Columns » Jay Barth

A generational Bern

Our first vote tells a good deal about how we'll be voting the rest of our lives.


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Sen. Bernie Sanders
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders

Our first vote tells a good deal about how we'll be voting the rest of our lives. By the time of that first vote, the political socialization process has "baked in" our political attitudes. Before that, family, peers and the social context in which we have come of age all have influenced the ways in which we process information to form our political attitudes and ideology. Of course, those attitudes can be significantly altered by emotionally charged events and persons who become most important to us in later years, but the foundation has generally been established by our late teens.

As the bumper stickers on cars on my own campus of Hendrix College remind me daily, voters who will cast their first votes in the 2016 primaries appear to be disproportionately supporting Bernie Sanders. First, the country's youngest voters skew Democratic; Harvard University's Institute of Politics survey of young voters in December shows, first, that 18- to 29-year-olds favored a Democrat winning the White House in 2016 by a 56-36 percent margin. Within that group of voters, Sanders is running up unmatched margins. In the Iowa caucuses, for instance, an extraordinary 84 percent of those under 30 caucused for Sanders (and he did even better with the subgroup under 25). While President Obama's support among young voters in 2008 in that state and elsewhere was overwhelming, it paled in comparison. (At this writing early Tuesday morning, we only know the outcomes of the vote in Dixville Notch and a few other villages in New Hampshire, but all expectations are that young voters in that state's primary will likely support the Vermont senator by an even larger margin than their Iowa peers).

In trying to understand the septuagenarian Sanders' support among young voters, analysts have focused on an "authenticity gap" between him and Hillary Clinton. Many argue that such perceived "authenticity" — stylistic and substantive — is the sine qua non of political leadership for younger Americans. Others argue that it is not just what Sanders says and the frumpy brusqueness with which he says it that is driving the Vermonter's support with the young, but instead his campaign's exceptional use of targeted social media to speak to young voters and inspire them to #FeelTheBern on various social media outlets.

But it's not just the messenger or the mechanics of his messaging. Instead, ideological dynamics are at the root of Sanders' support with first-time voters. And that is what will have lasting electoral importance. Some are drawn to Sanders because of his view on economic issues; members of this generation are feeling particular agitated about their own economic futures in a society increasingly defined by economic inequality. While the bulk of Americans are concerned about economic inequality, a larger number of younger voters feel that some "revolutionary" action is needed to correct this trajectory before it's too late. (Indeed, only 9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are turned off by Sanders' embrace of being a democratic socialist, according to the Harvard survey; 66 percent said it made no difference and 24 percent said it made them more likely to support him). Statistician Nate Silver has argued that, more than economics, it is Sanders' libertarian streak that is driving younger voters, who are increasingly secular and distrusting of institutions, to Sanders. Thus, it is concerns about the irregularities in the criminal justice system and the government's collecting of phone records that is really driving the Sanders voters. (By this argument, Sanders' momentum stole the energy that Sen. Rand Paul envisioned using to make a run at the GOP nomination.) Still, whether it is economic liberalism or libertarianism (or a complicated mixture of the two), it is an ideological distinctiveness in this generation that seems to be driving the support for Sanders.

Despite his strong start, Sanders remains a decided longshot to win the Democratic nomination in 2016, partly as a result of his struggles to gain the votes of Democrats closer to his own age. But, particularly in concert with their slightly older peers who supported Obama in droves and an increasingly diverse American electorate, the movement that he is leading is likely to have ramifications well after he is gone from the political scene. The 2036 election cycle is looking pretty good for progressives at this point.


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