(Printed in USA Today May 11, 2016.)
Bernie Sanders’ lock on young people has been a constant throughout the Democratic presidential primaries. Exit polling shows he won 83% of voters under 30 in Pennsylvania last month, 74% in Indiana last week and 71% in West Virginia on Tuesday.
Why are Millennials so enamored of Sanders? Most hypotheses credit their enthusiasm for sweeping moral goals such as transparency, fairness and justice. Perhaps young voters prefer Sanders’ call for “revolution” over Hillary Clinton’s more pragmatic incrementalism. Perhaps they are put off by Clinton’s questionable use of a private email server and her highly paid speeches on Wall Street.
Clinton has intimated time and again that Sanders’ powerful “diagnoses” of American economic ills (read: without prescriptions) are the big draw. Larry David, playing the 74-year-old Sanders on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, explained it this way: “The young people love me … because I’m like them. I got a lot of big plans and absolutely no idea how to achieve them.”
I would add a historical reason for the generational split: Unlike older people, Millennials have no memories of socialism, communism and the Cold War that framed American foreign policy from 1945 to 1991. During that period, the Soviet Union shifted all parts of its economy, whether business, health or education, to government control. The end goal was a Utopian communist state in which class was abolished, egalitarianism ruled and all citizens would equally own their means of production.
Sanders proudly calls himself a democratic socialist. For a vast number of Americans old enough to have lived through the Cold War era, referring to oneself as a socialist elicits reactions that range from dangerous suspicion to laughable condescension. Previously, a man with avowed respect for Fidel Castro would be disqualified as a high-level politician. Previously, a man who honeymooned in the former Soviet Union would be disqualified. A socialist (democratic or not) would recall not Scandinavia but aggressive Soviet communism, and would be disqualified.
During the Cold War, many followed President Reagan’s dictum that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” bent on world domination. NATO was formed to contain the threat of its expansionist ambitions. Nuclear arsenals were erected against it. American arms flooded into anti-Soviet client states. Proxy battles and covert coups were run from the White House, the Department of Defense, the CIA and the National Security Agency in order to thwart the designs of fledgling revolutions. For most of the Cold War, little could be trusted because little could be verified. Spies swarmed into the Soviet Union and the satellite nations it controlled. Radio towers were raised to beam them Western propaganda in order to convince people in the Soviet sphere of influence that they had allies in the West.
Mainstream Americans dismissed the socialist model on economic and/or human rights grounds. It was said time and again that no matter how attractive a theory, in practice socialism and communism failed to create a strong and diversified enough economic engine to power a first-world nation. There were the endless blocks of crumbling gray apartment buildings, each identical one after the other after the other; the lines for bread in Leningrad; the empty food-store shelves in Moscow. Soviet expatriates wept as they saw for the first time the abundance in the aisles of American grocery stores.
There were the stories of the Gulag’s slave labor, arrests without trial, political purges, the disappearance of writers, artists and political dissidents. There was the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Perhaps most symbolically fitting, in the early 1980s, the Soviet Union and its failing socialist doctrine were best captured by the series of sclerotic general secretaries passing away one after another in short order.
All this the Millennials missed. And now, for them, socialism is a doctrine modified by an adjective and associated with the progressive parties of Western Europe. Their impressions fall far short of the miseries of the Warsaw Pact.
Not unlike their late socialist and communist brethren, American youth increasingly have found their bogeymen in the titans of industry. Less and less does the idea of an intrusive Orwellian bureaucracy haunt young Americans. Sanders wants a vast expansion of the federal government, including government-run single-payer health insurance and free public higher education. Most Millennials favor a moderate to large role for government in health care, and they certainly don’t mind the idea of free college.
The Black Lives Matter protests against police abuse and young people’s militant protection of their privacy rights are exceptions to this generation’s big-government predilections. Nonetheless, stripped of the moderating forces of an existential enemy, untroubled by the spectacle of the command-down state, seemingly unaware of the feeble returns of a true socialist economy, Sanders’ Millennial guard sounds more and more unbound from reality.
Nuance has left the building, and Clinton is having a hard time getting it back in.