The rise of left wing politics in both the US and the UK has taken many political commentators by surprise. Both the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns have struck a chord with millennials, and it is now this generation that is fuelling the growth in these campaigns, and pushing them into the mainstream. This poses several interesting questions: Why did these movements come to be? How have they achieved so much success? And finally, how long will they last?
We can begin to try and answer these questions by looking at those who vote for Sanders and Corbyn, and millennials as a whole.
Millennials are becoming an increasingly influential body within society. It is a generation that has now outnumbered the baby boomers and is currently driving much of the change in both the UK and USA; change that is, by definition, very different to what we’re used to.
Meanwhile, looking at Sanders voters, an interesting trend emerges. They are largely young, college educated, white people, or in other words, the people that traditionally prosper the most in America. This prompts two further questions:
- Why would people who stand to gain from a political system want to change it?
- Do they, therefore, as a generation that champions happiness, multiculturalism and equality in society, see something so systemically wrong in the present political system that they are ready to fight for what they believe is right over enjoying personal success?
A key thing to note is that this is a generation of change makers, who are railing against the orders that have long been accepted; they mark the ideological clashes between new and old. They are willing to volunteer their thoughts and have enough conviction in their arguments to debate and raise issues that other generations would steer clear of.
But why do young people seem quite so rebellious? Maybe it’s because we can see the results of their “rebellion” writ large across the Internet and as such it seems particularly striking. Maybe it’s also because they themselves can see it there as well, and they can also find more causes that they feel passionately about online and this encourages more and more people to voice their discontent at the injustices against them. Movements such as Black Lives Matter were born from the confidence of young people to express their anger in their natural habitat: online. The movement has grown in both size and impact to have created genuine change in an important issue. Millennials are the ones who are forcibly trying to scour away the legacy of a dirty stain on America.
Or maybe it’s because they’ve got more to complain about than any generation since the Second World War. This is the most educated society in American history in terms of both total degrees and share of college graduates. A generation, therefore, that is all too aware and capable of understanding the implications of some of the political decisions that so profoundly affect them. Young people were uniquely punished by the recession and are rightfully angry. They suffered higher unemployment than any other group during the downturn, and their wages fell more than any other group after it concluded. They suffered as establishment figures caused a recession, and were then allowed to escape without punishment by other establishment figures. High student debt, low wages for young people and the injustices that permeate their space created a perfect storm of disillusionment. In the UK, they watched as tuition fees were raised and continue to rise, despite their protestations and the promise that they wouldn’t, further encumbering a heavy financial burden that they will have to bear, far heavier than those of their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Those expensive tuition fees, incidentally, no longer guarantee the types of jobs that they used to. Low student wages and record high student debt have created a breeding ground for disengagement and a different breed of politics, as millennials seek an escape.
Are there then any other reasons why some millennials are disengaged in politics? To be blunt, it’s because they’ve been failed by the establishment. They feel like their votes don’t count for much as they can do little to combat the status quo. For young people, the disparity between what happens for older people and what happens for them is tangible, and they’ve become fed up with it. During the recession corporate profits reached a modern high at the same time that labour’s share of national income reached a modern low. This sowed the seeds of anger, and now we can see Sanders and Corbyn riding the crest of that wave of discontent.
This disillusioned group of people who felt so restricted by and disinterested in what establishment figures had to say will soon turn to an anti-establishment movement with the potential power to bring about meaningful change.
Now, given the facts already presented in this post one would not be mistaken for thinking that this unrest amongst millennials could well play perfectly into the hands of The Donald and UKIP. However there is a key reason why I don’t believe millennials will stumble into the trap set out by the far right. Put simply, (thankfully) they care too much about happiness, helping others and equality, as demonstrated by responses given in the millennial dialogue, where these were the most, 5th most and 9th most important factors respectively to US millennials.
Furthermore millennials don’t prioritise some of the issues that other candidates are moulding their campaigns around. Trump’s rhetoric regarding immigration is falling on somewhat deaf ears, amongst millennials at least. Immigration was considered to be the least important factor in affecting the lives of US millennials from a pool of 15 factors. However, issues that the Sanders campaign have focused on, like access to education and the state of the environment, were among the most popular.
