The Millennial Revolt Against Neoliberalism
We have been told a story about the presidential candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders, a story perpetuated almost exclusively by centrist Democrats vehemently opposed to his progressive agenda.
This story has many variants, but each features a central component: The Sanders campaign, the narrative goes, is merely masquerading as an ambitious political revolt dedicated to improving the material conditions of the public. In reality, contrary to its facade of progressivism, the Sanders campaign has largely served as a vehicle through which angry white males can freely express their fury at the expense of Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and the rest of the liberal political class.
Joan Walsh has perhaps been the most vocal proponent of this view; she has claimed, on many occasions and with varying degrees of nastiness, that the Sanders movement is nothing more than the embodiment of white male angst.
"I don't accept the presumption of moral and ideological superiority," Walsh wrote in a column for The Nation, "from a coalition that is dominated by white men, trying to overturn the will of black, brown, and female voters or somehow deem it fraudulent."
Walsh went on to lament a perceived "growing element of male entitlement" within the Sanders campaign, and in a tweet linking to her column, she accused Sanders of abandoning his status as a "movement leader" and warned that, if he continues "trashing" Democrats, he risks becoming "the messiah of an angry white male cult."
"Sanders's support among the young has mystified those who take a superficial, identity-based approach to politics. But from an ideological perspective, the fact that millennials have overwhelmingly backed Sanders couldn't be less surprising."
Despite the flailing nature of these smears, the narrative Walsh and others have attempted to ingrain in the national psyche has served several crucial purposes.
First, and perhaps most obviously, it attempts to present Hillary Clinton, the candidate overwhelmingly (almost unanimously) favored by the establishment, as the underdog — Clinton, in the minds of Walsh and other peddlers of the "Bernie Bro" narrative, is a vulnerable target of unfair and relentless harassment from this uniquely powerful white male socialist coalition.
Another, and far more pernicious, effect of the narrative constructed by Walsh and endorsed by Paul Krugman and many others is that it erases the support Sanders has garnered from young voters, including women and people of color. Former Demos blogger Matt Bruenig, who was fired from his writing job after a widely discussed online spat with Walsh and prominent Clinton ally Neera Tanden, has been one of the more forceful critics of the "Bernie Bro" narrative for this reason.
"It's really about old people versus young people, but you know that," Bruenig wrote in response to Walsh's article, in which she expounded her claim that the Sanders coalition is "dominated by white men."
Bruenig's point was, of course, one that everyone who has paid attention to the polling data, and the voting results, must concede.
As Conor Lynch summarizes, "the most revealing demographic divisions between Sanders and Clinton have not been gender or race, a narrative that Democratic partisans and the media have pushed incessantly, but age and generational divides."
"More young people voted for Bernie Sanders than Trump and Clinton combined — by a lot," reported the Washington Post's Aaron Blake in June.
And contrary to the Walsh thesis, Sanders's young supporters are not all white males. Polling data throughout the primary process consistently showed that young women favor Sanders over Clinton, sometimes by wide margins. Polls have also shown that young black and Latino voters favor Sanders, further contradicting Walsh and company.
"I think the big takeaway," said Edison Research's Randy Brown, "is that whether it's among whites or African-Americans, Bernie Sanders does significantly better among the youngest voters in the Democratic primary."
By attempting to frame the Sanders-Clinton divide as one determined solely by race and gender, Clinton surrogates have tried not only to remove from view Sanders's support among the young, but also to avoid any discussion of class — an element of American society that is inextricably linked to issues of race and gender.
And when they have allowed class to enter the discussion, it has been to disparage Sanders as a "single issue" candidate, as Hillary Clinton herself did on the campaign trail in February.
Neoliberals, as Adolph Reed has noted, have long used gender and racial politics to divert attention away from class divisions.
With the emergence of Sanders, the use of identity politics by corporate liberals as a substitute for class politics has become more urgent and, often, more ridiculous. It is easy, however, to see why they would choose this path: Democrats, as Thomas Frank and others have documented, have increasingly moved to the wrong side of the class war, opting to fight for the professional class over the working class, for the needs of corporate America over those of organized labor.
