Government & Politics

Understanding the rise of Bernie Sanders, the ‘socialist’

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders for President?

Can Bernie Sanders, the 74 year old independent Senator from the State of Vermont, become the next President of the United States? Sanders is one of two remaining candidates running for the Democratic nomination, along with former Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. After winning five of the last six States in the nomination process, how likely is it that the self-described ‘social democrat’ can actually beat his opponent to become the nominee? And what explains the massive support he is receiving from the under 30 ‘millennial’ age bracket?

An Independent Democrat

Bernie Sanders was first elected as a United State Senator from Vermont in 2007. Sanders ran as an Independent, representing neither the Democrats or Republicans. Before that he was a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Vermont from 1991. For his Presidential run he is affiliated with the Democrats.

Are you ‘Feeling the Bern’?

Sanders is a self described ‘socialist’ or ‘social democrat’. That can be a dirty word in American politics. He looks to Scandanvian countries as an examples policies the US government should strive to adopt. These countries are full of wealthy, educated citizens where the top earners pay high taxes, but the general population receives the benefit of public services, like universal health care and free education.

Millennial vote

The majority of Sanders support comes from so-called ‘millennials’, roughly, those born after 1990. I think there are three reasons explaining Sanders’ appeal to this demographic.

1. Post-communism era

The first is that millennial generation has grown up after the fall of the Soviet Union and Berlin Wall. They don’t remember the ‘red threat’, McCarthyism or the threat of nuclear annihilation. While the passing of time has not normalised Communism and its barbaric legacy, it has, to a degree, weakened the negative conflation of socialism with communism. In other words, millennials probably don’t feel the stigma of voting for a socialist that their parents may.

2. Loss of faith in capitalism – GFC

The global financial crisis of 2006/07 was tough for many millennials. Their baby-boomer parents had the promise of free education, a job for life and a gold-plated pension. However, for those graduating or job seeking around that time, life was hard. Layoffs were common. Graduate schemes were slashed. The future looked bleak. The American dream had turned into a nightmare. This plays on the mind of many of Bernie voters and his bashing of Wall Street bankers and the billionaire class resonates with them.

3. Online social media

The world has become a smaller place. Ideas and ideologies can be shared rapidly over social media services, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Like Obama before him, the Bernie Sanders campaign is leveraging social media and online fund raising. Through crowd-funding and micro-donations he is raising more per month that Hilary Clinton. Running a close second to denouncing Wall Street, one of Sanders’ favourite sound-bites is that the average donation to his campaign is “twenty seven bucks”. It is remarkable then that in March the Sanders campaign raised over $44 million allowing him to match the spending power of the Clinton machine.

Can Bernie Sanders actually win?

The outsider George McGovern won the Democratic party nomination in 1972. He then went on to lose the general election 49 states to 1 state to Richard Nixon. Similarly, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale both lost in landslides against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 respectively.

Accordingly, in the 1980s the Democrats devised the concept of ‘super delegates’ to try to stop an outsider, with no real chance of winning the general election, winning the primary nomination process. In essence, super-delegates are unpledged and free to decide whether to back Secretary Clinton or Senator Sanders. As Clinton is the establishment pick, it is likely that the 400 super delegates will back her at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in July. Clinton therefore already has a massive lead in the race to 2,383 delegates, making a Bernie victory extremely hard to achieve.

Despite this, the tech-savvy millennials have had their voice heard. Their wave of support for Sanders has shifted the tone of the 2016 campaign to the left. Even if Bernie is not the nominee, the sheer number voters he has engaged will surely force Secretary Clinton to listen to their call for a ‘fair go’ for the next four years.


Photo credit: Bernie Sanders by Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Leave a Reply