On his way to winning the New Hampshire primary, Bernie Sanders got more votes from people under 30 than all other candidates combined. He won an outright majority of teens and twenty-somethings in a field of nine candidates. He won 42 percent of voters under 45, and just 17 percent of people 45 and over. These hard numbers stack up with what the polling has indicated for some time: a 78-year-old is dominating The Youth Vote in a crowded field that includes 38-year-old Pete Buttigieg. Bernie, you see, has the kids.
Maybe they've watched as the very few gobbled up the resources, leaving the rest to scuffle over what's left. Maybe they are buried in student loans, trapped as a debtor class to some of those same ultra-wealthy few as their own dreams fade before their eyes. Maybe they don't have healthcare coverage, or the coverage they have doesn't cover much, and all that has landed them in still more debt. Maybe they know they're nowhere close to owning their own home and it's not because they got avocado toast at brunch. Maybe they've watched their own generation fight wars with no end, where the only purpose now is to avoid the ignominy of admitting we've lost. Maybe they have watched those before them squander a livable planet—and so much of the beauty in our unlikely existence—in a decades-long frenzy of greed and consumption.
Perhaps they think that Bernie Sanders alone has grappled with the scale of how fucked up things have gotten. Maybe they see a simple honesty in how he assesses the situation, in how he has little interest in personal compliments or creature comforts, in how he does not change his tune based on the polling or which donors are calling. His donors don't call: they give him $18 and move on with their days. Maybe some of the youths suspect the chameleonic Pete Buttigieg, The Youth Candidate, wants the job more than he wants to do anything in particular with it. How else do you explain his Romneyesque adjustments when the cracks in Joe Biden's façade started to show, and those aforementioned donors started calling? Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, merged into the land between left and center and found herself crowded out altogether.
Whatever the reason, the kids like Bernie. But there's no denying there's a danger to any campaign that counts on The Youth Vote, a kind of liberal-Democratic cautionary tale with roots as far back as at least George McGovern. Sanders will get more and more comparisons to the antiwar prairie populist of 1972 if he keeps winning primaries, because McGovern is considered the ur-example of the stars-in-your-eyes lefty who never understood How Things Really Work and caught a beating from the treacherous Richard Nixon because of it. These comparisons will not take into account whether Sanders is likely to get himself into an Eagleton Affair of his very own, or whether the dynamics of the electorate—from its demographic makeup to partisan polarization—might have shifted over the last half-century.
Still, there are questions on whether the political revolution Bernie Sanders has predicted—and on which his argument for general-election victory depends—has really materialized. New Hampshire's turnout was comfortably up from 2016 and came in around the record levels of 2008. Sanders pledged to bring new voters into the political process, though it's unclear yet how much credit he can take here. Meanwhile, The Youth Vote was down as a percentage from 2016, from 19 percent to 14, although voters under 45—another Sanders bloc—made up a third of the electorate.
New Hampshire, like Iowa—which is hardly worth engaging with after a string of (best-case accidental) fuck-ups from the Democratic Party—is extremely unrepresentative of both the Democratic electorate and the country as a whole. In New Hampshire, 93 percent of primary voters were white, but Sanders is surging with the black and Hispanic voters who will play a far bigger role in the coming contests in Nevada and South Carolina. The state of New Hampshire has also engaged in voter suppression targeted at college students, who of course are a huge chunk of The Youth Vote.
All this is to say that the jury is still out on Sanders' core electability argument: that he will usher in a wave of new voters who will form a majority movement in the mold of FDR's New Deal coalition. Nevada, where he is under new attack, and South Carolina will tell us far more about that than the indefensibly first-in-the-nation Iowa and New Hampshire contests. But what is not in dispute is that the kids like Bernie. They liked him in New Hampshire, they like him nationally. Young black voters like him. Young Hispanic voters like him. The question is whether the youths who say they like him over the phone, to a pollster, will actually go out and pull the lever. That's always been the problem, after all, but can any other candidate credibly promise to get them out? And then there's the question of whether Sanders can bring in enough new voters to counterbalance possible losses in the suburbs, where Democrats found a lot of their strength in 2018.
That brings us to the ultimate question: whether everyone else ought to start listening to the kids. You can already hear the refrains about how the young people of this country are fools and naifs, unable to grapple with The Real World or How Things Work, destined to drive us all off the cliff in an election where democracy itself will be on the ballot. Or maybe they know exactly how things work and they don't like it. And maybe it already feels awfully like we’re in freefall, and they’ve never actually had their chance behind the wheel.
It is the generations before them who shoveled all the resources towards the relative few, leaving so many with so little that they are losing sight of that last glimmer of hope. It is the generations before who accepted Endless War as an American pastime. It is the generations before who squandered their birthright of a livable planet, and who will die off before they face the worst of the consequences. It is the generations before who failed to rise to the challenges of this moment in history. Maybe it’s time the kids took their driver’s test. They'll be stuck in the car longer than anyone else, and they've begun to signal they know as much with outbursts like the climate strike in September. The kids have arrived. I said it once, and I'll say it again: They're making noise. But no one will give them the wheel. They'll have to take it.
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