By David Tilli
Two candidates, separated by an ocean of political difference but a mere pond in terms of age, had one lifeboat in common: populist popularity among younger Americans.
This became increasingly evident during the last presidential election when Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders tapped into a deep vein of discontent and anger in a younger electorate. Many of these voters shunned the establishment, their parties, and their traditional candidates.
Support for Sanders’ campaign came overwhelmingly from younger demographics, with Gallup polls finding 55 percent of voters age 20 to 36 having a favorable opinion of Sanders, higher than either Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Sanders’ environmental conscience, honesty and integrity, vigor, and support for social democratic programs such as universal health care, tuition-free education, and campaign reform resonated with the younger generation, polling suggests.
Trump, who similarly ran an anti-establishment campaign, albeit one more right-wing-leaning, received enthusiastic support from white Americans 18 to 29, according to exit polls conducted by CNN. He won with 47 percent of this demographic’s vote, compared with Clinton’s 43 percent.
A change in voting pattern is part of a generational shift created by “divisions of time periods, areas of the country, and education levels,” said William Rosenberg, professor of political science at Drexel University. A voting bloc is not “monolithic and moves around quite a bit,” Rosenberg added.
Referring to his early days at Drexel, Rosenberg reminisced about his students in the 1980s who were “conservative and supporters of Reagan, while only three of my current students supported Trump.”
Both candidates shared the “Wall Street is a bad thing” mind-set, though “Sanders wanted to use government to promote the public good” while Trump wanted to “disassemble the government and make people rely on their own choices,” according to Rosenberg.
“When [a generation] first becomes politically active determines their trajectory … and political destiny,” said Rosenberg, noting how the 1940s generation embraced the progressive and socially democratic New Deal, while the one in the 1980s embraced Reagan’s small-government conservatism.
Alexander Schettino, a senior at Neshaminy High School who has won Future Business Leaders of America competitions and is a Trump supporter, explained his admiration by comparing Hillary Clinton to a derivative, “business-as-usual” iPhone and Trump to a freshly unconventional piece of gadgetry. He also mentioned the long-standing conservative streak within his family line.
Sanders, who identifies as a “democratic socialist,” entered presidential politics at a time when acceptance for socialism or socialistic policies was unusually high among younger Americans. Another Gallup poll showed that 69 percent of younger voters were willing to support a socialist candidate, compared with only 47 percent for Americans overall.
Rosenberg, however, considers Sanders more of a social democrat, in the same vein of Franklin D. Roosevelt and an older Robert F. Kennedy.
“Most people don’t understand the difference,” Rosenberg clarified, but “when the word [socialism] comes out, they immediately get into this Red Scare mind-set.”
He was quick to point out, however, that Social Security, Medicare, and public education are all social programs.
Anna Payne, an elected delegate for Sanders and staunch local organizer in Bucks Country, credits Trump’s and Sanders’ powerful anti-establishment message for their popularity, which contrasts with Clinton’s perceived “same stuff” style of politicking.
“People just voted anti-establishment” and wanted more incentive to vote than “she’s a woman,” said Payne, who found out about Sanders on Facebook and even dressed in Sanders-themed garb at the Democratic National Convention.
When it comes to the durability of such outsider approaches, opinions vary.
Rosenberg, while conceding that Trump won as a Republican renegade, expressed surprise at Trump’s victory among younger white voters, theorizing that perhaps many liberals felt disillusioned by Clinton’s candidacy and simply chose not to vote, further sealing Trump’s win.
“People will get that Trump is not the populist he acts like,” Rosenberg said, a characterization he said was betrayed by Trump’s recent appointments of Goldman-Sachs alumni to prominent positions.
On Sanders, both Rosenberg and Payne acknowledged he pushed the Democratic Party further left, though Rosenberg isn’t sure if Sanders and his policies “will be a driving force 20 years from now,” especially if the progressive mantle remains stationary and political apathy stays at such “oddly” high levels.
Payne expressed more optimism.
“Trump and Sanders both woke people up to the importance of voting,” Payne said, and made younger individuals think, “‘Oh, wait a second, this is what happens when I don’t vote, or don’t become politically active … as both a voter and an activist.’”