All week, the Bernie Sanders campaign has been dealing with a gender problem. Hillary Clinton has been baiting him about a moment in the Democratic debate when Sanders, who is the epitome of a shout-y politician, scolded her for shouting on the gun control issues. Things only got worse for the Sanders camp when a couple of Sanders aides made condescending remarks about Clinton to the press, with campaign manager Jeff Weaver most notably snarking to Bloomberg, "We're willing to give her more credit than Obama did. We're willing to consider her for vice president. We'll give her serious consideration. We'll even interview her."
When trying to fend off accusations of sexism, it's generally unwise to portray yourself as an indulgent authority figure who will "let" women have power, so long as they stay in second place. Luckily, Sanders seems to see this himself. On Thursday, he went on MSNBC and called Weaver's comment "inappropriate" and reiterated that he has "a lot of respect for Secretary Clinton."
It was a smart move from Sanders. His campaign has taken off in large part because his criticisms of neoliberalism and cowardice on the part of mainstream Democrats like Clinton has resonated with a lot of liberal voters. However, his campaign has also attracted a lot of "brogressives": People, mostly men, who want to be seen as progressive and even feminist, but blanch at the idea of women having real power.
While roughly 100 percent of brogressives deny their own existence, the ugly response that women online get the second they say anything about the Sanders campaign that's less than worshipful suggests that this is becoming a serious problem. Sanders wants to send a message about economic justice, but condescending comments like the ones from his campaign staff and materials like the cover of Doug Henwood's new anti-Clinton book suggest that, for many of his followers, the real motivation is keeping the scary, ball-busting lady politician out of the White House.
There is nothing new about the struggle between feminists and sexist liberal men who want to be given cookies for how progressive they are without having to accept true equality, which would include more leadership roles for women. Feminism's second wave started in part because female anti-war and anti-racism activists got sick of being relegated to coffee-fetchers and brow-wipers while men got all the leadership positions, after all. That these men are still around and are attracted to the opportunity to fight against a female President while claiming to be for feminism is not surprising in the slightest.
However, it is damaging to the Sanders campaign. Sanders routinely points out, as does Clinton, that economic justice requires equal pay for equal work. But one major reason that women don't get equal pay is the continued hostility, that comes from both the right and the left, towards female ambition. The hostility towards women's ambition and intelligence that is driving this subset of Sanders supporters is the same hostility that causes women to be punished at work for being as outspoken as male colleagues, to have their wages stifled when they become mothers (while men see a bump in their wages when they become fathers), and to even gravitate away from leadership positions, because they know how women who are ambitious will be seen by their colleagues.
Luckily, Sanders has the power to nip this problem in the bud: All he has to do is to speak out against it. He can't change the minds of brogressives, but by acknowledging the problem and insisting that Clinton and female liberals generally be treated with respect, he can probably shame some of the worst offenders into quieting down. Those guys are never going to listen to women, but they might just listen to a man.
But even if they won't listen, by chastising this ugly faction of his support base, Sanders can distance himself from the ugliness, helping refocus his campaign on its message of economic justice. Calling the condescending behavior of his aide "inappropriate" is a good first step. If Sanders continues to take a public stance against this kind of behavior, he may be able to ameliorate fears that he is exploiting the lingering sexism in some liberal hearts to build up his support.