By Bob Lord and Mellie MacEachern
I’ve been fascinated by the age divide in the Democratic base. So I invited a Facebook friend of mine, Mellie MacEachern to have an online conversation on the subject. Mellie is a 2011 Michigan grad and aspiring writer who’s worked for various nonprofits and other organizations for the past five years.
Lord: Mellie, one of the most stunning poll numbers I’ve ever seen was from Iowa, where a poll had Sanders ahead of Clinton by 70 points, 84-14, among voters under 30. I’ll be 60 this year, so I’m clueless. What’s going on here.
MacEachern: First of all, thank you for putting that in plain terms, you’re a Baby Boomer and quite frankly, this stark dichotomy between my generation and yours has been overwhelmingly dictated to us. It is in that mentality specifically that my generation feels so strongly about Bernie Sanders in the first place. Whereas his ideas are constantly tagged to be “idealistic”, we just don’t see it that way and to call it “idealistic” carries with it this feeling that we’re being condescended to on subjects that we feel we can see quite plainly. Income inequality isn’t a secret, where money in elections comes from isn’t a secret, this need for “revolutionary” change really isn’t that revolutionary, and when people chide us as “idealistic”, they’re effectively calling us naive. We’re really tired of being told that we’re too young to understand how things work. Bernie Sanders is really old, and he’s felt exactly the same way that we do for his entire career.
But really, the support for Bernie’s campaign actually stems from learning from what was previously truly naive–the Obama campaign in 2008 which was our first real national election. I mean, that’s where we first witnessed a rhetoric of “hope” and “change” that we were theoretically supposed to believe in, but then we all spent the subsequent eight years learning that merely talking about true change will get us nowhere if the current establishment holds.
And that leads to an important second point: Especially in this Democratic race, we’re being told that change is supposed to happen at the very gradual and slow pace of the current established government and we just don’t see it that way. These are really just basic issues to us, and while older generations like to pretend that we’re all lazy and looking for free things, we’re getting a clearer and clearer view of why things are continuing in such a rigid way. We’re not interested in excuses, we just want to make the change that we were promised eight years ago happen today. Or at least, eventually.
Lord: Women in that age bracket favor Sanders even more than their male counterparts. I’m guessing you don’t buy the explanations of Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright for this. Care to weigh in?
MacEachern: That’s funny, because the way that Steinem put it, we’re apparently voting for Bernie because this is where the boys are. It’s really disheartening and damaging to the Clinton campaign to encourage rhetoric like that, especially from women whom I have always admired. Voting for Hillary Clinton isn’t necessarily “helping women” simply because she is a woman who has a very good chance at becoming the next president. Of course I strongly believe that a woman should be president, that more people of color need to hold higher office and that the struggling classes of this nation need far greater representation in government. And I also believe that Hillary is qualified for the position, but at the end of the day, I just plainly don’t agree with her on a number of different issues. According to Madeline Albright, this means that I’m not “helping women” and therefore I’ve earned a “special place in hell”. But women from my generation don’t think that it’s particularly helpful to women have our presidential choice dictated to us–isn’t that exactly what men have been doing to women since the early days of universal suffrage? If I somehow beat Secretary Albright to the underworld, I’ll be sure to save her a seat.
Women are half of the population and I prefer Bernie Sanders because that is how he approached women in his campaign. Bernie Bros are spreading misogyny? Senator Sanders responds, “That’s disgusting. We don’t want that.” Plain and simple. There’s no continuing argument about why it’s important to treat women equally and to discourage discrimination against women. Those things are taken for fact by Bernie Sanders and don’t exactly warrant further discussion. I’m not voting for Sanders simply because he recognizes a woman’s bodily autonomy or cares about workplace inequality, but because he approaches them as so necessary that they’re understood without argument.
Lord: You mentioned the pace of change. Is there a feeling that those exhortations that the pace of change must be very gradual and slow are self-serving? I consider my own situation. I’m established. I’m in decent shape financially. I can deal with change at a slow pace. But I could see how a recent college grad buried in debt and facing bleak job prospects may not feel the same way. Any thoughts?
MacEachern: Well, we’re not looking to buy houses or start paying into retirement, we’re looking to pay rent, get a steady job and hopefully pay off our student loans. We’re not going to contribute to this glacial system of American finance because we’ve been set up to have very little stake in it. So yes, it is incredibly self-serving to claim that these things just “take time”, that caution and calculation somehow play any role in government. It doesn’t take a political analyst to recognize that when something needs to happen, it can happen fairly quickly.
Lord: I’ve been out of the loop on older generations’ talk of millennials being lazy and looking for free things. Could you expand on that a bit?
MacEachern: Oh, you’ve been out of the loop? That’s weird, because nearly every single day I read something about how all of these college students and recent graduates don’t understand the merit of working a low paying job while they are in college because that’s what it takes to get out of debt. There is this absurd mental disconnect between Boomers and Millennials when it comes to the subject of college. My generation was promised a college education and we are consistently reminded that in order to do anything of merit in the “real world”, we need a college degree. But for the overwhelming majority of people my age, that’s financially illogical. If we can’t pay for the thing that we were promised, then we just can’t have it and therefore our progress in life comes to a complete stop.
Community college should be free, that’s a viable opportunity that gives young workers the ability to pursue their academic goals while still being capable of paying rent. But then we get patronized as just wanting “free college and ‘Obamaphones’ without having to work for it”. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how working 50 hours per week while struggling to take night classes and volunteering on weekends to build a resume that will eventually lead to a specialized degree isn’t “working for it”. The way that earlier generations describe it, apparently college used to be some sort of terrible hybrid of the Hunger Games and Spartacus. At least at the end of that road, they could envision a steady job and a house. We don’t necessarily have that optimism.
