Bernie Sanders is the young person’s 2020 presidential candidate, so it’s no surprise he has supporters on TikTok. The video app beloved by Gen Z is home to all types of political humor: Users roast Mayo Pete’s overwhelming blandness, mock Mike Pence’s homophobia and show solidarity with labor organizers.
But don’t go to TikTok expecting @berniesanders to address his fight with Elizabeth Warren. Instead, you’ll find him posting about James Joyce, the Irish writer — another intellectual with a penchant for interrogating nationalism and class warfare.
“The neoliberal turn of the Democrats and sort of embrace of this moderate Obamaism or Clintonism wasn’t working,” @berniesanders tells MEL. “So I’m glad that people are starting to realize that the meaningful dividing line in politics is like class and wealth.”
What you should know, though, is @BernieSanders isn’t Bernie Sanders. It’s an 18-year-old high school student from Spokane, Washington, named David Sposito.
Sposito created @berniesanders in 2016 to impress a girl on the lip-syncing app Musical.ly. In 2018, TikTok later merged with Musical.ly. “I figured that there would probably be lots of untaken names. It was the summer of 2016, and Bernie was, like, a part of the zeitgeist. So I, like, just got it,” Sposito says.
Four years later, Sposito no longer posts on TikTok — things didn’t work out with the girl — and so he’s surprised the Sanders camp hasn’t come after his handle. “There are times that I forget my password or something, and I’m like, ‘Oh, they got it from me.’ But I still have it now.” Sposito has no plans to give it up. “Maybe one time I’ll decide to be a TikTok star.”
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
David, congratulations on getting @berniesanders. Bernie Sanders isn’t even Bernie Sanders on TikTok.
Oh, did I poach the username from him?
He doesn’t have an official TikTok, but he has a few fan pages.
Oh, man. I’m gonna get a letter soon I guess.
Well, I don’t know. You got it before him.
I remember getting TikTok when it was still Musical.ly. It was still like this weird, fledgling app that, as far as I was concerned, only existed for like pretty people to look at one another. It didn’t have that sort of crossover from Vine. It didn’t have what I think of TikTok now. I remember just getting it because this girl I knew had one. She told me to get one, so I did.
You got @berniesanders to impress a girl?
She had one and wanted me to like her TikToks, I think.
Your profile was created in 2016. Was it inspired by the presidential election?
I don’t totally remember, but I think Bernie was just the first one I tried, and I got him. When he was first breaking out, he was still kind of a joke. He was the funniest by far. Trump jokes were already overdone the first second that Trump came in, and Hillary Clinton was never funny.
Now it’s weird because he’s just, like, a real politician. He has a good shot of winning. Whereas [in] 2016, nobody thought he was actually gonna win. He was a meme.
So what happened? You clearly haven’t posted anything in years.
Honestly, I forgot about it. It lay pretty dormant for a while. I made a few videos that were really weird. Is the James Joyce one still up?
Yeah, you have one video on there. That’s “James Joyce”?
I was doing these bits about James Joyce. I made all these weird ones. After TikTok blew up, I went back to see if it was still there and deleted most of everything else. I was an eighth grader, and I didn’t want people to see this.
Why did you keep “James Joyce” up?
I thought it was weird, so I liked it. If you put out something weird and it’s bad, then you’re a weirdo. But the James Joyce thing — I was just proud of it for having made this very weird thing.
Since Bernie is back, has anyone messaged you on TikTok?
Nobody’s talked to me about it as far as I know. I’ll get a stray follower now and then. Honestly, I was kind of expecting it to be more of a thing. Sometimes I’ll tell people about it as a joke, but nobody ever mentions it or brings it up.
Tell me about your bio, “Hello am Bernard. Sanders is healthcare for you are thanks.”
There’s something just very funny in mangled English. It doesn’t mean anything other than that it doesn’t mean anything, right? It gestures towards something that might make sense. It gestures toward healthcare — his signature issue or whatever. But it’s nonsense, and I like the nonsense.
It kind of fits. Bernie is a bit chaotic.
Yeah, Bernie is funny because he has to fight that image. But there’s a real difference between 2020 Bernie and 2016 Bernie. Bernie then knew that he wasn’t able to win, so he could do those sorts of crazy things. Now that he’s gotten more serious, he’s more reserved.
Are you planning on voting for Bernie?
Yeah, I think so. Washington is not really a good primary state. I’m going to vote left. I hope that will be Bernie, but I think it’ll probably end up being Biden.
What do you like about Bernie?
It’s good that he can sort of talk about these relatively utopian things and bring them into the discourse, even if it doesn’t mean that he’s doing it. Honestly, the kind of moral outrage and indignation that he brings is almost kind of unique in a weird way. There’s not a lot of politicians almost scolding people, and I think it’s relatively effective.
I wish he were younger. You worry about him dying. It’s always a fight between whether or not you should try and push for things that are more achievable or more out there. If you never have large goals you’ll never reach them, but if you only have large goals then you’ll never do anything at all.
You’re wise at 18.
I’m gonna graduate this year. I am still in high school. Probably trying to go to Georgetown. I don’t know how that all will pan out.
Do you have career goals yet?
Probably just stay in academia. I want to do research and philosophy. I do it because there’s nothing else. There’s certain things that you’re so passionate about that you kind of have to do them.
Are you into TikTok?
I think a lot of TikToks are kind of bad. There are a few that are really good. Vine was so amazing because it sort of forced people to be creative in a way that hasn’t really been replicated by TikTok. TikTok has had a cultural move. There’s this migration. Really, it’s its own language. It also has this nightclub quality. There’s so much dancing. The music is so rhythmic. It’s mesmerizing, right? You get stuck watching these things. Once you see the sirens, you can’t stop watching them. I wish I was more into TikTok, but honestly that’s part of the reason I don’t make them. I feel like I don’t respect the form enough. To be really good you have to be a person who’s kind of obsessed with something. I don’t think I’m really obsessed with it.
Talking about the Vine days, you sound much more millennial than Gen Z.
Oh, man. Oh no, I hope I’m not ruining the story.
No, not at all. I think it’s funny. Because, you know, everyone loves to figure out what Gen Z is about today.
I’m skeptical. There must be some meaningful generational dividing lines. But it’s also not true that there can be, like, fine lines.
What do you care about in the election?
I think social democracy is good, and I think people are beginning to realize that. Bernie is best at articulating that because he just explicitly calls out the 1 percent. Especially for my generational cohort, there is this acknowledgment that the problem is, like, our system, a political economy. It’s capitalism, right? Politics that address that is a prerequisite to doing anything.
So you haven’t heard from Bernie?
No, I wish I’d heard from Bernie. That’d be sick.
What if he comes after you for your TikTok name?
I would give it over. I would let him have it.
Really, you would?
Yeah, I think so. Well, I don’t know. If it’s just like some underpaid intern just sending me mean emails, I don’t know if I would turn it over. What would Bernie do? Does he even know what TikTok is? Probably not.
He’s on it. Or at least his campaign is on it.
Yeah, I’m sure that he’s heard about it in the context of China. I’m sure that’s his line.
So you’re not going to give it to the unpaid intern —
Bernie would have to ask himself. If Bernie asked me for that handle, I would hand it over.