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The Bernie Sanders phenomenon and the indignation of the youth

01 . 05 . 2016

Juan Andrés Gallardo and Celeste Murillo

How did a septuagenarian self-proclaimed socialist become the candidate of the youth? What will remain of the Sanders phenomenon after the primaries? What is meant by “socialism”?

The Sanders campaign has captured the attention of the both mainstream media and the left around the world. Since Sanders began his run as a candidate in the Democratic primaries, he has drawn large crowds and organized thousands of volunteers around the country. His campaign broke the record for individual contributions—previously set by Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Although Clinton is still the front-runner today and is likely to get the nomination, the competition has become unexpectedly stiff, with Sanders expanding his influence and appeal among young people and steadily gaining ground among women, Blacks, and Latinos.

However, after Sanders’ seven straight wins in Apri, Clinton once again gained the upper hand with her victory in the New York State primaries.

Meanwhile, a completely undemocratic system has transformed Clinton’s 10 percent lead (in delegates awarded by popular vote) to a 22 percent lead with the addition of superdelegates. This is a scam for all Democratic primary voters, but it is rarely denounced by Sanders.

The numbers reveal that there is little chance for Sanders to win the Democratic nomination. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm around the Sanders has turned his campaign into a true political phenomenon.

*This chart includes delegates up to and including the New York State primary elections on April 19, 2016

An anti-establishment sentiment across the world

Discontent with the establishment is not a phenomenon exclusive to the United States. More than a few analysts have compared the Sanders phenomena to Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and to Podemos in Spain, which arose after the indignados movement. And this year, massive protests erupted in France against the labor law reform proposed by the Hollande government.

The common thread throughout these examples is the leadership and central role played by youth. This was demonstrated by the enormous wave of young people who signed up to join the Labor Party to vote for Corbyn, lowering the average age of party members from 53 to 42. In the case of Sanders, the life-blood of the campaign is youth under 30—a phenomenon that no other candidate, Republican or Democrat has experienced.

The indignation of the youth and their repudiation of the establishment does not automatically translate into a progressive or leftist phenomenon, as is demonstrated by the growth of right-wing groups like the Ciudadanos in Spain, the UK Independence Party, the National Front in France and the youth-led Golden Dawn in Greece. We have also seen the growth of neo-nazi and xenophobic groups like Pegida in Germany as a response to the refugee crisis.

In the US, the anti-establishment sentiment has most benefited the Sanders campaign, although Trump has also taken advantage of some aspects of this phenomenon.

Social Movements Before Sanders

Many of the youth who today support Sanders made up the social movements that have emerged and developed in the past few years. There exists among these movements a type of synergy, in which the new movements draw from the progressive aspects of the old and incorporate their demands. For example, while Occupy Wall Street is not an active movement today, its idea of resistance against the 1% is present in all US social movements today, and is even a fundamental aspect of Sanders’ rhetoric.

With the exception of the anti-war movement, the lack of major defeats to the social movements has allowed for this continuity of ideas. The Black Lives Matter movement and the movement against police brutality quickly connected the dots between the racist murders of Black youth and economic inequality, since the youth who were killed by police tended to be working class or poor.

Something similar has happened in the struggle for a $15 minimum wage, where the demand for . an increase in minimum wage, has been connected to the fight for immigrant rights, and against racism. Sanders takes up some of the demands of these social movements and has even altered his political platform to incorporate them after being challenged by BLM activists in the early stages of his campaign. These movements are very heterogenous and their core groups are often very small. Yet the impact of their actions have generated massive sympathy from millions in the millennial generation.

The Youth Behind Sanders

In 2015, millennials became the largest generation in the United States, surpassing the baby boomer generation. The millennial generation is, in general, overqualified, underemployed and facing a mountain of debt. This generation has become the main protagonist in the primary elections. Their participation has wrecked havoc on the Democratic primary by creating an obstacle to the coronation of Hillary as the nominee. Thanks to the vote of those between 18-34 years old, Sanders put up a fight in electoral blocs where Clinton was once the overwhelming favorite, like women and African Americans. In January of 2016, the unemployment rate was 4.9 percent according to official statistics. Yet, between 16-19 year olds, it was up to 16 percent and 8 percent among those aged 20-24. Twelve percent of millennials live under the poverty line and 14.9 percent of college graduates are underemployed (EPI, The Class of 2015). One third of this generation returns to their parents’ homes after graduating college due to the economic impossibility of living independently, especially while being weighed down by student loan debts. The graduates of 2015 are the most indebted in history; on average each student owes more than $35,000 after graduation (an increase of $2,000 since in 2014). Debt as a result of student loans debts ($1.2 billion) are only surpassed by home mortgages. Forty million people have student loan debt in the US today.

