As part of our local Arizona for Bernie work, I often table at a monthly arts festival in Phoenix called First Friday. It’s a lively mix of drunk people and young people, and we tolerate the former to reach the latter.
Last month a young and drunk person wandered over, aggressively caught my gaze, and told me as if revealing a decisive truth: “Bernie’s old.” He immediately looked to the other end of the table, eyed three young women signing our pledge sheets, and realized he had mistimed the approach. So I offered what I thought would be some consolation: “You’re not wrong.”
Hearing himself patronizingly affirmed of course only served to enrage the young man into laying out the stakes of his initial claim, which, sadly, is in the back of many people’s minds. “No one wants to vote for someone who they think is gonna die soon.”
I forget what I said in reply — something unintentionally effete, maybe, “Well, we’re all going to die someday.” (What I wish I’d said: “Better to be old and right than young and a shithead.”)
Concern Trolling Bernie
What to do about this purported “age” problem? It is rather uniquely applied to Bernie Sanders in the mainstream media — the other front-runners in the race aren’t exactly spring chickens (Joe Biden is seventy-six; Elizabeth Warren, seventy). Biden has looked particularly decrepit, seemingly having lost the important presidential abilities to deploy basic English grammar and to not have your eyes spontaneously bleed. But concern about his health has been mainly limited to right-wing outlets. Meanwhile, Bernie gets a stent, and the New York Times begins drooling.
But playing the unfair treatment card can only get us so far. Bernie is the oldest candidate in the race, and anyone with an understanding of human finitude grasps what this means, which is why it’s such a popular talking point for Sanders’s enemies. The senator has always enjoyed robust health, and from what I can tell, we have every reason to believe the recent stint in the hospital is not foreboding. But that’s good news for us, not for people who are taken in by the instrumental ageism of the liberal propaganda machines.
For all of these reasons, I think it’s time for the Left to embrace the age concern. Bernie’s old. So what?
One of the most exciting aspects of the nascent democratic-socialist renewal is that it has shifted political conversations away from the personalities of politicians toward their actual policy platforms. So much of pre-2016 politics was about which candidate was more likable; now it’s about where they stand on policies that actually matter to working people.
This is an undeniably positive development. When we say we’re for Bernie Sanders, it means we’re for Medicare for All, College for All, workplace democracy, and a Green New Deal. Indeed, Bernie Sanders’s name has become synonymous with these working-class demands, which is why it’s so funny to see neoliberal imitators try to claim support for them while distancing themselves from Bernie at the same time.
This is all to say that a vote for Bernie Sanders is a vote for a working-class political agenda more than it is a vote for a single person. Sanders himself has made this clear with his campaign slogan, “Not me. Us.” We are supporting and organizing for Sanders because he is the only candidate who is crystal clear about wanting to decommodify large sectors of the US economy, and who accurately and courageously names the capitalist class as the barrier to this agenda.
Point us to another candidate who is dead set on winning single-payer health care in this country, who wants to eliminate all student debt, and who has a serious plan to address climate change while putting millions of people to work, and we’ll vote for that person. “He’s too old” is just a veiled way of saying, “Give up on your politics.”
But then there are those who say that we have a much better chance of actually achieving some of these transformative policies by pushing a more “viable” and younger candidate to the left. It’s these people who are selling the real snake oil. There is zero evidence that any other candidate in the race has any intention of seriously pushing for any of Sanders’s plans.
Warren is the closest, but she’s unlikely to push for Medicare for All, her student debt alleviation proposal is means-tested and a literal half measure, her wealth tax far weaker than Sanders’s, and her plan to address climate change is not going to work. If Sanders supporters give in to the age concern and back Warren, they are not being “smart” — they’re just giving up on a clear program of pro-working-class reforms.
We want Bernie Sanders to be president because he’s authentic, because he talks about his demands (not his “plans”) as an organizer rather than as a professional manager or law school professor, and because he has an understanding of the mass pressure from below needed to defeat the health insurance and fossil fuel industries. There is something special about Bernie the person that no other candidate embodies, and frankly, it’s our fault that there’s no one a little bit younger who brings what he brings.
But his supposed physical frailty, even if it were a legitimate concern, should not sway our vote if we are voting to give a mandate to a particular political agenda. Backing a “second-best” candidate makes absolutely no sense if it’s the platform that we support.
My suspicion, however, is that the worst-case scenario for the liberals who raise the age concern is that his health concerns are a hindrance to his electability. Will the electorate vote for someone who they think has health issues? Well, look at the grotesque physical specimen currently sitting in the Oval Office; voters are not going to be convinced that Donald Trump is the “healthier” alternative, if in fact “health” plays any deciding role whatsoever in a head-to-head battle between the two.
Stay the Course
Earlier this year, Amber A’Lee Frost wrote of Bernie’s 2020 run: “I don’t care if we have to roll him out on a hand truck and sprinkle cocaine into his coleslaw before every speech. If he dies mid-run, we’ll stuff him full of sawdust, shove a hand up his ass, and operate him like a goddamn muppet.” We don’t need to get our hands dirty to see the basic point: who cares that Bernie is old when he has made democratic-socialist politics popular for the first time in most of our lifetimes?
I’m voting for Bernie because he is the only candidate who truly supports and has a viable plan for Medicare for All, College for All (including full student debt alleviation), workplace democracy, and a Green New Deal. You’re not telling me anything when you say my candidate is old except that you do not support a clear program of economic, environmental, and racial justice. I think it’s as simple as that.
There is, however, something uncomfortable raised by the age concern, but it doesn’t have to do with Bernie. It has to do with us. No organization has fully capitalized on the momentum of Sanders’s 2016 run, and the plight of the Left still seems very bound up with the person of Bernie Sanders. If the age concern makes us nervous, it’s because we aren’t sure we’ve got the organization necessary to carry on without a national polestar.
But this is no reason to abandon Sanders for a younger candidate. It’s rather reason to use Sanders’s 2020 run as an opportunity to build a movement that lives on for generations.