Bernie Sanders, America’s favorite curmudgeonly socialist grandpa who happens to be running for President, is now on Twitch. Last night, his channel aired its first two streams. Sadly, neither involved Sanders sitting in a chair that looks like it belongs in a race car and playing Fortnite as a means to demonstrate the ills of capitalism (the closing circle represents the slow erosion of class mobility, obviously). Instead, chat repeatedly asked “Where’s Bernie” during streams in which three of his campaign staffers smiled, nodded, recited talking points, and agreed with each other.
It wasn’t the most engaging viewing. There were two streams: one pre-Democratic debate and one post-debate. In both streams, the three campaign staffers—Josh Miller-Lewis, Briahna Gray, and Bill Neidhardt—mostly rehashed standard Sanders’ talking points and occasionally took questions from the chat, which they then used as a springboard to rehash further Sanders talking points. Early on in the first stream, they aired a pre-recorded video of Sanders talking about his plan for the debate. This remains the only time Sanders has appeared on his own channel aside from debate snippets that were shown during the post-debate show.
“Those are not radical views,” said Sanders in the clip, referring to his idea that, since the US is the wealthiest country in the world, people living there deserve healthcare, decent wages, and education sans student debt. “In my view, they are human ideas, because I believe that economic rights are human rights. But what our campaign uniquely understands is, despite all of the speeches and all of the plans we have heard for decades, the reason the very, very wealthy get richer while the middle class continues to struggle and 20 million people live in poverty is the greed and power of a handful of billionaires and corporate executives. What we know is, if we’re gonna bring real change to this country, the only way that happens is when millions of people stand up and fight back. That means taking on the power of Wall Street, taking on the insurance industry, taking on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry. We want to address the crisis of climate change, which has already impacted Miami and other coastal communities—the only way we do that is by taking on the power of the fossil fuel industry. You want to change national priorities, you’ve gotta take on the power of the military industrial complex. And that’s true for criminal justice reform. It’s true for immigration reform. Let us stop being naive.”
I don’t think Sanders and his staff entirely missed the mark, and I think the views he and his team represented were very good ones. Bernie’s message was strong, as were the talking points Gray, Miller-Lewis, and Neidhardt delved into on the pre- and post-debate shows that followed. They stressed that Sanders’ platform is a holistic one, that he sees issues like class and race as being intertwined, using his championing of an increased minimum wage at Walmart—the single largest employer of black Americans, according to Gray (and also according to Walmart)—as an example. The staffers drew a similar line to the climate crisis and the Green New Deal. They also talked about how Medicare-for-all will further alleviate the economic burden that holds back many people, and they drove this home when someone in Twitch chat asked about Sanders’ support of trans rights, saying that Sanders has long been a proponent of LGBTQ rights and Medicare-for-all will help advance that cause.
There were even jokes. At one point, a person in Twitch chat mentioned that a National Institutes Of Health government-funded hospital facility cured their wife’s lymphoma, and that they wanted everybody to experience care like that without fear of bankruptcy. “TWITCH COMMENTERS ARE RIGHT,” Neidhardt yelled at the top of his lungs. Another time, the campaign staffers said they were going to air a clip of Sanders preparing for the debate but then cut to a clip of him demolishing somebody on a basketball court.
By and large, though, the stream was Bernie Sanders 101, but with basically zero Bernie and a professional veneer that people found at odds with Twitch’s typically casual vibe. On one hand, Miller-Lewis, who is apparently the brain father to this Twitch channel’s “brain child,” had the right idea in creating this channel. Twitch is a vast platform that pulls in millions and millions of viewers every day. Many are young and don’t consume much traditional media. Twitch is a smart way to reach them, and if you’re going to start anywhere with a presumably new audience, you should start with the basics of what you’re about. On top of that, Twitch is a platform where high-profile leftist voices are few and far between, where most top streamers seem to be endeavoring to behave apolitically, leaving a vacuum that the alt-lite memes and, in some cases, actual alt-right viewpoints present in some pockets of gaming have happily filled. Twitch, particularly Twitch chat, is a place where people often hear scare-mongering or easily-mocked caricatures of leftist viewpoints instead of authentic ones. There’s an opportunity here, in other words, to convince people by meeting them where they’re at.
