Are Jewish Millennials Crowning Bernie Sanders as Their Candidate?

Bernie Sanders’ campaign has rekindled the enthusiasm of many of my liberal Jewish peers for national political debate. What’s the attraction?

A volunteer at a Bernie Sanders campaign event wears a shirt decorated with Sanders' image in Fort Dodge, Iowa, United States, January 19, 2016.
Reuters

At the beginning of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, I was indifferent — not just to him, but to any individual in the Democratic primary. I noticed a difference in where I was seeing primary news, though: stories about Hillary Clinton seemed to saturate the media more at first, whereas Bernie’s presence was primarily on my Facebook feed. It was clear a lot of my friends were “feeling the Bern” — but why?

Sanders represents a significant departure from the national normal — and that appeals to young liberal and progressive Jews who are frustrated by the extreme partisanship and economic troubles that grew up alongside us. 

Presidential elections and their aftermath mark my political consciousness: Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college in my first year of living in the U.S. I lived in New York City on 9/11, and I can’t forget the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I was fifteen when the recession hit. The 2008 primaries created a (brief and theoretical, since we couldn’t vote) rift among my friends over who we wanted more, the first woman president or the first black president. The Tea Party emerged in my senior year of high school. Occupy Wall Street took place in my second year of university, just as I’d begun to focus academically on Jewish history.

What I remember from all of this is the increasing feeling of helplessness. I couldn’t vote, and then I went to a Canadian university, where American politics became distant, theoretical. I cared, but their effect on me was disproportionate to my ability to do anything. I didn’t vote in my first election until 2012, when I cast an overseas ballot for Obama.

This sentiment is not unique to me; most liberals my age are disillusioned with politics. We watch endless gridlock that we can’t stop. Social issues we care about are rolled back — the war on abortion, the increase in police brutality against black Americans. The Occupy movement sprang out of this helplessness, as did the Tea Party. Now we live in a political era in which the people who shout the loudest are the ones heard. Centrism and bipartisanship are legislatively necessary, but unsustainable in actual rhetoric — see the popularity of Trump, the passion for Bernie. For many of us, this is the first presidential election without an incumbent that we will vote in.

So why my indifference? First of all, practical: I’m not a registered member of any political party in New York, which means I can’t vote in the primaries; and secondly, there was, and to a degree still is, a strong sense of inevitability that Hillary Clinton will get the nomination and everyone else is just there to make it look competitive.

I’ll admit I found the loud, rarely nuanced Bernie passion insufferable (and I still sort of do). Many Bernie supporters were, and still are, willing to look the other way on his most problematic issues — because he’s not Hillary Clinton, and he is largely a progressive. As a journalist and former history student, I prefer nuanced critique to pretending my candidate is the absolute best, bar none.

The sins of Bernie Sanders are not negligible, and as he picks up traction, they resonate more negatively with the values of young Jewish liberals. In 2003 and again in 2005, he voted for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a bill giving the gun industry immunity from being held responsible when their products are used to commit crimes. He hasn’t indicated that he regrets this vote. He has very little foreign policy experience and tends to avoid the subject in debates, even as the U.S. re-involves itself more heavily in overseas conflict. Until Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted a rally in August last year, he hadn’t released a platform on racial and criminal justice. He recently used the threat of political gridlock to justify his opposition to reparations for slavery. Gridlock is also a valid argument against his electability: If America elects a socialist president and continues with a Republican-controlled congress, there’s a chance that no laws will be passed without the threat of government shutdown.

So where does Bernie Sanders come in? Why do young liberal Jews like him? The answer lies partly in the helplessness our generation grew up in, but also in our history.

Bernie’s political policies are primarily, if not entirely, class-based. He’s a socialist candidate following in the footsteps of the Jewish old left, where social justice — civil rights, LGBTQ rights, abortion, feminism — takes a backseat to issues of economic justice, class, and the labor movement. It’s not that activists of the old left didn’t care about non-class-based oppression; they did, but they thought it would follow from economic justice. When Bernie said he didn’t support reparations for slavery, the “rising tide” treatment of race was essentially his logic: If we fix economic inequality, racial equality will follow without anyone having to do anything special about it. This is an old left attitude; New Left activists, Jews included, mobilized to fight racial inequality specifically, without assuming that fixing class-based oppression would fix every other social problem.

