon an optimism for the kind of sea change that would be required for him to become a serious candidate. Even two years later, when I ran as a Democratic National Convention delegate for his 2016 primary campaign, I had no expectation of actually attending the convention; my own delegate candidacy felt more like a symbolic stance against Hillary Clinton’s neoliberal agenda. What happened next, however, defied conventional wisdom: Sanders’s candidacy sparked an energized new current of leftism and gave a mainstream voice to a fury at wealth inequity simmering in labor and other movement circles after the collapse of the Occupy movement.
Sanders’s first presidential bid coincided with a remarkable and fertile period of liberatory, identity-based organizing, like Black Lives Matter and the resistance of the Indigenous community at Standing Rock. It was a moment that seemed alive with the possibility of intersectional movement building, and if Sanders’s candidacy seemed chiefly class-focused, well, it was only one voice in a building crescendo of mass liberatory action. The history of organizing is a story of overlap and ferment, and it seemed possible, even likely, that a candidate like Sanders would synthesize existing dynamics into a meaningfully intersectional campaign.
As obvious as it may seem now, what many longtime organizers like me missed then was that Sanders also attracted followers who came to view his tendency to deprioritize non-class issues of identity not as a failing, but as a role model’s template ideology. Our underestimation of his ability to galvanize a mass base of young voters around Democratic Socialist positions left us unready to orient the newly political to liberatory values. That failure, in turn, created the opportunity for a small, vocal, and almost entirely white cis male subset of his base to seize control of the leftist narrative, portraying Sanders’s intersectional shortcomings as implicit, welcome condemnations of anti-oppression work that centered around anything other than class.
The rising threat of this discourse within the left caught us off-guard largely because we were focused on another battle: counteracting neoliberal media angles that attempted to portray class struggle as competing against other liberation struggles in a zero-sum game. When Clinton supporters began to bemoan the emergence of “Bernie bros,” women Sanders supporters often assumed these allegations represented yet another effort to disparage and minimize our presence in Sanders’s base, as well as our role in economic-justice work and our self-interest in opposing wealth inequity. After Madeleine Albright suggested women backing Sanders had “a special place in hell” and Gloria Steinem suggested that Sanders attracted women supporters because “the boys are with Bernie,” it started to feel as though Clinton’s campaign was unfairly attempting to demean women with class-liberatory politics in the name of feminism.
After Sanders’s 2016 defeat, however, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the misogynist undercurrent in the Bernie discourse on Twitter in particular, from cruel mockeries of Clinton’s appearance to writing off her women supporters as “wine moms” incapable of thinking past the bond of the gender identity they share with her. Whatever we thought of Clinton’s politics, the sexist bent of critiques of her was becoming more and more apparent (though difficult to name, as Clinton’s supporters and surrogates had a tendency to denounce even legitimate critique of Clinton as gender-based).
Still, the ascent of Donald Trump and his proto-fascist agenda dwarfed what then seemed like a background hum of bickering between a small set of very online Bernie hardliners and Clinton loyalists. Against the backdrop of Clinton’s polished machine of a campaign, misogynist Sanders followers seemed technically correct in their class politics but irrelevant in terms of both the general election and liberatory movement more broadly. They were a problem that we assumed would wash away in November, vanishing with the tides of Clinton’s seemingly inevitable presidency. The struggle for the left, we thought, would continue to be one of retention and relevancy. Like most of the United States, we gave little thought to making plans for what might happen if the inevitable gave way to the unthinkable—for what we’d do if we found ourselves facing a Trump presidency.
The resurgence of anti-capitalist politics jump-started by Occupy and harnessed by Sanders’s back-to-back candidacies has proven to be a double-edged sword. It has reinforced many of the economic equity conversations that political organizers have long worked to introduce into the mainstream of U.S. political discourse, and it has brought youth and energy into the organized left. Unfortunately, this younger cohort has rapidly become dominated by loud, reactionary, and anti-intersectional bad actors—mostly, but not exclusively, white bros—who profitably bundle class-only politics with the rage-fueled brigading culture of Gamergate. The needling online rhetoric and gleeful dogpiling that characterized 2016’s Bernie Bros crystallized in the intervening years into a mean-spirited online culture consisting almost entirely of cis white men, a coalescence dubbed the “dirtbag left” by Amber A’Lee Frost, one of the hosts of Chapo Trap House, the most popular and profitable engine of this subculture.
Chapo, a political comedy podcast that now nets nearly $2 million a year, launched in 2016 and achieved its popularity with the help of two white male–dominated cliques: the editorial staff of Jacobin magazine and the old guard of Democratic Socialists of America. The result is a niche but well-platformed elite whose inflexible politics of class reductionism regards attempts to address racism, sexism, and other identity-related oppressions as distractions at best, and, more often, as attempts to undermine class solidarity. As these small institutions made hay of their newfound relevance and crowned themselves the intellectual heavyweights of the Bernie Revolution, they gave credence to the dirtbag left’s anti–identity politics (“idpol”) rhetoric, which already attracted a 4chan–adjacent audience of rage-driven white male trolls—a fan base well-practiced in the deployment of racist, ableist, and misogynist harassment.
