Why are young voters feeling the Bern anyway?

Is it just that they, like Bernie, favor liberal policies?  Of course not.  Politics is far more about group identity than issue positions.  And while, yes, Bernie does get support for his liberal positions, renowned political scientists Chris Achen and Larry Bartels (easily one of the smartest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to be around), explain the identity bases of Sanders’ youth support in the NYT:

The notion that elections are decided by voters’ carefully weighing competing candidates’ stands on major issues reflects a strong faith in American political culture that citizens can control their government from the voting booth. We call it the “folk theory” of democracy.

When candidates surpass expectations, observers caught up in the folk theory believe that they have tapped some newly potent political issue or ideology. Thus, many analysts have argued that Mr. Sanders’s surprising support signals a momentous shift to the left among Democrats.

But wishing does not make it so. Decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental…  emphases mine]

The most powerful social identities and symbolic attachments in this year’s Democratic race have favored Mrs. Clinton, not Mr. Sanders. She has been a leading figure in the Democratic Party for decades, a role model for many women and a longtime ally of African-Americans and other minority groups. For many primary voters, that history constitutes a powerful bond, and their loyalties are propelling Mrs. Clinton to the nomination despite her limitations as a candidate.

Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, is a sort of anti-Clinton — a political maverick from lily-white Vermont whose main claim to fame has been his insistence on calling himself an independent, a socialist, anything but a Democrat. That history has made him a convenient vessel for antipathy to Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic establishment and some of the party’s key constituencies. But it is a mistake to assume that voters who support Mr. Sanders because he is not Mrs. Clinton necessarily favor his left-leaning policy views…

It is very hard to point to differences between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders’s proposed policies that could plausibly account for such substantial cleavages. They are reflections of social identities, symbolic commitments and partisan loyalties…

Mr. Sanders has drawn enthusiastic support from young people, a common pattern for outsider candidates. But here, too, the impression of ideological commitment is mostly illusory. While young Democrats in the January survey were more likely than those over age 35 to call themselves liberals, their ideological self-designations seem to have been much more lightly held, varying significantly when they were reinterviewed.

Moreover, warm views of Mr. Sanders increased the liberalism of young Democrats by as much as 1.5 points on the seven-point ideological scale. For many of them, liberal ideology seems to have been a short-term byproduct of enthusiasm for Mr. Sanders rather than a stable political conviction.

Very liberal or not, these young voters would seem to have pretty much no reason to head to Trump in November.  But if they sit out, rather than supporting Clinton, that definitely makes things more interesting.  I still believe that the repulsive power of Trump– especially his racism, xenophobia, and sexism– will end up making a difference in Clinton’s favor with younger voters.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Why are young voters feeling the Bern anyway?

  1. ohwilleke says:

    Doesn’t ring true.

    Bernie is popular because he says the right thing and is consistent about it. He has won trust by conveying the impression that he is not bought and that his ideology is not negotiable.

    Clinton is unpopular because she is viewed as bought and because she is notorious for triangulation and vacillation.

    It isn’t an insider-outsider thing so much as it is a cynicism-idealism or distrust-trust thing.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    Racism, zenophobia and sexism are good reasons to vote for Hillary against Trump. I think equally pertinent to young people are the right to have birth control freely accessible and affordable and the right for an individual to make his or her health care decisions without interference from government. Then there is the right for each and every citizen of voting age to be able to vote.
    Pretty basic stuff is on the line in this election.

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