The Democratic frontrunner polls far better among college students than any of his competitors. Liam Glen talks to students at UNC Chapel Hill to see why they back Bernie Sanders.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has managed to succeed against all odds. Just a few years ago, he was a fringe figure on the national stage. Now, he is the frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic Party Presidential Primaries.
While he has managed to build a broad coalition, Sanders’s strongest backing still comes from young and progressive voters. It makes sense, then, that university campuses are wellsprings of support. Recent polls show over 50 percent of college students favoring him as the Democratic nominee, far exceeding his lead among the general primary electorate.
Few places serve as a better case study of Sanders’s appeal than the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Although North Carolina on the whole leans conservative, UNC has a reputation as one of the most liberal schools in the South. Orange County, which includes Chapel Hill, was one of the few counties in the state that went for Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Primaries.
Assuming that there is no major shift between now and when North Carolina votes in the March 3 Super Tuesday Primaries, that support is sure to be repeated. To get a sense of why such enthusiasm exists around the Sanders campaign, I talked to students at UNC regarding the upcoming vote.
Speaking with a Young Activist
UNC has one of the nation’s leading Political Science departments, so it should be no surprise that many at the school are passionate about the subject.
One such student, who is studying Peace, War, and Defense, is a volunteer with the Sanders campaign who has canvassed and phonebanked for the candidate. Adopting typical Generation Z irony, he started out by joking that he is “not sure if Sanders actually exists.” These types of facetious conspiracy theories have become a common form of online humor.
But it was not long until he took on a sincere tone regarding his support for Sanders.“I’ve volunteered with other campaigns before,” he said, “but those were mostly because, you know, I viewed them as, not the lesser of two evils, but just as a better option. And Sanders is the first campaign I’ve volunteered with where I just agree with the candidate outright.”
This is in large part due to the candidate’s unabashedly progressive stances, which are exciting to the growing number of young people who find appeal in leftist policies and values. The student was unafraid to say that he is “not a capitalist,” which is why he is backing Sanders over a more moderate progressive like Elizabeth Warren.
This does not mean that he is only concerned with big-picture ideological issues, though. He asserted that Sanders’s proposal of Medicare for All is a better way of providing universal healthcare than expanding Obamacare, for instance, because having a public option coexisting with private insurance would incentivize the latter to offer lower prices but poorer coverage and because the current employer-based system harms small businesses that cannot afford to pay for employees’ healthcare.
Tuition-free college was another major issue. Conservative commentators often use the proposal to paint Sanders supporters as entitled kids who just want free stuff. But this student focused on how the issue affected society as a whole, saying, “I think that student debt in the US especially is just really predatory.”
This is especially relevant considering the importance of university education in upwards mobility. “Without Covenant,” he said, referring to UNC’s full-ride scholarship for students from low-income families, “I wouldn’t be here.” Compared to what he encountered growing up in his home city, “the opportunities that I’ve gotten here have just been out of this world.” Sanders, in his view, is the candidate most committed to ensuring that no one misses out on such opportunities because they cannot afford it.
Meanwhile, he dismissed concerns about the candidate’s electability as “kind of ridiculous,” pointing to Sanders’s high poll numbers in hypothetical matchups against Donald Trump.
Much of this represents a surprisingly pragmatic approach to politics and policy, but that does not mean that he lacks a radical flair. When asked if there was anything else he would like to say, he simply stated, “eat the rich,” referencing an old revolutionary slogan which has become popular on social media in recent years. It is a fitting motto for a new leftist movement enraged by the growth of wealth inequality and unabashed about using humor and hyperbole in its rhetoric.
Cleaving Through Cynicism and Distrust
Not everyone at UNC is so enthusiastic for Sanders. In the words of one Journalism student, “I think Bernie Sanders is insane. And I think his policies are highly unrealistic.”
Despite this, however, she still plans to vote for him. While she might be skeptical of Sanders’s platform, she admits that “I think we are at a point where we need that kind of radicalism, especially as far as the environment is concerned.”
Other candidates, by contrast, come off as too complacent with the status quo. She gave half-joking descriptors for each of them. Buttigieg is “a shill,” Biden “is just kind of an idiot,” and Bloomberg is “racist and evil.” The possible exception is Warren, who “is also really left leaning, and I appreciate it, but I don’t think she’s pushing far enough.”
