Bernie Sanders promised a political revolution.
So far this primary season, it hasn’t happened. A big reason why is due to disappointing youth turnout numbers in recent states, something that was supposed to be key to Sanders winning the nomination and riding a wave of new voters to the White House.
Yes, Sanders continues to dominate among the young voters who do show up to the polls. The problem is they’re just not coming out in the numbers needed to give him the advantage.
As USA Today reported, voters under the age of 30 made up a smaller percentage of the electorate in many Super Tuesday states than they did in 2016. In North Carolina, the youth vote accounted for 14% of vote, down from 16% four years ago. In Virginia, young voters were just 13% of the overall electorate, as opposed to 16% in 2016. Texas saw a drop too, from 20% of the vote in 2016 to 15% last week.
Part of this is simply because voter turnout for the Democratic primary as a whole was up, so different age ranges increased more than young people. And certainly some of it was due to long lines caused by intentional voter suppression efforts from Republicans (though states with easier voting had similar youth vote stats). But NPR quoted the polling director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics saying that he believed the youth vote on its own is “flat or declining” compared to the past presidential cycle.
How could this be?
Mobilizing young people has been central to Sanders’ campaign. And unlike in 2016, he is better-known now, significantly better-funded from the start, and had way more time to plan and organize. His campaign made huge, smart strides in reaching out to young communities of color. Many allied progressive organizations poured in millions to organize young people around various progressive issues. You could see the engagement online. Young people absolutely despise Donald Trump.
And yet here we are. Why?
I have one theory: rampant, self-perpetuating cynicism inadvertently caused by Sanders supporters and the campaign themselves.
Much has been made over the past few days over how some of the online toxicity of the far-left has pushed potential progressive voters and supporters of dropped-out candidates away from Sanders. He has gained very little new support as the campaign has drug on and the field consolidated.
But there’s another form of rhetoric that may be damaging Sanders internally among potential voters who were already on board with him. And that’s the constant talk of election-rigging, conspiracy theories and establishment plots. Everyone who has marginally paid attention to the Sanders campaign and movement is plenty familiar with the various complaints about corporate media, the DNC and billionaire donors.
Here’s the basic problem: when you post online about how the media and Democratic establishment is supposedly conspiring against Sanders, that may translate to you and your activist friends as an outrage that motivates you to fight harder. But for your other friends who see your posts, those who don’t always vote but generally like Sanders, that may translate to, “Well, what’s the point of voting if it’s rigged anyway?”
In the age of social media, we’re so primed to judge the success of our ideas and opinions we toss out there in the public realm off of the number of likes or positive comments it gets. But what may get missed is the impact those words have on the very people who may disengage from voting altogether based on the cynicism these messages cause. And currently, we’re seeing that being politically aware doesn’t necessarily translate into voting. Posting on Reddit and sending in $27 donations doesn’t necessarily mean people go out to vote, and Sanders supporters have started to realize it.
There’s a delicate balance to be had in here somewhere that I don’t think Sanders or the left in general has come anywhere close to perfecting yet. Yes, you definitely want to identify the fundamental injustices in our political and economic systems in order to properly come up with real, meaningful solutions to fix it. But at the same time, you can’t make it sound like the task is so insurmountable that it can never be done. And blatant conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact are wholly counter-productive.
There has to be a little thing called “hope” in there somewhere, the slogan of the last presidential candidate who actually did mobilize young voters in a historic election.
Many of the most-liked Sanders-world tweets in the aftermath of Super Tuesday were ones like these, which presume some sort of mass, behind-the-scenes conspiracy to deny Sanders the nomination.
If Biden wins the nomination, it will be a real lesson in how power works. Bernie was on track to win, Biden had no campaign, and they all knew it. So a few phone calls were made behind the scenes to Amy, Pete, Beto. Several million was put into a pro-Warren Super PAC. Voila!
— Nathan J Robinson (@NathanJRobinson) March 4, 2020
If things were really as simple as this, why would anyone who believes it bother to vote? The mysterious powers that be will always thwart you.
Sanders himself delved into it in an interview over the weekend, suggesting that Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg dropped out not because they no longer saw a path to the nomination, but because shadowy establishment powers directed them to do so.
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday results: "One of the things I was kind of not surprised by was the power of the establishment to force Amy Klobuchar, who had worked so hard, Pete Buttigieg who had really worked extremely hard as well out of the race." https://t.co/FMsEFyFDY3 pic.twitter.com/9C5lLFJCR5
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) March 8, 2020
Sanders’ candidacy has been one of inspiration and excitement to many left-leaning voters, especially young ones and the young people of color that his campaign has effectively organized in some states. But to others, the rhetoric coming out of Sanders’ camp sounds more like a message of despair, a confirmation of all the reasons why they stayed out of politics in the first place. The impact that has on disaffected voters, the type that would naturally be drawn to an outsider progressive like Sanders, doesn’t seem to be fully realized by the left.
Some on Sanders’ side seem to see the bigger picture.
“When things start falling short, I don’t think that seeking out someone to blame, instead of figuring out how to adapt, is the smart move,” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said at a Sanders rally this weekend.
Once this primary is over, hopefully the aftermath involves progressives doing much more adapting of their message and much less blaming.
If campaigns and activists aren’t more careful about tamping down cynicism, we risk turning this current young generation into one that is more politically aware, yet somehow less politically engaged.
by Pat Rynard