Bernie Sanders, The Internet’s First Presidential Candidate
In many ways, Bernie Sanders’ 2016 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination was a surprisingly straightforward primary campaign — he ran as an outsider candidate to the farther end of the ideological spectrum than his centrist opponent, energized and increased the voice of a previously underrepresented/disillusioned demographic group, and even lost the good old fashioned way, failing (as Nate Silver catalogued exhaustively) to win as many votes as his opponent.
But I’d argue that Sanders’ campaign was the first truly digital presidential campaign, both in the way it was waged and the way that potential voters interacted with it. And the way that the Sanders’ campaign mirrored and informed our internet life is — more so than Bernie’s positions, or his stature as a socialist, or the tremendous outpouring of love and energy he engendered, or the stakes, or whatever else — what made Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president unique.
For the first time in presidential history, the internet1 was a central, if not the most important, front in the race for the White House.
Sure, we’ve had past campaigns that have staked out a corner of the web before, from Clinton-Gore’s outlandish idea to build a campaign website to Obama’s revolutionary embrace of online organizing and fundraising platforms in 2008 and his strategic adoption of Twitter in 2012, and the marginal benefits gleaned from those efforts may have been a crucial component in those campaigns. But that’s all they were — marginal.
The 2016 primary season, for the first time ever, was where all-out rhetorical war, from the highest of vines to the lowest of Reddit comments, was waged equally on the internet as any other platforms of discourse. And Bernie Sanders and his supporters were at the vanguard for turning the internet from an ancillary front in an election to the forefront of the debate, discussion, and engagement with the election.
It’s impossible to ignore the role that the internet and its culture had on the Sanders campaign, which catapulted him from a socialist nobody Senator into a serious contender for the Democratic nomination within a few short and fiery weeks. Just as the internet teems with elaborate fan theories for Game of Thrones, detailed analyses of how Bernie could still pull of a primary victory ran rampant, and the Sanders campaign responded in kind with the sort of fan service such slavish digital devotion requires in turn.
In all of this, it’s hard to overstate the power of Reddit for the Sanders campaign. Just as Twitter opened a whole new world of data collection and messaging for Obama (and his chief technology officer, former Threadless CTO Harper Reed), even more so did Reddit play a central role in Sanders’ electoral success. Reddit was for Bernie what TV was for Kennedy and Fox News became for George W Bush — an easy way to connect with millions of people, amplify your message, and build a fierce communal sense of love and loyalty, while simultaneously winnowing the available voices down to a group who most adheres to your own worldview and policies.
On Reddit in particular and the internet in general, daily grist was provided and hashed over as individual commentators were able to pen their aggressive soliloquies about open primaries, super delegates, and the increasing paranoia that the election was stacked against their man. The case against Hillary was prosecuted via viral images and Facebook flame wars that raged in the comment threads. Hell, even the term Bernie Bro is a creation of the internet, relying on the web both for its definition and the term’s dissemination.
For the first time in millennial political history, young people were faced with actual divisive disagreement among one another, playing out in the forums that they actually frequented and engaged with. Speaking from personal experience, in past elections certain platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc. have always been a haven, where my own opinions were validated, reaffirmed, and forwarded — such is the nature of our increasingly expansive and increasingly polarized digital consumption. But this time around these platforms served as the battleground on which a vicious rhetorical and interpersonal debate raged, a pretty impressive feat considering that me and the rest of my peers tend to try and avoid direct conflict as if it was a brunch reservation before 10am.
It can be tempting to elide Bernie’s success on the internet with Donald Trump’s ability to reach and inspire an untapped wealth of political supporters who felt marginalized by a formless menace known vaguely as the ‘establishment.’ But Trump’s campaign, which similarly reflects the internet’s insatiable desire for rapid fire takes, easily digestible facts, and more-than-healthy disregard for literal-ass facts, is little more than what happens if you took 24-hour cable news and made it sentient.
Bernie’s supporters have used the internet to take his policies and burrow in and around them, creating vast realms of rabbit holes to go down for everything from his smallest of policy standpoints to debating the relative merits of the primary process on a state-by-state process. Trump’s messaging, and his supporters’ resulting engagement with it, hasn’t gone below surface level, much less into a substantive Reddit subreddit, largely because there just is no there there.
Ultimately, I think that Bernie’s most important legacy — aside from pushing the Democratic party further to the left than anybody could have expected/hoped for (heyo, single payer health care debate), and bringing a whole new generation into the political fold — will be his demonstration of the strength and limitations of the political internet.
The reach and incredible passion Sanders was able to engender among his broad swath of supporters was nothing short of amazing, especially considering the limited timeframe and funds with which Bernie was operating on. Never before have a candidate’s ideas been transferred and debated with such speed, vitality, and gusto.
But the Sanders’ campaign lived and died on the internet, and its skewed demographics (younger, whiter, male-r) and difficulty translating to direct action tended to enforce an image of the Sanders campaign and its supporters that wasn’t always backed up in the electoral results, especially when up against the much more traditional organization and power of Hillary Clinton.
Ultimately, let’s just hope that this legacy translates into pushing Democratic politics to the left while still maintaining viability in the general election, because Reddit and the rest of the internet and the whole entire world (Except 4chan. They love A Donald), both living and fiber optic, is going to lose their shit if Donald Trump is elected president.