Hillary Clinton’s squad of celebrity surrogates, stumpers and endorsers (surnamed Dunham, Knowles-Carter, Kardashian West, Glazer, Jacobson, Grande, Perry, Lovato, Schumer and Poehler, respectively, as if you had to ask) may be totes on fleek. And they may be idolized by many American millennials. But they have not succeeded in transferring their youthful popularity to their preferred presidential candidate.
In the Iowa caucuses alone, Sanders beat Clinton 84 percent to 14 percent in this age group, according to entrance polls. That’s a 70-point margin. Just for reference, note that in 2008, in the very same state, among the very same demographic, Barack Obama bested Clinton by “only” 46 points. And Obama was young and cool; Sanders is more of an eccentric-grandpa type.
Why are so many young’uns feeling the Bern?
I see two main reasons.
The first is that, to millennials, Sanders’s socialism is a feature, not a bug.
Much of the current conversation about Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is predicated on whether Americans can look past this supposedly toxic label. But millennials love Sanders not despite his socialism, but because of it.
“Socialism” has never been a dirty word for the current cohort of youth, who either didn’t live through the Cold War or don’t remember it. We are more likely to associate socialism with prosperous, egalitarian, relatively well-functioning Scandinavian states — the kinds of places that produce awesome things like Ikea and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” — than with autocrats who starve their people.
Many of us also entered the job market just as unbridled capitalism appeared to blow up the world economy.
Perhaps for this reason, millennials actually seem to prefer socialism to capitalism.
In a recent YouGov survey, 43 percent of respondents under age 30 said they had a favorable opinion of socialism, while just 32 percent said the same about capitalism. Among all ages, races, geographic regions, genders, party affiliations and income levels, millennials were the only demographic that held socialism in higher regard than capitalism.
It’s not just Sanders’s socialist label that sells; it’s his socialist ideas, too.
To a generation that’s broke, in debt, underemployed and stuck in its parents’ basements, promises of a political revolution, more equitable distribution of (other people’s) wealth, a more robust social safety net and free college can sound pretty appealing.
There’s a second major reason millennials prefer Sanders to Clinton, and that one is more stylistic than substantive.
It has to do with his so-called “authenticity,” by which is usually meant his willingness to look and sound like a hot mess.
I suspect young Americans have always been skeptical of anyone trying too hard to look and sound a particular way (see: Holden Caulfield vs. the “phonies”). But that skepticism is heightened among today’s youth.
In the social media era, meticulous image management is both a necessity and a source of constant resentment and cynicism. We are bombarded with carefully curated Instagram feeds, tweets and other forms of self-conscious digital preening. We must be camera-ready at all times, lest an unflattering image find its way onto Facebook. Yet what’s perhaps the bravest, most powerful boast you can make online? “#Nofilter,” a humblebrag hashtag applied to unedited photos. Or perhaps its close cousin, “#IWokeUpLikeThis.”
It is precisely Sanders’s au-naturel-ness that endears him to his young fans: his unkempt hair, his ill-fitting suits, his unpolished Brooklyn accent, his propensity to yell and wave his hands maniacally. Sanders, it appears, woke up like this.
These qualities are what make him seem “authentic,” “sincere” even — especially when contrasted with Clinton’s hyper-scriptedness. Sanders, unlike Clinton, doesn’t give a damn if he’s camera-ready.
This is, of course, a form of authenticity that is off-limits to any female politician, not just one with Clinton’s baggage.
Female politicians — at least if they want to be taken seriously on a national stage — cannot be unkempt and unfiltered, hair mussed and voice raised. They have to be carefully coifed and scripted at all times, because they have to hew as closely as possible to the bounds of propriety available to both their sex and their occupation. They can’t be too quiet or too loud, too emotional or too cold, too meek or too aggressive, and so on.
But they also can’t appear to be trying too hard, either. At least if they want the kind of enthusiastic millennial support that Sanders enjoys.