The American primaries and subsequent Presidential election always garner a great deal of international attention. Remembering back to 2008, even as a young West Australian high school student I couldn’t avoid the fervor around Obama’s “Yes We Can” Presidential campaign. I remember sitting in my year 8 English class watching Obama’s acceptance speech and feeling the buzz from America in my classroom. In 2016 a similar international fervor exists around the primaries, with some avid followers of US politics now ‘feeling the Bern’ – the catchy youth-devised hashtag for Senator Bernie Sanders White House bid. Sanders, a 74-year-old Senator from Vermont and self-proclaimed underdog of the race for the democratic nomination has been advancing in leaps and bounds relative to where he was this time last year. Back then, Sanders was polling at 7% to Clinton’s 61%, with few pundits expecting that Sanders would virtually tie Democrat front-runner Hillary Clinton statistically for delegates in the Iowa Caucasus, let alone defeat her in New Hampshire.
Clinton, an established democrat with a swathe of experience as the First Lady of the United States, a Senator for the State of New York, a front-runner in the 2008 race for the Democratic nomination, and most recently Secretary of State, ensured that she was considered by many a sure pick for the Democratic nomination. The funding behind Clinton’s campaign is also impressive, amounting to a total of $163 million. Sanders in comparison, although having a respectable record in terms of political experience (16 years in the House of Representatives, 8 years as the Mayor of Burlington) cannot compete with Clinton in terms of high-profile political offices held. Alongside this, Sanders’ fundraising total of $75 million is dwarfed by Clinton’s. With just the above in mind, Clinton looks like the clear victor in any such political contest between her and Sanders – experience and money dominate the United States and its electoral process. How is it then that what was a year ago considered a forgone contest, came down to the wire with Hillary winning Iowa with a 0.3% lead over Sanders? The answer to that question is relevant to politics both in the United States and Australia.
The international fervour and buzz, which has people from America, Australia and around the world ‘feeling the Bern’, is heavily concentrated demographically in ‘millennials. Sanders has a commanding hold over younger voters, with Democrats between the ages of 18-44 voting for Sanders 78% to Clinton’s 21% in the Iowa democratic primaries. On an anecdotal level, the evidence that Sanders’ supporters are of a younger generation is also easy to spot. One only has to take a quick scroll through the many comments left on Sanders’ social media pages to see that many are left by college students, millennials new to the work force, and even the occasional high school student.
Sanders’ policies and identification as a socialist democrat are clearly speaking to younger voters. His current political rhetoric up to this point has capitalised on the feelings of disillusionment, and the lack of confidence many younger voters have in the political process. His talk of a political revolution, bashing the banks, universal health care, and free education resonates with a younger generation that has been wracked by financial and economic insecurity, experienced soaring student debt, and has witnessed a political system which seems not only unable to act on issues of their concern, but be complicit in them.
Sanders is a candidate who in short has risen to popularity behind a message which at its core stands to enfranchise young American people. Here it becomes timely to mention Sanders also has a substantial international dimension to his support base. A second quick look at his social media pages reveals many commenting are not American. It is not uncommon to find Germans, English and Australians showing their support and sharing their desire for a candidate like Sanders in their own country; a candidate who they feel is globally representative.
Voice of a Generation
Down Under, recent comments by South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi and other conservative Liberal Senators make it easy to see why Australian millennials may feel more in touch with someone on the other side of the planet than they do with those in Canberra. The Abbott-Turnbull government and its handling of marriage equality has been convoluted to say the least, exposing divisions within the Liberal party, and a growing rift between politicians and their constituents. In August 2015, Abbott proposed a plebiscite on gay marriage, offering to take the vote to the Australian public in order to get a final verdict. Regardless of whether or not one thinks of the plebiscite as a move by Abbott to finally let the people speak or a Howardesque stalling tactic such as that seen in the Republic debate, one would expect that whatever the verdict of such a vote, our MPs would be bound by the public’s decision.
