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Red Fear: The Generational Gap in Bernie Sanders’ Campaign

Earlier this month, Bernie Sanders, in an interview with Meet the Press, reiterated his identification as a democratic socialist. This label, according to Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, explains why he won’t be elected president, regardless of how much support he can elicit from the liberal left or the youth. Not only is the stance disruptive to the capitalist roots of both the Democratic and Republican parties—although the latter embraces the ideology more than the former—it also conflicts with the unpopularity among the general US population towards the concept of socialism. The results of a recent Gallup poll found that “half of Americans [say] they would not vote for a socialist.” The same poll found that socialist was the least accepted association for a presidential candidate. Americans would vote for a Muslim or an atheist before they would vote for a socialist. Embedded deep within the history of the United States is a disinclination for the socialist model of government, at least in the totalitarian sense: from McCarthyism, to the consequent deposition of leftist dictators around the world, back to the rugged individualism of the Hoover era. Barack Obama has even been forced to repeatedly dismiss notions that he is a socialist. On an overwhelming majority of fronts, socialism is an ostracized and polarizing ideology in the United States.

The public perception of socialism in America, though, has not always been so negative. The movement once enjoyed many victories in the United States: Shakers in utopian communities, the workers’ movement of the Gilded Age, Eugene V. Debs’s unprecedentedly successful presidential campaign. The rise in socialist influence during these episodes and after owe their strength to the global fall of capitalist hegemonies as the vehicles of success and prosperity in the wake of multiple stock market crashes, the Great Depression, and two World Wars. There were cracks in the foundation of political and social life in the United States, and socialism provided some of the solutions.

More recently, the Democratic Party’s ideas are actually very congruent with socialist platforms—so much so that Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, is able to galvanize thousands to action and garner support from even more. The challenge for Sanders is not in finding believers, but convincing nonbelievers, those who oscillate between the two parties. This problem rests heavily on a generational gap within the population, one that is the result of historical ramifications beyond his control. Those that grew up in times that were defined by fears of communism and socialism, who solidified their political beliefs in early adulthood concomitantly with the rise and continuation of anti-socialist policies, are unable to look past his “S” word signifier and look at the issues individually. This can explain his comparatively strong appeal to millennials, people under a certain age that grew up—and thus crystallized their own political beliefs—in a time when fears of socialism were settling down or nonexistent. The number of non-millennial voters is overwhelmingly larger than the number of millennial voters, however, portents trouble for Sanders on the cultural front. Still, this does not wholly diminish the possibility of a democratic socialist win.

"Bernie’s problem remains major; the small minority that the younger generation represents in the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole is not enough to sway the vote and win the White House."

Based on data from the last Census, the US population is projected to reach 321.3 million people in 2015. Of that number, 222.2 million, 69 percent, is older than 24. This staggering number demonstrates the prevalence of non-millennials in US politics. Of those 235.2 million who are of voting age, based on the same projections, only about 16 percent fall into the category of “millennial.” Sanders’ hold on the population seems dwindling in the face of these statistics. Delving further, voter turnout by age creates an even more disconsolate picture for the Senator. Turnout for those between the ages of 18 and 29 from the years 2000 to 2012 averaged at 46.25 percent, significantly less than the average for those older than 30 for the same time period, which was 66.5 percent. Turnout increases steadily as age increases, and this has held true for years. Of course, not all millennials are Sanders supporters, and the converse is also true, as some non-millennials support Sanders. But Bernie’s problem remains major; the small minority that the younger generation represents in the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole is not enough to sway the vote and win the White House.

These numbers, when attached to individuals, provide a different picture that illuminates a similar conclusion. The majority of American voters have ties to historical experiences that were grounded in the fear of socialism and its increasing influence in the U.S. The Second Red Scare in America occurred between 1947 and 1957, and the Cold War lasted from around 1947 to 1991. Because the cementation of personal political ideologies does not happen at birth and instead relies on years of socialization through contact with one’s family and friends, the media, and other environmental factors, the affected individuals most likely would have been born in the period between the early 1920s through the early 1970s. The mass prevalence of anti-socialist propaganda through McCarthyism and other opposed ideologies proved enough to turn away possible supporters just because of a link to the feared name—one that incites visions of lost freedoms, totalitarian regimes, and the surrender of the individual to the state in a dystopian wasteland.

Not all hope is lost for Sanders, however. His campaign must change its rhetoric if he is to win in 2016. Though the blazing glory of his ascent to presidential possibility is punctuated by his stringent attitude toward his own label as a democratic socialist, this is not the only route he must take in self-identification. Rather than playing up the “S” word so much, Sanders must make much more of an effort to stress the importance of the precipitating “D” word: “Democratic.” In this way, he can attract many of those voters that have history on their minds, ones that he alienates every time he rails against capitalism and proclaims himself a democratic socialist. Sanders must also continue his efforts to cease only defining the movement and the ideology and persist in explaining what that means politically, namely what it is that he will implement and act upon in the White House; in essence, it is imperative that he creates a verb out of the noun, gives action to the name. Finally, Sanders could dismiss the name as his delegator for his stances on issues and just give his opinions on the issues individually. Though this comes at a sacrifice of his own identity, it will enable him to show just how similar he is to the Democratic Party and much of the electorate, and this could also show the many ways in which socialist ideologies are present in contemporary American culture.

If all else fails and Sanders doesn’t win the nomination or the election, millennial voters and other Sanders supporters need not fret, at least for too long. If the trend of increased voter participation holds true for years to come, the collective memory of the US drifts further away from reveries of an anti-socialist past, and more future voters are born without that socialization, a democratic socialist could be poised to win in later years. Hope may not be lost for these sanguine millennials, just somewhat delayed.


About the Author

Britt Edelen '19 is a Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.