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Millennial Voters Ask: Why So Much Hate?

The presumption among older voters is that the millennial craze for Bernie Sanders is born out of naïvete. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jewel Samad/Getty Images

Recently, I was asked by an older ex-colleague, “Why do you support Bernie? What I mean is—well—why do young people support Bernie? Is it because of his ‘schtick’?”

Here it was, the phenomenon that journalists had been harping on for weeks—the young-old divide within the Democratic Party. It was playing itself out before my eyes, with me being asked to (impossibly) voice the opinions of an entire generation. How was I going to react?

Badly, apparently. Having been put on the spot, I started to stutter about random policies. I confused the FAMILY Act with child care grants, muttered something about single-payer health care, and in general exhibited the very inexperience he was tacitly criticizing (at some point, I may have quoted from “I’m Just A Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock!).

As I returned to my desk, I scolded myself for my inability to defend my positions. But what upset me the most was that I had probably confirmed my colleague’s suspicion that young people are attracted to Bernie not due to any concrete reasons, but rather because we had fallen for some gimmick about a revolution—a “schtick.” 

Understanding why Sanders is leading among millennials is a discussion worth having—in the Iowa Caucus, an overwhelming 84 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for him, and another 84 percent did the same in New Hampshire last night. However, the implication that I supported Sanders because of youthful ignorance, rather than a dozen other reasons he might have come up with (we did, after all, work at a policy think tank), was grating. The idea that I had assessed each candidate’s platforms, the practicality of implementing them, and the stakes, and had decided that Sanders was the best candidate to fulfill my political goals and aspirations, had not occurred to him. 

To be fair, he is not alone. Sanders’s surge in popular support, fueled in large part by the youth vote, has puzzled pundits. They have struggled to explain why millennials are feeling the Bern, and many have opted for a similar dismissal of any substantive reasoning on the part of the young. A quick run-through: Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, thinks young women are complacent. Alexandra Schwartz over at the New Yorker says millennials are uncompromising purists. Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post believes that the kids are taken with Sanders’s too-cool-for-school style (she supports this by referring to Holden Caulfield, rather than asking the opinion of, well, an actual millennial).

On Hardball, Chris Matthews implied that kids supporting Sanders just don’t understand how the political system works. This past weekend, Gloria Steinem weighed in, asserting that young women favor Sanders because they crave male attention, saying: “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’” (She later apologized for the statement. For an alternative explanation as to why young women are gravitating towards Bernie, read this fantastic piece by my colleague, Elizabeth Bruenig.) Other terms that have been thrown around include “self-indulgent,” “entitled,” and “terrifying.”

The anti-youth sentiment that has been swirling around the liberal mediaverse can perhaps be best summed up in this tweet:

By assuming that millennials are all ill-informed upstarts, and by ascribing mainly shallow justifications as to why they might prefer Sanders to Clinton, pundits minimize the issues that affect young people and motivate them to vote. In a recent Rock the Vote/USA Today survey of people between the ages of 18 and 34, participants identified the economy as their top issue, an umbrella category that includes jobs, the minimum wage, and paid leave. Issues relating to education, such as college affordability and student debt, came second, followed by foreign affairs and health care.

This is not surprising. While unemployment has dropped to 4.9 percent overall, it is at 16 percent for those between the ages of 16 and 19, and 8.2 percent for 20-to-24-year-olds. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a left-leaning think tank, even among employed and college-educated youth wages have been on a constant downward trend since the year 2000. Young people today are also much less likely to have employer-sponsored health care than in the past, and, as college tuition prices rise, student debt per full-time student has nearly tripled since 1990. Younger parents with younger children are more likely to need paid family leave, and younger people overall are more likely to be in poverty. 

Running down EPI’s Class of 2015 report, it’s easy to see that Americans coming of age during and after the Great Recession are faring much worse than the previous generation, which may have bearing on their political preferences. A study published in 2014 by Paolo Giuliano and Antonio Spilimbergo suggests that young adults who grow up during a recession tend to have a greater preference for government redistribution and hold a belief that luck, not effort, determines economic success later in life. 

As Peter Beinart put it in a 2013 piece for the Daily Beast:

It is these two factors—their economic hardship in an age of limited government protection and their resistance to right-wing cultural populism—that best explain why on economic issues, millennials lean so far left. In 2010, Pew found that two-thirds of millennials favored a bigger government with more services over a cheaper one with fewer services, a margin 25 points above the rest of the population. While large majorities of older and middle-aged Americans favored repealing Obamacare in late 2012, millennials favored expanding it, by 17 points. Millennials are substantially more pro–labor union than the population at large.

Is it so outlandish to think that the circumstances in which each generation grew up would affect their political preferences? Particularly when those circumstances are of immense historical importance, like the Great Recession? While those who entered the workforce during Bill Clinton’s presidency may remember his legacy as an era of economic prosperity, that wealth hasn’t trickled down to today’s millennials. Two decades later, they are just as likely to hear criticisms of Clinton’s policies, such as welfare reform, DOMA, and mandatory minimum sentences. Indeed, when you take into account the root causes of the financial crisis, income inequality, and wage stagnation, the Clinton years start to look like part of a neoliberal-conservative consensus, as opposed to a liberal outlier between two Bush administrations. At a time when more young voters seem to be following all the correct steps for success—graduating high school, getting a college degree—but are still floundering, it’s no wonder that they are drawn to Sanders’s stacked-deck rhetoric.

While Hillary is not her husband’s keeper—and is certainly running on a much more progressive agenda—she is tied to several of her husband’s policies. Take, for example, the welfare reform bill (for which Hillary rounded up votes in Congress), which is now highly criticized for having contributed to keeping millions of women and children in deep poverty. Or her past comments about black children in gangs being super-predators. Clinton has not promoted these policies in her campaign, but she has not rejected them either. And, while Bill and his supporters may have seen conciliatory politics as the only option for a liberal in his position, millennials (especially black millennials, as Michelle Alexander points out) are now left dealing with the mainly negative results of that pragmatism, souring them towards Hillary’s entreaty for a similar approach to governance.

In explaining her support for Sanders, one youth told the Guardian, “[W]e in general identify ourselves as the generation of debt. That’s our identity. Bernie Sanders, that’s one of his biggest issues: his biggest platform is debt, inequality.” In the Boston Globe, another young student states, “I really think, if the wage gap between the billionaire class and common Americans like me and my mom wasn’t so great, I feel like growing up I would have had a lot fewer hard times.” By not focusing on these reasons, and assuming that young people are voting for Sanders based on a superficial conception of political revolution, Democrats fail to acknowledge the issues facing an entire demographic of voters that is crucial to their future prospects.

In truth, Sanders and Clinton’s goals are not as far apart as they are often portrayed. There is certainly a case to be made that Clinton might be better suited to advance solutions to the problems that young voters face. But the dismissive attitude coming predominantly from older generations and Clinton supporters obstructs any real “contest of ideas.” It is pretty difficult to engage in a genuine conversation about policy priorities with young voters when you’re also yelling at them to get off your lawn. Clinton appears to have learned this lesson, making explicit appeals to young voters in her concession speech last night. Likewise, Democrats should be encouraging millennials to participate in the political system and listen to the issues they raise—even if they invariably stumble along the way.