Millennials are a generation who, in their majority, know that they will have a worse standard of living than their parents and will not have access to home ownership. If they are able to attend college, they will be debt for most of their lives and will enter the workforce with a lower wage and more precarious work than older workers. This gloomy future for American youth has not pushed them to individualism or ideological apathy, as it did with previous generations who were marked by the fall of the Soviet Union and triumphant rhetoric of capitalism. Millennials did not live through the era of neoliberal triumph. They only arrived to see the misery that followed.

What is it about Bernie Sanders’ message that attracts these young people? Put simply, it’s because Sanders talks about what is happening in their lives: economic inequality, mountains of debt and unemployment. He transforms their demands into campaign slogans, like free college education, pardoning portions of student loan debt, and expanding access to health care. Furthermore, his idea of a political revolution gives the youth a beacon for the fight against those responsible for inequalities, against the political and financial elite, Wall Street and Washington.

No longer a stigma

One of the unique characteristics of Sanders is that he calls himself a socialist (even though in recent months he has been calling himself a ‘democratic socialist’). What is interesting is that a large sector of young people not only accept this descriptor, but sympathize with it.

It is indisputable that American society is polarized. A series of surveys about capitalism and socialism confirm it. Among those under 30, 43 percent have a favorable view of socialism while only 32 percent have a favorable vision of capitalism (YouGov). A conservative consulting firm found a similar phenomenon and expresses worry with the degree of “radicalism” among youth. Not only did 58 percent respond that socialism is the political system that most takes into account people’s problems (9 percent said communism), but 66% think that corporations “represent everything that is wrong with the United States”. These are not nationalists who admire American “greatness”. In fact, 35 percent of the people between 18 and 26 years old feel more like citizens of the world than of the United States. How do we explain that?

The British journalist Owen Jones put it well when he said that this generation was nearer to the fall of Lehman Brothers than the fall of the Berlin Wall. He is not the only one. An article by John Cassidy in The New Yorker put it in these terms, “The stigmatization of left-wing politicians and left-wing ideas dates back to the Cold War, which ended twenty-five years ago.” In The Guardian, the economist Thomas Piketty said “... we are faced with the end of the politico-ideological cycle opened by the victory of Ronald Reagan at the 1980 elections.”

While it is possible that millennials have a vague view of socialism associated with the idea of equality in general, what is certain is that they have been given no reason to believe in capitalism. Since 1975, almost half of the growth in per capita income in the US went to the richest 1% (OECD). The youth are the big losers of the recession and the economic recovery. In them, we can perhaps see a glimpse of what the future in capitalist society holds.

The rhetoric of capitalist triumph after the fall of the Soviet Union is as foreign to this generation as the ideological arguments that are remnant of the Cold War era. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US found new enemies, new unpopular wars, and entered an historic economic crisis. This eroded the celebratory rhetoric and sharpened the crisis of American hegemony. The “positive effects” of this are evident—a significant portion of the population thinks socialism is a better system than capitalism, an idea that was unthinkable 25 years ago within the heart of imperialism. Yet, the devastating effects of the conservative and neoliberal restoration at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century erased the idea of revolution from the horizon. This means that today, what is understood as “socialism” is often a confused and romantic ideal or a social democratic welfare state.

This combination has created a generation without previous prejudices against socialism, which when coupled with the downfall of American hegemony, is fertile ground to counter the disastrous ideological consequences of neoliberalism. This has not taken and will not take a harmonious and linear path, but rather a chaotic and confusing one. It is in this framework that we can find support and hope in the “political revolution” that Sanders promises.

Is there life after Sanders?