Cue Bernardi and the Liberal right – so far at least three members of the Coalition have come out explicitly stating that they would ignore the results of any plebiscite on marriage equality. Comments such as, “A plebiscite is a glorified opinion poll and no government should be bound by that” by Bernardi, along with remarks by his Coalition colleague Senator Abetz labelling a plebiscite that would force MPs to vote in favour of marriage equality “undemocratic”, make it easy to understand why many young people feel that their voices not only aren’t heard in our current democratic process, but are consciously ignored. More likely than voting against either Bernardi or Abetz at the next Senate election, comments such as these are inclined to simply drive younger voters towards the dreaded donkey vote. Rather than seeing the problem’s source as the deeply-engrained conservatism of both Bernardi and Abetz, voters are more likely to see it as a problem with the system itself.
The Coalition’s record in government does little to help reconcile these attitudes with younger voters as well. Abbott, and his infamous praise of coal as being “good for humanity” along with his government’s eagerness to establish one of the world’s largest open pit coal mines in cooperation with Adani close to the Great Barrier Reef is hard for a generation which must face the challenge of climate change to take seriously. Upon the plan’s initial rejection by the High Court on the grounds of environmental concerns Abbott lashed out, blaming the Court’s decision on a small group of ideological hardliners attempting to sabotage Australia’s economy.
Similar comments made by Queensland MP George Christensen don’t give the impression that Abbott is the only member of the coalition with such opinions, or that such behavior is out of the ordinary. Calling conservation groups lobbying the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to save the Great Barrier Reef “eco-traiters”, while in 2014 labeling Greenpeace as “gutless green grubs”, he went on to state in a speech to parliament later that year that the greatest terrorist threat to North Queensland comes from extreme green movements.
If rhetoric like this doesn’t highlight the growing gulf between politicians and younger voters in Australia, then ‘Karen’ the young girl who went to university and was radicalized by alternative music, and left wing activism should make it obvious. ‘Karen’ and her case study in the government’s latest ‘anti-radicalization handbook’, which warns parents about the types of radicalization which may threaten their children not only represents a crude political move, but one that entrenches more than ever the view held by many young voters that their government not only doesn’t listen, but consciously ignores them.
The recent reaction or lack of reaction in regards to the #letthemstay campaign by Turnbull and his government is typical of this ‘cold shoulder’ attitude towards young Australians, and the values many of them hold. #Letthemstay is a campaign focused on allowing asylum seeker children, and those in our healthcare system, to stay in Australia which has received support not only from young Australians, but also from the Australian Catholic Church, a huge number of medical professionals along with the AMA (Australian Medical Association), and all state governments – with the exception of Western Australia.
Despite this however, no public comment was given in regards to the campaign by the Turnbull government until Monday the 15th of February, which in spite of several days of protesting by medical staff and various members of the community over the return of a 12-month-old child to Nauru from Brisbane, was more than likely caused by a scathing criticism of our government by renowned international medical journal The Lancet. Turnbull’s comments even then amounted to at best empty and ambiguous political rhetoric, stating that his government would do nothing to “imperil the health or security of any individual”. The #letthemstay campaign should continue, and its supporters should go on demanding a proper answer from their government, which seems to be ever more concerned with issues which concern them, not the general public, and especially not young voters.
The words of Bernardi, Abetz, and Christensen combined with what are at best weakly veiled attacks against younger Australians makes it easy to understand why many of these are feeling burnt by more than just the sun this summer. Younger Australians and others around the globe will continue to ‘feel the Bern’ as long as they continue to feel as if their representatives are ignoring them. The fervor and excitement many feel about Sanders internationally is different to that which built up about Obama in 2008. When I sat in my classroom in year 8 I felt excited because I thought Obama might empower Americans to change the United States. Now, at 21 years old, I’m ‘feeling the Bern’ not because of what Sanders might do for America, but for the political hope he brings to myself and others of my generation; the hope that the political process in America and perhaps Australia can still listen and hear our voices.
Words by Joseph Creese