Why Young People Like Bernie Sanders

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Bernie Sanders is killing it with young voters. According to Iowa caucus entrance polls, Sanders beat Hillary Clinton 84 percent to 14 percent among Democrats aged 17 to 29. Among Democrats aged 30 to 44 the Sanders advantage was 58 percent to 37 percent. Polling in advance of today’s New Hampshire primary indicates that Sanders leads Clinton 89 percent to 11 percent among 18 to 29 year olds and 72 percent to 22 percent among Democrats aged 30 to 39.

According to the New York Times, the students for Bernie movement originated at Middlebury College in Vermont. No surprise there. Sanders is one of Vermont’s two senators. But that was just the beginning. The Times story reports that similar groups now exist on 220 campuses with the largest at the University of California at Berkeley.

Three weeks ago a headline in the Boston Globe proclaimed “Bernie Sanders becomes unlikely leader of a youth movement.” Lots of commentators have since sought to explain this seemingly odd love affair. But if you know anything about American higher education (not to mention secondary and primary education) there should be little surprise that Sanders is the overwhelming favorite of young voters.

It is not because he is a grandfatherly figure, though one imagines he would be a delightful grandfather to have as your own. And it is not even because he favors free college for everyone, though votes can be bought and free is a pretty attractive offer.

No, it is because anyone about to attend college, or currently enrolled in college, or a graduate of college in the last decade or two is more than familiar with the notion – Sander’s constant refrain – that American life is corrupt and unfair. Whatever their academic major, today’s college students and recent graduates know well that Wall Street is populated by selfish clones of Bernie Madoff, that Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is the worst Supreme Court decision since Lochner v. New York (maybe even since Dred Scott v. Sanford), and that the wealthy are not paying their fair share in taxes.

They know all of this and much more that makes Bernie Sanders appear a prophet because these truths go largely unquestioned on most college campuses. Unlike the Cold War generation who witnessed the human suffering wrought by even well-meaning socialized economies, the fact that Sanders is a proud socialist gives today’s youth little pause. To be sure the libertarian Rand Paul garnered considerable support among the young as well, so the youthful embrace of Sander’s socialist agenda is not monolithic. But the reality is that campus libertarians are almost everywhere on the academic fringe.

Not only are college campuses dominated by the political correctness of the left, but very few colleges require their students to be liberally educated in the classic sense of that term. Even most liberal arts colleges excuse their students from any core requirements that might give them a basic understanding of history, philosophy or economics. No student who studied basic economics, even if taught by Professor Paul Krugman, could embrace free college tuition without asking how it will be paid for and what we must forego to pay for it. The vast majority of today’s college graduates have no idea about opportunity costs, supply and demand, comparative advantage or other basics of economic theory. Nor, it seems, does Bernie Sanders.

So it should be expected that the vast majority of today’s college students and college-educated youth would embrace the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Most of them have been educated to see the world as Sanders sees it, but have not been adequately educated to understand that Bernie’s solutions are pie in the sky.