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Bernie Sanders Channels the Global Youth Rebellions of 2011-12

How the Vermont Senator stumbled on a wave of angry and aspirational young people and became the ideal political leader for the post-Occupy Wall Street generation

Paul Berman
February 25, 2016
Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders shakes hands with supporters after a rally on February 22, 2016 at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts. Sanders is campaigning in the lead up to Super Tuesday primaries on March 1 when 11 states will vote. Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images
Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders shakes hands with supporters after a rally on February 22, 2016 at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts. Sanders is campaigning in the lead up to Super Tuesday primaries on March 1 when 11 states will vote. Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

During the Iowa caucuses at the beginning of February, Bernie Sanders won the support of 84 percent of the Democratic voters aged 29 and younger, which can only mean that, in whole neighborhoods, the support for him was virtually unanimous. He won similar support among young people in New Hampshire and did it again in Nevada, even if, in Las Vegas and other places, the ethnic divisions began to set in. Around the country some 220 Bernie committees are said to have sprouted up in the universities. He is going to lose, anyway. Nobody can win the Democratic Party nomination—nobody should win it—in the face of overwhelming black opposition. Still, something is happening here.

The phenomenon appears to have come out of nothing, which is a way of saying that no one predicted it. But maybe it does have a background, large and slightly mysterious, which is the world (or, anyway, multicontinental) youth rebellion, now half-forgotten, that took place in 2011-12. Worldwide youth rebellions are hard to explain and hard to believe when they take place; but they do take place. The student rebellions of 1968, which broke out on every continent, are merely the best-remembered example. The rebellions of 2011-12 got started in Tunisia (in December 2010, actually) and spread in a matter of weeks everywhere in the Arab world. This was the Arab Spring—a glorious rebellion in its early phase, liberal and nonviolent, even if soon enough the Islamists took over almost everywhere and brought about the horrors that everyone knows. A faintly similar rebellion broke out in Spain in the spring of 2011 under the name of the Indignados—the indignant ones—who protested the economic crisis and the austerity policies of the Spanish government and the inability of the traditional political parties to come up with anything better. I am not sure that protests by the Indignados ever managed to offer a coherent alternative, policy-wise. But the indignation was expressive. It shook things up politically, at least.

Occupy Wall Street got started a few months later in downtown Manhattan and spread to various spots around the country, denouncing the crimes of the banks and the economic inequalities of America. Occupy and its theatricality and its phrase of genius, “the one percent,” attracted a lot of attention, not just in America. I heard about the California echoes of the New York demonstrations in Morocco. Nothing concrete and visible seemed to come of the movement—nothing that could be compared to the Arab earthquakes or to the political shakeups that are still going on in Spain. But I think that, even so, Occupy did generate a new set of attitudes among the young generation in America.

The new mood has been hard to see because the old-style identity-politics protests, in continuing to percolate in the universities, have lately turned panicky or maybe cranky, which makes news. And the new mood has been hard to see because, during the months when Occupy Wall Street was still in flower, hardly anyone from among the mainstream institutions or political leaders in the United States tried to strike up an alliance or to bring the movement into some larger fold. Some of the trade unions marched in the Occupy marches, but the Democratic Party and the Obama Administration stayed away entirely, which was probably wise. Occupy itself was more concerned with the anti-hierarchical customs of its own assemblies than with the hierarchical customs of institution-building, which meant that, after a few theatrical months, it was gone. And yet movements of this sort—mass movements that somehow stretch across the world on invisible cords of generational sympathy—tend to arouse deeper emotions than may be supposed. The movements leave their own participants forever marked. And they leave an impression on the younger brothers and sisters and distant cousins of the original participants, too, who sooner or later may want to have their own say.

This is what Bernie Sanders has stumbled on—an already existing hidden continent of young people’s angers and aspirations, which is Occupy’s legacy. And Bernie turns out to be the ideal political leader for this circumstance. He is authentically and without calculation the senator from Occupy. He has been delivering the same anti-plutocratic speech all his life, even if he has lately updated his denunciation of millionaires to a denunciation of billionaires. Never has he appeared calculating or self-interested, not in any normal sense. The country as a whole has never known him because, during most of his political career, he appears to have thought of himself modestly as a maverick from his own idiosyncratic Vermont, without grander aspirations. Still, back in December 2010 he delivered an eight-hour filibuster speech in the Senate, denouncing the tax bill and President Obama’s compromise with the Republicans, which may have led him to recognize the joys and benefits of theatricality. Evidently it struck him that, in America, nothing is more theatrical than a run for president. And he has discovered that, as was never true before, his oratory about billionaires, super PACs, and the rigged economy has an audience.

The young people, for their part, have discovered for the first time that someone from the Establishment—a United States senator is a figure from the Establishment, even if he says, “I do not have a super-Pac, I do not want a super-Pac!”—speaks their language. And from this combination of elderly senatorial plutocrat-bashing and a new mood among the young has emerged an American leftism of a fresh and novel sort—economically oriented in the style of the classic leftisms of a century ago, marked by none of the pathologies (if I may) that have so badly damaged the American leftisms of more recent times. The cult of anti-Americanism and self-hatred, the manias for anti-Zionism and persecuting the Jews, the culture of resentment, the tone of euphemism and dishonesty, the malign influence of avant garde academics, the authoritarian yearnings and the attraction to dictatorships in other parts of the world, the backstage maneuvers of the annoying and insane Bolshevik micro-parties—not one of these miserable traits has popped up in the Bernie campaign. On the contrary! The Bernie movement appears to be as simple and upright as Bernie himself.