Millennials generally hew closer to the broader politics of the New Left than the class politics of the old, but economic inequality is on our minds — and when it comes to American Jews, 90% of us are white. We care about the Jewish tradition of racial justice, but it doesn’t have the same urgency that it used to. The Jewish-black alliance of the New Left collapsed in the late 1960s when Jews rose in class status and gained more access to whiteness — and as Jewish leftists who cared about Israel found themselves alienated from the anti-Zionist left.

The lack of a modern Jewish-black alliance makes it easier to excuse how long it took Bernie to release a platform on racial justice, and it makes it easier to focus on economic issues. Bernie’s self-declared socialism finds its appeal here. Bernie says he’ll fight economic inequality, raise the minimum wage, eliminate tuition for public postsecondary schools, and cut student loan interest. Indeed, the focus on fixing educational debt seems to form a lot of Bernie’s appeal to young people, who are facing the fact that they will spend decades paying down the loans they needed for the degree they needed for the job they probably didn’t find right after graduation. Given that socialism isn’t the poisonous word it used to be, what part of this wouldn’t sound good?

Jewish youth and Bernie also share secularism and a commitment to a universalistic, rather than particularist, worldview. This lends to his appeal; Jews grow more secular with every generation, and the percentage of secular Jews ages 18 to 29 surpasses the overall average. The 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found that the percentage of Jews 18 to 29 who have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people” — to the tribe, as it were — is slightly lower than older generations. The lack of emphasis on tribalism extends further: When asked about the essentials of Jewish identity, the top three answers of 18-to-29-year-olds were remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical life, and working for justice and equality. (Israel came in as the fourth lowest priority.) Bernie, who rarely speaks about his Jewishness, has said he is not “actively involved” in organized religion, often speaks about the “ethical thing to do”, and is married to a Catholic. (One of the most panic-inducing findings of that survey was that the rate of intermarriage has risen significantly since 1970, particularly among secular Jews.) Even when he talks about the Holocaust, Bernie uses universalistic rhetoric: “[Hitler] won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews.” We millenials may be excited about the idea of the first Jewish president —not because of the religious aspect, but for reasons of cultural pride.

Bernie’s views on Israel also dovetail with those of Jewish millennials. He supports a two-state solution and isn’t Netanyahu’s biggest fan. According to Pew, 18- to 29-year-olds are more likely to identify as “somewhat” or “not very” attached to Israel than as “very attached”. They are also more significantly likely than any other age group to believe that a peaceful two-state solution is possible. And Israel just isn’t that relevant to how most millennials I know vote — support for a presidential candidate will not hinge on whether or not they “support Israel,” whatever that means, and candidates who see Israel as the only special interest of American Jews are missing the bigger picture.

It’s also notable that the Bernie-Hillary contest represents an issue of political dynasty. It’s less a referendum and more a test of generational association. Our parents remember Bill Clinton’s presidency more vividly than we would, which likely leads to higher Hillary support. A recent CNN poll found that 44% of respondents under 55 would support Hillary in a general election, while 46% would support Bernie; 55 and over, the Hillary supporters jumped to 65%, and support for Bernie fell to 23%.

I don’t think Bernie Sanders alone is responsible for youth enthusiasm about the election. To steal Trump’s catchphrase: In an increasingly polarized political climate, November 2016 is a chance for young liberals to try to make America great again. My hope is that no matter who takes the Democratic nomination — be it Bernie, Hillary, or Martin O’Malley — young liberal Jews will continue the fight to have our voices heard.

Chloe Sobel is Editor in Chief of New Voices Magazine and the Executive Director of the Jewish Student Press Service. Follow her on Twitter: @chloesobel