17 February 2016

Youth and identity politics in the Democratic race

One of the most mind-boggling details of a truly mind-boggling presidential campaign is that the oldest person running for a major-party nomination, Senator Sanders, is the youth candidate. He wipes the floor with Hillary Clinton among younger voters, and I suspect that the gender gap in that cohort isn't very great. It's also worth noting that Sanders beat Clinton among women voters in New Hampshire last week, and the younger the women were, the more they supported Sanders. While Clinton still campaigns as if Sanders is ignoring minorities, it seems that young female Democrats are less interested in making history as an end unto itself than their elder sisters are. It may be that younger women don't need the Presidency to validate their own progress as much as their elders who remain resentful of all the slights of the past. It will be interesting to see how that varies by race as the Democrats move on to more heterogeneous states like South Carolina. It may be, after all, that white women don't need that validation, while others, perhaps more conscious of enduring barriers, empathize with anyone, even a white woman, trying to break barriers. That seems to be Clinton's own thinking as she portrays Sanders as a single-issue candidate -- and despite all her comments on his health-insurance plans, she's now decided that his single issue is "break up the banks" --while asking what his special project will do to end sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. The subtext of the Clinton campaign seems to be that it's "privilege" to focus on the issues Sanders is concerned with, while the underprivileged "can't wait," as she has said, for action to improve their lot as soon as possible. More than Sanders, Clinton is trying to translate the rhetorical logic of "Black Lives Matter" to the presidential campaign. She is determined to press as many identity buttons as she can. More importantly, she hopes to drown out Sanders's efforts to push those same buttons by shouting that he isn't even trying.

It will also be interesting to see how youth effects racial voting patterns. There are already small hints that younger blacks are more skeptical toward Clinton than their elders. At least one black Representative seems worried about a youth backlash against criticisms of the alleged naivete of Sanders supporters. Across the board, young supporters of Sanders are described as everything from idealist to ignorant, while Clinton is held up as the person who knows how to get things done in the necessary baby steps. But are young voters naive or stupid not to think, as Clinton wants them to, that reactionary Republican stubbornness is an argument against Sanders? If anything the Sanders movement consists of people who are sick and tired of Republicans and could not care less whether they intend to oppose anything Sanders proposes. Sanders people, I suspect, have no desire to defer to Republican objections to anything, nor any interest in compromising to get Republican votes. That may well mean that nothing gets done, depending on the composition of Congress, but younger people may not see that as a reason not to demand what they think is right. It may be idealistic or naive of youth to dare to demand in the face of seemingly immovable opposition, but should that really be held against them?

The Sanders case is the second recent instance of youth's affinity with age after the Ron Paul movement, or the third if you want to go back to Ralph Nader's presidential campaigns. What do young people see in crusty old men? What they respect is defiance of political convention, though I wonder whether they ask themselves why this seems to come more easily to the elderly.  Perhaps they believe that the country has started to go to hell recently enough that older people know what better times were like. Age alone doesn't win anyone a following, however, or else young people would be flocking to Clinton, going on 69, or Donald Trump, going on 70. One plays identity politics while the other plays populist, so by process of elimination maybe younger voters are the ones most likely to think in systemic rather than personal terms and are more interested in radical reform that amounts to more than simply chastising certain people or groups of people. Sanders is often described as a populist because he denounces "Wall Street," but right there his politics become less personal than those of his rivals. They're less about punishing specific people than about reforming if not revolutionizing an entire socio-economic or political system. Similarly, Ron Paul proposed dramatic systemic reforms, albeit with drastically different intended consequences, and that kind of systemic vision may appeal more to the youngest voters than the bitterness or wagon-circling approaches of other candidates. Another way of putting it might be that the sort of young people who are drawn to Sanders, Nader or the elder Paul are those too young to believe that people are the real problem. If so, judge them accordingly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If I were Sanders, I'd ask her exactly what she accomplished, as the NY Senator, (in the short time she kept the seat) to improve the lot of minorities in NYS. Which bills did she author and/or support that "broke barriers" for those struggling hardest. And further, I'd ask her why, if she truly cares about these issues, did she dump her senate seat at the first opportunity for a higher political position, one in which she couldn't help those struggling minorities.