Media Criticism

Watch the Media Manufacture a Dumb Story About Bernie Sanders and Sexism

No, Sanders didn't say Warren is surging just because she's a woman.


During the 2016 campaign, some of Hillary Clinton's defenders in the media claimed that the fervent online male supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), the oft-derided Bernie Bros, were aggressive, sexist harassers, and that Sanders was not doing enough to stop them. There wasn't much backing up these claims that Bernie Bros were uniquely obnoxious—all major campaigns attract hardcore fans—or even that they were mostly "bros"—Sanders was more popular among young women than Clinton was—but the narrative stuck around.

Reasons to be critical of Sanders are numerous: He was an apologist for the brutal, rapacious communist regimes in places like the Soviet Union and Cuba; he's called open borders a "right-wing Koch brothers proposal" and opposes it because he perceives that high levels of immigration would threaten his Medicare for All schemes; he wants to fight poverty in all the wrong ways. Indeed, it appears that he doesn't even understand the difference between revenue and profit. These are significant flaws—there's no need to invent a fake sexism narrative.

Three years later, some media organizations are still pushing the idea that Sanders has a problem with women. This week, both Vanity Fair and Jezebel lashed out at Sanders for suggesting that he was losing ground to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) because some voters would prefer to elect a female president. "Sanders: Warren Is Surging Because She's Got Ovaries," was the Vanity Fair headline.

Unsurprisingly, this is a gross oversimplification of what Sanders actually said. Sanders was asked by CNN's Chris Cuomo, "What do you think the reason is that Elizabeth Warren is catching up to you in polls. Do you think people see her as the most electable version of Bernie Sanders?" Sanders responded:

"I think we are running against a lot of problems. I think there are a certain number of people who would like to see a woman elected, and I understand that. There are people who would like to see somebody who is younger, and I understand that also. There are a lot of factors out there. Elizabeth is a friend of mine and I think she is running a good campaign."

It's clear from Sanders' full statement that the spin was uncharitable. Sanders did not suggest that Warren's possession of ovaries was some insurmountable advantage: He merely pointed out that there are other candidates better positioned to capitalize on progressives' appetite for intersectional, identity-based appeals than he is.

Contributing to the smear, of course, was CNN's own clipping of Sanders' quote, which appeared in tweet form like this:

Having trimmed Sanders' repeated statements that he understands and appreciates where Warren's supporters are coming from, likes her, and is impressed with her campaign, CNN's tweet made Sanders look much more embittered, as if he was lashing out at women for not backing him. You'd be forgiven for thinking some kind of narrative, disguised as objective news, was being pushed.

Whether Sanders' diagnosis of the Warren surge is correct remains another matter. Warren is less well-known to the public than Sanders—who already ran for president before—and thus she might have more immediately winnable people out there. Sanders may have peaked, having already captured the support of most of the people who would vote for him. And while Warren and Sanders are both stridently progressive, and support far-reaching legislation that would vastly expand the federal government and grow the deficit, Sanders is a political independent and a self-described democratic socialist, which might limit his appeal.

These are all subjects an interviewer could broach with Sanders—without manufacturing a non-story about Sanders being anti-women.