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Bernie, Hillary and historical memory

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | May 10, 2016

I spotted a bumper sticker as it passed through Berkeley on a blue Camry the other day. It read “McGovern-Shriver 1972.” It was a fresh sticker, not a 44-year-old relic, the driver’s wry comment on historical memory.

All but the shouting is over preparatory to the Trump/Clinton face-off this summer. (Full disclosure: I, like almost all “observers” excepting Norm Ornstein  and Sam Wang, dismissed Trump’s chances. For one post-mortem on how we screwed up, see here.) With the emotions of the primaries perhaps dampening, it becomes easier to inquire about the amazing age gap between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters.

Sanders Clinton

In (an April Field poll (pdf) of California’s likely Democrat voters, Clinton won the 65-plus crowd by about 3:1, but Sanders won the under-30 crowd by over 4:1. Age–much more than class, race, gender, or even ideology–differentiates pro-Clinton and pro-Sanders voters. (Full disclosure: I’m with her, as you would predict from my age.)

Why the canyon-sized gap? Maybe the Sanders vs. Clinton messages–boldness vs. pragmatism, frankness vs. calculation, independence vs. establishment, etc.–divide the young from the old. Maybe voters’ personal interests–say, student debt vs. protecting social security–do. But it is striking that age separates the two camps much more than how far left people say they are, their policy choices, or their social positions. One important explanation, I’ll suggest below, is historical memory, as captured by that bumper sticker.

Memory and campaigns

Generations are culturally marked by the critical historical events that occurred when their members were quite young, say, roughly ages 18 to 28. Experiencing the Great Depression or the Vietnam War, for example, during late adolescence or early adulthood has lasting consequences (see, e.g., here). When Sanders went off on Henry Kissinger, Prince Sihanouk, and Pol Pot in a February debate, he illustrated his generation’s searing, life-shaping experience. Political scientists generally believe that the earliest votes people cast largely bind those voters to a political world view and a party for the rest of their lives

McGovern campaign pin

Thinking of Bernie Democrats and the Hillary Democrats in terms of generations rather than age provides some leverage for explaining this huge (or “y-u-u-u-g-e”) contrast.

Today’s 70-year-old was 26 when the original McGovern-Shriver 1972 bumper stickers appeared. George McGovern was that generation’s Bernie Sanders Plus. McGovern was clearly on the left margin of the Democratic Party. He mobilized a youthful insurgent campaign full of twenty-somethings, swept through a new primary system – which he had in large part designed – defeated the establishment candidates Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, and took the Democratic nomination. McGovern ran his general campaign on a platform to end the Vietnam War and provide guaranteed annual incomes. McGovern was “Sanders Plus” because, as a World War II military hero and as a senator from South Dakota, he seemed insulated from right-wing attacks on him as a closet communist.

In the end, alas, no. McGovern carried only one state, Massachusetts, won only 38 percent of the vote, and doomed lots of down-ballot Democrats. Many of we politically involved and now elderly Democrats were, I suggest, shaped by that experience in their 20s. (Add to that left-insurgent candidate Eugene McCarthy’s reluctance, only four years earlier, to encourage his supporters to back Hubert Humphrey in a very close election; that helped deliver the White House to Richard Nixon, directly extending the Vietnam War.)

In contrast, today’s 25-year-olds can look back to 2008 when they were 17 and the high drama was the Obama campaign. (9/11 probably came a bit too early in their lives – at about age 10 – to shape their politics.) The Obama campaign, also heavily youth-driven and insurgent, rolled on promises of “hope and change,” and broke a barrier in a way that seemed almost miraculous. The Sanders campaign may capture twenty-somethings today in part because it echoes that experience, even more energized by a feeling that this time, they’ll also get programs of hope and change.

Bernie 2016 campaign pin

But for grey-haired Democrats, the Sanders campaign plucks the chords of a painful memory, one that inclines them to stick with Hillary – who, in addition, they’ve been with for almost a quarter-century.

(Side note: What about those polls showing Sanders doing better against Trump than Clinton does? Shouldn’t the Hillary folks respond to them? My reading is that forecasting from such polls is a fantasy, because Sanders has not been savaged by the right the way Clinton has been for decades. Conservative PACS have no interest in undercutting Sanders while he is undercutting Clinton. Clinton herself has barely attacked Sanders. Saying, for example, that he is soft on gun control is a mild criticism from Sanders’ left; saying that he is an impractical dreamer is an abstract charge.

The assault on Sanders that would have come from the right would have been brutal: charges that he is a crypto-communist who palled around with the Castros and “honeymooned” in the Soviet Union; that he hates America because he thinks other countries, socialist ones, are better; that his proposals will require sizable tax increases on many middle-class Americans; that he will vastly expand government; etc. Such attacks would have rapidly driven down Sanders’ poll numbers. Again, historical memory: Consider how successfully the right media machine portrayed Michael Dukakis as a rapist-loving governor – “Willie Horton,” 1988 – and convinced many Americans that Vietnam war hero John Kerry had gotten his medals dishonestly – ”Swift Boats, 2004.” Those are short trailers for what would have hit Sanders.)

Memory, purity, and effectiveness

Others have noted the McGovern-Shriver 1972 parallel, but I would add an additional item to the historical memory issue.

