Shawn Bagley thought he knew what he was getting into when he was elected to become one of California’s so-called superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention, and energetic debate with other activists was part of it.
What Bagley had not anticipated was being jolted out of bed by a 2 a.m. phone call from an angry Bernie Sanders supporter. The caller accused Bagley, a retired produce broker from Salinas, of stealing democracy from the citizenry.
“Why is Bernie Sanders letting these people loose on us?” said Bagley, a Hillary Clinton backer who says he was branded corrupt, immoral and thickheaded over the course of some 200 social media posts and phone calls from Sanders fans. “He lost my vote at 2 a.m.”
Sanders supporters are known to be a spirited bunch. But as their frustration mounts over their candidate’s failure to significantly cut into Clinton’s lead, no small number of them are lashing out in ways that are not particularly helpful to his campaign.
There is the activist in Chicago who unleashed a movement to “harass” superdelegates backing Clinton, with an online “hit list” complete with delegate phone numbers and some home addresses. There are the online trolls who have come to be known as "Bernie bros," who attack journalists, politicians and fellow voters they perceive to be pro-Clinton with misogynistic, often vulgar attacks. There are the campaign surrogates -- some of them high-profile -- who use language the campaign finds itself having to walk back.
On Thursday, Sanders apologized for comments made by Paul Song, chairman of the progressive California group Courage Campaign, during Sanders’ huge rally the night before in New York’s Washington Square Park. Song railed against “corporate Democratic whores,” saying the party establishment was beholden to the pharmaceutical industry. The Clinton campaign demanded Sanders disavow Song’s words, which it did. Song himself also apologized, saying the comment was not directed at Clinton.
The hostility from some Sanders backers reflects a very different tone than what supporters projected a year ago at Sanders’ first large rally in Vermont, a lakeside park affair that resembled a peace festival. It comes as Sanders, the underdog candidate who trails in the delegate count despite a string of electoral wins in recent weeks, has stepped up his attacks on a political system he says is rigged for Clinton and a corporate media he says wants him to lose.
His increasingly hostile tone can be a combustible mix with a group of supporters who, in many cases, are new to the mechanics of party politics, delegate lobbying and campaign messaging. As a campaign so heavily focused online, it is especially vulnerable to the Internet’s darker impulses.
“People on the Internet can be jerks,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America, a large grass-roots advocacy group supporting Sanders. “I don’t think that is news to anyone who has spent time reading comment sections in the average newspaper. When you have a strong online presence, you are going to have all the good and the bad that comes with it.”
Sroka says the Sanders campaign is hardly condoning the behavior, pointing to occasions where staffers and the candidate himself have scolded supporters for inappropriate remarks.
But others complain the campaign too often looks the other way, particularly in the case of antagonism toward the superdelegates who have pledged to support Clinton at the convention in Philadelphia in July.
“These people are worried someone is going to come to their house,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic political operative in California who supports Clinton and recently wrote an open letter to the Sanders campaign accusing it of fanning the flames of harassment. “They have been put on a ‘hit list.’”
Mulholland is talking about a database of superdelegates published online by activist Spencer Thayer, who originally called it the “Superdelegate Hitlist” and included a graphic of a donkey in cross hairs. Thayer has since toned it down, changing his site’s name to “Superdelegate List.”
But he makes no apologies for collecting and publishing the personal information of the delegates, many of whom are just regular people like Bagley. It’s uncharted territory for Democrats. The last time the votes of superdelegates mattered in a convention was in 1980, and the technology did not exist to quickly find and broadcast the personal information of these delegates to anyone who might begrudge them.
Some Sanders supporters point out, however, that activists sympathetic to Clinton tested the waters for a similar, unsanctioned superdelegate lobbying effort on her behalf in 2008.
Even so, the Sanders campaign has struggled for months with loutish behavior online that extends beyond a few jerks. Most any woman who “has said anything critical about Bernie or positive about Hillary” on social media has been subject to Bernie bro harassment, said Laura Olin, who advised the 2012 Obama campaign on social media.
A frequent target is Joan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for the Nation, who is supporting Clinton for president, though the magazine has endorsed Sanders. “They never stop, and you wind up on Twitter trying to convince a BernieBro that BernieBros exist -- and even as he's being Exhibit A, he's calling you a whore, $hill, sellout and on and on,” she said in a direct message on Twitter.
Jill Filipovic, a freelance journalist and attorney who often writes positively about Sanders, said that when she criticizes him, she is subjected to “a mass dogpiling” of tweets “sort of treating you like you’re a dumb girl.… The degree to which any criticism of this candidate is met with this complete brick wall of rage -- it’s like criticizing Jesus,” she said. “It’s truly bizarre.”
She gets attacked by Clinton supporters, too, but not on the same scale, she said. “I do think it’s gotten worse as the campaign has gotten more heated,” Filipovic said.
Most of the sexist slurs directed at Clinton on social media -- such as “hag,” “shrill,” and other words too crude to print -- have come from Donald Trump supporters, according to a study by a pair of Dutch researchers published in the Washington Post in February. But 14.7% of those slurs came from Sanders supporters, and mostly from men, according to the study.
Some women who support Sanders, though, say they’ve endured boorish behavior from supporters of all the presidential campaigns. They also say the term “Bernie bro” itself diminishes the legions of feminists working for Sanders, who they argue has the best agenda for women.
The term, said Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at the Nation, “implies the more progressive candidate draws his support mainly from men, and therefore his presence in the race is the force of misogyny.”
Like other Sanders supporters, Leonard bristles at all the hostile behavior that has emerged. But she says she sees where it is coming from: The stakes are high for the left, with the candidate vying to be the first female president running against the candidate vying to be the first socialist president.
It “makes people on the left very protective of Bernie Sanders,” Leonard said, “and they can be overly aggressive.”
Halper reported from New York and Pearce from Los Angeles.