Desperately Seeking Authenticity: The Memeification of Bernie Sanders

“Nowadays, everybody tells us what we need is more belief, a stronger and deeper and more encompassing faith. A faith in America and in what we are doing. That may be true in the long run. What we need first and now is to disillusion ourselves. What ails us most is not what we have done with America, but what we have substituted for America. We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality.” Daniel Boorstin, The Image, 1962

The popularity of Bernie Sanders among millennial voters is rather extraordinary and it is striking a nerve among older voters, who are actively dismissing Sanders’ youngest and often most vocal supporters. Gloria Steinem’s criticism of young women voting for Sanders reveals a fundamental and generational divide between feminists. Steinem’s comments reveal something larger happening during this election. That is the divide between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns.

More and more, I am observing my peers share memes and misconceptions about the two Democratic nominees across social media. These memes, particularly the Bernie Bros, emphasize that for whatever reason, the Clinton campaign simply does not resonate with millennials. Among my friends, the same people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, are not supporting HRC. But why? Because Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old white Jewish man originally from Brooklyn, is somehow perceived as more authentic than Hillary Clinton.

The supposed evidence of Sanders’ authenticity often appears on Facebook. For instance, a friend recently updated her cover photo with the caption: “When you walk the walk”.

sanders MLK
Bernie Sanders, allegedly marching with MLK, Jr. in Selma.

This is allegedly a photo of Bernie Sanders marching with MLK, Jr. at Selma in 1965 and it’s an internet hoax. Think about it. Do you really believe Sanders would go his ENTIRE political career (30+ years) without ever mentioning this photo? Or his presidential campaign, which needs moments like these (the real ones, not the fake ones) to elaborate the appeal of a Sanders’ presidency? The answer to both questions is no. But the memeification of Bernie Sanders is just selling what the Clinton campaign seems unable to produce.


Media has always been integral in the creation of community, identity and authenticity. What was once solely the role of newspapers was replaced by photography and cinema at the turn of the twentieth century. Television then became an unparalleled force in the 1960s and now social media dominates discussions of what and who is “authentic” in today’s media landscape.

No matter the era, authenticity is what the public wants and media makers go to great lengths to generate. This fact became evident in 1960, with the first televised presidential debate between JFK-Nixon. If you have never watched the debate in its entirety, you should. Given the sideshow presidential debates have become thanks to he-who-must-not-be-named, the JFK-Nixon debate is like political Zoloft. The importance of this debate as a media event cannot be understated; it turned Nixon into a public embarrassment.

Television is a cool medium, to use McLuhan’s term. It requires a greater deal of interaction from the audience. It is because of television that “the old political values disappeared,” as explained by Joe McGinnis in The Selling of the President. (This is essentially the book you should read to gain a total grasp of media in present-day political campaigns.)  The Richard Nixon of 1960 could never be president as long as television played a role in determining the president. As McLuhan wrote, “The success of any TV performer depends on his achieving a low-pressure style of presentation.” For politicians, a low-pressure style of presentation encompasses televised debates and more recently, social media. So when Nixon ran for President again in 1968 television, the medium that Nixon considered a gimmick became the essential tool to revamping Nixon’s image. A team of advisors including Roger Ailes, capitalized on events such as the 1968 riots and mastered using television to sell Nixon as an authentic leader and the next President of the United States.

Fastfoward five decades. Thanks to television and now social media, we have reached a fervent demand for public officials, celebrities, essentially everyone who’s anyone, to be real. Whether it’s your face, your true story about seven strangers picked to live in a house, your values. It doesn’t matter how it is. Make it look real. Instagram is arguably the best social media platform public figures use to sell authenticity. The impact of a well-executed #tbt or 15-second video reverberates and in this presidential election, candidate’s attacks and memes travel farther than ever before.

And so in 2016, Bernie Sanders is authentic.

But Hillary Clinton is not.

Media, as it is employed by political campaigns, is more complicated than ever but it is still how candidates win elections. Without a clear message, politicians come across as pandering. When a lack of authenticity is revealed, like seen during Chris Christie’s takedown of Marco Rubio at the latest Republican debate, it signals the end of a election cycle. Some campaigns get this and manage to stay ahead, others never stood a chance (Bobby Jindal), never took the risk (Scott Walker) or simply couldn’t cut it (Rand Paul).

Campaigns ads on YouTube double as television spots and viral sensations. Twitter, Facebook and SnapChat are all used as ploys to attract the coveted 18-25-year-old demographic. But most importantly memes today function like television did in 1960s. The meme is a cool medium. There can be all the SnapChats in the world. But one meme can determine a candidate worthy of your time.

sanders vs clinton

This meme, comparing Sanders and Clinton, has been circulating for a few weeks. No matter topic (usually an inane pop culture reference with nothing relative to actual governing), Clinton’s responses are always insipid and out-of-touch. She’s just saying whatever to get elected. Sanders, however, is your friendly grandpa who maybe doesn’t understand the Twitter. He gets what the kids are thinking. Every time this meme is shared, it emphasizes the perceived differences between Sanders and Clinton. More troubling, it deifies Sanders and it villainizes Clinton by perpetuating gender stereotypes.

But here’s the catch.

No politician is authentic and every politician is telling you what you want to hear. But you must blindly put your faith in someone’s leadership abilities time and time again. You want to believe that the guy you voted for in 2008, the one who promised you hope and change, will fulfill those promises eight years later. And when you’re disappointed by that guy, you seek out the next presumably authentic guy because you still believe in hope and change even though the democracy we live in means that reality is harder to achieve. It’s only when you can see past the image of the politician that has been created by media that maybe, just maybe, you can vote.

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