beyond mittenology: sitting with the bernie sanders meme.
The map of Iraq looks like a mitten, / and so does the map of Michigan— / a match I made by chance.— Dunya Mikhail
— Theodore Roethke
A funny thing about a Chair: / You hardly ever think it’s there. / To know a Chair is really it, / You sometimes have to go and sit.
As Naomi Klein proposed most compellingly (“The Meaning of the Mittens: Five Possibilities,” The Intercept, 21 January 2021), the now omnipresent meme of cranky Bernie Sanders is all about the mittens. They rest, criss-crossed, on his lap, oversized, practical, unfussy, realistic, and ready for reaching out to touch the broken world as it is, with all the urgent need for getting to work to fix it.
But the meme also contains another symbolic element that has gone less noticed: the chair. In particular, the image signals the political meaning of chairs. They don’t call it a “seat” of power for nothing. Think of the Iron Throne, the chairman of the board, the party chairman. Where, after all, was one of the first places the insurrectionists went when they got into the Capitol but a week earlier than the inauguration of Joe Biden outside the same building? They sat in the chairs on the dais of the Senate and House chambers. They sat in Speaker Pelosi’s chair and put their feet up on her desk.
Sitting is power. Even when it becomes a weapon of the oppressed, as in the civil rights sit-in, the capacity to be not only in good standing, but also hard sitting is a potent expression of protest, a way to mark issues of inclusion and exclusion. from the polity or from civil society. Do you have a seat at the table, or even at the Woolworth’s counter? Who gets to sit at all, and where they get to sit, really matters.
One image that came to mind from the resonances of the Bernie mittens meme was the controversial official portrait of Barack Obama, painted by Kehinde Wiley in 2018. What is Obama doing in the painting? Most noticed that he emerged, almost surrealistically, from a wall of foliage and symbolic flowers, but he also sits in a chair. In this case, it is a wooden one that draws upon the Regency style blended with more contemporary elements.
Bernie, in contrast to the Obama portrait, sits in a flimsy folding chair. He looks cold and grumpy, not suave and elegant. He is typically frumpy and disheveled. At the same time, he is but one of the few present at the inauguration at all due to Covid-19 safety restrictions, right down the aisle from the Obamas themselves. This Social Democrat now has a place closer to the centers of power in American politics. After all, he is now the chair of the Senate Budget Committee.
In this way, the original photograph is as much about the chair as it is about the mittens. To be sure, the mittens steal the show. As Klein eloquently put it:
In that moment, Bernie’s crossed arms and sartorial dissonance seemed to be saying, “Do not cross us.” If, after all the hoopla, the Biden-Harris administration doesn’t deliver transformational action for a nation and a planet in agony, there will be consequences. And unlike during the Obama years, those consequences won’t take years—because the revolutionary spirit is already on the inside, and it’s wearing mittens.
But it’s not just that Bernie is bemittened that made the image proliferate so much; it’s also that he’s sitting in his chair. In the circulating meme, he sits everywhere, both joining the images in which memers have placed him, but also always slyly commenting on the images. He is not exactly a naif, an innocent accidentally wandering through the iconography of history. He’s not a pure outsider like Forrest Gump or Zelig. Instead, he is at once both insider and outsider. He is part of whatever mise-en-scène into which he is placed, yet never quite of it. He is part of things, yet always comes from another place, bringing a different vision of how the world might be. He is portable, on the move, passing through, at once in place and yet easily capable of relocating.
To use the musical term for dropping in as a guest with a band, Bernie sits in with all these images, including the original one snapped by Brendan Smialowski. He is in them but not of them. He can play along, but he is also autonomous. Whatever it is that Sanders symbolizes, it is part of the picture, but at any moment it can fold things up, adjust, and relocate to a different setting. It is mobile. Seated in front of the Capitol, perching on ledges, sidling up to counters, sitting on benches, joining famous movie scenes and tv shows, finding a place among rock bands and pop stars, popping up with politicians from the past, the Sanders meme floats through, joining in, but also unfolding a dissonant commentary as well. He participates, but sitting in, he suggests at any moment he can fold things up and sit it out.
The Bernie meme, in this way, is also a stand-in. Maybe, to follow Klein’s lead, it serves as a symbol of social democratic desire in contemporary America. It proposes that enough is enough with the lack of universal health care, with racial injustice, with student debt, with climate change unconfronted, with tax cuts for the rich and the squeeze on everyone else. It signals that there are no-nonsense policies that can start to address these long-running problems. What are we waiting for? We are many (and our hands are warming up), they are few.
While some have interpreted the meme as a “cutesification” of Bernie’s radicalism, and the radicalism he has come to symbolize as a cultural meme, there is more to the image than just a Seinfeldification of Sanders, a taming of the wagging finger. The more it circulates, the more it suggests that Bernie’s political sensibility lurks more places than one might think. Yes, it whispers its presence, muffled. It is inchoate. But it also starts to spring up everywhere, comically, warmly, sweetly, and with an edge to it. There is something almost zoomorphic about Sanders, mostly due to the giant Vermont-made mittens looking a bit like paws, and also because of how he sits in his chair, as if possibly poised to pounce. Sanders, with all that he represents, seems about to spring from his seat, not only into the halls of power, but also perhaps across the breadth of American culture. The more one looks, the more those mittens start to seem like they might have claws.