If you ask the average middle-aged conservative (or liberal, for that matter) why Millennials are attracted to Bernie Sanders, they will likely give the same answer: young people are generally ignorant of the way the world actually works and/or they are eager to get a free ride.
There is no doubt that is true of some of the young people who support Bernie Sanders, but I don’t think that is their central motivation. In fact, I think there has been a fundamental misunderstanding concerning the core values of the next generations, and it is costing the GOP dearly.
Full disclosure: I’m part of the Millennial generation, so I’m sure there are many who think this article is a super-sized soft-self-serving of special pleading. But just hear me out.
If you ask Sanders supporters why they support him, you’ll discover a disconcerting truth—many of them can’t even accurately explain the most basic element of his platform (i.e., socialism). Don’t be too hard on Sanders fans for this, though. Most voters, irrespective of their favored candidate, don’t actually have a clear and specific idea of what any politician actually thinks on the issues. Blame it on the education system if you want, but it’s a reality we have to deal with. And not just on the Democrat side either. Supporters of the GOP front runner (you know, the guy whose name rhymes with Ronald Lump) are also egregiously misinformed.
So let’s get real. Why do middle-aged people support their favorite candidate? And how do Millennials and Baby Boomers differ in their motivations? From the start, let’s just go ahead and rule out specific policy platforms (as they are decidedly not as relevant as public perception and party affiliation), and focus on generational psychology.
What do Baby Boomers value as the most powerful tool for gaining personal happiness and changing the world for the better: money. I don’t mean that Baby Boomers don’t have principles. Most of them do. Very firm ones, in fact. But they are more realistic and pragmatic about how to accomplish principled objectives in the real world.
I think most Baby Boomers believe Jafar’s version of the Golden Rule is true: “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” Most Baby Boomers believe very firmly that the people with the most power and the most money are the most successful, and will be able to accomplish their purposes in the world.
So, naturally, being people of strong principles, Baby Boomers want to make sure that the most powerful people in the world are more on their side than against it. Baby Boomers might respect money and power to a fault, but at least they want to harness those things generally for what they consider good. Most of them have been willing to compromise their principles ever so slightly in order to make sure their kids have enough to eat and a good education (swing and a miss on that one, right?). Most Baby Boomers are willing to do even unfulfilling things to provide for their families. Most of them have been willing to compromise their principles, even if only a little, in order to vote for the lesser of two evils.
In other words, most Baby Boomers are pragmatic realists. Being such, they tend to think that people are rational actors, even their own children. In the minds of Baby Boomers, it makes sense that Bernie Sanders’ promises of free stuff would appeal to Millennials. After all, Millennials are the biggest beneficiaries of Sanders’ free stuff. It’s possible even the Sanders campaign itself buys into this idea. But I think they are wrong.
Because most Millennials are not pragmatic realists.
And they don’t care all that much about money. In fact, most Millennials will take a far less lucrative position in order to do something they consider fulfilling. This is something most Baby Boomers just cannot fathom doing. If you are given the opportunity for more influence and more money, you always take it, right?
But the children of Baby Boomers are mostly unable to consider the value of money. Ironically, this may be because their parents’ sacrifices meant Millennials never wanted for it. But when Millennials look at their parents, they don’t see the sacrifices. Instead, most of them only see the compromise.
For the most part, then, Millennials are idealists. Millennials just don’t care as much about money or power. They care about authenticity and integrity. And that, more than anything else, is why they like Bernie Sanders.
Don’t jump down my throat yet. When I say integrity, I don’t mean that Bernie Sanders has good political ideas or even that his moral standards are not debased. But he is no flip-flopper. He is a transparent idealist with decades of doing and saying the same thing, and voting the same way.
Consider those various memes comparing what Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were both doing in the 60s:
Most people miss why these photos and memes are so important for Millennials. It’s not that Bernie Sanders supports civil rights. It’s uncool not to and everything nowadays. But the main thing here is that Bernie Sanders has always supported civil rights, even when it was uncool. He’s no late adopter trying to score political points by inflecting his speeches with some lame-sounding jive-talk. No. He walked the walk. Literally.
Integrity is saying something and sticking to it, no matter the votes, no matter the opposition. Aside from Bernie Sanders, most of the other candidates don’t have any claim to that kind of integrity, no matter their “firm” policy planks. So it’s no surprise Millennials like Bernie Sanders, but it’s not primarily due to his promises of free stuff.
If you still don’t believe me, consider the 2012 presidential campaign. Who was the far and away favorite with young people during the primaries? Ron Paul. He had vociferous support among Millennials. This was merely four years ago, people. And consider this if you will:
Ron Paul is diametrically opposed to nearly everything Bernie Sanders stands for politically and ideologically.
How could Millennials like both Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders if Millennials were making their ballot decisions based on specific policy measures? The answer is that they aren’t.
Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders have exactly one thing in common: they’ve both been saying and doing the same thing and voting the same way for decades, with or without the support of their parties.
Are you getting the picture yet? Most Millennials register as Independents, not Democrats or Republicans. What they want more than anything else is someone with integrity and authenticity and a track record to prove it. It really isn’t that surprising that the last two primary favorites among Millennials have been in their seventies. People laugh at it, but it makes complete sense from my perspective. Both candidates have had time to prove they are who they say they are.
Whether it’s flip-flop Trump or flip-flop Clinton, the major party players are all willing to play the game and put on various masks to various audiences for various purposes. They are willing to change position, change perspective, change their accents, and change their posture on just about anything if it means they can get a few more votes or make a few more dollars. They are willing to compromise. And compromise and flip-flopping are political kryptonite to a campaign aiming to gain the increasingly essential Millennial vote.
So if you want to get young people to vote for someone other than Bernie Sanders, try a different tactic. Instead of attacking Sanders’ obviously and admittedly bone-headed policies, try forwarding a candidate with real integrity and the long-standing record to prove it. Try forwarding a positive idealist who sticks to his guns, with or without his party’s support. But I guess that last part is the reason why none of these idealists end up getting the nomination—they might thrill the young people, but they scare the cuss out of the party traditionalists.