A number of recent columns have “post-mortemed” (if that’s a word) the Presidential primaries. One such, in the New York Times, considered the ongoing influence of Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Sanders has yet to fully concede, although he has said he intends to vote for Clinton, and he is likely to remain a force in American politics for the foreseeable future.
Sanders’ ability to engage young voters was surprising, at least to me; a crusty 74-year-old self-described “Democratic Socialist” would seem to be an unlikely hero to twenty-somethings. Yet he clearly evoked a passionate response from young people.
In conversations I had with more than a dozen Sanders supporters, many of them told me they were either disillusioned with or apathetic toward politics before this campaign. Mr. Sanders, a 74-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont, energized them unlike any candidate before. Now, they’ll either resign themselves to voting for Hillary Clinton, redirect their efforts to local campaigns or drop out again.
The article includes a number of comments from young Sanders supporters, and describes the issues that resonated with them. Perhaps the most perceptive observations, however, came from an activist named Winnie Wong.
This month, after the primaries are all over, some Sanders supporters will try to answer the question of what’s next at an event called the People’s Summit in Chicago. The mission of this gathering: to figure out how to turn Mr. Sanders’s momentum into lasting change. One of the attendees will be a digital strategist named Winnie Wong. After working with the Occupy Wall Street movement, she helped start the grass-roots group People for Bernie, and has been credited with coining the hashtag #FeelTheBern. She said she saw a connection between the Occupy movement and the Sanders campaign.
“This is a movement,” she said. “It is not about Bernie Sanders. He’s a part of this movement.” And, according to Mr. Sanders’s most ardent supporters, that movement isn’t going anywhere.
After teaching public affairs for nearly twenty years, and consistently bemoaning the anemic participation of college students in the political process, I get really hopeful when I read about the increased youth engagement described in this and many other articles.
Wong is correct that the increase isn’t limited to the Bernie phenomenon. A number of social indicators suggest America may be at one of those “turning points,” one of the cyclical swings in political/cultural opinion that have characterized our nation’s history. If I am reading those indicators correctly (and I know I may just be engaging in wishful thinking), Sanders great contribution is that he helped focus a relatively amorphous and simmering discontent on the need to engage with and reform the political process.
You don’t have to embrace the specifics of Sanders’ proposals to recognize the importance of that achievement.
The fact that the movement Sanders sparked is progressive is especially important at a time when nostalgia and reactionary impulses have given us Brexit and Trump and their hollow promises to take the world back to a time that never was.
Virtually everyone agrees that it’s time for a change in American politics. We can argue about the nature and pace of that change, but if Bernie has sparked a new youth movement with “legs,” a movement with staying power, he will have won something that is arguably more important than the Presidency.