02.05.2016
  • United States

Bernie and the Millennials

  • Corey Robin

The New Yorker is wrong. Young people are attracted to Bernie Sanders because of economic insecurity, not naive idealism.

On Tuesday night, Alexandra Schwartz, a critic at the New Yorkerposted a piece criticizing the young supporters of Bernie Sanders. Ordinarily, I’d be mildly irritated by an article titled “Should Millennials Get Over Bernie Sanders?” In this instance, I’m grateful. It clarifies the dividing line between Sanders’s supporters in the electorate and the liberal journalists who can’t abide them.

First, some context. Exit polls from Iowa, according to Vox, show that “Sanders absolutely dominated young adult voters, in a way that even Barack Obama couldn’t in 2008.” Eighty-four percent of voters under thirty, and 58 percent of voters between thirty and forty-four, cast their ballots for Sanders. More generally, as countless articles have noted, younger voters are shifting left, embracing ancient taboos like socialism and other heresies.

Schwartz finds this all puzzling:

Bernie would not be pressing Hillary without the support of the youth of America, a fact that I — a voter north of twenty-five, south of thirty — have pondered over the past few weeks with increasing perplexity.

Why are young people, she asks, “rallying behind the candidate who has far and away the most shambolic presentation of anyone on either side of this crazy race?”

A second’s Google search turns up an answer:

The youngest voting generation today is the most liberal bloc in a long, long time for three reasons.

First, they’re young and poor, and young, poor people are historically more liberal. Second, they’re historically non-white. Non-white Americans are historically liberal, too. Third, their white demo is historically liberal compared to older white voters, as Jon Chait has pointed out. It all adds up to one cresting blue wave. For now.

The poorer they are, says Vox’s Dylan Matthews, the more likely millennials are to support a government-guaranteed living wage, the redistribution of wealth, and an expanded safety net.

It’s not just a function of income, Matthews adds. It’s also a question of race and life experiences. Non-white millennials who’ve been discriminated against — whether for reasons of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation — prefer socialism to capitalism and favor an economically egalitarian society over a competitive, meritocratic society.

That’s why young people are rallying to Sanders: no other candidate has made economic inequality, the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, so central to his or her campaign.

Schwartz won’t have it.

The obsession with the banks and the bailout is itself phrased in weirdly retro terms, the stuff of an invitation to a 2008-election theme party. As my colleague Ben Wallace-Wells points out, we voters under thirty have come of political age during the economic recovery under President Obama. When I graduated from college, unemployment was close to ten per cent; it’s now at five. Sanders’s attention to socioeconomic justice is stirring and necessary, but when his campaign tweets that it’s “high time we stopped bailing out Wall Street and started repairing Main Street,” you have to wonder why his youngest supporters, so attuned to staleness in all things cultural, are letting him get away with political rhetoric that would have seemed old even in 2012.

This past year alone, the unemployment rate among sixteen to twenty-four-year-olds has toggled between 9 and 19 percent. Employment rates for twenty-five to fifty-four-year-olds have yet to recover to their pre-recession levels.

Nearly 70 percent of college graduates carry, on average, a student loan debt of $29,000. According to Mike Konczal, the student debt crisis is “a slow moving disaster,” which especially affects black and poorer voters.

Black students disproportionately rely on student loans for college access; according to the Urban Institute, 42 percent of African Americans ages twenty-five to fifty-five have student loans, compared to 28 percent of whites. Black families carry a student loan debt that is 28 percent higher than that of white families. . . .

In order to manage these debt burdens, students have been drawing out their student loan payments over an even longer period of time, from an average of 7.4 years in 1992 to 13.4 years today. Only the elite avoid this burden. According to the Federal Reserve, those in the bottom 95 percent of households have seen their student-debt-to-income ratio skyrocket since 1995. This is especially true for those in the bottom 50 percent, whose education debt has more than doubled — from 26 percent of yearly income to 58 percent.

Many young people graduate today, buried in debt, without much prospect of digging themselves out.