If Sanders’ applause lines and reporters’ quotes from his supporters are representative, he has the enormous advantage among the young of being far less tainted than the sometimes sleazy Clintons (Wall-Street contributions; huge sums to speak at Goldman Sachs; cutting corners; questionable Friends of Bill; etc.). The assumption seems to be that purity brings better, more progressive action and results.

Were that so! But by far the most successful progressive president in the last 70 years was Lyndon Baines Johnson; he was also, maybe short of Richard Nixon, the most ethically challenged. Conversely, the least successful progressive president in the last 70 years was probably Jimmy (“I will never lie to you”) Carter, who has not, to my knowledge, been tainted with anything except perhaps sanctimoniousness.

Hillary’s aging warriors carry, for better or worse, lots of difficult historical memories. Sanders promises that all such worries will be swept away by a “political revolution.” Been there, heard that.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.

Comments to “Bernie, Hillary and historical memory

  1. I am not sure the age question works this time, since there is a palatable awareness that our declining system is not only rigged but incapable of governing to save our selves from our selves…

    Some of us older folks have unhooked from the charisma of Bill Clinton and see the Clintons as part of the problem and are just more of the “been there, heard that.” And the fact that the system as it is has prevented Obama from delivering his hope and change intentions. Hope and change now comes in the form of “revolution.”

    Also, I am not sure all the things listed as brutal assaults on Bernie by the right work either for the very reason Trump is ascendant … the con is up for the GOP after decades of lying and failed ideologies and the now all too obvious support by the plutocratic oligarchy.

  2. I’m a 61-year old woman who is voting for Bernie. I care about income inequality, the cost of education, labor rights, mass incarceration, racial and other forms of hatred and discrimination, single-payer healthcare, (at least) a $15 minimum wage, and many more issues where Bernie’s position’s are more progressive than Hillary’s.

    I recognize that Bernie has virtually no chance of gaining the Dem nomination. I hope that he is building a movement that can capitalize on his large landscape of supporters to push a more progressive platform at the Dem convention and then to move beyond this election.

    If the choice is between Trump and Clinton, something is seriously wrong with the system. We need to grow a new coalition of progressive forces that are willing to put aside some differences in order to advance a much greater good.

    I liken this to the opportunities that we lost when both Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and the Occupy Movement dissolved. Now’s the time to look forward, beyond the 2016 election.

  3. Here’s another thing young(ish) voters remember (I’m 28): The frustration in 2000 and 2004 when Al Gore and John Kerry – two relatively centrist Democrats and relatively weak campaigners – lost to George W. Bush. And now we have Hillary: even more of a centrist and even weaker at campaigning, ready to be swept away by hordes of excited Trump supporters.

    We need, most of all, a presidential candidate who will spout inspirational rhetoric, fight to bring true progressive policy issues into the mainstream, and appoint other liberal leaders – in short, someone who will divert the Democratic party from its long-running strategy of centrism and compromise, which is disastrous for winning elections *and* disastrous for the future of the country (in so many ways: the environment, the economy, income inequality, healthcare…). It ain’t Hillary.

  4. It’s interesting to note the role personal feelings about candidates – not their policies, the people themselves (as voters have come to “know” them through the press) – have played over the past couple of decades. George W. Bush personally raised my hackles.You’d have to be deaf and blind not to see the vitriol (even setting the obvious racism aside) in the comments on Obama.

    Almost all young people I talk to have a level of personal animosity toward HRC which is striking. That kind of sentiment is almost impossible to argue with, short of the most powerful argument of all, which is fear.

    The difficulty is that many young people, I believe, see no difference between Trump and Clinton. HRC’s ability to get younger voters to understand that difference might be crucial.

    • If you are correct in surmising that young voters see no difference between Trump and HRC, then I, myself, am worried about the critical thinking skills of the younger generation.

      I am the older generation and I am in favor of many of the policy positions at the core of the Sanders platform. But to contend that he is not a politician and that he is somehow “pure” is patently ridiculous. How else can one explain his statements that the whole system of super delegates is a rigged system, but at the same time he, himself, is trying to convince those same super delegates to dump HRC and vote for him?

      There is an inherent contradiction in his reasoning, just like in all politicians.

  5. It is amazing in a sense that it took a 74 year-old man to gain the trust and support of the youth of this country. All things considered, I believe Bernie’s agenda is on the right path, and it does seem to be the way the younger generation in our country is leaning.

    Sanders may not be successful in his bid to overtake Hillary, but history will look back on this election as a major turning point, simply because four years from now, Bernie’s agenda will be in the hands of a much younger candidate who will succeed in gaining the presidency. Just my opinion.


  6. This time we are proving that, in spite of our latest advances, we still have absolutely no human institution that is capable of preventing global warming, human hatreds and the power of money from destroying our latest civilization.

  7. Prof. Fischer, thank you for your update, but the greatest fact of life for the human race is that we are once again experiencing the worst case scenario consequences of our perpetual failures to learn from the lessons of history documented by Will and Ariel Durant whose paramount conclusion after over 40 years of research was:

    When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.”

    This time we are proving that, in spite of our latest advances, we still have absolutely no human institution that is capable of preventing global warming, human hatreds and the power of money from destroying our latest civilization.

    So all social scientists are capable of doing is documenting our final decline and fall, while refusing to unite to save ourselves even though we have the capabilities to do so this time. Our success at protecting our civilization by winning WWII has been turned into failures to improve and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for all future generations. And this is our last chance.

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