Delving deeper into some of the data gathered in the UK and US Millennial Dialogues we find more clues as to why millennials support these candidates. For example:
The top priorities for government spending amongst US millennials are:
Each of the above has been championed more by the Sanders campaign than by any other candidate. His calls for free higher education have struck a chord with many young people, whilst he has consistently been very vocal in his desire to end inequality and poverty in America and create more jobs. Furthermore, Sanders was vocal in calling for Medicare for all. Finally, whilst Hillary and many sensible conservatives are concerned by climate change, Trump has long been a climate change sceptic (his reasoning of course being that there can be no global warming if it’s cold outside). Bernie Sanders therefore, is appealing to each of the top 5 areas that US millennials in the dialogue identified as being a priority for them, and he’s doing it far more than anyone else. And as such, the reasons behind Sander’s popularity become increasingly clear.
Corbyn directly challenges these opinions in his policies, his persona and his mere position as leader of the Labour party. It should be clear to British millennials that, by voting in the last Labour party leadership election they made a clear difference by becoming party members and voting for the candidate that they most preferred. Moreover, Corbyn is perceived by millennials to be far more trustworthy than most other politicians for a couple of reasons.
- He’s not an establishment politician (a la David Cameron), yet has a combination of both the expertise stemming from 33 years as an MP, coupled with the fact that he remains an outsider in his political views and as such is viewed as the man to breathe fresh air into a stagnating political system.
- He prizes morality over success. This is particularly important to millennials, who are sick of politicians who are willing to sacrifice morality for political gain. Corbyn has successfully presented himself as a man who wouldn’t simply jettison his values were he to be elected, and his honesty and ethics mean more to millennials than almost any other factor (89% and 86% respectively)
And as for the fact that “all political parties and politicians are the same”, well, I don’t think anyone could reasonably compare Corbyn to Boris Johnson, could they?
The millennial generation want to stand up and be counted for; they want to feel like they mean something to politicians. They are fed up of stagnating bipartisan politics, and want someone to inject some impetus into mainstream politics. A breakaway from the norm, with the promise of genuine reform: this is what millennials crave, and what Sanders and Corbyn are promising. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the candidates in both countries who have tried hardest to appeal to millennials are those who are reaping the benefits of it? Both Sanders and Corbyn are showing the political world that there is a demographic larger than the Baby Boomers out there, who, if incentivised, could fundamentally alter the path that politics takes in their respective countries.
At the start of this blog post I sought to answer three questions: Why did these movements come to be? How had they achieved so much success? And finally how long will they last?
And so, with the first two questions answered, we move onto the final, and arguably most important, question. How long will these movements last? Well Bernie supporters made it clear at the Democratic National Convention that, whilst they love their leader, the movement is not confined to having its founder as its front-runner. One Sanders supporter at the DNC said,”Bernie Sanders’ political revolution does not depend on Bernie Sanders or any one person. It’s millions of people getting up and saying enough is enough, this country belongs to all of us.”
There is another key reason why the twin trans-Atlantic revolutions may be here to stay. Currently, whilst, as already stated, the millennial generation is of a greater size than that of the Baby Boomers, it is the numbers of older voters that dwarf the numbers of young ones. Voter turnout amongst millennials is incredibly low, contrasting with that of older generations, which is very high. As such the view of the elderly currently trounces the view of the young- just look at the UK’s decision to leave the EU where 73% of under 24 year olds and 62% of under 25-34 year olds voted to remain. In fact the majority of under 50 year olds were Remainers. They were, however, beaten by the sheer numbers of elderly voters, who exercised their right to go to the polls and push for impactful reform. The result caused significant upset amongst young people, but really, they’ve only got themselves to blame.
However, this is the last election cycle where this will be the case. Whilst the number of millennials of voting age and voter turnout amongst millennials will be high, the numbers of baby-boomers will start to decline. As such, all those Sanders and Corbyn votes (or votes for movements with different leaders but similar ideas), which were previously being nullified by older and more conservative voices, now are free to blossom and grow as they garner more and more support.
Oh yeah and I forgot to mention that there’s one more important piece to add to the puzzle. We, Gen Z, are ready to bring our outspoken liberal brand of politics to the party as well.
And so to conclude. The key to these actions being taken by millennials, in both the cases of the UK and the US, is that they are voting for a model of political integrity, an outsider who has jabbed his finger at a corrupt system for decades (e.g. Corbyn’s sustained objection to Iraq, photos circulating of Sanders at civil rights marches in the 60s). They’re casting a protest vote for career protest voters who are unsullied by the soot of political convention.
And therefore, we are left to ponder whether movements stemming from a tangible undercurrent of unrest, which reject the mainstream politics of the “establishment”, movements which have now come into the mainstream (fuelling greater growth in them), and that have promised to outlive their leaders and have generations worth of support, are only a fad or here to last. My answer would be: the Sanders and Corbyn revolutions won’t Bern out any time soon.