Bernie Sanders seems to be the younger generation’s candidate. According to a recent survey, Sanders is favored by 46 percent of voters ages 18 to 34, where Hillary Clinton is preferred by 35 percent.
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. Just one liberal threatened to join the opposition: Sanders, the Vermont senator .
Before the vote, he agreed to talk to me about his objection. It was simple: I didn’t want to regulate “the banks.”
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I answered that the job for which I had been nominated didn’t much involve banks, and I agreed that more bank regulation was a good idea. He reiterated that I didn’t want to regulate the banks, and went on to vote against me.
In our conversation, Sanders was different from most politicians. Though unfailingly civil, he lacked the usual humor and warmth, and didn’t show 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, that was the end of the matter.
A few weeks ago, I was at the gym, talking to a friend about politics. A young man – maybe 25 – interrupted, “Obama? He hasn’t done a single thing!”
I tried to respond, saying that he’s done a lot, including the 2009 stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank. 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 said, icily, “Just wait until Bernie gets in there.”
Sanders is the only serious candidate in memory to call for “a political revolution.” 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. 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 tapped into the same stream of youthful idealism from which Eugene McCarthy benefited in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 – and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Many young voters seem to want someone who is radically different from the current commander in chief. After all, a two-term president will have led their nation for a significant percentage of their lives.
In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan contended that young voters are drawn to him because they question capitalism itself.
Maybe that’s part of it; 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 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. 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 embrace Sanders on the grounds that he’d do dramatic things.
Sanders remains highly unlikely to be the Democratic nominee. But to some young people, his candidacy is irresistibly attractive, not because his policies make a lot of sense, but because of his unmistakable sense of outrage at how things are.
Cass Sunstein, a Bloomberg View columnist, is director of the Harvard Law School’s program on behavioral economics and public policy.