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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.