What will happen to the Bernie Sanders movement if, as expected, he loses the primary to Hillary Clinton? Will it have any durability or longer term impact at all? Or will it dissipate, proving itself to be yet another example of the longstanding tendency of voters from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to support ill-fated progressive insurgencies, as Jamelle Bouie suggested in a must-read on the topic?
This probably remains to be seen. But the Harvard Institute of Politics has released a new poll of young voters that hints at the impact Sanders might be having on our politics — and could continue to have in the future.
One key finding in the poll, which surveyed over 3,000 people from ages 18-29, is that these young people see a robust role for government in guaranteeing a right to a basic standard of living, and majorities of them see a large or moderate federal role in regulating the economy and access to health care and higher education.
— A plurality of these young voters agree by 48-21 that “basic health insurance is a right for all people, and if someone has no means of paying for it, the government should provide it.”
— A plurality of them agree by 45-20 that the “government should spend more to reduce poverty.”
— A plurality of them agree by 47-20 that “basic necessities, such as food and shelter, are a right that the government should provide to those unable to afford them.”
— A majority of them, 67 percent say the federal government should play a “large” (30) or “moderate” (37) role in the “regulation of Wall Street,” while only 28 percent say it should play little to no role.
— A majority of them, 66 percent, say the federal government should play a large (32) or moderate (34) role in the delivery of health care, while only 31 percent say it should play little to no role.
— A majority of them, 70 percent, say the federal government should play a large (35) or moderate (35) role in “providing access to higher education,” while only 27 percent say it should play little to no role.
— A majority of them, 64 percent, say the federal government should play a large (30) or moderate (34) role in “reducing income inequality,” while only 32 percent of them say it should play little to no role.
— A majority of them, 69 percent, say the federal government should play a large (27) or moderate (42) role in “regulating the economy,” while only 27 percent say it should play little to no role.
Is this due to Sanders? Well, Harvard’s polling director, John Della Volpe, tells Wonkblog’s Max Ehrenfreund that the data has shown an unusual shift in favor of a more robust role for government, and that Sanders may indeed be the reason why:
“He’s not moving a party to the left. He’s moving a generation to the left,” Della Volpe said of the senator from Vermont. “Whether or not he’s winning or losing, it’s really that he’s impacting the way in which a generation — the largest generation in the history of America — thinks about politics.”…For the first time in the past five years of Harvard’s polls, significantly more young people called themselves Democrats than said they were independent. Forty percent were Democrats, 22 percent were Republicans and 36 percent were independent….A narrow majority of respondents in Harvard’s poll said they did not support capitalism. While just 1 in 3 said they supported socialism, the figures are still an indicator of millennials’ frustration with the U.S. economic system, Della Volpe said.He called it “a lack of trust that young Americans have,” a distrust that extends to “the very premise of how our country’s organized.”
Della Volpe argues that Sanders’ popularity with these young voters — he’s viewed favorably by 54 percent of them, while Hillary Clinton is viewed unfavorably by 53 percent — deserves much of the credit for their increasing tendency to identify with the Democratic Party. (Clinton is nonetheless crushing Donald Trump among these voters.)
If this is right, it would appear to lend some support for the idea that one way Sanders has effectively engaged young voters in Democratic politics may be through his call for profound and ambitious change. Whatever his flaws — his account of the failings of the Obama era is overly simplistic, in my view — Sanders has effectively injected a series of big ideas into the political dialogue. At bottom, he is insisting that unless we junk old, limited ideas about what is determined at the outset to be politically “realistic,” we won’t be able to tackle the enormous challenges the country faces — challenges that threaten the future of these young voters in particular. He’s arguing that the structural constraints of our politics should not lead us to scale back our quest for a far more just society. He’s basically calling for a fundamental rewriting of the American social contract.
Along these lines, the poll, interestingly, also found that 56 percent of young voters are “concerned about the moral direction of the country,” yet the poll does not suggest that these moral concerns are rooted in religion or social conservatism.
As Wonkblog’s Ehrenfreund puts it: “In the long term, a major question will be whether these young people newly identifying as Democrats will remain loyal to the party. If so, then today’s millennial liberalism has the potential to create a small but lasting numeric advantage for Democrats.”
And so, one thing that remains to be seen is whether, going forward, a continuing commitment — at least in principle — to the sort of ambitious social democratic reform goals that Sanders has articulated will remain the price of keeping this generation engaged in Democratic politics. It also remains to be seen what this generation will do — if anything — to make that so.