(To see how far Democrats have shifted to the right, contrast their current posture with the words of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was certainly no radical. While Schlesinger was wary of class conflict "pursued to excess," he argued, "Class conflict is essential if freedom is to be preserved, because it is the only barrier against class domination.")
But while Sanders has done much to intensify the class language of his coalition, he was not the one to bring class politics back to the fore — the inequities of the economic order, perpetuated by both Democrats and Republicans, did that on their own.
"It was the fall in real wages, the rise of precarious labor, the proletarianization of white-collar work, the rise in real unemployment, the persistence of underemployment, and the dramatic rise in income and wealth inequality that have brought class back," Dustin Guastella observes.
And Sanders, throughout his presidential campaign, has confronted these issues with striking success. By integrating racial and gender issues into his broad critique of "establishment politics and establishment economics," Sanders has offered a more appealing way forward, particularly when contrasted with the elite identity politics and incrementalism of the Clinton campaign.
"While Sanders has done much to intensify the class language of his coalition, he was not the one to bring class politics back to the fore — the inequities of the economic order, perpetuated by both Democrats and Republicans, did that on their own."
As Liza Featherstone has noted, "the number of ways that access to healthcare, education, higher-paying jobs, and wealth are intertwined with race and gender can’t even be counted."
Democrats have consistently stood in opposition to the ambitious reforms Sanders has put forward, and, for their efforts, they have earned the repudiation of young people facing increasingly grim economic prospects, from stagnant or declining incomes to absurd levels of student loan debt.
"The paradox," Guastella notes, "is that today millennials are both better-educated and less well-positioned in the labor market than their older counterparts."
Given this picture, it's no surprise that young people — including women and people of color — have overwhelmingly backed the candidate who has addressed income inequality and its consequences with admirable, and disturbingly rare, persistence.
But it's not about Bernie; it's about ideology.
Young people — particularly poor minorities — tend to be more progressive on economic issues than older Americans. Some data has shown that a growing number of millennials have a negative view of capitalism.
Further, millennials, more than any other generation, self-identify as working class.
Sanders's support among the young has mystified those who take a superficial, identity-based approach to politics. But from an ideological perspective, the fact that millennials have overwhelmingly backed Sanders couldn't be less surprising.
The first of a series of polls conducted by the Black Youth Project at the University Chicago and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that "black millennials favored Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton 53 to 39 percent. That's not too far off from the split among non-Hispanic white millennials, which was 62 to 32 percent in favor of Sanders, and it challenges the stereotype that Sanders solely appeals to white liberal voters. Among millennials who are Democrats, Sanders commands majority support across ethnic groups."
Further, young minorities "are more likely than whites to support increases in the minimum wage and free tuition at colleges," and they are "more likely to agree with the idea that wealth in America should be more evenly distributed."
So the driving force of the Sanders campaign, contrary to the fantasies concocted by Clinton surrogates, has been a diverse coalition of voters revolting against the inequities produced by global capitalism — a system that has handsomely rewarded a select few while producing stagnant or declining incomes for everyone else.
It is a coalition that has embraced class politics and mass organization as ways of placing pressure on a complacent and corporatist Democratic establishment, one that has made friends of the nation's oligarchs and war criminals; it is a coalition that is pushing back against the business takeover of the political system, against environmental degradation, and against endless interventionism abroad.
It is a coalition, in short, that has great potential, one that can transcend the successes or failures of individual politicians. As Matt Karp and Shawn Gude have written, though the Sanders campaign has effectively come to an end, "class politics isn't going anywhere."
This is bad news for those who have dedicated their political careers to, and have benefited greatly from, sustaining an economic system that — embedded within a political machine fueled by corporate cash — places profit over people, exploitation over solidarity, and party unity over principle.
But expanding progressive movements from below are unlikely to force a collective change of heart among a Democratic establishment so deeply ensconced within such a lucrative ideological and material fortress.
As John Kenneth Galbraith understood, "People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage."