Skip to content Skip to footer

The Age Divide in the Primaries: Voting for Values Over Fear

People underestimated the cultural gap between generations that influenced the outcome of the recent primaries.

People continue to be amazed that Sen. Bernie Sanders has been doing so well during the primaries in running as a candidate for president — the dark horse coming up from behind and continuing to win more and more states, despite all that was done to thwart him. The media pundits are surprised because they don’t understand the age divide that separates them from younger people. All the reasons given to not vote for Bernie Sanders do not apply to the younger generation.

Here’s why. There are four key aspects to the divide that influence how people of different generations might view socialism, Judaism, being old and having hope.

First, to assert that Bernie Sanders is a socialist doesn’t scare the youth. They didn’t grow up during the Cold War. They don’t cower at the mention of the world “socialist.” They don’t assume that it means “communist.” The “enemy” they have been told to fear is not the demonized communists of the McCarthy era. Even US corporations encouraged President Obama to visit Cuba and have talks with Castro over “development opportunities.” Now the once-dreaded communists have been replaced by demonized Muslims and Arabs. Bernie Sanders is neither a Muslim nor an Arab, and the youth aren’t afraid of him. What the youth know is that the economy is broken. There are few jobs for young people and mountains of college debt. The promise of higher education has betrayed them, and the plan of moving up the socioeconomic ladder has morphed into a downward slide toward unemployment, with no health care or pensions, while their dignity is whittled away in an economy that focuses on work as defining worthiness.

Second, to argue that Bernie Sanders is Jewish doesn’t scare the youth. They have been told for decades that we have to support Israel, a nation whose official religion is Judaism. In 2015, the United States gave $10.2 million a day to Israel, in addition to a tremendous amount of weapons and technical expertise. Members of Congress are calling for more aid, and Hillary Clinton has said the first thing she will do when she becomes president will be to invite Netanyahu to the White House. So why would the youth be reluctant to support a Jewish candidate for president?

Third, to claim that Bernie Sanders is “too old” doesn’t scare the youth either, because they know what it is like to be dismissed for your age. How is it possible that at 18 you are old enough to go to war, but not old enough to vote? Or buy a beer? How often are people under 21 interviewed in the mass media? Recently, 21 young teens from across the US brought a lawsuit against the federal government to protest against global climate change that is stealing their future: Our Children’s Trust. Critics said the lawsuit was foolish and nothing would come of it. But to their surprise,the judge agreed to hear the case. The lawsuit was also brought by climate scientist Dr. James E. Hansen, “serving as guardian for future generations and his granddaughter.”

For people under 35, once you reach 50, you are “old” and the exact number of years beyond that doesn’t matter so much — what matters is what you do with your life. And Bernie has held up better throughout the campaign trail than many people half his age. At 74, Bernie Sanders is only one year older than the previous “old” president, and age hasn’t stood in the way of Sen. John McCain or many other politicians.

In the United States, people at both ends of the age spectrum are devalued or simply ignored. They don’t count because either they are “too young” and can’t vote, or they are “too old” and retired or unable to get jobs because of their age, no matter what color they dye their hair. Once you retire, your status declines sharply, unless you own a company or have great personal wealth. People don’t look up to the old as elders with wisdom; they are looked down on as frail people who don’t know how to use Twitter and enhance their Facebook pages with more friends. Old people write in cursive, the arcane lettering that Harry Potter’s friends treasured. Yet somehow, young people understand that folks their grandparents’ age might have something worthwhile to say, and they focus on what Bernie says, not his sartorial splendor nor his chiseled features, as he himself quipped.

Last but not least are values. The politicos assumed they could count on youthful cynicism — that young people would be tired of the same old games of voting for the “lesser of two evils” and would opt out, as so many have before. But the experts were wrong. Young people (and others of all ages) listened to Bernie’s message and were moved by not only what he said, but the values embodied in his life’s work. And they registered to vote. They weren’t running to vote in fear — they joined a movement that offered the hope of a future through positive changes to benefit all. Bernie Sanders offers the youth hope — “A future you can believe in.” He helps us imagine what a better world would look like.

So, despite the mass media dubbing him a “fringe candidate” and denying him the airtime he deserved, he still won 23 states. Despite the purging of voters and the failure to give independent voters crossover presidential ballots, he could still win more states. And his supporters are not taken in by clever sound bites — they are making decisions to put their votes and their energies into changes that are real, for the good of the nation now and for future generations.

This past March, a little reddish house wren perched on the podium at Bernie’s talk in Portland, Oregon, and many took this as a sign of hope. Perhaps we should pay more attention to the birds rather than the negativity of pundits. Before voting in the next election, we can reflect on which candidates are goading us with fear that leads to intolerance and violence, compared to those who move us by living out their values in serving others.