For months now I have watched the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential campaign and tried to pinpoint the Vermont senator’s immense popularity, particularly among young voters under 30. The fervor which his youthful supporters display behind his candidacy and his success at grassroots fundraising suggests Sanders has tapped into a hidden reservoir of voter anger. Except, it’s more than anger and attributing his support to voter rage minimizes what I now sense is a transformational moment in modern-day American politics.
I did not always believe this. Though I recognized that Sanders’ candidacy was gaining credibility, my sense was that it was the novelty of his message that was drawing support. It was not until a telephone conversation with my colleague Rob Tarver that I began to think differently about the Sanders phenomena. Tarver suggested that the avowed democratic-socialist had tapped the moral outrage of young people who simply had no tolerance for unfairness. It seems like a simplistic rationale to explain Sanders surge but I think it’s a correct assessment.
While Senator Hillary Clinton is the ‘anointed’ Democratic candidate and the ultimate party insider, young voters view her as just that – a member of the ruling class that Sanders has pinpointed as the source of America’s downfall. While the Clintons, Hillary and President Bill, might have represented “hope” two decades ago, today they look like establishment players who benefit from the exploitation of the masses. Senator Clinton’s seeming coziness with Wall Street provides fodder for Sanders to paint her as the champion of the 1% that is hoarding wealth to the detriment of all others who are holding on by a string.
Today’s 25 year-olds were in their teens when Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco, was convicted for receiving $81 million in authorized bonuses and using company funds to purchase almost $15 million of art works to sustain a lavish lifestyle. These voters witnessed the conviction of Jeffrey Skilling for securities fraud and insider trading for his role in the Enron debacle. Then there was Wall Street financier Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi king who defrauded thousands of investors to the tune of $18 billion and whose actions devastated his family, as one of his sons committed suicide two years after Madoff’s arrest.
The under-30 voter in this year’s presidential election has had a front row seat to watch the fundamental unfairness of capitalism. While Reagan era youth were taught that “greed is good,” the Clinton generation has come to see the wickedness of the American infatuation with wealth and the collateral damage of income inequality. It is why the term “socialist” elicits no reaction from young voters and has little of the fear factor of the Red Scare days. In fact, they may see it as a reasonable alternative to what they perceive to be a system that plunges Americans into poverty, harms children and destroys their future quality of life.
And it’s not just the individual acts of capitalist excess that draws young voters to Sanders. This generation remembers the horror of Katrina and how our country allowed its citizens, mostly poor and mostly Black, to suffer during a natural disaster. It is observing the lead poisoning debacle in Flint Michigan and how indifferent political leadership has jeopardized the health of tens of thousands of residents, many infants and children. While I view the excesses of police violence through the prism of race, many of these young voters see race and fundamental unfairness in police brutality incidents. It is why the mobilized masses under the Black Lives Matters movement are a rainbow of humanity. They feel betrayed because central to their conception of citizenship is the idea that the playing field must be level. It is why Sanders message is resonating with young voters and why it’s going to be prominent no matter who is the Democratic nominee. We already see how Senator Clinton has had to respond and try to claim the ‘progressive’ mantle. If he begins to make inroads into the Black and Latino electorate, and I suspect he can, Senator Sanders at a minimum will impact the party’s direction for the November election. One way for Sanders to connect with the Black electorate is to articulate how a fairness framework for governance is inclusive of a civil rights agenda.
Voters in general are in a surly anti-establishment mood. It is the energy that Donald Trump has tapped on the Republican side and his cohorts seek to exploit as well. The Clinton campaign looks tired by comparison and it is carrying some heavy, heavy baggage. Every endorsement of Senator Clinton by an establishment type just reinforces the “out of touch” perception. We saw hints of this in 2008 when Senator Clinton went up against Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. It was her air of entitlement, something borne out of being an insider, that offended many when it seemed she belittled Obama and her husband engaged in racially coded rhetoric. This year, young voters’ demands for fairness are even trumping Clinton’s gender appeal and that should have the senator’s camp very worried. The two Obama campaigns for the White House demonstrated the potency of the under 30 vote.
Fairness is key for Bernie’s young supporters and their candidate has branded the 1% and its legion as the enemy, and young people are in agreement.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com