Postmodern Conservative

Bernie Sanders and the Young People

Yuval Levin is right that nostalgia plays an outsize role for both Baby Boomer conservative and Baby Boomer liberals, but I think this critique is less true for the supporters of Bernie Sanders. Retro-socialism might be, for a time, the wave of the future.

Paul Krugman is famously nostalgic for the economics of the 1950s.  Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign is explicit in its promise to return to an allegedly better past.  Marco Rubio liked to talk about new American centuries, but his version of the future was Reagan’s “Morning in America” forever.  Rubio is young, but his appeal wasn’t to the young.  He was a Baby Boomer conservative’s idea of a young, dynamic politician. 

I think you can make a very strong case that Bernie Sanders is nostalgic for 1970s Scandinavia, but I don’t think that his appeal is nostalgic.  Young Sanders voters don’t see his promises of free college tuition, single-payer health care and fifteen dollar minimum wages as the restoration of a golden past.  Sanders supporters see those policies as addressing contemporary concerns about rising costs of higher education, low wages, etc.  Sanders supporters might be wrong, but they are not nostalgic.

When looking at Sanders, we should not make the same mistake that liberals made in analyzing Reagan.  Reagan was an old man.  Liberals thought of deregulation and cutting taxes as a outdated policy agenda.  Therefore, Reagan must have been campaigning on the impossible task of recreating the 1920s.  It turned out that, in a world of stagflation and bracket creep, the old man had the right agenda for the moment.  The elderly Reagan won a landslide among the youngest voters.  Reagan’s younger political opponents were the nostalgia addicts who could not imagine an economic crises that wasn’t a replay of the Great Depression.              

Conservatives look at Bernie Sanders and see a goofy old man trying to revive a politics that should have been dead and buried by the end of the Cold War (at the latest.)  I think that, for many younger Sanders voters, a program of free college tuition, government-provided health care, and government-mandated higher wages make intuitive sense for a world where, at the lower end of the income distribution,  families are more unstable and social capital is scarce.

That doesn’t mean that these voters will always favor Sanders-style socialism.  I have my doubts that these voters want to pay the taxes such policies would require, and the unintended consequences of those policies would provide conservatives with political opportunities to sell these voters on an alternative agenda.  But those young voters will not (and should not) be convinced by people who think that every economic concern can be addressed by repeating the slogans of the 1980s.


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