The Bernie meme: refreshing humor or dangerous political idealization?


Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

On Jan. 20, 2021, Senator Bernie Sanders attended Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration in mittens and a winter coat, sparking a slew of memes on the internet.

On Jan. 20, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president at the gates of a Capitol building that had been stormed just two weeks earlier. The ceremony marked a coming together of our country, using our differences to heal and repair the damage done by the Trump administration. The event was not entirely political, featuring artists like Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez as well as Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in history.

In addition to the celebrities and performers, various political figures attended the inauguration. The internet was quick to comment on these attendees, gawking at former First Lady Michelle Obama’s outfit and fawning over the loving interactions between the Bidens. However, one individual who has dominated meme culture, Senator Bernie Sanders, sparked a massive online craze when a photo was taken of him wearing winter mittens and sitting cross-legged in a folding chair as he watched the event unfold. Sanders’s curmudgeonly expression became viral on Twitter and thousands of users edited him into different settings and images, thus creating the “Bernie Meme.”

Despite its simple nature, the meme reveals a much larger issue within the socio-political climate of America. Junior Jonathan Nalikka said, “it’s just people having fun, [but] there’s a problem with people idolizing politicians, who are people who shouldn’t be idolized.” Although the Bernie Meme can be seen as harmless fun, this coincides with a problematic movement of political adoration.

Recently, fan-made video compilations of celebrities called “fancams” have penetrated political culture. Videos of President Biden, Vice President Harris and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among other political figures, have popped up all over social media. This fan culture establishes charming and beloved personas for those essential to our government, a dangerous attitude if voters choose to behave as fans instead of citizens.

When one places a politician on a pedestal, they grow blind to the figure’s misdoings and are unable to hold them accountable. Similar to how fans often ignore the scandals of their favorite artist or actor, turning a blind eye to stories of abuse, racism and xenophobia, they may try to defend or overlook heinous public policies or fraudulent actions. While no one person should be revered to this extent, more than others, politicians must be kept in check as their actions have more serious and tangible repercussions.

Still, the intent behind the Bernie Meme, and others like it, was to create relief during times of tension. After four years of instability and turmoil, the country desperately pounced on a perfectly innocent political moment to provide a semblance of hope for the future. For once, we could meld pop culture with politics, and by extent, see the inauguration as a celebration for the nation.

Unfortunately, allowing this memefication, whether it be enhancing or demeaning, results in diminished political concern among the population. Humorizing politics painted Trump as a buffoon with no real expectation of winning the presidency. This caused Democrats and Republicans alike to underestimate the threat Trump posed to the country and inadvertently aided his 2016 victory.

Likewise, during the recent raid on the U.S. Capitol, a moment in which the very democratic foundations of the country were threatened, the internet was flooded with comedic responses to the event. Though this may have been used as a coping mechanism to escape the crippling realities of the world at the time, by ignoring the severity of the issue, social media users only put our way of life at greater risk.

Over the last year, the world has used humor to alleviate the pain of an endless quarantine, financial hardship and the loss of too many loved ones. The occasional, fun-spirited political meme has its time and place, but we must be cognizant and not let these social phenomena become unbridled idolization or absolute mockery. If we as a country have learned anything recently, it is that our democracy is corroded and not guaranteed. What may be an innocent laugh today could become the silence of freedom tomorrow.