IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The myth of the white Bernie bro has quietly vanished

The rise of "the squad" is a reminder that women and people of color are at the forefront of left-wing politics.
Photo illustration: Bernie Sanders, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Cori Bush and Ilhan Omar.
The rise of "the squad" illustrates how people of color and women are taking major leadership roles in American left-wing politics.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Back during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and his startlingly popular bid to defeat Hillary Clinton were plagued by a damaging narrative: that he and many of his core supporters were very white, very male and uninterested in fights against bigotry.

This dealt a blow to the growing and fragile reputation of democratic socialism — privileged and shouty white dudes, the thinking went, made up the core crowd pontificating about a revolution without regard for oppression outside of class warfare.

But over time, the original narrative that socialists and socialist-friendly politicians care exclusively about class and reflect a uniquely privileged worldview has been proven to be mistaken in rather unambiguous terms.

Last week was a powerful reminder of how wrongheaded that entire narrative always was. A Black female democratic socialist led a protest that compelled President Joe Biden to renew a moratorium on housing evictions, shielding millions of people from homelessness. That woman, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., was accompanied in her campaign by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., another socialist of color. Both of them represent districts that are majority people of color, and both are members of Congress' growing left-wing voting bloc known as "the squad" — which is composed entirely of people of color and effectively led by women.

A few election cycles after Sanders helped popularize the idea of democratic socialism, the notion that left-wing politics is for white men and by white men has been quietly buried. While the original narrative was always off the mark, it's now plain as day that people of color and women are not just an essential part of left-wing movement politics and electoral campaigns — they are often at the forefront of them. And in the process, it has become evident that socialist-influenced politics are not the province of the privileged but that they're often embraced by people who experience many kinds of bigotry firsthand.

Back during Sanders' original run, the rise of the narrative of the Bernie Bro had enormous influence over perceptions of Sanders' supporters and the broader American left. The archetype of a white, financially comfortable mansplainer came to define — and then encumber — Sanders' reputation in mainstream media discourse. It of course did not help that Sanders is indeed shouty, and he performed miserably among Black voters in the South against Clinton.

From the beginning, this narrative was always at least somewhat unfair. Among Sanders' core constituency in 2016 — young people — he had significant racial diversity and often greater support among women than men. And while there's no denying that Sanders did not connect with many Black voters — and he deserved to be criticized for it — his devastating losses in the South were also functions of the fact that Black voters in that region skew more moderate and more friendly to the Democratic establishment that Clinton typified.

When Sanders ran again last year, he was much better known, and his base showed tremendous diversity. He was at various junctures more popular among people of color than whites, won more support among women than men and dominated the Latino vote. He used careful staffing and policy choices to intensify his focus on marginalized communities. And while he still underperformed among Black voters, his improvement among voters of color helped put him on the path to win the nomination before the moderate candidates all dropped out and consolidated behind Biden ahead of Super Tuesday.

Outside BernieWorld, it has become impossible to ignore that left-wing politics is not centered on white men. Every member of the six-member "squad," the social democratic wing of the House Democrats, which has scored some significant policy victories during the Biden era, is a person of color, and only one is a man. Prominent friends of the squad, too, like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., who supported Bush's eviction protest, hail from diverse backgrounds.

On the state and local levels, socialists holding office are far from the Bernie Bro stereotype. Before Sanders became a household name, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, an immigrant from India, was arguably the most important socialist in American electoral politics. A huge percentage of first-time politicians backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that is clearly very conscious of supporting diverse nominees for office, have been women and people of color in the last few election cycles. India Walton of Buffalo, New York, a young Black housing activist, appears poised to become the only socialist mayor of a major city in America today.

This is not to say that the socialist left does not have diversity challenges or that it is by any means immune to bigotry within its own ranks. A number of local DSA chapters struggle with racial diversity; while DSA was unable to provide me with numbers on gender and racial diversity among local chapters by the time of publication, based on my firsthand reporting and widespread anecdotes, it appears that many DSA chapters are disproportionately composed of white professionals.

But ultimately there is consciousness of this as a problem and proactive efforts to combat it. DSA's elected national political committee, for example, is clearly diverse in terms of gender and race. The organization's national priorities reflect attentiveness to vigorous antiracism, and groups within DSA, like the Afrosocialist caucus, demonstrate efforts to recruit a more diverse membership.

There are constant debates on the left about how to balance focus on class exploitation with other kinds of oppression. But it is safe to say that intersectional analysis — the analytic lens that sees class, race, gender and other facets of identity as interconnected and converging in unique ways for different sets of people — is embraced by many democratic socialists today. And it is certainly the norm for lawmakers in the squad, who have a huge national audience.

The successful congressional campaign of Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., in 2019 spoke about mass incarceration as a system that is "killing Black and brown bodies disproportionately" but ultimately one that threatened all Americans; Ocasio-Cortez has spoken about the need for intersectional analysis in the fight for progressive immigration policy and feminism.

What's interesting about this rhetoric is the way it has shown that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are drawn to socialist politics precisely because of their experiences with marginalization. Bush's experiences being forced to sleep in a car with her two children before she entered Congress have informed her insistence on economic rights.

For many people who have dealt with prejudice and exploitation because of their identities, left-wing politics is not an indulgence or a thought experiment — it represents the most promising way to root out the forces that stand in the way of their freedom.

As socialist politics start to influence major national policy decisions in America, it is nice to reflect on the vanishing of a stereotype that never really understood what draws so many to the left in the first place.