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Doug Saunders

Doug Saunders

Doug Saunders

1968, all over again: Young Americans rally for an anti-system outsider Add to ...

It’s election year in the United States, and the incumbent Democratic Party has plans to win with a party-approved candidate who pledges to continue the broadly progressive and expansionary policies of the current President. But primary voting is dominated by a new generation of Americans who have grown up with very different life experiences, economic conditions, backgrounds, views and expectations. These young Americans reject the establishment slate for an “outsider” candidate who seems to speak to their desire for a whole new political vocabulary.

The last time this happened was 1968. Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most progressive president the country had known, had stepped down. His legislative accomplishments – the legal enactment of racial equality, the Great Society welfare-state programs and the War on Poverty – were overshadowed by his hesitancy to put an end to the Vietnam War.

In the Democratic primaries, Mr. Johnson’s favoured successor (after Robert Kennedy’s assassination) was his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, who campaigned against racial and economic inequality. Instead, the primaries were dominated by a heretofore obscure senator, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who was overwhelmingly popular with the huge population of voters in their 20s and 30s for his almost singular stance against the Vietnam War.

Mr. McCarthy was an odd fit for the baby-boom voters. An old-fashioned politician, he seemed stiff and out of touch on most issues of the time, less articulate on civil rights and equality. His appeal to youth had to do with his outsider status: He spoke to a postwar generation who wanted no part of that political system.

Mr. McCarthy won almost every primary and by far the most delegate votes – but then lost the candidacy to Mr. Humphrey, because in those days a majority of votes were controlled by the party. The immediate result was days of violent rioting at the Democratic National Convention. The longer-term result was the creation of the modern primary system.

And that system has now produced another generational shock. Hillary Clinton, the self-described policy successor to Barack Obama, was resoundingly trounced in New Hampshire by another outsider, Bernie Sanders, overwhelmingly on the strength of younger voters who appear to have almost no interest in Ms. Clinton.

Mr. Sanders’s old-fashioned politics seem an odd fit for the millennial generation: a mix of social-democratic safety-net policies that would be uncontroversial in Canada or Europe, creaky old concepts such as protectionism and free tuition, and a general lack of interest in articulating modern race and gender issues (his supporters are mostly white). But he is an outsider who speaks a very different political language and rejects the established system of Democratic politics. Polls indicate that he could win more primaries, and possibly (but not at all certainly) the nomination, against the wishes of a party that would prefer someone more likely to appeal to moderate Republicans.

What has made younger Americans turn so dramatically to an anti-system outsider? They are a generation of people who have experienced a break with a past that bears a lot of similarities to the rupture experienced by the postwar generation.

For one thing, 18- to 34-year-olds in the United States are living different lives. They are dramatically more educated, the percentage holding a degree having risen from 15 per cent to 22 per cent in 33 years. They are far less likely to leave school: Dropout rates fell to 7 per cent last year, from 12 per cent in 2000. They are also much less likely to use drugs, alcohol or tobacco, or to get pregnant before marriage, than any previous generation. Same-sex marriage, interracial marriage and legal pot are utterly uncontroversial non-issues of the past to them.

Second, they are different people. By 2020, white American children will be a minority; those white Americans who are 18 to 34 today (the Bernie backers) are very likely to have lived and worked with people who don’t resemble them; they may assume a racial equality that doesn’t exist.

Third, they are entering a much less secure economy. Only 65 per cent of them are employed, down from 72 per cent in 1990, and those jobs are far from secure or robust.

No wonder they don’t want a president with the same surname as one from their parents’ time. They are, whatever the outcome, going to be the heirs to 1968.

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