Problem is, it’s unlikely that Sanders’ Twitch channel is reaching many of those people, because it’s not really speaking their language. The pre- and post-debate shows peaked at 14,860 and 3,038 concurrent viewers, respectively. That first number is respectable for a semi-big streamer, but the second represents a huge drop-off. Watching chat, it was apparent that many of the people who showed up both times were pre-existing Sanders fans who likely found out about his Twitch channel from his Twitter or other social media channels. Others were overt trolls. There was rarely middle ground, and even a fair number of Sanders fans eventually got tired of the milquetoast blandness of it all.
“Glad you guys are on Twitch,” said one, “but this is pretty boring. Imma go watch Hasanabi.”
Of course, there isn’t a total lack of leftist streamers on Twitch. Hasan Piker, who streams as Hasanabi on Twitch and who is also a political commentator for online news network The Young Turks, is the most openly socialist popular streamer on Twitch. He’s spoken in the past about how he thinks he’s changing minds by not just being on Twitch, but directly participating in Twitch culture. He interacts both with other popular political streamers (like left-leaning debate lord Steven “Destiny” Bonnell) and less politically inclined (though prone to alt-lite-style of meme-ing and sometimes worse) personalities like GreekGodx and Trainwrecks. He’s even been involved in drama with those and others like superstar streamer Pokimane. He’s part of the platform’s weird, messy ecosystem. “I got on Twitch because I knew that this is a young audience, mostly male, probably prone to reactionary politics, but their political idols are a bunch of idiots,” Piker said on a recent episode of popular leftist podcast Chapo Trap House. “The thing is that they don’t have a lot of access to proper leftist representation.”
Just by being there and representing his views to these other streamers’ audiences, Piker believes he’s making an impact. Sanders’ channel, by contrast, is a strange little island whose messages may as well be crammed into bottles and bobbing in the middle of the ocean.
During a stream yesterday evening, Piker, who has said he is a Sanders supporter, tried to watch Sanders’ channel’s first stream. He quit within minutes.
“I can’t fucking do this. Should I just watch xQc sleeping?” he said, referring to a stream in which ex-Overwatch pro Félix “xQc” Lengyel was sleeping that had managed to pull over 20,000 concurrent viewers at its peak. “I think it’s a problem with the Bernie team. When you try to make professional content for this platform, it’s just gonna look bad.”
Shortly after, Piker talked to Rajj Patel, who is Twitch’s premiere host of trashy reality shows, about why he thinks Sanders and his staff are dealing with an impossible situation on Twitch.
“I have a really hard time explaining that to people who come onto these sorts of platforms,” Piker said, noting that he knows one of the staffers on Sanders’ show, Gray, and had tried to reach out with advice, to no avail. “It’s hard, though, because they have two conflicting goals. On the one hand, their main goal is to get the message across and get as many people as possible to watch the show. On the other, they have to maintain an appearance of professionalism so that it doesn’t look like a bunch of un-serious people. It’ll literally ruin [Sanders’] public persona if everyone makes fun of him.”
Patel responded to say that, in the eyes of Twitch viewers, the resulting compromise comes across as “disingenuous.”
“Twitch viewership gets incredibly angry when they feel like people are just coming on because it feels like the cool thing to do,” Patel said. He added, however, that he thinks things would’ve been different if Bernie was actually, you know, there. “Put Bernie in one of those [gamer] chairs with a microphone and make him look like a Twitch streamer,” he said. “Let him answer questions from the chat.”
Piker then put things in perspective. “They’re a campaign, so they have to be serious,” he said. “But it’s probably not great that a Twitch streamer like xQc is literally sleeping, and a Presidential candidate and his team come on the platform for the first time ever, and the sleeping Twitch streamer is getting more views than him.”