Weird. The whole phenomenon of young people supporting Bernie is dispiriting when I look at it nationally. But when I look at it in terms of what I have witnessed on the ground in my own hometown over the last 10 or 15 years, it’s enormously encouraging.
When I try to examine it through a national lens, the startling popularity of Bernie Sanders among the younger demographic cohorts, from Gen X to millennial, looks naive. I’m with Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner (of my own age cohort), who said three weeks ago in his endorsement of Hillary Clinton: “Idealism and honesty are crucial qualities for me, but I also want someone with experience who knows how to fight hard.”
Yeah. The things Sanders says to young people and they cheer, quoting Pope Francis on the need for a “moral economy,” for example, seem terribly soft and naive. What the hell is a moral economy? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Wenner had a lot of stuff to say in his Rolling Stone piece, too, about how hard he and his (my) generation had to fight for civil rights in the '60s and how much danger we all faced doing it, all of which I absolutely love hearing about, even though the only actual street action I can remember being a part of myself was something to do with student control over the university bookstore. (Yay, us!)
Wenner’s endorsement of Hillary conveys a broad diss of Bernie and his loyal supporters. Wenner wants somebody in there who knows how to fight hard. By implication Bernie doesn’t. By implication his youthful supporters don’t, either.
We old Democrats, by this doctrine, are pretty much war-hardened battlefield heroes. Well, not like real battlefields, like bang-bang or anything, because of Vietnam, but figuratively speaking. The Bernie supporters are kind of a children’s crusade — heartbreakingly idealistic, heartbreakingly doomed, and, really, how many hearts can a heartbreak break?
John Wagner, writing in The Washington Post last year, painted an even more depressing picture of Bernie’s young crusaders: “They are the country’s gloom-and-doom generation of millennials, and they have found a gloom-and-doom candidate to love in the 2016 presidential election — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the democratic socialist who has attracted a stream of young people to his rallies in numbers unmatched by any other candidate from either party.”
So now they’re not just naive wimps but also depressed and depressing. All of a sudden those crazy flag-waving coonskin-cap-wearing Trump supporters are starting to look sort of dynamic by comparison. Of course, as soon as a thought like that flits across my mind, I know to deliver myself a sharp slap, pour ice water down my spine and think again.
So I do. I try to look at this same demographic contingent against a backdrop with which I, as a longtime local news reporter and columnist in Dallas, am much more familiar — Dallas.
And here I see this same crowd, people from their mid-40s down to age 18, in an utterly different light. I never think of them as naive or weak. I always think of them as smart and tough.
For one thing, I see them as picking their local political fights carefully and then winning them. I see people who, in the process, are transforming my city into a wonderfully more urban and humane place.
Far from naive or wussy, I see this age contingent slugging out tough City Council and school board elections, almost always with a sharper, cannier political street sense than their predecessor generations, who had a great tendency to kneel down obediently before flags of wealth, class and authority.
I also see real political suavity and something I would even call grace. If they don’t have to lord a victory over a defeated opponent, they won’t.
A great specimen of their activism is an outfit called the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, basically a bunch of ex-punk-rockers and bicycle mechanics who just sat down at a table in a coffee shop one day in 2006 and decided to call themselves that. Their cleverness and sophistication enabled them to win a major federal grant for a trolley system in the down-at-the-heels immigrant quarter of the city where they all had decided to settle.
They snatched that grant out from under a competing grant application from City Hall, in part by demonstrating to the feds that their part of town was actually developed as a streetcar district in the early 20th century. The Dallas City Hall grant application, in contrast, proposed spending tens of millions of federal dollars trying to shoehorn a trolley system into a downtown streetscape and infrastructure that would have been actively hostile to a trolley.
When the ex-punk bike repairmen and repairwomen won that victory over a City Hall staffed with career professional city managers, I expected them to do what my generation of urban pioneers would have done – a gloating, in-your-face war dance in front of City Hall. Instead they went to City Hall graciously, not with hats in hand perhaps but also not gloating, and they sought out simpatico city staffers to work with.
Anybody can square up his shoulders and pretend to take a defeat on the chin, but handling victory with grace requires a well-defended ego, a strong sense of self and a presence in the world. They seem to have that.
In the trolley chapter and in a whole series of similar chapters since then, I have seen in them a people possessed of a very clear vision for how they want to live. They are what the urbanologist Christopher Leinberger has called the “Seinfeld Generation:” They love cities, neighborhood porosity and personal connection.
Maybe because my own generation can hardly stand to think about it, there is one thing in their mentality that my own generation almost always misses: These people were born into an existential reality that was not in place when my age group was born and in fact never had existed in all of known time before today’s young people were born. They were born to a conversation about whether or not humankind will extinguish all of life on the planet.
I can already hear all of the people my own age sending up a screaming squabble about polar bear life expectancy, fracking and the level of the ocean. Stop. I don’t mean that. I don’t mean the right or the wrong, the winners or the losers in the climate change debate. I mean the existence of the debate itself.
The young people who hear Bernie Sanders talking about a moral economy have grown up wondering if the materialist, acquisitive, competitive capitalist economy is or is not going to kill life itself.
Some of them must think it will. Some don’t. Most probably wonder. But none of them can get out of thinking about it, and where does that thinking take them?
Ask any good defender of capitalism what the real weakness is in anti-capitalism, or vice versa, the defender of socialism about the weaknesses of capitalism: and sooner or later the conversation will get to moral peril.
So at least we should be able to agree on that. No matter which side we may take in debating social structures, we can all agree that fundamental morality is what underlies that debate and these times.
If I turn back to the national perspective, then, all of a sudden I see these same young people who are enormously effective and humane here in my own environment. They are turning their own eyes to national and global issues, and they want to have that conversation that Sanders is raising about a moral economy.
Moral what, I don’t know. I can’t imagine they know yet, but they do know that they want to talk about it. Faced with the ultimate challenge, the mother of all perils, are they not simply trying to get to the bottom of things? They want to talk on a level of fundamentals deeper than mere political philosophy. Is it not necessary to talk about morals? Are they not right?
When I look at the support of young people for Bernie, I also see, among other things, the complete explosion and execration of most of the strategies that marketers, media and politicians have employed since Mad Men days for reaching young people. The big light-bulb idea has always been that the young people are all young, so just give them young stuff. That’s what they get.
Look, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Bernie is old. He’s hunched. He talks too loud, like he needs to reach up and dial his hearing aid in better. So what do they love about him?
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Isn’t it possible that they love his ideas? Or maybe more to the point, they may love the fact that he speaks to their ideas and to their hearts.
The economic realities to which they were born were way more harsh than what my own generation of Americans inherited in the mid-20th century, when the nation was rich on the spoils of World War II. We could throw good jobs away. They may need years to get a decent job.
In fact, if we really look honestly at the whole kettle of fish we are leaving to them, their outlook could be viewed as incredibly bleak and daunting, and yet here in Dallas I see in them a wonderfully quiet joy as they go about creating their own new city on the bones of the old. Shouldn't we be hugely encouraged by what we hear in them, not discouraged?
I wonder sometimes if there may not be a whole conversation going on between them and Bernie, a kind of high-level contrapuntal chorus of thought that the rest of just don’t hear. I do know this much: If, in fact, any part of that is really what’s going on, then that conversation will be at the center of things decades after this election we’re about to have has been utterly forgotten.