It has become clear in recent years that the results of our national elections are often determined by a small percentage of people who are undecided until almost Election Day, and whom the media calls “the independents.” Whether it was Bush vs. Gore, or Obama vs. McCain, or Obama vs. Romney, the entire country was virtually split in two, with either side fiercely defending its candidate, while a small minority claimed the right to indecision all the way to the end. Thus, debates meant to cajole and woo this minority were staged, as the rest of us shook our heads, wondering what in the world these people needed in order to make up their minds. Yet, when one scratched under the surface it became evident that the independents were not as much independent as what one might call “low information voters” who started to pay attention to the news only late in the game, either because they didn’t care or didn’t have the time.
Not so this year. For the first time in recent history, this year the so-called independents know very well what and whom they want, and they are more numerous than ever. Journalists, historians and political analysts are telling us who they are and what motivates them. Many of them are young people who have never voted before, others are disenfranchised male voters hurt by the economy. Some of these male voters are ready to vote for either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump in spite of the candidates’ very different policies. While not all Bernie supporters are young, the most enthusiastic of them are—according to the polls, 75% of young people support him.
In theory, the fact that the idealism specific to young people translates this election cycle into support for a candidate who wants universal/single payer health care and free college should be good news. The spiraling cost of American education is at least as absurd as that of health care (in the mid 90s I paid the equivalent of 100 dollars for a whole year of studies at the University of Strasbourg in France), so it makes sense that these young people would welcome free college. (How realistic this expectation is is another matter). Today’s young have access to information from all over the world in a way that their parents didn’t. Unlike their parents, they aren’t scared of the word “socialism,” but not necessarily because they are more “open-minded.” While they may be well informed about today’s events thanks to their gadgets, they know little about the past, and next to nothing about other countries’ past. In other words, they know nothing about the history of socialism, so it would mean nothing to them that Sanders served as a presidential elector for the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in 1980. The party’s platform called for abolishing the U.S. military budget and proclaimed “solidarity” with revolutionary Iran (see Michelle Goldberg’s article in Slate).
The lives of Sanders’s young supporters have been marked by two major events: the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the collapse of Wall Street. But while these young people are more sensitive to inequality than previous generations, they are also used to a level of comfort that they may not want to relinquish. College is, indeed, incomparably cheaper in the rest of the world, but this comes at a price: the libraries, the computer labs, the classrooms at these universities are considerably less funded than in the States. When I studied in France, my college had two tiny computer labs where you had to make a reservation to have access to a computer, and could use it for no more than an hour, and even world-famous professors didn’t have their private office but had to share it with colleagues. Are American students and their instructors ready to give up the material privileges they are used to? Or, when following the example of their candidate, they want to abolish capitalism, do they even realize how many things they would have to give up?
Bernie Sanders’s socialism is the democratic socialism that exists in Northern Europe—or so we are told. Maybe it is now, but as late as 1980 the socialism he supported was less Northern European and more a combination of South American and Russian-style socialism. A former supporter of Trotskyism, Nicaraguan Sandinistas and Fidel Castro (see this 1985 video in which he praised Fidel Castro), Bernie Sanders is a type of leftist who, in spite of his message (“A Future to Believe in”), thinks in terms of the past, and his framework is that of someone who sees everything in terms of class. It is paradoxical that such a candidate has become the rock star candidate supported by our youngest voters—but this is exactly because these young people are unaware of the historical background (and baggage) behind this candidate. For young people he must sound refreshing because what he says and the way he says it is so different from other politicians’ discourse.
For very different reasons, Donald Trump’s supporters too think that he sounds refreshing (even Camille Paglia talks about his “refreshing candor”!). His message is worlds apart from Bernie Sanders’s message, but what they have in common is the perception of their supporters: they are both “outsiders” who sound different than the other politicians. Those of us who are actually interested in the candidates’ policies are perplexed by the fact that so many voters are undecided between Sanders and Trump, but maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. We are now reaping years of Republican/Reaganite propaganda that “big government” is bad, and that, in general, the government shouldn’t be trusted. This ideology, which unites two extremes—the right wing and the extreme left (anarchists and Trotskyists—who knew the latter still existed?)—undermines at its core the most fundamental institution of a democratic society.
This being said, it is also true that both the voters and the candidates have reasons to complain about our political system. Both Sanders and Trump have argued countless times that the system is “rigged,” and, while the implication that the system is rigged against them isn’t true, it is true that the United States has a ridiculously convoluted and absurd voting system. The complaint, however, that the “bosses” of our two parties are favoring other candidates is disingenuous: until 2015 Trump wasn’t a Republican and Sanders wasn’t a Democrat, and the only reason they are running under the banner of these parties is that they could never win as independents. For their fans, their conflict with their party leaders is one more sign that these candidates are “authentic,” when in fact, if they were truly independent they would run as such. It is unfortunate that the two most popular candidates this political season are reinforcing the (cynical) view that too many of our young voters already have of our governing institutions by delegitimizing them. For better or worse, in modern times the citizenry has been represented through political parties and elected officials, and we are in great need of restoring confidence in these institutions. The solution is not to look for outsiders, but to keep fighting from within.