It is true that, in addition to losing the black vote, Bernie has lost the primary among the center-left policy analysts, and for roughly the same reason. The wonks examine his policy proposals, and they see at a glance that his numbers do not add up—or rather, they add up only if you assume that, under President Sanders, the American economy will flourish at levels that no one actually expects to see. Bernie appears to be unfazed by these criticisms. In defense of his single-payer healthcare proposal he observes that other countries have single-payer systems, so why not the United States? The policy wonks explain why not. It is because of the cost of switching from our present hard-won Obamacare to the grander policy that Bernie envisions. The hospitals would go into financial ruin. Plus it would be crazy to run the political risk of reopening the healthcare debate. To improve and expand the present system—this would be possible. To improve and expand was always the idea. To replace it—no. Here is ultimately the reason why Bernie is not going to capture the Democratic Party. His wagon is missing a wheel.

Still, he may have revealed a problem with the policy wonks in the course of this debate. A good policy should be a philosophy and not just a program. It should express a moral purpose, maybe a sense of the past and of the future—a vision of society and its progress that people can recognize and support. But the Democratic Party and its wonks are not good at expressing large philosophical ideas. Hillary is probably the wonkiest person ever to run for president, which means that, whenever she discovers a need to appeal to a new public, her first instinct is to recall the apposite government program. The spectacle of large numbers of young people turning to Bernie Sanders has led her to emphasize how splendid is her program for student debt. I am convinced that Hillary’s program is realistic, and that Bernie’s call for free tuition is not, which adds up to one more reason to vote for Hillary. But you cannot turn to Bernie’s young supporters, who imagine themselves to be fighting for a better world, and lure them away by offering them a personal advantage.

Bernie himself commands, as if by instinct, a political poetry. He is like Ronald Reagan in this respect, except with opposite politics. Reagan conjured a nostalgia for the small-town arcadia of the 1910s or 1920s, and, having gotten his audiences to yearn for those days, he knew how to infuse the longings with his marvelously simple slogans about sunrise in America and getting the government off our backs. This is Bernie’s procedure exactly. He, too, seems to dwell in a remembered world of the 1910s, or maybe the 1930s (which is an attractive decade for leftists, but not for conservatives), except that Bernie’s remembered world, instead of being corny and self-satisfied, is embittered and combative. Instead of congratulating the town’s upper class, he bellows on behalf of its lower class. Everything about Bernie conjures the remembered world—his plebian accent from long ago, the antique-sounding rhetoric, even the word socialism, which may not mean very much, but is, in any case, impressively musty with age. He speaks about modern Scandinavia, but, listening to him, no one thinks of Scandinavia. Everyone thinks of Eugene V. Debs and the “Red Special” from 1912 or the political mobilizations that led to the New Deal. Even Bernie’s way of spreading his hands as he shouts in anger appears to be an oratorical gesture gleaned from ancient photographs of Debs.

And, having put everyone into a proper mood, he starts to speak about getting the billionaire class off our backs. He wants to tear up the rigged economy. The slogans are shocking in their simplicity and radicalism, but they are reassuring in their cultural authenticity, which was true of Reagan’s slogans, too. Reagan was a character out of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, and so is Bernie. I will confess that something about Reagan always made me cringe. His particular sentimentality smelled like sour milk to me. And something about Bernie inspires my patriotism.

Only, does it add up to anything more than one more colorful note in a spectacularly colorful election? Thomas Piketty argued in Le Monde a few days ago that it does. In Piketty’s interpretation, America has gone through two big phases during the last 80-odd years, and it is time for a third. The first phase was Franklin Roosevelt’s and lasted more than 40 years, and during those years the tax rates for the rich were, on average, 82 percent (and at one point reached 91 percent). Social programs were accordingly well-funded, employment was high, economic equality was relatively strong. And, even so, the American entrepreneurs proved to be inventive, and the economy bloomed. Then Ronald Reagan launched his own phase, during which average tax rates for the rich eventually stabilized at 40 percent (though at one point they sank to 28 percent). Social programs died of starvation. And the gap between the rich and everyone else swelled into its present day astronomical form. So great was Reagan’s triumph that, even under the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, no one has dared to challenge Reagan’s orthodoxy on taxes—even if Obama has done a good job of leading the country out of the crisis of 2008. Bernie, though—here is someone who demonstrates that you can, in fact, challenge the old orthodoxy. And substantial publics will vote for you. Piketty does not expect Bernie to defeat Hillary, but, even so, he declares: “We are watching the end of the politico-ideological cycle that was inaugurated by Ronald Reagan’s victory in the election of November 1980.”

This sounds wonderful, but will it turn out to be true? I think the wonderfulness will depend on three developments in the future, none of which is automatic. Other Bernies will have to step forward—people whom Piketty pictures as younger and less white, and whom I picture as better connected among the policy analysts. A second development: The Bernies of the future and their policy wonks will have to come up with what is almost entirely missing from the present campaign, which is a foreign policy doctrine—a policy compatible somehow with the radical boldness of the economic and social ideas and the egalitarian spirit. Will this be so hard to find? Social-democratic traditions in American foreign policy do exist, tracing back to the people who made up the left wing of the New Deal. These were trade-union and social democratic groups of the 1930s and ’40s, who got their start in the Socialist Party and made their way into the Roosevelt coalition—the people who proved to be America’s leading force against European fascism, and then, even before the Cold War got under way, proved to be America’s leading force against the Soviet Union, too. You can read about these people in Arthur Schlesinger’s classic treatise The Vital Center, which ought to be a handbook for any new radical movement of the future. A foreign policy for the left: Here it is.

Meanwhile, a new politico-ideological turn of the wheel will have to depend on a third development, too, which is this: Hillary Clinton had better win. The bigger her win, the better the possibility for radical programs in the future.


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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.