The Vermont senator who condemns the clout held by Wall Street and lobbies is very popular among young people. And he is hot on Hillary Clinton’s heels in the race for the Democratic nomination before the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
At each of his meetings, the contrast is striking. As you see him onstage, note his wrinkled face, thick glasses and white hair. At his feet, in the gallery, is often a young crowd who cheer for him as if he were a rock star. Sometimes, some of the groupies cry out “I love you Bernie!” sparking an amused smile from the grandfather of seven. At 74 years of age, the much in demand socialist Bernie Sanders is electrifying the campaign for the Democratic presidential candidate and is sending the Clinton camp into a cold sweat, unsettled by the Vermont senator’s increasing popularity, particularly amongst the unsettled youth who ignore Hillary. At the Iowa caucuses, narrowly won by the former secretary of state, Bernie Sanders received 84 percent of votes among those under 30 years old. He could do even better this Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary, according to a survey by the University of Massachusetts – 87 percent of young Democrats in this state support him as the Democratic candidate.
Following Bernie Sanders over several days on the New Hampshire campaign route means hearing the same slogans three, six or even 10 times over: “Enough is enough!”; “Healthcare is a right, not a privilege”; and “We should be investing in education, not in prisons.” Yet, beyond speeches repeated almost word for word, following Bernie Sanders allows for the opportunity to engage with his supporters, to understand their hopes, their anguishes, their anger … And their desire for a revolution.
'A Future to Believe In'
“He wants to shake everything up and that’s exactly what this country needs,”* says Moriah Lang, a student attending the annual New Hampshire Democratic gala. Bernie Sanders had just given a speech there and Moriah, who is in her twenties, holds in her arms a placard that features the senator’s campaign slogan, “A future to believe in.” Moriah adds, “My hope for the future is a more equal society where each person can live with dignity. A society where we will not be obliged to work a ridiculous amount of hours just to have enough to eat, while the 1 percent of the wealthiest people continue to get even richer off our backs.”* To finance her studies in business, the young woman works 40 hours a week as a secretary.
In a country where 47 million people are living below the poverty line, Bernie Sanders has put the fight against inequality at the heart of his political battle. “The top one-tenth of 1 percent ... today in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Is this the kind of country we want to live in?” he asks at each of his appearances.* To stamp out these “disgusting” inequalities, Sanders proposes taxing Wall Street, increasing taxes for the richest and the big companies and making universities public and healthcare free. He condemns a political system that has become corrupted by multinationals, lobbies and millionaires’ money. Since a controversial decision by the Supreme Court in 2010, the latter group can discretely finance an electoral campaign without limits, by throwing money at support committees, the famous Super PAC. Bernie Sanders often gives the example of the Koch brothers, two billionaires who are close to the Republicans who, he believes, could spend $900 million over the course of the 2016 presidential race. “Does anybody really think the American democracy should look like that? Because I don’t,” thundered the senator.*
Perceived as sincere and authentic, Bernie Sanders seduces young people who are very mistrustful of Hillary Clinton, who is considered too close to the interests of Wall Street and business. “For the first time in my life, a candidate has responded to my worries with clarity, honesty and coherence,”* says Stephen Messinger, an architect nearing 40 who came from Boston to attend a speech by Sanders in the suburbs of Manchester, the capital of New Hampshire.
After the birth of his two-year-old daughter, his wife stopped working for six months, the maximum amount of time allowed by her employer. “Only the first few weeks were paid. After that, we lived off almost 50 percent less of our earnings. But it was worth it to start our family,”* Stephen states. If Bernie Sanders is elected, he promises to instate three months paid maternity leave.
Young Americans like Stephen must make a lot of drastic decisions: Start a family? Buy an apartment? Go to school? “I don’t want to kill the mood, but if we don’t act quickly, you will be the first generation of Americans who are worse off than their parents,”* warned Sanders during a visit to Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, a small town in south-west New Hampshire. One member of the public who attended is 25-year-old Christian Larocque who was won over by the prospect of free university study: “I was hesitant, but after hearing his speech, I have decided to vote Sanders.”* To finance his industrial engineering course, he had to incur a debt of $130,000 (approximately €120,000). He graduated in 2013 and quickly found a job working for a plastic manufacturing company. Out of monthly net income of $3,700, a third goes toward paying his student debts. “I can’t buy a place to live because I can’t get any additional credit. I would like to be able to go on holiday more easily and not have to be so careful when buying groceries at the supermarket,” the young man explains, despite claiming to “live a comfortable life.”*
Others do not have such luck. Megan Jensen is 26 years old, but looks at least five years older. Her face is lined, and this single mother of three young children has arms covered in small burns, scars from frying oil at her job at KFC. Last Saturday, for the first time, Megan went on strike and protested in order to get a minimum salary of $15 an hour. In New Hampshire, the minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour. Megan, despite working there for 10 years, makes $8. Sanders calls this a “starvation wage” and, like Hillary Clinton, speaks in favor of a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour. Seduced by this idea, Megan plans to go and vote for the first time this Tuesday “to give my kids a chance.”*
While the two candidates agree on the issue of minimum wage, there are real points of contention between them. And these last few weeks, the tone has hardened at the same time as the gap has closed on a national level. On Friday, a survey by the Quinnipiac University (Connecticut) placed the two rivals neck and neck (44 percent for Clinton, 44 percent for Sanders). In the Clinton camp, the Vermont senator is accused of making unrealistic promises. They assert that the ex-first lady will be better armed to negotiate with a Republican Congress. Taking into account the visceral hate that the Conservatives direct toward her, there is reason to doubt this.
At any rate, if he wins the New Hampshire primary as has been predicted, Bernie Sanders will really be put under scrutiny in Nevada on Feb. 20 and South Carolina on Feb. 27 – two states with a significant African-American and Latino population. Up until now, the senator from Vermont — the whitest state in the U.S. — has been largely overtaken by Hillary Clinton regarding ethnic minorities. Can he catch up? He certainly seems to think so: “Increasing the minimum wage, making university free, ending mass incarceration … Our policy is going to end up resonating in the heart of African-American and Hispanic communities because these are topics which concern them.”* The key to the primaries is here; without a doubt.
*Editor's note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.
**Editor's note: Sanders won the New Hampshire Democratic primary with 60.4 percent of the vote, while Hillary Clinton received 38.0 percent.
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