Lord: That’s not how I remember it. I was lucky enough to have parents who could help me out. But many of my friends did not. Still, they could work part time and over the summer and graduate with no debt, or very little. College was more affordable back then. Do you believe any candidate other than Sanders fully grasps the challenge for millennials on this front?
MacEachern: Hillary is actually pretty decent on this issue, and this is one of those issues in which a small amount of reform would go a long way, which makes her really reasonable on the subject. I liked the emphasis that Martin O’Malley placed on moving in a direction that would give those with existing student debt to have greater ability to refinance their student loans to lower rates. I only really bring up the college tuition discussion because it seems to be one of the “most millennial” issues in politics and you can’t talk about our vote without bringing that up. But that’s popularly treated as the primary reason that young people are interested in Bernie Sanders, because he’s “offering free college”. My answer to that is simple: Yeah, that’d be great, but more to the point, affordable education is necessary.
Lord: I stated in a recent blog post that millennials have 3 times as much at stake as I do in this election, since they have about three fourths of their lives remaining and I only have about one-fourth of mine left to live. I suppose I overstated that a bit, because the impact of what the next President does will taper off over time. Nonetheless, is there frustration among millennials that they have the most at stake and their position is being discounted by those with the least at stake?
MacEachern: I really don’t think so. I’d actually say that it’s the inverse. I think that we have better hindsight than older voters do, because we’re able to look back impartially at how things changed because of past administrations. We have the ability look back at pretty much every president since Ronald Reagan and say that nothing has really changed, so let’s change the way that we do things. Perhaps people older than my generation don’t have that clarity because they had personal awareness and memories of what those administrations brought with them.
With the Sanders campaign, there is a sense of urgency, but I don’t know if it is about the future so much as it is about proving something right now. As a group, Millennials don’t really have memories of the red scare and therefore we’re able to consider social constructions like socialism to be viable alternatives to this widely embraced and infrequently challenged system of capitalism–and that’s really the issue here. We feel like the scrutiny of capitalism is important in the immediate future because groups that are systemically oppressed have spent quite enough time existing under that oppression. We’re able to look at the nation’s current condition and see that in order for capitalism to function, a poverty class must also exist. Idealistically, the free market functions as a meritocracy, but that’s an impossibility when poverty is guaranteed. The current system violates it’s own principles. So let’s try something that might, and has been proven to work pretty well for a bunch of countries worldwide, already. And there’s an urgency here, because basic human rights aren’t something that you can just wait around for “the process” to fix. So we’re motivated from this sense of urgency not for our individual futures, but for our collective present.
The only really solid thing that I can point to for our collective concern for the future is Climate Change. When it comes to policy, that’s theoretically reversible, but the issue of Climate Change is actually something that we recognize will be irreversible eventually–if it isn’t already. There’s a certain amount of panic for my generation and reasonable people on the whole. And there’s this notion that if we don’t do something about the environment right now, that nothing else we do will really matter. So when Bernie answers questions like “what is the single greatest threat to this nation” with “Climate Change”, that matters to us.
Lord: What other challenges do you place at the top of the list? Inequality? Scaling back our global military presence?
MacEachern: Smashing capitalism? Well, inequality–specifically racial and class inequality–is absolutely the most pressing American issue of our day. Income inequality is staggering. We have the largest population of children living in extreme poverty in the developed world. Our healthcare coverage is still dependent on our income. Bernie Sanders seems to be the only person who’s willing to strongly take a stance on these issues while literally everyone else acts like these are insurmountable difficulties that we’ll just have to deal with forever. Speaking for just myself, I think that the criminal justice system is completely fractured, from the privatization of correctional facilities to the wildly disproportionate incarceration numbers of people of color. I understand that there isn’t much that the president could theoretically do about these things, but pushing for a federal ban on private prisons could be a decent start, and Bernie has openly and frequently decried the state of our justice system in a way that really resonates with me.
On the less philosophical and more practical side of things, I’m incredibly thrilled about the Sanders plan to improve our federal infrastructure. It’s one of those good job creators that gives people careers, not just brief tasks. Fixing and maintaining our roads, bridges and waterways has been neglected because it’s not a thing that is particularly exciting and therefore easily forgotten, but if these things are properly taken care of we will live in a safer nation where the bridges don’t collapse and where people are rewarded with just pay for quality work.
I’ve been heartened to find that a great deal of the people involved in the Bernie Sanders discourse recognize and espouse the importance of things that people often forget: midterms and Supreme Court appointees. If Bernie Sanders gets elected, that means that there are likely to be more competitive socialist candidates for other positions in government, and that’s what it will really take to solidify the ideological shift that the Sanders campaign really represents. If he gets the nomination, or even really just makes a good showing, that shows how much the American public is actually shifting to a more socialist perspective. And perhaps even more importantly than any other public office, Supreme Court Justice appointments are extremely important to many young voters in this election because we recognize that to be one of the most lasting and impactful decisions a president can and will make. We’ve heard terms like “Brown v. Board of Education” and “Roe v. Wade” and, I dunno, “Citizens United v. FEC” repeatedly and understand the greater lasting impact that Supreme Court decisions can have.
MacEachern: Can I ask you a question?
Lord: Sure. Turnabout is always fair play. We’ll end with that one.
MacEachern: I’ve seen your blog and Facebook posts on millennials, and you’re like, obsessed with us or something. What even is that?
Lord: Actually, the obsession is more with my fellow boomers. I may be more perplexed by boomers seeking to dictate to millennials than you are. Forty years or so ago, when we boomers came of age politically, our supposedly wiser elders talked down to us, telling us we were too idealist. And of course we were right. So when I see boomers engaging in the same blind condescension, it troubles me deeply.
Mellie, thanks so much for exchanging thoughts with me.
MacEachern: Thanks for the invitation.