This is a common theme in the views of most politically active young people in the United States. The current system is broken, and only progressive action can fix it. As Buttigieg, Biden, and Bloomberg fight for control of the centrist lane, while Warren fails to take a strong stance, left-wingers see Sanders as their only viable option.
Mixed with the fact that the cantankerous septuagenarian has found an unlikely appeal among young people obsessed with authenticity, this means that Sanders is the ultimate candidate for the college crowd. As this student put it in her own words, “I also really appreciate how angry he is because I am also angry.”
One Psychology major described reason he supports Sanders more bluntly as “because I hate everyone else.”
While he did identify issues such as growing inequity as a problem, his main focus was on the candidates’ personal integrity. His priority is for “the President of the United States to not be a sex offender,” referring to the long list of allegations against President Trump. Meanwhile, he cannot find much to like about the current field of challengers, saying, “Bloomberg is a racist, Buttigieg is a rich dumbass, and Warren is a dick.” (Buttigieg is, in fact, the least wealthy of the Democratic field, but this has not hampered the view of him as being connected to privilege).
But for Sanders, he gave the relatively high praise of “I don’t outwardly disagree with the way he is as a human being.”
This ability to come off as likeable to even those disgusted by every other national politician is undoubtedly a large part of Sanders’s success. Exactly how he manages to do it is unclear. His supporters will say that he truly is unique in his absolute dedication to the average American and refusal to sell out to special interests or bow to the decrees of the political establishment. His opponents, meanwhile, maintain that he is just a typical career politician who has done a good job marketing himself as a populist hero.
In either case, it has allowed him to win hearts and minds across the country. Even cynical college students totally disillusioned with politics see reason for hope in Sanders’s idealistic platform.
The Endurance of Political Apathy
Not everyone at UNC is a political junkie, however. In fact, some could not care less about the subject. Indifference to electoral politics among students is not a new issue. While college turnout rose in 2016, it still did not exceed 50 percent.
Many were uncomfortable talking about the upcoming election. Of those willing to discuss it, there were some who freely admitted their lack of knowledge. As one student said, “I don’t know any of the people, TBH, but I’m probably not going to vote anyway.”
Similarly, one Computer Science major who is unsure whether she will vote said that she does not know much about any of the candidates and would have to do more research before casting her ballot. But if forced to make a choice on the spot, she would go with Sanders because “a lot of people seem to like him, so he’s got to be good for something.”
The bandwagon effect can have a powerful impact on politics, and it may be part of the explanation for Sanders’s appeal to college students. Politically active students, who lean heavily progressive, are attracted to his policies. In a world where people get so much of their news from peers, either through personal conversations or social media, their support for Sanders and disdain for the other candidates undoubtedly influences general attitudes on campus. Eventually, it reaches a point where even those who are not paying attention to the race are drawn in by Sanders’s popularity.
Why Should We Care What Students Think?
Nearly 18 million Americans are currently enrolled in postsecondary education, meaning that college students represent over 5 percent of nation’s population. Given that elections are often determined by narrow margins – one need only look at the Democratic races in Iowa and New Hampshire – this is far from an insignificant number.
More than this, however, students are the future. In coming decades, Generation Z will become a core part of the electorate, and its members will take key leadership positions. It is thus important to understand why such a large number of them are attracted to a revolutionary candidate like Sanders.
Some doubt that this really matters. According to conventional wisdom, it is common for people to be liberal in their youth, only to turn right with age. The Baby Boomers, who headed radical movements in the 1960s and 70s but are now known for their conservatism, are supposed to be a prime example.
But political scientists are skeptical of this phenomenon. While there are many people whose political beliefs change with age, voters on average tend to stay stable in their preferences.
The example of the Baby Boomers, for instance, leaves out that the campus radicals were only ever a vocal minority of their generation. One opinion poll from 1969 showed that most college students actually approved of President Richard Nixon’s policies in Vietnam. This does not even account for the fact that college students constituted a minority of the overall youth population.
By contrast, polls of Millennials and Generation Z unambiguously show that the majority have strong progressive leanings.
Sanders’s opponents declare him the second coming of George McGovern. Meanwhile, his backers hope that he will be the leftist version of Ronald Reagan. No matter what comes to pass, however, his support among college students demonstrates the appeal of radically progressive and anti-establishment politics among this generation. This is a trend that will impact American politics far beyond this election cycle.