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You Say You Want a Revolution? Young Americans to Bernie Sanders: Count Me In!

Posted on Feb 4, 2016

By Alan Minsky

  Sen. Bernie Sanders rallies young voters at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. (CJ Hanevy / Shutterstock)

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If you were in Iowa this week, you would have been willfully blind not to recognize a simple fact: Young Americans want things to change, and their chosen catalyst is Bernie Sanders.

This was confirmed Monday night at Democratic caucuses across the state: The respected elders moved to one side for Hillary Clinton, the revolutionary youth to the other for Sanders.

Sanders’ message that resonates with the youth recalls the Occupy movement: The reign of Wall Street, the age of greed, has lasted more than three decades; it’s had its chance to make good. If you’re among the wealthy few and have no conscience, the results are brilliant; but for the vast majority (the 99 percent), it’s rotten or worse. So, now is the time for a progressive, social revolution informed by the better angels of our nature. This means a more economically equitable society, a revitalized democracy free of the influence of big money, an end to centuries of racist oppression, sexism and homophobia and an unwavering commitment to combat global warming by moving to 100 percent renewable energy.


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They say they want a revolution! So, “What is to be done?”

Simple. Sanders must defeat Clinton for the Democratic nomination, go on to win the presidency and, in the process, build a participatory movement that transforms this society and the world.

More precisely (these youth are a practical lot), the immediate goal is to build on Iowa with a succession of strong performances by Sanders over the next month. This entails winning New Hampshire, then doing sufficiently well in Nevada and South Carolina that the success carries over. This would ensure that Sanders is not blocked by Clinton’s big “firewall,” the set of primaries, many of them in the Southeast, on Super Tuesday. To achieve these ends, Sanders has to gain support in communities of color and also with senior citizens—all the while building on his core message of taking back the country from greedy oligarchs to achieve a more equitable society with shared prosperity, a vibrant democracy and greater liberty for all.

* * *

I just spent six days in Iowa, dutifully attending other candidates’ rallies and learning much about Iowa and the caucuses (the story behind their creation after the 1968 Democratic debacle is fascinating). But my focus was primarily on one thing: the Sanders campaign, why it was doing so well, and how it could do even better.

On my flight out of Des Moines, I asked a young member of the Clinton campaign why she thought Hillary had won older voters so decisively. She suggested that older voters were more realistic and would understand that Sanders would be unable to get his ambitious agenda through Congress. She thought some were worried that a Sanders victory could lead to problems such as stock market turbulence. She added that older women felt that a Clinton victory would be the only chance in their lifetime to see a female president.

It is fair to say that the concerns of older Americans have not been a primary focus of Sanders’ campaign speeches. Given his poor showing with seniors in Iowa, that needs to change, especially given his strong advocacy on issues that concern them.

In marked contrast to the Clinton/Obama wing of the Democratic Party, Sanders calls for the expansion of Social Security. The party has been willing to lower payments to recipients to cut costs and, on occasion, even advocated some form of (potentially catastrophic) privatization—a holy grail for Wall Street.

On the campaign trail, Sanders is proving to be a master at succinctly communicating the significance of economic policies. As such, he should be able to drive home that he alone is the true protector of Social Security—an assertion that should be tremendously popular with older voters. Sanders promises to keep the system fiscally sound for the foreseeable future by eliminating the limit on income that is taxed for Social Security, so that high-income earners pay the same percentage into the system as everyone else. Not only would this keep the system well funded, it would allow for an increase in payments to recipients. Nothing should be more important to older Americans (especially low-income seniors).

If that isn’t enough to distinguish him among senior citizens, Sanders’ call for single-payer health care can be delivered with many emotionally riveting examples of how this policy would vastly improve their lives. Nothing is more anxiety-inducing than the for-profit American health insurance complex. Under Sanders’ plan there would be no denial of coverage; no paperwork nightmare that can generate life-threatening delays; and, most significantly, no risk of exorbitant costs. In fact, it would be virtually free. And Sanders needs to make it clear that he poses no threat to existing programs; he seeks only to improve the system and, if he’s unable to achieve that through legislation, is committed to preserving the existing system of Obamacare.

If Sanders incorporates these two points—on Social Security and single-payer health care’s advantages for seniors—into his stump speech, and delivers them with the rhetorical force of his critique of Wall Street, he should be able to win the support of a much higher percentage of seniors than he did in Iowa.

One other point the young Clinton staffer made, however, might inform Clinton’s lead over Sanders among older voters. Younger people in our society are not accruing wealth as in previous generations. Consequently, wealth is concentrated in the hands of older people. If Clinton represents continuity and Sanders proposes to shake things up, it is not surprising that she leads in this demographic. Therefore, when Sanders tries to win over older Americans to his revolution, he could place greater emphasis on a key aspect of his economic program: that re-allocating money into the hands of people who will spend it (average working people, not the super-wealthy) will, through the multiplier effect, generate a more prosperous overall economy. Well-off older Americans need not fear that the Sanders agenda will create an economic downturn that could see their wealth evaporate.

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