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My Bernie Story: The Political Evolution of a Millennial

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When I was in high school, in the mid 2000s, the height of the Bush years, I declared myself a conservative. This wasn’t the result of any actual ideological conviction, but instead just a reaction to the liberal California where I grew up, a desire to be different from everyone around me. I was a lapsed Muslim living in a vaguely Islamophobic society, but I didn’t believe in God or care much for my Pakistani heritage. Above all, I wanted to be accepted as an American, and becoming an outspoken Republican was a way to do that. I had fruitlessly criticized Bush’s invasion of Iraq as a middle school student in 2003, making speeches for school projects and talking about it angrily to all my friends, but it hadn’t really mattered, and I’d grown cynical as a teenager. By 2007, my senior year, I decided the best way to deal with the complicated feelings I had about America was to start praising Bush — to call attention my Americanness by embracing the Empire in its worst form. My liberal friends, I reasoned, might criticize me for this, but at least they wouldn’t question that I was a genuine American.

There’s clearly a lot of psychology to be unpacked here, but the result was that when I turned eighteen in 2007, I registered Republican and cast my first vote in the Republican primary for Ron Paul. This choice was another sign of the lack of seriousness of my conservative period — I didn’t really understand much of Ron Paul’s platform (especially his complicated ideas about the gold standard) but I liked that he was an outspoken critic of the Iraq War and largely on the fringes of the Republican party. Clearly, what I was looking for was an outsider candidate who reflected my own feelings about being outside the mainstream.

But then I got caught up in the emotional swell of the Obama movement. In my first year of college, I started studying history, and I began to realize that I really wasn’t a conservative at all. I started to understand the brutality of the American Empire, and I came to see that Bush’s Iraq War was not something worth celebrating. My initial childhood impulse to criticize the war, my thirteen-year-old sense of the immorality of what Bush was doing, was now supported by deeper historical knowledge. And so, when Obama became the anti-war candidate, criticizing both Hillary Clinton and John McCain for their support of the war, I felt energized. Here was a candidate who felt the way I felt, who was himself an outsider, whose middle name was Hussein! If he could win and be accepted as an American, then I could too. So I switched my party from Republican to Democrat, voted for Obama in the general, and then ran in the streets in celebration in November on the night he won.

But then came the disillusionment. Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay, as he promised. He pulled troops out of Iraq but simultaneously expanded the War on Terror through a chilling program of drone strikes that often killed civilians. He was not the anti-war President he had promised he would be. Worst of all was his invasion of Libya in 2011 — a kind of minor key variation of Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq that turned a relatively stable country into a vicious post-imperial ruin plagued by a civil war that’s still ongoing today.

These years also saw the development of my political ideology into something more coherent. The financial crisis and the ensuing recession made me rethink the neoliberal economic dogmas I’d believed since high school, and as I saw brilliant people of my generation struggling to find stable, rewarding careers and spending their twenties living in economic precarity, I started to question the supposed virtues of capitalism. The starkest evidence for me was the very simple graph of income vs rent over the last thirty years. How on earth could my generation ever afford the bourgeois promises we’d been taught to covet, a house, children, savings, etc., when most of our income was going to pay these outrageous rents? How could capitalism claim to be a progressive system when it was clear that we would end up being worse off than our parents?

It was around this time, in 2013 and 2014, that I started describing myself as a socialist. It’s no accident that this corresponded with the beginning of my own adult life — moving out of my parents’ house after college, entering the working world, trying to become a successful writer, struggling to balance my creative dreams with the financial realities of rent (I live in Los Angeles, which has seen skyrocketing rents in the last decade), health care (I enrolled around this time in Obamacare since my part-time job didn’t provide health care — and oh, what an awful system!), exorbitant internet bills (my internet provider, like most of them, basically has a monopoly over our building and can raise prices whenever they feel like), and an overall sense that by the time I turned thirty, I would still be living this paycheck to paycheck existence.

In 2015, as the Democratic primary drew near, I felt a kind of hollow dread at the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. I imagined a continuation of the Obama years, a slow eroding of the quality of life of the millennial generation, a perpetuation of our endless imperial wars (Clinton, after all, had been as Secretary of State the one who aggressively pushed Obama to attack Libya), and a general progression of a history-less neoliberalism that would exacerbate the parasitic growth of global capitalism, even as the specter of climate change grew ever nearer and nearer. The idealism I’d felt in 2008, when I’d run in the streets to celebrate Obama, was all gone now.

