Like It or Not, the Democratic Party Now Must Answer to Millennials

Students on stage listen to Bernie Sanders speak to their classmates at Roosevelt High School inDesMoines, Iowa on January 28, 2016. (Photo: Phil Roeder) Students on stage listen to Bernie Sanders speak to their classmates at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 28, 2016. (Photo: Phil Roeder)

One of the most recurrent allegations leveled at Bernie Sanders supporters is that they are young. On the surface it is difficult to imagine that accusing a supporter base of populating an age bracket could be advanced as a serious critique, but such is the frequency with which the observation is made that one has to assume that there is some popular appeal to the coupling of youth with political illegitimacy.

In reality, the disenfranchising of young people is an easy way to dismiss their grievances, a sort of a crowd directed ad hominem attack. This narrative has not only appeared in mainstream media, but both Hillary and Bill Clinton have sought at points to publicly make ridiculous the political participation of young people.

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On April 3, when given an opportunity to counter the proposition that accepting campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry (nearly $6.9 million, according to Greenpeace) constrains her capacity to sincerely tackle the climate crisis, Hillary Clinton remarked that she “felt sorry for young people” and that they should “do their research.” On April 16, Bill Clinton jovially accused young students of wanting to “shoot every third person on Wall Street.” The implications of these comments are that young people are naive and fanatical; these comments exhibit a kind of ageist let-them-eat-cake-ery that reveals a basic misapprehension of who this demographic actually is.

The fact is many Sanders advocates are young, and this is integral to their capacity to progress a dynamic agenda. Often depicted as self-absorbed and apathetic, young people have in reality been the principal collateral damage of neoliberalism. Not only are they poor, but as a result of impossible student debt burdens, no expectation of job security, falling real wages and the constant threat of impending global economic collapse, they are future poor. They are the most incarcerated generation in history (over 50 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons are between the ages of 20 and 30), living in a country where rising national debt levels are everywhere cited as the cause of crumbling infrastructure, and where nearly half of all young people admit to avoiding seeking medical treatment because the cost is prohibitive. For most millennials, their entire adulthood has been defined by permanent war, imbedded inequality, omnipresent poverty, routine corruption and a planet that is dying as they stand upon it. As the 2016 State of the Millennial report noted in its assessment of the challenges facing young people, “48 percent of Millennials now believe that the American Dream is dead.”

Compounding these deep-set infrastructural problems, voter suppression in Arizona and New York, and the lackluster response to it, has only intensified suspicions that the democratic process is neither free nor fair, and that interference in the most rudimentary exercise in political participation is commonplace. This has exacerbated a sense that somehow young people do not exist in a full enough capacity as citizens to expect meaningful participation or recognition in the electoral process. In a climate of such heightened tensions, it is indeed risky to imply that young people are petulant or reckless when they refuse to fall in line behind Hillary Clinton.

Bernie or busters are not inherently malevolent. On the contrary, they are acutely aware of having been muzzled and are carefully weighing up the likelihood that they can survive eight more years of the establishment regime. Menacing them with threats about how much worse it can get only crystallizes the impression they already have of a detached liberal class that remains oblivious to just how bad it is right now.

Illustrating this very point, on April 20, Prof. Robert Reich outlined the “new common ground between populist left and right” in which he points out that both constituencies are against crony capitalism, bank bailouts, Citizens United and corporate welfare. If there is any truth to Bill Clinton’s awkward dig that young Sanders advocates want to “shoot every third person on Wall Street,” it is probably worth noting that they are not the only ones.

The concerns of Sanders millennials are reflective mostly of a desire to preserve some of the world they will inherit. Refusing to take seriously their grievances reveals a willingness to ignore the terrifying enormity, perhaps even impossibility, of that task. If an account is not given for voter suppression and penance not made to restore the confidence of a disenfranchised demographic in democracy, there is no telling what the fallout will be. But if history is to be any instruction, willful disregard of the suffering of poverty without recourse to political participation usually ends in violence.

Far from being myopic and disconnected, millennials are media savvy and politically shrewd, and they are not going to be placated by the type of windy rhetoric that sated the Obama electorate. If Hillary Clinton wants to bring them to the ballot box behind her, she is going to have to do more than talk in sweeping terms about uniting a party against a common enemy: She is going to have to convincingly change her politics, and in an atmosphere of high mistrust, that may prove complicated.