Though the dirtbag left imagines itself as representing an edgy new leftism, toxic gender and race dynamics in leftist organizing are nothing new. Occupy’s ethic of uncritical inclusion, for instance, set an uneasy precedent by casually inviting disaffected, angry, and reactionary young white men into movement space. I am among many organizers who remember the queasiness we felt seeing Ron Paul flags flown by angry open-carriers go up at the edges of encampments, the unsettledness that rose in us as we saw self-important white men cosplay as revolutionaries on the main stage as women and people of color did invisible, everyday drudgery that ranged from meal preparation to dispute arbitration. We recall how often it seemed like a throwback to the pre-Women’s Liberation days of a young left that relegated women, especially women of color, to folding pamphlets in the dim backrooms of movement, regarded as maids or lays but rarely as equals.
We recollect watching these white men reject the intersectional principles that called us to organizing in the first place, and how they sneered at the “P.C.-ness” of inclusion strategies like progressive stack and “step up, step back.” We remember how their contempt and anger at the world— and at marginalized organizers especially—curdled until their only politics were a politics of resentment, a howling sense of victimhood and outrage that their privilege had not accorded them an unchallenged path to recognition. Most troublingly, we remember what happened when such men didn’t get the positions and funds to which they felt they were entitled. When they fell into the radicalization chambers of 4chan. When their rage reappeared in the furious misogyny of Gamergate. When some eventually re-emerged in digital space, lending their own names to a violently explicit racism and misogyny that—with the studied help of Steve Bannon—gradually congealed into the overt white supremacy and fascism of the alt-right.
These memories surfaced uncomfortably as we watched Sanders surrogates and the candidate himself choose to appear on Chapo, signaling a willingness to tolerate the “ironic” cruelty and ableism of the dirtbag left. The campaign’s celebratory tweet about a Sanders endorsement by Joe Rogan, a podcast host well-known for transphobia, misogyny, and white supremacy, indicated to many a tacit acceptance of those things. Advisers also appear to have convinced Sanders (a self-proclaimed social-media abstainer) that media reports of dirtbag supporters’ online misogyny and brigading were greatly exaggerated, leading him to largely ignore and minimize the harassment and those it targeted—including, and especially, women who supported Elizabeth Warren. In the wake of Sanders’ campaign suspension, those emboldened by the candidate’s apparent lack in interest in stopping harassment have vented their rage by continuing to target intersectional leftists—including feminist Sanders supporters like me.
The success of the Sanders campaign is proof that leftist ideas perceived as radical by the standard-bearers of U.S. electoral politics can gain meaningful acceptance when they are reinforced strategically.
The success of the Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020 is proof that leftist ideas perceived as radical by the standard-bearers of U.S. electoral politics can gain meaningful acceptance when they are reinforced strategically; indeed, the voter suppression in 2020 primary races reflects Sanders’s real threat to the Democratic’s centrist status quo. Sanders has made the long-stigmatized word “socialism”—and with it, serious talk about economic redistribution—a generally accepted part of the current electoral discourse. His platform planks—policies like socialized healthcare, free higher education, and environmental justice reform—have forced even steadfast neoliberals like presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden to adopt relatively progressive platform policies, like a public option for healthcare, tuition-free public higher education for all but the highest income brackets, and an endorsement of the Green New Deal. Additionally, it’s hard to overstate the scale of electoral implications that Sanders’s recent near-victory has for the organized American left, which has long operated under the assumption that under our two-party system it is functionally impossible for left-leaning candidacies to achieve any meaningful level of national success.
At the same time, Sanders’s campaigns have revealed the danger of reconceiving leftism as a Big Name–driven electoral brand and galvanizing its activism around a single celebrity. Since the landmark Blue Wave of 2018, more and more women on the progressive left are pushing back on Democratic business as usual. But the rise of Sanders’s cult of personality is a harsh lesson in the importance of understanding candidates as targets, rather than idols. Movement’s work in the electoral arena is to find and support candidates it can effectively pressure into adopting and enacting a platform aligned with movement values, not to maintain a flock of yes-men who view the candidate’s words and choices as gospel movement truth. When we fail in this practice, we end up with movements that attract grifters, enshrine candidate shortcomings as virtues, and privilege a policing of loyalty to celebrity over the principled work of liberation.
As I work with comrades to identify possible next steps, I find myself reflecting on Bernie’s response to my question back in that union hall nearly six years ago. It’s a reminder of what made Sanders a compelling candidate in the first place: his stubborn insistence on describing his understanding of our political reality—and of his own limitations—with unvarnished honesty. It’s a memory I draw on in moments when I fear that speaking the truth will alienate me from broad swaths of a leftism that I have for so long called home. I use it to bring myself back to a knowledge that movement is about forward motion, not static occupation of space. “Leftism” is just the address where liberatory movement resides for the moment, not a prison to which we are confined. The movement will dust itself off and regain forward momentum, whether or not other self-proclaimed leftists choose to keep pace. With or without them, we will keep fighting to realize a more just world; with or without them, we will win.