Did you know that I don’t want poor people to have healthcare? That came as quite a shock to me as well, especially since I’ve been advocating for universal healthcare for as long as I’ve been legally able to vote. Thing is, while I strongly support universal healthcare, I do not support Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan. I’m very concerned that a single-payer system will inhibit medical innovation and could potentially worsen a national doctor shortage that is already getting in the way of delivering much-needed services to rural communities. I’m also highly skeptical of the notion that the right answer to any problem is to concentrate power in the hands of a single entity like the federal government. Maybe it’s my conservative upbringing, but I’ve long believed that sharing power is the key to preventing abuses of power. That logic demands a more accessible and efficient public healthcare system than what we have right now, but it also demands the participation of private sector companies that believe they can offer more attractive alternatives to Americans who lack faith in the government’s managerial abilities.
My position on this issue recently caught the attention of one very passionate “Bernie Bro” on Twitter. The man in question infiltrated my DMs and unleashed a parade of hackneyed insults. He insisted I was a neoliberal bootlicker who, despite my lifelong battle with severe mental illness, was afflicted with a perverse indifference to human suffering. He then made it clear in no uncertain terms that my support for universal healthcare was insufficient; if I really did care about the working poor, I had no choice but to support single-payer healthcare. My counterpoint—that Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands had all managed to achieve universal healthcare coverage without resorting to single-payer systems—was met with furious indignation, at which point I ended the exchange. He persisted, but to no avail.
Fortunately for yours truly—or maybe unfortunately, depending on how you look at it—I don’t enjoy enough reach or influence to attract much attention from the most toxic elements of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. But I can’t say the same for many of the other journalists, commentators, and activists who have been targeted by the now-infamous Bernie Bros.
After publishing a piece in The Daily Beast about a Sanders staffer who made degrading remarks about other Democratic presidential contenders, journalist Scott Bixby was doxed online and subsequently received thousands of text and voice messages from infuriated Bernie backers. High-ranking officials within Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union endured a flood of abusive phone calls, emails, and social media messages from Sanders fans after the union circulated a flyer that was critical of his healthcare plan. And when Lis Smith, a former senior communications advisor to Pete Buttigieg, was falsely accused of operating a fake Nigerian account on Twitter, a not-so-merry band of Bernie Bros harassed the actual owner of that account straight off of Twitter.
The common denominator that ties most of these types of stories together is that they originated on social media sites inhabited by very loud and very aggressive personalities, which begs an important question—do these anecdotal stories really tell us all that much about the average Sanders voter?
The answer, I believe, is no.
Throughout the course of the 2016 electoral season, Trump supporters were frequently both the victims and perpetrators of violent assaults at campaign rallies. Trump often received the brunt of the blame for these incidents, as his critics cited his inflammatory rhetoric as the primary inspiration for the violence. But once the election was over, numerous media outlets committed a great deal of time to trying to understand the plight of the typical Trump voter. Was it economic hardship that drove them to support the foul-mouthed reality star from New York? Had their confidence in the Washington establishment deteriorated to such an extent that they sincerely believed their best hope for a chance at a better life was a bombastic billionaire who had never held public office? Or were they just so fed up with the “liberal elite” that they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to elect a president who never, ever pulls his punches?
Only one thing was known for certain; there was no way that most of the more than 62 million voters who cast their ballots for Donald Trump were motivated exclusively, or even primarily, by the hatred and intolerance that he was accused of perpetuating. So even if bigots did come out in droves to support him in 2016, it was widely understood that their bigotry wasn’t indicative of the motives of the broader demographics that put Trump in the White House, hence all of the flattering post-election profiles of disenchanted working-class voters who helped him secure victories in coveted swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
The media has thus far hesitated to extend that same benefit of the doubt to Sanders supporters. They seem much more concerned with drawing the public’s attention to the worst behaviors of the pro-Sanders trolls who have infested Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit than with reaching out to the millions of perfectly decent, right-minded Americans who have rallied around Sanders’ vision of a more equitable future for the American working class. Even the reliably progressive MSNBC has been getting in on the act.
But make no mistake about it; for every dishonest, hot-headed, and hateful Bernie Bro who has made it their mission to seek out and abuse Sanders’ critics on social media, there are dozens of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth Sanders supporters who have had their dreams of a comfortable life ground into fine dust by a system that isn’t designed with their interests in mind. Wage stagnation, student load debt, the ever-rising cost of healthcare, an ongoing lack of economic mobility, and private sector automation are just a few of the factors that have left American workers gasping for air. And much like the Republican voters who bypassed establishment-friendly candidates like Marco Rubio and John Kasich in favor of Donald Trump, many of those workers simply don’t believe that establishment Democrats like Joe Biden are willing to take meaningful action on the issues that matter most to them.
There’s a palpable sense of desperation that surrounds the movement Sanders has helped to create, and sometimes it’s expressed through the oft-inexcusable conduct of his radioactive army of Bernie Bros. However, that doesn’t mean that the economic anxieties behind that desperation are illegitimate or imagined, or that they aren’t entitled to the same consideration and examination as the anxieties that drove tens of millions of voters to throw their support behind Trump in 2016. Yes, some of Sanders’ online supporters are indeed quite hostile and vindictive. And yes, that story should be told. But that story isn’t more important or more deserving of the media’s attention than the countless stories of Sanders supporters who for years have lived paycheck to paycheck, struggling to scrape by in a society that continuously looks past their pain and misery. They’ve earned the right to share their tales of suffering and misfortune with the rest of the world, and we should all take the time to hear them out, even if we don’t necessarily see to eye to eye with their preferred presidential candidate or the nasty internet trolls that have taken up his cause.