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What Millennials Like About Bernie Sanders

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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Bernie Sanders is the oldest candidate in the presidential race, but as of now, he seems to be the younger generation’s candidate. According to a recent survey, Sanders is favored by 46 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34, where Hillary Clinton is preferred by 35 percent.

How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

What’s going on here? Here are two stories, which offer some clues.

In 2009, the vast majority of Republican senators opposed my nomination to serve as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Democratic senators were overwhelmingly supportive (with the exception of a few relative conservatives). Just one liberal threatened to join the opposition: Bernie Sanders.

Before the vote, he agreed to talk to me about his objection. It was simple: I didn’t want to regulate “the banks.”

I answered that the job for which I had been nominated didn’t much involve banks, and in any case I agreed that more bank regulation was a good idea. My response was ineffective: He reiterated that I didn’t want to regulate the banks, and went on to vote against me.

In our conversation, Sanders was conspicuously different from most politicians. Though unfailingly civil, he lacked the usual humor and warmth, and didn’t show the slightest hesitation in opposing a nomination by a president he supported. His own moral convictions were clear and unmoving: He was angry at the banks, and if he thought that a nominee would favor them, well, that was the end of the matter.

A few weeks ago, I was at the gym, talking to a friend about politics. Overhearing the conversation, a young man -- maybe 25 years old -- interrupted to say, “Obama? He hasn’t done a single thing!”

It’s usually not smart to argue with strangers at the gym, but I tried to respond, saying that even if you don’t like Obama, at least he’s done a lot, including the 2009 stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank. Before I could add to the list, he cut me off: “That’s small stuff, and anyway, he hasn’t done anything on the environment.” I pointed to air pollution regulations, including controls on greenhouse gases. He looked at me as if I had missed the point and said, icily: “Just wait until Bernie gets in there.”

Sanders is the only serious candidate in memory to call for “a political revolution.” He is not content with Obama’s word “change”; he wants to “transform” the U.S. He knows who the bad guys are. After seven years under a Democratic president, he insists that “the establishment -- whether it is the economic establishment, the political establishment or the media establishment -- is failing the American people.”

As a presidential candidate, the need for greater regulation of the banks remains one of his defining themes. His voice rises whenever he calls for it (“fraud is the business model on Wall Street”), and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his position is not only about preventing future harm; it’s also about Old Testament justice.

Sanders has succeeded in tapping into the same stream of youthful idealism from which Eugene McCarthy benefited in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 -- and Ronald Reagan in 1980. What unites Sanders, McCarthy, McGovern and Reagan is the unmistakable clarity of their moral convictions, their tendency to outrage, and their insistence that the United States needs to embark on a whole new path.

After a two-term presidency, many young voters seem to want someone who is radically different from, even the opposite of, the commander in chief to whom they have become accustomed. After all, a two-term president will have led their nation for a significant percentage of their lives. That’s boring. Isn’t it time for a transformation?

In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan offered a different explanation for Sanders’s appeal, contending that young voters are drawn to him because they question capitalism itself.

Maybe that’s part of it; indeed, millennials are more likely than previous generations to favor “a bigger government providing more services.” But I think his allure has much more do with the abstract idea of transformation than with a specific move toward the far left.

Donald Trump is being taken as the anti-Obama, and the polls suggest that young people like him too (and he’s no socialist). If you’re a Democrat, Sanders is as close to an anti-Obama as you’re going to get. A lot of young men and women are just like my skeptical interlocutor at the gym, embracing Sanders on the grounds that he’d do dramatic things.

True, Sanders remains highly unlikely to be the Democratic nominee. But to some young people, his candidacy is irresistibly attractive, not necessarily because his policies make a lot of sense, but because they are drawn to one thing: his unmistakable sense of outrage at how things are.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net