You Told Us: Regard Them as Heroes

Every now and again during this election cycle, a question is raised: how can the kids vote for a socialist? It’s true, Bernie Sanders is making big waves with the Millenial electorate. Polls show the junior Senator from Vermont is the preferred candidate of 58% of Democrats between 18 and 45; Senator Clinton is preferred by those over 45 by almost the same margin. Indeed, the same tracking polls indicate that Bernie would handily defeat any Republican currently on the field and do so by much higher margins than Senator Clinton could manage.

There’s something happening in here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

What the pundits can agree on, apparently, is that they’ve never seen anything like the current political turmoil. Allowing for a certain amount of 24-hour news cycle hyperbole (“Breaking News!”), the talking heads are right: the 2016 Election does feel unique in the modern age. The generational shift, particularly the one powering Bernie’s delegate surge, seems like something from another time.

Something from Bernie’s time as one of “the kids,” as it happens.

The generational inversion occurring in the Democratic electorate today has elevated an old school leftie Senator from one of the whitest, least-urban states in the Union to become the preferred candidate of first-time voters young enough to be his grandchildren. Eugene McCarthy probably didn’t expect such dramatic success either, but it seems that the once-in-a-lifetime progressive groundswell has struck again.

Still the refrain continues unabated: as a socialist candidate, to elect Senator Sanders as President would be un-American, anti-capitalist, and unpatriotic. Reflexive rejection of anyone or anything labeled with the “S-word,” the critics say, is the faith we have kept since the days of the Founding Fathers; tolerance of socialists an anti-American heresy. Here’s the uncomfortable thing about heresy, though: rooting it out tends to expose contradictions amongst the true believers.

If socialism or Bernie’s stand on the issues that afflict our nation are un-American, then some great figures in our national history must have been sadly un-American as well.

Is Bernie less American than either of the Presidents Roosevelt, split by party lines but united in their suspicions of big banks and economic cartels? Is Bernie less American than Senator Eugene McCarthy, who helped overturn a party and a Presidency with the help of his own generational drive? Is Bernie less American than Dr. King, who also openly called himself a socialist at the height of his activism?

Fittingly, President Obama has often spoken in terms of the right and wrong sides of history. In 2016, perhaps more than ever before, the momentum of history in all its two-sided glory has pushed itself to the fore. This election is a changing of the guard for all concerned: the last battle in a culture war that was fought at Dealey Plaza and the Lorraine Motel and Kent State and the Watergate Building. The winner of this election is the final verdict in a generational judgment; the acid test of a half-century of bitter partisanship and separation; the last electoral dance of the men and women that lived the era of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. Whichever tradition prevails in November will have won their Culture Wars: how odd that in its final showdown, the conflict will be decided by those raised in the narrative of how it all began.

The great secret of the Bernie Revolution is that it is no revolution at all: it is the latest iteration of a powerful Made-In-America tradition that stretches back before any of us were born. There is no Marxian progress to this phenomenon; Millenials who Feel the Bern do not seek to cast off any proletarian chains. To the contrary: they seek to elect a candidate who speaks to their anger and understands. They seek to elevate to the Presidency a figure who stands with the figures they were taught to venerate from the battles of not-so-long-ago.

As a self-identified socialist, then, Bernie stands in good, All-American company. It is that All-American past and its figures of greatness to which the Millenials now rally. You told us to regard that band as heroes, to venerate their ideals, to uphold a legacy. Do not be surprised that the socialist label has lost its terror for the Millenial Generation: those you told us to emulate bore it proudly long ago.