Tuesday, June 4, 2019

A Bernie Sanders Narrative for Seniors

What follows is some unsolicited advice for the Sanders campaign.

Politico has an important piece on the downside of the extraordinary age bias in Sanders’ support.  Like a teeter totter, the large advantage Sanders enjoys among younger voters is counterbalanced by his dismal showing among the older crowd.  The article reviews voting breakdowns from the 2016 campaign and current poll results, and it shows that Sanders is not just behind among seniors, but way, way behind.  His political strengths guarantee he will survive the winnowing of the twenty-odd 2020 pretenders, but sheer arithmetic suggests he will need to make significant inroads among older voters, something he hasn’t done up to this point, to overtake Biden—assuming of course Biden doesn’t overtake himself.

So how can he do this?  The first thing to realize is that he doesn’t need absolute majorities among retirees and near-retires, just enough support so his advantage among the non-elderly isn’t erased.  The second is that direct material benefits alone are never enough.  People don’t simply vote in their immediate financial interest, although of course interests play an essential role.  Economic motives are like nuclei around which layers of narrative form, but it’s the narrative—the meaning—that orients people, and an economic condition can be explained in multiple ways.  Not all explanations are equally valid, of course, but in politics that’s largely irrelevant.  So yes, Sanders can and should talk up Social Security expansion and how universal health insurance would benefit  those on Medicare too.  But that’s not a sufficient political strategy; it lacks an encompassing narrative.  This narrative doesn’t have to be one all older people will gravitate to, but it has to speak to a significant portion of them.

And that’s where this post comes in.  Here’s a narrative I would recommend if I were on Bernie’s staff: As a democratic socialist, I have always believed in a future that we could approach step by step through political and social change.  That’s the America I once lived in, too.  It wasn’t perfect, not even close.  We had poverty, inequality, racism and sexism, military adventurism, and domination by the rich and monopolistic corporations.  Yet we also had steady progress against all these things, made possible by a relatively open political system—in other words, by democracy.  But for several decades that progress has stalled, and many of these problems have actually become worse again.  The system has shut down, and it will take radical means to open it up again so our country can resume moving forward.  For those of us in my generation who have seen all of this in our own lives, the era of reform and progress and then the era of blockage, this is our final opportunity to leave our legacy to the young.  It is an opportunity to recover the idealism that once, in the days of people like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, seemed almost mainstream but now demands a revolution.  We know what America was like before it became a plutocracy, and we can come together again to return to the path of democracy.  This is not about returning to the past, but returning to a possibility we knew when we were young that the future could be ours to win.  One way or another, we will leave a legacy to our children and their children’s children.  Let it be this legacy of democratic possibility.

Then talk about Social Security and health care, and the need for a politics that can actually put these issues on the table and make the needs of the majority the driving force for change.


Unknown said...

Wow. I know this is anecdotal but I'm 66 and a staunch Bernie supporter. I'm on a Facebook group for seniors who are for Bernie. And I have several friends as well. We were all young once. We wanted these things when we were young. are we still want them. And Bernie is the only one that's going to bring them. Whatever works.

Anonymous said...

A helpful analysis but needlessly condescending to "older" voters.

Anonymous said...

I like the gist of this post and hope that Bernie's people are paying attention. I'm a strong Bernie supporter and in my 80th year. think such an approach might make a difference with the folks of my generation. And btw, I don't see any condescension in the analysis.

karen2222 said...

I dunno...

It seems to me that to have even the tiniest hope of changing these older people's minds, you have to understand WHY they don't support Bernie.

I only have a data point of one, my MIL, who is in her eighties.

Both during the 2016 campaign and now, she has said she finds Bernie is much too angry. It makes her uncomfortable, and she feels that someone who shouts so much and has such a red, angry face must not be a nice person. She now feels the same way about Elizabeth Warren.

My MIL loved Obama, was a staunch supporter of Hillary in 2016, absolutely hates Trump, and now says she intends to vote for Joe Biden because he is the only one she thinks can defeat Trump.

I believe she is deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the established political elite in our country are by and large corrupt, and work against the best interests of the vast majority of Americans. She would like to believe, and therefore does believe, that all we have to do to put this country right again is to boot out Trump (and maybe some of the Republicans).

Your proposed narrative would be a complete whiff with her.

Anonymous said...

I don't like Politico in general they have been very negative to Bernie. What I see more than seniors not wanting to vote for Bernie is the "pussy hat crowd" you know the ones, the ones who think they are the voice of every american woman but really they are very basic and do not see the bigger picture. THOSE are the ones I loathe and when talking to them I can see the hatred seething through their nostrils. I mostly smile and walk away. Just can't bother with those. Seniors are more inclined to listen and these are good points about social security and healthcare, but mind you that is not the only thing seniors care about!

2slugbaits said...

As a democratic socialist, I have always believed in a future that we could approach step by step through political and social change.

but then a few sentences later...

The system has shut down, and it will take radical means to open it up again so our country can resume moving forward.

So is it slow, steady progress or radical surgery that's needed? I suspect that most of the persuadable middle-of-the-road older voters would be more comfortable with the slow, steady progress approach. Bernie probably strikes them as too radical, and proposals like Medicare-for-All could reasonably be interpreted as a watering down of benefits for current seniors in order to pay for expanding the pool of Medicare recipients.

this is our final opportunity to leave our legacy to the young.

The concern is that if Trump wins then it could be the final opportunity for any generational cohort because 8 years of Trump Unbound could be the effective end of democracy as we know it...or at least as we knew it. You can forgive persuadable seniors if they want to hitch their wagons to the horse with the best objective chance of beating Trump. Besides, regardless of which Democrat wins the presidency, the political reality is that the progressive agenda is going to have to wait until the grim reaper comes and rescues the GOP from its dependence on older, conservative white voters. Social policy advances funeral by funeral. The best that progressive seniors can hope for is to contain the damage until younger generations have the electoral muscle to resume the progress from 50 years ago.

Finally, I've met Bernie and his wife. I don't know them well, but a few years ago they were dinner and houseguests in the spare bedroom. In person he's very friendly and animated, but on camera that animation sometimes comes across as anger. Along with Karen222's comment, I would note that my 91 year old mother also thinks Sanders comes across as angry even though she has also met both Bernie and his wife. She feels the same way about Sen. Warren. And what she hates most about Trump isn't just his policies, but his foul mouth. It's the potty mouth that gets her blood boiling. And somewhat surprisingly, she likes "Mayor Pete" because he comes across as very polite and doesn't say nasty things about his opponents. Go figure.