And then Bernie Sanders announced that he was running too — and I felt an instant rekindling of hope. I knew who Bernie was, of course, the crazy independent socialist from Vermont railing fruitlessly against the system since the 1990s. But when he stood on that green lawn before that gaggle of reporters and talked about income inequality in clear and concise terms, I suddenly realized he wasn’t crazy at all. Here was a political figure who believed everything I now believed: he was a critic of both foreign military interventions and neoliberal capitalism, and he articulated these critiques in clear, effective language that spoke to the needs of both people like me and people much worse off than me. I knew then that I wanted to do everything in my power to make him President.

Over the course of his 2016 campaign, I donated money to him, the first time I’d ever donated to any presidential candidate, in increasing amounts. I went to his rallies and was stunned by the energy, and especially by all the people like me, anxious millennials who’d found a candidate who spoke to what they were feeling. It was like the feeling I had for Obama, but more profound, because now I wasn’t just imbuing someone with my own personal hopes but supporting a candidate whose ideology matched the one that I’d come to on my own. Bernie wasn’t just a cipher for my own vague and unformed political dreams, but an actual, ideological figure with a long record as evidence for his convictions.

When he almost won Iowa and won a landslide in New Hampshire, I genuinely thought we could make him the nominee. The DNC establishment was too powerful though, and through superdelegates and other nefarious tricks (like CNN giving Hillary Clinton debate questions ahead of time), they managed to squash the grassroots energy. I was devastated, of course, but I didn’t feel depressed, because there was a unified movement of people like me now who believed what I did, and we’d still be there even after Clinton became President. I remember watching the news coverage of the DNC, how the pundits mocked the Bernie supporters holding up signs and crying in quiet protest — and I remember feeling a profound solidarity with them.

After Hillary Clinton lost to Trump, I felt a strange kind of energy. As awful as it all was, this renewed American fascism, Bush 2.0 but even more clownish and terrifying, I had a sense that there was an opening for the kind of leftist energy that Bernie had represented. Trump’s surprise victory tore a hole in the neoliberal consensus that had dominated the Democratic party, especially given that the places he’d upset Clinton, Michigan and Wisconsin, were among the most ravaged by the neoliberal economic policies of deindustrialization. Clearly there was a greater population of disaffected American workers than Clinton had anticipated, which meant that Bernie’s democratic socialist message, the ideology that I had come to on my own just prior to his candidacy, had a real chance of succeeding.

But I also felt a profound anxiety. The stakes were so much higher now than Clintonian neoliberalism. It wasn’t socialism or neoliberalism, but socialism or fascism. Socialism or barbarism. The Bernie movement now not only had to defeat the Democratic establishment in order to enact its own economically progressive agenda, it also had to defeat them to prevent the country from reelecting Trump.

As a result, the Bernie 2020 campaign felt a little less magically effortless than 2016. No birds landed on his podium this time. Instead, it was a fight, and sometimes a slog — a persistent, consistent insistence on Twitter and in real life that yes, this country needed Medicare for All and a Green New Deal and that no, moderate solutions were absolutely not good enough. When he had his heart attack, I felt pretty depressed, and worried that the movement might break. But we held on (thanks in huge part to AOC for endorsing him at this pivotal moment and reviving our spirits), and Bernie rallied, and now, we’re poised to win Iowa and New Hampshire, and after that, the nomination. I can’t describe what I feel right now, because it’s too intense — the possibility that this may happen is overwhelming, but so is the anxiety that it may not.

Overall, my Bernie Story is the larger story of my political evolution. I’m thirty now, and this movement feels like the culmination of my youth. Whatever happens in the next months, these last years have helped me see the world in a clearer way than ever before. I can talk about neoliberalism, imperialism, and the economic history of the last thirty years largely because of the Bernie Sanders movement. It’s helped solidify my understanding of my generation’s struggles, and it’s helped me cope with my own anxieties, financial and otherwise, by reminding me that these are not personal failings but systemic ones — and that, given the right President, we can fix them.

Written by

Debut novel PORTRAIT OF SEBASTIAN KHAN (2019, 7.13 Books). Writes about politics and literature.

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