Meme power: Why Bernie Sanders and his mittens have brought us all together

As senator Bernie Sanders and his winter wear has shown the world, a meme is always there to bring us together

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 20, 2021 Former presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) sits in the bleachers on Capitol Hill before Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th US President at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Bernie Sanders may be most familiar in a US political context, but that hasn't stopped Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from using a now famous meme of the Vermont senator to warn people to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic.
On January 23, 2021, Trudeau posted a photo of himself giving a press conference from his lawn on Twitter, with the now famous image of a seated, mitten-clad Sanders superimposed in the background.
 / AFP / Brendan SMIALOWSKI

Over the past four days, social media has been able to focus on little other than one man and his mittens.

The world watched on Wednesday as history was made with the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the US, and of Kamala Harris as the first woman, black and Asian-American vice president.

While the ceremony was pared back, owing to a combination of the pandemic and the riots at the Capitol building a few weeks earlier, there was still all the glamour and pomp you would expect from such an occasion. There were superstar performances, killer outfits and even a few heartwarming moments.

But it was a hand-warming moment that really stole the show. A rather ordinary rain coat, a perfectly timed picture and, most importantly, a pair of wholesome knitted mittens have turned Senator Bernie Sanders into an early contender for meme of the year.

Within minutes of the snap making its way online, Bernie and his handwear were heading for viral fame. The internet did what it does best, and found a way to photoshop him into just about every famous scene or scenario you could possibly imagine.

Bernie was everywhere. In Instagram stories, in tweets, in stickers to post on Instagram. It was meme inception. Fast-forward another few days, and we have Bernie mitten filters, Bernie mitten merchandise, and all-round Bernie mitten fever.

The meme has been shared the world over – by Democrats and Republicans, by celebrities and non-celebrities, by old and by young. It’s captured the imagination of just about everyone, although Sanders himself has been characteristically unfazed.

So what is it about the power of a meme to bring people together? How does a simple picture of a man sensibly bundled up against the cold capture global attention?

Simply, it's relatable. It’s a moment people will almost be able to feel through the screen. He could have just as easily been waiting in line for groceries or sitting on a park bench, rather than watching the 46th president of the US get inaugurated. His "post office chic", as one Twitter user called it, stood out among a sea of suits. And we were all absolutely here for it.

It was a private joke that everyone was in on. And, given the uncertainty and division so many are facing right now, it’s what the world needed. A collective chuckle that has the power to warm more than just Bernie’s hands.

As it always goes with viral memes, by next week Bernie and his mittens will be old news – perhaps those who persist with posting the memes will even start to grate on us – and it will be on to the next five-minute fascination.

But just like the reliability of mittens on a cold day, you can always count on a meme to bring people together.