Columns

Johnson ’19: Millenials feel the Bern

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The sky gradually grew darker as we uncurled our chilled fingers to ring the doorbell of each house. The people of New Hampshire expected visitors on the days leading up to the primary, so most of the walkways were shoveled. The unshoveled walkways might have posed an unwelcoming message, but damp feet did not dissuade us from leaving a pamphlet with Sen. Bernie Sanders’, D-VT, determined face on it wedged under the door. Some opened the door, saw Bernie’s logo, said they would not be voting for him and closed the door. But the majority of people engaged in conversation, whether about when and how to vote Feb. 9 or about Bernie’s ideas and priorities. Never before had I felt that engaging with politics could provide me with a meaningful sense of self-expression. But my experiences this weekend proved otherwise. I participated in many open and honest conversations about issues that drastically affect individuals across the country.

My most memorable exchange of the weekend came at a converted red barn on the edge of a snowy lake. The man who answered the door asked us where we came from and how we were involved in Bernie’s campaign. He asked us why we were drawn to Bernie and about millennial participation in the election. After we briefly shared our support for the senator, he told us that he was a devout Republican. Without the protection of a computer screen or partisan hostility, we conversed about Bernie’s economic plans with friendly tones and productive intentions. There was a feeling of true democracy in action at this man’s doorstep as the New England sun set over a wooded horizon.

Our group from Brown did not quite know what to expect on this trip. We did not know that we would stand on stage behind Bernie at a rally, and we most certainly did not know that we would meet Bernie himself. Before he appeared on stage, a public relations staffer told us to express our enthusiasm and motivate the mostly young crowds. Our enthusiasm was completely genuine, and the crowd needed no motivation besides the slightly stooped senator’s powerful presence. Bernie is an exciting figure — he earned over 70 percent of the millennial vote in Iowa, a staggering number that far eclipses even President Barack Obama’s performance there. But his popularity stems from his ideas more than from his fashionable brand.

The energy in the room was not just because of celebrity appeal. One of the reasons Bernie stands out among other candidates is his authenticity. Standing behind him, I could see just a few lines scribbled on his notepad, and his speech was delivered as if it were an affirmation of friendship and solidarity. He spoke with candor and compassion, delivering his classic lines about the one-tenth of the 1 percent who own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. From my raised view, I saw the serious nods of agreement and sympathetic shakes of the head when Bernie outlined the struggles of our low minimum wage and the domino effects of mass incarceration. I heard the shouts of enormous numbers when he asked the audience how much debt they had accumulated financing their higher education. Bernie resonates with voters who know that a hard-working American does not inevitably achieve success. There are factors such as bad fortune, unjust policies and racist systems that also contribute. In that way, Bernie is more realistic than idealistic.

Bernie’s acknowledgment of realistic struggles speaks to a young generation that is facing the realities of independence in what they see as a broken system. Youth activism is peaking as millennials respond to the war and economic recession by demanding a new reality. Bernie’s visions are favored by almost half of millennials, and his supporters are devout and dedicated. Historically, youth and college campus activism has been a catalyst of change, and we have a serious opportunity and responsibility in this year’s election. The Brown University Students for Bernie traveled a perilous route to New Hampshire. One member was conned out of $5 in the train station. Our taxi driver shouted “Vote for Bernie” out his window after nearly running over pedestrians. We picked up a few stragglers in our vans and never found out from where they came. But what matters is that in an extremely crucial election, we actively participated and donated time. Old-fashioned, yet effective and necessary, there is an excitement to walking the literal campaign trail.

Grace Johnson ’19 is feeling the Bern and can be reached at grace_johnson@brown.edu.

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