The kids are alright: Millennial politics, democratic socialism and Bernie Sanders

March 31, 2016
Bernie Sanders' campaign speaks to the ideals of many young people.

Across the US young people are pouring into the polling booths. The contest is not the Presidential election — that is still some months away. Instead they are lining up to vote in the primaries for the Democratic Party. In particular they are turning up to vote for an old Jewish radical from New York.

Bernie Sanders has seen a wave of support lift him from an outsider to a real contender — although still an underdog — in the race to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. His main contender is Hillary Clinton, backed by decades of experience, the corporate media, lobbyists, sponsors and the entire apparatus of the Democratic Party. By all accounts, this should have been an easy race for Hillary, her ascension to claim her birth-right. Instead, this has become a bitter struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

In the blue corner, we have Clinton, representing a politics of pragmatism, compromise and “steady reform”. An imperial “progressive” of the highest calibre, she manages to mix liberal feminist overtures with hawkish military policy and an economic record that would make some on the right uncomfortable.

In the red corner is Sanders, with a platform based on higher taxes for the rich, non-interventionist military policy, free college education, universal healthcare and better wages and conditions for American workers.

The Sanders campaign surge, which has seen him take state after state, often with sizeable margins, has been fuelled by young people.

Campaigning and voting for him, young people are being mobilised by the reforms promised by the elderly Senator.

What motivates these young people? Precarity, education, living standards and concern for a common future. Importantly, this movement is not an aberration, it is the heralding of a new political landscape. The millennials have arrived.

Who are the Millennials?

So who are these new kids on the block? It is hard to define exactly who are Millennials — and indeed they may not simply be a set of time brackets, but rather a general sentiment attached to a layer of young people.

I am a Millennial, born in the year 1995. So when asking what characterises us and the spirit of our experiences it is important to get past the discussions of smartphones and internet use which tend to dominate mainstream discussions.

There is, in fact, a multiplicity of factors shaping young people's consciousness and helping to explain why people like us support the politics of Sanders.

First, Millennials are socially progressive. On issues such as gender and sexuality, drug legalisation, reproductive rights and secularism, young people are overwhelmingly more open, tolerant and accepting. A recent study of young people in the US has shown that more than half of young people identify as non-straight. Such a number would not have been conceivable even a generation ago.

Secondly, demographic shifts are making this generation more multi-ethnic and less white-hegemonic than previously. Migration of increasingly diverse cultures and shifts in birth rates between communities are leading to a demographic shift which will mean white people will be a minority in the US by mid-century.

Thirdly, the economic condition of young people has changed. This is perhaps the most important change reflected in the Sanders campaign. Young people are entering a labour market that is still suffering the convulsions of the 2008 economic crash. The capitalism they are experiencing is a leaner, meaner beast than their parents experienced.

In general they are concentrated in service industries, particularly hospitality and retail. They are poorly unionised and poorly paid and often suffer serious violations of their workplace rights. They are collectively more likely to suffer severe unemployment. They are burdened by significantly higher levels of student debt, priced out of housing and as a result, are likely to save far less than their forebears, leading to a lower rate of economic independence and higher rates of poverty.

All of these factors lead to a world that is defined by precariousness — work that is transitory and casual, living conditions that could collapse at any moment and a social safety net that does not catch many people at all.

Fourthly, there is a changing ideological landscape. We are living at a time when capitalism no longer seems to be a particularly viable mode of existence — in fact, it has repeatedly shown its failures. Young people's lived experiences have been dominated by key events that show the crises affecting the Empire in a very clear fashion. The global financial crisis, the war on terror and the spectre of climate change, are all different manifestations of the problems facing the capitalist empire today.

This general scepticism about capitalism is coupled with the fact that old Cold War ideas about what is and is not politically legitimate are wearing thin. Without a Soviet Union to point to, the Empire is finding it difficult to mobilise anti-communist sentiment. I was not alive when the USSR existed, and for people like me, the Soviet bogeyman is not scary.

These material and ideological phenomena are combining into a political milieu where it is increasingly possible to discuss alternatives to capitalism in open and constructive ways. For many in US schools and universities, it is cool to identify with socialism, or even communism. It is this shift that has paved the way for the mass youth support for Bernie Sanders.

The politics of Bernie

The resulting politics is both a radical break from the hegemonic ideas of what is and is not legitimate political discussion, and a confused mix of different ideas and traditions.

Sanders has captured the ideals of many young people, born of the precarious condition of 21st century life, with a strong social democratic program. Such a program, including free education, higher wages, the right to unionise, green energy and taxing the rich and corporations would not be out of place in the platform of a Scandinavian party. On the surface then, Sanders does not offer a radical break with capitalism.

At the same time, Sanders' campaign is placing itself firmly within the tradition of democratic socialism. In this way, Sanders is following in the footsteps of the great American socialist Eugene V Debs, who led the Socialist Party in the early 20th century. While Debs' platform and politics were considerably more radical than Sanders', by placing himself in line with a man who went to prison for opposing World War I, Sanders is seeking to signify a break with establishment politics. At the same time, his examples of “democratic socialism” remain firmly within the parameters of what would more traditionally be called social democracy.

Sanders is at his weakest on the international questions. He has wavered on opposition to US imperialism, and while being anti-war, refuses to break entirely with support for Israel. While he has offered some positive words, especially in the past, for the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua, he also denounced Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected President of Venezuela and socialist leader, as a “dead, communist dictator”.

It is his economic policies, and his long-time support for social justice issues, that are bringing young people in to support Sanders. They see him as respectable, uncorrupted by power, and outside the establishment.

Young people get organised

It would be foolish to see young people's support for Sanders in isolation. Young people also form the backbone of the Black Lives Matter movement and movements for justice in barrios and communities across the US. These young people know the US is still an occupied territory for the oppressed nationalities living under the boot of settler-colonial power and white domination.

The flowering of youth revolt in Ferguson and the riots in which high school students threw rocks at police in Baltimore shows the lengths young people are willing to go to resist the repressive regime.

The growth in youth support for the Sanders' campaign is the thin edge of the wedge. It is only the beginning of a much wider phenomenon, which is full of potential. What is emerging in the US is a generation of people who are not going to be silent in the face of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. They are not going to allow establishment figures, such as Hillary Clinton and Al Sharpton, to direct their energies into the “right channels”, and they are not going to stop at even the progressive political insurgency of Bernie Sanders.

Young people are carrying a torch to open up the path towards a different US — one in which democracy, freedom and justice can flourish. The Bernie Sanders' campaign is one of the first signs of this shift. It will not be the last.

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