Bernie-Supporting Young Millennials and the Looming Economic Crisis: Prospects for Change

Photo credit: Ramir Mazaheri.

History shows us that economic crises do not become political crises that severely threaten the ruling order until a critical mass of people come to the realization that the system itself is rotten, unbearable and incapable of meaningful reform.
— Glen Ford, Executive Editor, Black Agenda Report

The estimated 73 million Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) among others, will painfully endure the severest financial setback from the COVID-19 pandemic and they’re already worse off in every major economic indicator than the three preceding generations. The journalist, author and activist Ramir Mazahuri, has a recent succinct piece on the increasing precarity and immiseration that the already beleaguered COHORT will be facing. After enumerating these factors, he asserts that Millennials “will be in no mood to take any risks.” It’s not hyperbole to suggest  that the prospects for radical structural change in the United States turn on whether the coming economic crisis is the tipping point for a political crisis and especially how this intersects with the evolving politics of these former Bernie Sanders’ supporters and others in their age group.

In terms of economic factors, Mazahuri notes first, that in the wake of the crisis, the neoliberals in the U.S. “… will be just as resistant to tax the rich in order to give the poor jobs as they have been for the last four decades.” Second, there will be a vast surplus of workers competing with one another for whatever scarce  jobs are available and economic devastation with its “bankruptcies, closures and reduced government tax revenues are sure to result.”  Third, the jobs Millennials often occupied in retail, tourism, restaurants, hospitality and creation will be decimated.  Even for marginally better options,  younger Millennials will be the first to be laid off due to lack of experience, skills and seniority. Finally, after a brief respite from emergency  Federal funding, there will be even less in the way of “benefits” like unemployment insurance, pension contributions and health care.1   [Note: As employers attempt to extract ever more wealth from workers, Gig Work will sharply increase. Some 25%  of U.S. workers already receive some income from Gig Work, a term derived from “gig,” as in bits and pieces of short-term or freelance work with their low pay, no benefits, or workplace protections.]

Keeping the former in mind, what motivated some roughly 10 million Millennials, especially those under 35 and including a sizable number of often overlooked younger Latinos  and Blacks, to embrace Sanders and something vaguely called “Democratic Socialism?”  Not to be flip, but the short answer is “Why not?” They rightly sensed they were getting shafted by the Lords of Capital. After the Great Recession of 2008, but long  before the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of Millennials were already deeply scarred. They reported feelings of perpetual anxiety (later ridiculed by Biden) and the not implausible conviction that they’d never feel secure. What they saw instead were the countless lost opportunities in their twenties that had set them back indefinitely. Only 36% believed they’d be happier and more successful than their parents and one assumes that number has since plummeted.>

Peering into a dismal future, instead of a path to financial security that had there for their parents, grandparents and older siblings they saw a cul-de-sac.  With a median net worth of $11,000, 15% living with their parents, fully half still receiving significant financial support from parents and a quarter depending on them to cover all major expenses, the Millennials knew that prior generations, aside from some egregious exceptions which included blacks, female heads of household and others had a far different experience.

These generations  had been the recipients of a host of benefits now seemingly unavailable to them, including long term job security, affordable educations, accessible child-care, Social Security, Medicare, and perhaps above all, the bedrock for owning something concrete and of appreciating in value: home ownership. The latter, for many was assisted by government subsidized mortgages and or  mortgage-interest deductions. The aggregate of these items was the psychic income of security and relative freedom constant anxiety about the future  for others. In addition, they felt resentment toward those who’d led them to believe the American Dream was still available to them. Finally, a majority of those Millennials under 30 expressed a favorable view of socialism and 69% reported they’d vote for a socialist candidate for president.

In Bernie Sanders, they perceived, not “pragmatism” and “electability,”  the telltale signs of another bullshit-spewing politician but an honest, truth-teller who could, together with them (“Us”) liberate them from a forbidding future.  The fact that he included the climate crisis, inclusivity and criticism of unconscionable inequality and other issues dear to their hearts reinforced the idealism  they brought to the cause but— and here I anticipate  some blowback — these were complementary. Further, I would argue there were two reasons that compassion for others, both domestically and internationalist were not always at the forefront. First, Millennials are the legacy of three decades of unrelenting, highly sophisticated capitalist cultural indoctrination and its emphasis on unfettered greed. This has succeeded in overriding and anesthetizing natural feelings of empathy and solidity and substituted, in Henry Giroux’s apt phrase, “market identities, values and practices.”2  Second, for whatever reasons, their candidate remained silent about the existence of the vast U.S. empire, the 1000 military bases that sustain it and the need to dismantle them.  As such they were not afforded  an opportunity to hear moral sound waves that had  been muted as they passed through powerful cultural baffles.

Liberals to Radicals

Only a handful of today’s socialists were swaddled in red diapers. Most of us began as liberals who gradually derived lessons from painful but life-transforming experiences. In my own case, as a high school senior I idolized John F. Kennedy, later chaired my college Young Democrats and went door-to-door for Lyndon Johnson in his race against Barry Goldwater in 1964. Only a few years later, radicalized by civil rights and Vietnam, I was identifying with the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and Angela Davis, reading Howard Zinn and hitting the streets to chant, “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?”

