Something to Fight for
On Saturday, October 19, 2019, nearly 26,000 people packed into Queensbridge Park in New York City. Bordering the largest public housing complex in North America, a natural gas power plant, and across the river from the country’s most expensive zip code, Queensbridge Park embodied the social, economic and political conflicts at the heart of the 2020 presidential election, and made the perfect staging ground for the Bernie’s Back rally.
The largest campaign event of any candidate this election season was made doubly impressive by the fact that just two weeks earlier, presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the almost-octogenarian, suffered a minor heart attack. As a result, much of the media commentariat ended their near media blackout of covering the Sanders campaign to announce that the campaign must be over.
While the media has continuously written off Sanders and has instead insisted on “new” and “younger” voices, at the Bernie’s Back rally, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), endorsed Sanders. On top of this, every poll has continuously shown Sanders dominating among young voters, with a recent Emerson poll reporting that Sanders is polling nationally at 45% for Democratic primary voters between the ages of 18 and 29. In the battleground state, Michigan, Sanders is polling at 73% with Democratic primary voters under 30. Furthermore, Sanders has received more donations from Iowans under the age of 25 than former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and many more of the other candidates combined. This is not a new phenomenon either. In the 2016 primaries, Sanders won over two million votes among primary voters under the age of 30––more than the number of voters of that same age group who went for Clinton and Trump combined.
What explains this energy and fervor for Sanders among young people? Yale student and Sanders supporter, Oscar Wang ’23, said to The Politic that Sanders “uniquely brings in people who have rightfully felt politically disenfranchised.” Political disenfranchisement is more than de jure voter suppression such as racist voter ID laws, the Electoral College, and denying felons the right to vote: It has been a long-term separation of politics from the struggles of everyday people. Alongside the past 40 years of privatization, austerity, and attacks on the working class, has been a simultaneous depoliticization of politics––a shift of society’s grasp of politics from conflicts between opposing interests to competing images and personalities. Oppressed and exploited people are considered political objects whose role is simply instrumental in the election of a politician who will never actually stand for them. The question, “How can one win the Latinx vote?” becomes more important than, “How can we adequately address the needs and demands of those in the Latinx community?”
This hollowness has rendered politics effectively meaningless to millions of Americans, especially young ones. Therefore, it’s no surprise that voter turnout drastically decreases among younger and poorer Americans. Young people have grown up amidst forever wars, a crippling economic recession, stagnant wages, unchecked police violence, and the impending doom of climate catastrophe. Young people are told to follow their dreams and pursue their passions,but for the masses of young people addled by student debt and a lack of job opportunities, talk of dreams and passion is just that, talk.
Contradictorily, politicians have continued to tell young people to dream smaller politically: that tackling real injustice is unattainable, but it’s fine as long as we speak the language of social justice. Kristen Cervero, a senior at New York University and a National Co-Chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, the largest youth socialist organization in the United States, explained in an interview with The Politic, “while we’ve had this constant anxiety, both Democrats and Republicans have sat back and done nothing of substance.”
American voter turnout is particularly abysmal, with only 14.4% of eligible Democratic voters participating in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Sanders’ base is built up predominantly of young people, poor people, and people of color (some polling show his base as the only majority non-white one). In other words, his base is made up of groups of people that vote at even lower rates, especially in primaries dominated by professionals and wealthier Democrats. That also makes Sanders’ campaign unique in expanding the political electorate. His campaign is a politicizing one that tells people that their daily struggles––be it exorbitant rents, police brutality, or student debt––are not natural nor deserved and that they can have more, but only through collective political struggle and conflict with the ruling powers that be. Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement speech spoke directly to this phenomenon.
“It wasn’t until I heard of a man by the name of Bernie Sanders, that I began to question, and assert, and recognize my inherent value as a human being that deserves healthcare, housing, education, and a living wage,” she said.
Sanders not only tells young people that they mean something, but that they are political actors in their own right. Unlike other politicians who simply ask for a vote and fail to deliver on substantive change, Sanders demands a “political revolution” and insists that “not one person can do it.” He asks those committed to social justice to join him in building a truly equitable world. He speaks in the language of mass movements and class war in a time that needs it more than ever and young people recognize it. Sanders isn’t bound to corporate interests and isn’t merely a well-meaning progressive technocrat, but a representative of and fighter for those who need political change the most.
“As a college student, I am preparing myself for the day when I am going to have to pay off thousands of dollars in loans plus interest [and my sister is already] tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” said Yale student and co-founder of Yale Students for Bernie, Mel Eskender ’23, “Bernie is the candidate for young people because his vision for this country empowers and uplifts all of us.”
An attendee of the Bernie’s Back rally, Eskender described the rally as “absolutely electric,” with the “most memorable part [being] when Bernie asked the crowd if we would fight for someone we didn’t know. There was such camaraderie in that moment. It only made me feel more passionate about this movement.”
What Eskender described was the feeling of solidarity, a “force,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, called “stronger than gravity.” Sanders’ campaign, and its ethos of solidarity, is powerful because it says that each of our struggles are deeply intertwined and that we all have a vested interest in each others’ liberation. As Cervero put quite simply, “[Bernie] gives us something to fight for…us.”