Clinton has a generational problem more so than a gender problem. Polls suggest that for Democratic voters under the age of 30 they overwhelming supporting Sanders over her. For college age students, it is approximately an 80%/20% split. Women under the age of 45 clearly prefer Sanders to her, and in the recent New Hampshire primary, the only age group Clinton won were those over age 65. Even among African-Americans and people of color, the Washington Post reports that her commanding lead is slipping, and one might surmise if the data is crunched, the racial divide too has an age dimension to it. Why is Clinton so unappealing to younger voters? Conversely, why is Sanders at age 74, someone even older than Clinton (68), the darling of Millennials? The answer is generational, but also resides in the nature of the progressivism Sanders and Clinton embody.
The Sanders-Clinton schism is a replay of the Old Left/New Left battle lines that surfaced in the 1960s. The Old Left was the politics that emerged in the 1930 with FDR. The Old Left drew some of its inspiration from Marxist theories of class struggle. Politics was about social justice, the battle between rich and poor, and it involved labor unions, the working class, and workers. It was about fighting for economic equality and democracy, seeing political unity in the shared struggle of class. In contrast, the New Left was the politics of the 1960s. It was born in the student campus movement against the Vietnam War, and for civil rights. The New Left was less about class than about identity politics, and it had stronger middle class roots than did the Old Left. The Old Left and New Left both sought to transform American politics, yet their visions of what a revolution would look like and what would emerge were different. The Old Left saw the revolution rooted in class struggle and transformation that would eventually achieve liberation for oppressed groups, the New Left focused directly on the liberation of groups because of their social identity.
Sanders’ politics is Old Left, Clinton’s New Left. Or sort of. Sanders’ talk of political revolution is primarily that of economics and class, Clinton’s that of identity. Sanders speaks to the problems of economic inequality, the problems of capitalism, and the need to change the basic structural inequalities (corporate power and money and politics) in American society as a prerequisite to bringing about other changes. American politics is so corrupted only a paradigm change will fix it. Yes Sanders does discuss specific battles for freedom but they are part of a larger economic battle. Women and people of color can only achieve so much identity freedom before class and economics intrudes to limit them.
Clinton is about identity politics and micro change. She speaks well to specific groups, especially those who came of age in the 1960s and 70s. Politics is less if at all about a unity in a shared class struggle but in appealing to coalitional interest group politics. Political change is about empowering individual groups, the daily grind of groups using the official institutions of power to achieve change. America is less fundamentally corrupted and can be incrementally reformed.
Clinton’s message resonates with those who were part of the 60s struggle who have seen some progress. It appeals to the Black civil rights activists who saw success in their movement when Obama was elected and to Feminists who hope to see the same when a woman does the same. It is also a message of middle class progressives, who have a stake in the political system, who are mostly benefitting, but really not struggling. The New Left message as appropriated by Clinton is that slow reformism is the way to go. Obamacare is a good first step, as is Dodd-Frank. The political institutions are basically fine and just need some tinkering. This is perspective of someone who is middle aged, middle class, and basically has made it within the political system. The message of the haves.
Yet Clinton’s is not a message that appeals to a younger group not part of the 1960s. To a group that sees a bleak economic future with limited job opportunities and large student debt, they do not look at politics from the comforted position of aging middle class baby boomers who have money, homes, and Social Security. They see a world of inequality and limited opportunity, a world where while social identity in important, the major battles have been won and now one needs to win the struggle for economic inequality. This is Sanders’ message. The message of the have nots.
The Clinton/Sanders divide between New and Old Left plays out in other ways. Clinton’s narrative is flawed for a new generation of activists coming up. Much in the same way Obama represented a forward looking narrative that spoke to a new generation compared both to Clinton and McCain in 2008, Clinton is again looking backward speaking to an older generation. She still talks of 1990s politics (“Before there was Obamacare there was Hilllarycare”), she ties herself to Obama, and she appeals to the old constituencies that were part of her husband’s coalition. As one of my female Millennial students said to me: “Hillary is my grandmother’s candidate. She does not represent me.”
While Sanders is old, his message appears fresh. He looks to the future and not back to the 1990s. He talks to a rising generation about economic struggles that they face now and into the future. He speaks to the future of the Democratic Party, seeking to engage and hold them into the future. Clinton speaks to the Baby Boomers, hoping that she will be the last Boomer president before they transition out of power.
Sanders and Clinton are building coalitions around different generations, looking forward and backward, representing two different sets of interests and approaches to politics. The Millennials coming up are a synthesis embodying and sharing interests and messages of Old and Left politics, yet Sanders more so than Clinton seems to better capture the Millennial synthesis than does Clinton.