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign demonstrates a shift from an unmotivated and apathetic generation to one that placed their hopes in the change represented by the first African-American president. To them, the Obama government was a disappointment, with broken promises of Guantanamo’s closure and immigration reform along with bailouts of the banks and multinational corporations. This disappointment, along with the economic crisis, led to a greater participation by youth in politics, an ideological inquisitiveness and the rise of new social movements. This explains why the Sanders campaign is so attractive and why his program is targeted towards these sectors.

Yet, the expectations that his campaign created have met and will meet huge limits. One of the central problems is that Sanders decided to run as a Democrat. The Democratic Party and the Republican party are two wings of the system that has historically maintained and advocated for the interests of imperialists and the American establishment. The Democratic Party in particular has a long trajectory of co-opting and de-mobilizing political and social movements that appear to their left, such as anti-war movement during Vietnam or the Civil Rights movement. This is demonstrated by the failed candidacies of anti-war candidates in the ‘60s (Kennedy and McCarthy) or of African-American activist Jesse Jackson in the ‘80s. Clearly, none of these candidates ended up being the Democratic nominee. These “anti-systemic” candidates were thwarted by party mechanisms and backroom deals. This pattern repeats itself today, with the Democrats trying to channel discontent with the political elite and the economy back into the Democratic Party. Sanders' candidacy is useful to that goal.

Another problem with Sanders is that there are contradictions between him and his base. In the first place, he voted—with the Democrats—in favor of the war in Afghanistan, has firmly supported the state of Israel and is in favor of the use of drones, which in the final analysis, expresses a commitment to an imperialist foreign policy. Secondly, he has committed to supporting Clinton if she wins the nomination. Lastly, he rarely questions the anti-democratic mechanisms within the Democratic Party, such as superdelegates, which go against the basic principle of “one person, one vote.” These elite delegates (governors, party official and legislators) have a vote that is approximately equivalent to 10,000 ordinary voters. They are the mechanism by which the party and their donors impose candidates.

The undemocratic mechanism of superdelegates was evident ever since the beginning of the election. In the New Hampshire primary, Sanders decisively won the popular vote, but the candidates split the delegates evenly for that state.

In the end, Sanders will call on his enthusiastic base to vote for the establishment candidate of an irreformable party. It remains to be seen what percentage of Sanders voters will support Clinton in the general elections—some surveys have shown that as many as 50% of Sanders voters not may vote for Clinton. Even if these figures are hypothetical, they are consistent with polls showing that in the general elections, Sanders is the best competitor against any of the potential candidates including Trump, whom Sanders would defeat by 8 points, while Hillary would do by only a 3.4 point margin. In the past few weeks, Clinton has begun to raise the spectre of Trump to encourage a logic of the “lesser evil”, insinuating that Sanders could be the new Ralph Nader. In other words, an extortion of Sanders’ base so that they will vote for Clinton as the lesser evil when faced with a possible republican victory. In response to this campaign, Sanders himself began to put conditions upon his support for the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, pressured more by his base than his own political convictions.

The orientation of the left toward Sanders

A large part of the global left has placed its faith in reformist phenomena, considering these to be the most that can be hoped for today. This includes relatively uncritical support for Syriza and Podemos and for figures like Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. In the US, this translated into a discussion around the possibility that a Sanders candidacy might lead to a political movement — and that the left could capitalize on such a movement. At least on a small scale, the US left knows how to make ties with social movements as the election of Kshama Sawant demonstrated, with her support from the Fight for $15 campaign. The ties can amplify and expand when the left does not renounce an open criticism of Sanders’ program and other contradictions of his candidacy, beginning with his decision to run within the Democratic Party. Above all, the left must maintain the center of their strategy on the construction of an organization that is independent of the establishment parties. The idea of the rise of a new movement has its detractors, such as James Petras, who reduce the Sanders question to its electoral expression and signal that, like their predecessors, Sanders’ electoral base “has a strategic weakness: it is in the nature of electoral movements to coalesce for elections and to dissolve after the vote”, leaving as only possible scenario a massive demoralization after Sanders’ defeat in the primaries. However, the continuation and development of social movements and their entrance in the political terrain show that the current phenomenon goes beyond the candidate: it is found in its voters, and it is likely that this phenomenon will continue to develop after the elections end.

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