Reader, I went to Philadelphia to find the Bernie Bros. Instead, I found myself.
As I made my way into Philly early last week, still exhausted from covering the RNC the week before, I was desperate for inspiration. Holding the conventions back-to-back, I discovered, is unbelievably cruel to journalists. I’d used up all my more general convention-related ideas back at the RNC, and worried I’d been spending the week writing without any purpose at all.
The plan: Throughout the course of my coverage, I’d spend the entire week spending time with and photographing the most elaborately decked out Bernie Bros the DNC could produce. There was already a pro-Bernie protest in full swing and the convention had barely even begun. Surely this would be easy, but more importantly, this would be fun.
The epistemologically questionable Bernie Bros are a cheap target, of course. Whether or not they really are aggressively online harassers driven primarily by sexism, whether they are a statistically significant portion of Sanders supporters, whether they actually exist in any of the other ways they are said to is beside the point. The idea of the Bernie Bro has become such a caricature of itself that the reality no longer matters. Just like Jesus or L. Ron Hubbard, the mythology surrounding the Bernie Bro has outstripped the banal or unknowable reality, coloring how we view anything that seems even tangentially related.
Which is why, when I walked into the sweaty mass of people jostling each other for more oxygen and air time, I thought I knew exactly who I was dealing with. These were privileged, white, male youths who couldn’t take a little disappointment without causing a scene. As a Sanders supporter myself, I still looked upon them with disdain—these were the bad ones. Then I talked to them.
I listened to one 20-something decked out in Bernie apparel tell me that, come November, he would be voting for Clinton: “I’m not an idiot. She’s not my first choice obviously, but she’s still worlds better than Donald Trump.”
Another told me about how he’d be voting for Jill Stein in November, but only because he lives in Texas. “If I lived in a swing state, I’d feel obligated to vote Democrat. But since my vote doesn’t matter either way, I might as well use it to make a statement.”
The only people I found to be unreasonable—or at the very least, unwilling to have an actual discussion—were mostly older women who, for whatever reason, really hate Hillary Clinton. I asked the women in the photo above who they’d be voting for come November.
“Does that mean you’re voting for Trump?” I asked.
That’s as far as they were willing to go.
Unlike, say, this guy:
He, too, is planning to vote for Hillary come November, though he was reluctant to get the actual words out. He’d still prefer a Jill Stein presidency over a Clinton one, of course, but he’s also “a reasonable person.” He cited all the hard work Bernie and his supporters have done to push the Democratic platform left as his main motivator. If Hillary doesn’t win, all that passionate campaigning will have been for naught. “At least it’s something,” he added.
Which is why, the next day, as delegates officially cast their votes and picked Hillary as the nominee, I had a harder time finding entertainment value in the weeping of the Bernie bros than I might have otherwise. Painting devastated Bernie voters as overdramatic crybabies would certainly have been a neat and convenient way to wrap up the Bro saga—and plenty of outlets did just that. Which is fine! God knows Gawker has gleefully covered all manner of tantrums with the best of them. But at the DNC, I found myself face to face with what these kids were actually feeling, and it wasn’t easy to mock.
The Bernie Bros I met, by the way, did largely consist of kids. The people screaming in the street and weeping in the arena ranged in age from about 18 to about 28. For most of them, this was probably the first election where they were able both to vote and to feel genuinely excited about a candidate who they believed might actually be able to make a positive difference in their lives. They let themselves care about something—a lot. Of course they were upset when that spring of hope ran dry.
Early in the week, I spotted a kid in a Star Wars-themed Bernie t-shirt which read, “Help us Bernie Sanders. You’re our only hope.” He was so mock-able! But how could I? What if Bernie really was his only hope? I would not be the one to quash the spirit of a young man who found something larger than himself to care about, who sought only to help bring about a better future for his both his and future generations, and who found himself swept up in a movement that briefly seemed poised to transform the country before it unceremoniously petered out. There’s nothing risible in having fought for something decent, losing, and feeling grief.
I still think it’s OK to make fun of the bad shirts though.