From welfare queens and super predators to “Bernie brothers,” the democratic establishment is never short of boogeymen.
“Bernie Sanders’ supporters have come to personify the repugnant behavior that has always been associated with those who benefit the least from capitalism.”
When I was a kid, I hung out in the housing projects. If it was nice out, I would wrestle, skateboard, and shoot hoops. If it rained, I would post up at a friend’s and watch music videos. My friend Dez had the biggest television in the neighborhood. He also had one of those indoor basketball games, so we could make it rain inside even if it was raining outside. One night, my mom picked me from Dez’s on her way home from work. She had just finished a shift of taking orders and washing dishes and, as usual, she was looking to vent. When Dez opened the door, she saw me shooting hoops in the living room. She saw the big screen television bumping Limp Bizkit in the background. I saw the contempt on her face. In the car, she told me that she was sick of people taking advantage of the system. She was sick of welfare queens like Dez’s mom.
For those of us who came of age during the Clinton administration’s attacks on the poor, it was always apparent that the welfare queen was a bipartisan scapegoat. Indeed, it was Hillary Clinton who urged the passage of the epochal bill, later signed by husband Bill, to “end welfare as we know it.” Those were the days when Americans believed that “poor women [were] deficient mothers who [needed] ‘discipline’ and ‘training’ from tough yet beneficent politicians like her.” Around the same time, Joe Biden warned Americans about “welfare mothers driving luxury cars,” as my mother warned me about welfare mothers who had big screen TVs. In this decade of neoliberal bullshit, the moral degeneracy of poor and working-class people was treated as one of the most pressing problems in America.
“It was always apparent that the welfare queen was a bipartisan scapegoat.”
In the past few weeks, Bernie Sanders’ supporters have come to personify the repugnant behavior that has always been associated with those who benefit the least from capitalism. Just as the democrats of the past framed their attacks in “culture of poverty” blather, the Democrats of the present believe that Sanders and his supporters have their own culture. It is a culture without civility. It is a culture without morals. It is a culture of bad behavior that is, apparently, distinct from the culture of the democratic establishment. For Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ culture of “insulting,” “attacking,” “demeaning,” and “degrading” behavior is just like the culture of the Trump administration. As Americans decide between Biden and Sanders, she encourages them to pay attention to their country’s cultural decline and Sanders’ role in supporting it.
Likewise, Elizabeth Warren drew attention to the “organized nastiness” of Sanders’ followers. With two anecdotes as her reference point, Americans learned that “threatening,” “ugly,” and “dangerous” behavior is a “particular problem” among those who support the democratic socialist. The next day, Biden issued a similar warning about “Bernie brothers” who might turn the primaries into a “bloodbath.” Before that, Michael Bloomberg flooded the internet with an ominous campaign advertisement. In this advertisement, which is just screen shots of Tweets set to music that belongs in A Clockwork Orange, Sanders’ supporters are represented as a gang of miscreants. Much like the welfare queen and Clinton’s “super predators,” Sanders’ supporters seem to lack what Warren calls “fundamental human decency.”
“In this advertisement, set to music that belongs in A Clockwork Orange, Sanders’ supporters are represented as a gang of miscreants.”
Fortunately, like Lillie Harden—the African-American mother who got a job, got off welfare, and stood behind Bill Clinton when he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act—Sanders’ supporters might not be miscreants forever. The same weekend Warren and Biden issued their public warnings, The Washington Post published a story about a Sanders supporter who now questions the mean Tweets he wrote. That is, at a moment when experts were trying to draw attention to the public health and financial crises on the horizon, The Post sent a journalist to Athens, Georgia to report on the Twitter activity of a 23-year-old. While readers will learn little about this college graduate’s $15/hour job or the recession that bankrupted his father’s company, they will learn that he once called Jason Johnson a nerd.
Given the reality that Sanders’ base is poor and working-class people, and his most vocal critics—from billionaires to establishment pundits—are not, the growing emphasis on a “culture” distinct to him and his followers smells a lot like the neoliberal bullshit of the past. Indeed, as the data from social media shows, “Bernie's Twitter followers act pretty much the same as everyone else.” This makes it hard not to respond with some confusion to all the chatter about moral degeneration on the Sanders left. This talk is especially confusing since the point of politics is not moral regeneration. In this respect, the “Bernie Brother”— “ugly,” “dangerous” and ready for a “bloodbath”—is a stand-in for the Cadillac-driving welfare recipient and her belligerent black teenage son who loves to commit violent crime. All three are largely mythical creatures who redirect attention from the realm of politics to the realm of culture.
In the end, Sanders’ supporters should be mindful of how they engage those with whom they disagree. To be sure, Warren is not wrong in her criticism of those who threatened and harassed her supporters online. And Sanders has said as much. But we should also be mindful of the emergent stories that are being told about a diverse and inclusive movement made up of millions of people who want social and economic justice in America. More to the point, we should be mindful of who these stories leave out, who they benefit, and why they have become so damn popular at a moment when the democratic establishment is under threat.
Adam Szetela (Adam-Szetela.com) is a Visiting Fellow at the History Department of Harvard University.
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