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.