But all of this flies past the 2014 recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Schwartz’s attentions are focused elsewhere.

Like all young people, she says, the millennial voter has a longing for “purity,” and Sanders, with his refusal to compromise, seems pure.

Bernie’s attractiveness as a candidate relies on the premise of purity — a political value as ancient as politics itself. . . . The belief in the possibility of true purity might be a delusion for most voters, but it’s a privilege of youth, the province of people for whom the thrill of theory hasn’t yet given way to the comparative disappointment of practice.

It’s an eccentric kind of purist who manages to stick it out in the grubby world of electoral politics for four decades, working his way up from managing the potholes of a small city to servicing constituents in the House of Representatives to championing their interests in the Senate.

It’s an eccentric kind of purist who launches himself to a leading position as the potential head of what Kevin Phillips once called the “world’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.” (This last achievement leads Schwartz to some cognitive dissonance: if he were truly pure, she wonders, wouldn’t he “run as an independent”? Perhaps. Which may be an indication that neither he nor his followers think of him or themselves as so pure.)

No matter. Schwartz knows that her fellow millennials have a penchant for purity — and “historical fetishism.”

I sense a whiff of historical fetishism to the young love for Bernie, a yearning for an imaginary time of simpler, more straightforward politics that aligns with other millennial tendencies toward false nostalgia for past purity, in fashion or food, for instance.

It’s an odd sort of charge coming from someone who can’t explain her youthful enthusiasm for Obama in 2008 without dipping her hand into a till of clichés from the French Revolution:

It’s a rite of passage into political adulthood, when the contours of the world seem sharper than they may ever be again, and the notion of the correspondence between the politician one votes for and the one who arrives in office is still intact — that moment of “very heaven,” as Wordsworth’s famous line about witnessing the start of the French Revolution as a young man has it.

The college students and recent graduates who fervently support Bernie are enjoying their own moment of heaven, inevitably brief. I say this in spiritual solidarity. My own phase of very-heaven fell during the first campaign of Barack Obama. . . .

It’s doubly odd coming from someone who wishes to present herself as older, wiser, and world-wearier than her cohort. There is, after all, only one vantage from which the events of 2008 can seem, in 2016, to be “retro”: that of an adolescent.

And trebly odd when you consider that the only fetish on display in this article is the author’s own:

But Obama as a candidate may be as close as many of us will ever come to a twenty-something’s ideal politician — the sheer force of that fluid, academically honed intelligence! The nuance and honesty of the race speech! The dancing! — and a comparison of the two on that count yields something very odd. Bernie’s crankiness to Obama’s cool, his age to Obama’s freshness, his nagging to Obama’s rhetorical deftness, his hokiness to Obama’s humor, his gout to Obama’s jump shot: all make for a strangely conservative vision of a youth idol. (Then there’s the awkward fact of the most diverse generation of voters in the country’s history rallying behind another white guy.)

These are the words and phrases Schwartz uses to describe a black president: sheer force, fluid, honed, the jump shot, the dancing. The dancing! Not to mention the unmastered revulsion to age itself (that mention of gout), which seems to drive so much of this piece.

But that’s all incidental. What really strikes the reader is just how removed Schwartz is from the experiences of her generation, how utterly clueless she is about the economic hardships so many young men and women face today.

It’s true that Schwartz graduated from the tony Brearley School in Manhattan (annual tuition: $43,000) in 2005 and Yale (annual tuition, fees, and costs: $65,000) in 2009, whereupon, after a few detours, she landed a spot at the New Yorker, from which she reports on Paris (cost: priceless).

But does she have no friends or relatives who are struggling with student debt, low-paying or nonexistent jobs? Has she not read an American newspaper or magazine in the last twelve months? Is the cognitive divide between the haves and the have-nots that stark, that extreme?

Whatever the case may be, the Sanders campaign has brought that divide to light. We officially live in a world, to paraphrase Bob Fitch, where 90 percent of what goes on at the New Yorker can be explained by vulgar Marxism.