My sense is that for most of us, moral outrage fueled our involvement  more than a close appreciation for capitalism’s institutional racism and the structural roots of U.S. imperialism. Again, this transformation didn’t occur in a linear fashion and vestiges of a liberal past remained. Even after becoming an activist in the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) from 1966-69, I still recall my feelings of despair on the night in 1972 when Sen. George McGovern (a childhood hero and genuinely decent politician) lost 49 states to the execrable Richard Nixon.

During this time, I don’t remember encountering any slightly older, veteran leftists criticizing us for idealistic naïveté while quoting chapter and verse from Marx and Lenin. If they had, we’d probably have ignored them with a dismissive “OK. Silent Gen. Move Over.” There were always a handful of micro sects mostly quarreled with one another but what I recall most were countless mentors, who upon being asked, patiently pointed us toward books, films, plays and other sources. For example,  I think of the national Vietnam teach-in I attended at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1965 when the speakers and other participants helped us to begin connecting the dots about U.S. policy in SE Asia. Beyond that, we sensed that to act responsibly we needed information that went far beyond what we’d learned from the government, mass media, formal education and our parents. Finally, during the latter part of the 1960s, we felt tremendous optimism, that revolution was just around the corner.

Boomersplainin’

What about today? Do I know of socialists who held out the faint hope that Sanders, upon being denied the nomination and finally realizing the recalcitrant reality of the Democratic establishment and the ruling class, would have a last minute Saul to Paul conversion, exit the convention hall in Milwaukee and lend his support to organizing an authentic left movement? Yes, a few entertained and voiced that fantasy and I believe most of us would have gladly joined up. I certainly would have done so. Most never expected it and of course, none do now.

Whether young Millennial’s support for Bernie also included the Democratic Party is open to debate but it’s an undeniable fact that he was running as a presidential candidate for that party. I once faulted his followers for not doing more due diligence before projecting their hopes and dreams onto Sander’s campaign. Why? Because given what he was up against, he would never have been allowed to deliver on his “Political Revolution.” However, just as we, during an earlier period in history did not possess such perspicacity and prescience, there was little in their lived experience to convince them that democracy in this country now exists only as procedure without substance, as a ritualistic symbol to legitimate an illegitimate system. To wit, entrenched plutocrats rule politics, the MSM, healthcare, the military and the economy. As such, I confess that my earlier opinion was unfair.

As for some of the other critical comments directed at Millennials,  it strikes me as condescending to assume that young, former Sanders’ supporters are now incapable of reflecting on their recent experience and like sheep (also insulting to sheep) will feel the shepherds crook and meekly file into the Democratic Party’s metaphorical abattoir.  Likewise, those accusing Sanders of “betraying” his followers by campaigning as a “Democratic Revolutionary” and then reverting to a “Counter Revolutionary” virtually overnight and thus implying  that  his supporters were duped is disingenuous. The truth is that Sanders’ behavior was entirely consistent with his deepest convictions and entire career in politics. Even though technically not a member and brief flirtation with socialism in the early 70s, his loyalty now is to the Democratic Party and in my opinion, he sees his legacy as keeping as many of his supporters within it. In short, “Et tu Bernie?” is  unhelpful misreading of the facts.

Even more disturbing is a sample of preening, hostility-generating, predominately Boomer comments gleaned from a few left writers and FB sites  that disparage Bernie’s younger supporters. All are quotes:  Sanders’ followers are victims of an elaborate prank; I now realize that Bernie was always in on the fix; We have no sympathy for you — we WARNED you and you IGNORED us; Poor, poor Bernie worshippers, you were hoodwinked; I should have saved my $27; and, they were cultists who wasted their time on a fraudulent politician.

The offensive implication that these Millennials need to be “corrected” is unmistakable and reveals an unwillingness to recognize the chasm between two vastly different lived experiences. As such, I’m no longer without sympathy for this generic response: “OK Boomers. Fuck Off. Delete.” For the time being and until proven otherwise, I want to assume these Boomersplainers are extreme outliers. And while I don’t for a minute doubt their ultimate commitments, I might suggest they take a brief hiatus to engage in some serious soul-searching and self-criticism.

Am I convinced, as many have noted, that the Democratic Party is now where all progressive ideas go to die? Beyond a doubt. Do I fervently hope the bulk of younger Millennials will eventually be known as the “Left Generation” who formed the core of a massive, radical movement operating outside the capitalist duopoly? That they found and practiced imaginative methods for generating the radical structural change we so desperately need? Few things are as important to me.

Finally, we will soon be entering the post-COVID-19 crisis era and conditions with the potential to trigger radical demands from below, including a massive labor resurgence after 40 years of inaction. These are demands that our powerful predator class may find difficult to contain. Whether U.S. Millennials, with their numbers, impressive high-tech and social media skills, and “essential” role in the economy, will conclude — on their own — that it’s in their interest to assist in expediting class conflict and overturning neoliberal capitalism remains an open question.

  1. Ramir Marzahuri, “Pity post-corona Millennials…if they don’t openly push socialism”, The Greanville  Post, April 14, 2020. []
  2. Henry Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder,CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), p. 113; see also, Gary Olson, Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (New York: Springer Publishing, 2012), especially, Chapter Two on college students, “Retrospective: Moral Outrage or Moral Amnesia,” Pp. 13-19. []
Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. He can be reached at: olsong@moravian.edu. Read other articles by Gary.