In 1912, twenty thousand textile workers went on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Mostly women and mostly immigrants, they faced violent military and police repression in what is known today as the Bread and Roses strike.
Lawrence is not far from Harvard University. Naturally Harvard, long a stronghold for the ruling elite, chose the side of the mill owners. The university even offered academic credit to students who joined the National Guard and took up arms against the strikers. They advertised this program with the motto: “Defend Your Class!”
Harvard has long known which side of the fight it’s on. While the institution has developed savvier optics since 1912, it’s still dedicated to reproducing the dominant class. Just this month, a Harvard dean publicly expressed his concern about the “erosion of faith in capitalism” and asked, “What can we do to make sure that society’s trust in capitalism remains strong and can be rebuilt?” While Harvard scholars may receive sizeable grants to study the externalities of capitalism, the integrity and political stability of the profit-driven economic system remains one of the institution’s primary concerns.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders trounced Hillary Clinton among college-age young people at the national level. Not at Harvard, though. The Harvard class of 2016 opted for Clinton over Sanders by an astonishing two-to-one margin.
Is it any wonder, then, that at a town hall for Democratic presidential primary candidates co-hosted by Harvard and attended primarily by Harvard students, Bernie Sanders got the short end of the stick? He’s a socialist politician who talks openly about eliminating parasitic industries and has uttered the words, “This is class warfare, and we’re going to stand up and fight.”
A Harvard student asked Sanders about the “failures of socialism in nearly every country that has tried it.” The question was met with applause from the two hundred Harvard students in attendance. Naturally, no question about the failures of capitalism was posed to any of the candidates. The lopsidedness shows the degree to which capitalism is taken for granted as the only palatable economic system among Harvard students, despite its failure to provide a decent standard of living for hundreds of millions at home and billions of people across the globe.
Another Harvard student asked Sanders to answer for the million dollars he made from his best-selling book, questioning whether it “undermines your authority as someone who has railed against millionaires and billionaires.” No other candidate was asked whether their personal phone calls to billionaires soliciting donations or their close friendships with Silicon Valley tycoons contradicted their claims to represent ordinary people.
Finally, Sanders was asked about his plan to extend voting rights to all convicted felons, even if they’ve been convicted of terrorism or sexual assault. When he answered that everyone deserves to be able to vote, Harvard students live-blogging the event took the opportunity to imply — in the most eye-rolly way possible — that his support for expanded suffrage shows a lack of concern for sexual assault victims. The phrase “carceral feminism” has rarely been so apt.
Sanders answered these questions deftly, but there’s no denying that this town hall was less favorable to him than the one he did in eastern Pennsylvania last week on Fox News. Ivy League undergrads aren’t his core constituency and never will be. Are you surprised that a politician who openly advocates for the working majority’s interests fared better in a deindustrialized Pennsylvania steel town than he did before a firing squad of students from the nation’s most elite university? Don’t be. Just remember the mandate to “Defend Your Class.”
But fear not for Sanders. There are only about 330,000 living Harvard alumni in the United States. The vast majority of Americans have no connection to elite institutions, no family safety net, and dwindling faith in the promise of capitalism. Sanders’ message is directed at them: the hundreds of millions whose lives would be transformed by Medicare for All, fully-funded quality public education at all levels, a $15 minimum wage, stronger workplace protections, mass decarceration, and better trade agreements.
He can’t count on support from elites, and he doesn’t have to. As long as he articulates an ambitious positive political vision to the working-class majority, he’s got the math on his side. As the Lawrence workers wrote in explaining why they were on strike: “In a society made up of a robber class on the one hand and a working class on the other hand, it is absolutely necessary for the toilers to band themselves together.” By highlighting the depredations of the robber class, Sanders won’t make many friends at Harvard. But he will have a credible path to victory.