On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary. It was a heartbreaking day for the millions of people across the country who support not just him but also the progressive grassroots movement he has catalyzed.
With Bernie out of the race, former vice president Joe Biden is now the presumptive Democratic nominee. But throughout the primary, Biden struggled to earn the trust of younger voters. He lost voters under 45 in nearly every state by double digits. In the latest Monmouth poll, he is tied with Trump among voters under 35. To win the general election, he needs us.
That’s why the Alliance for Youth Action, Justice Democrats, the March for Our Lives Action Fund, NextGen America, Student Action, the Sunrise Movement, the IfNotNow Movement, and United We Dream Action immediately sent an open letter yesterday to Biden’s campaign, offering concrete, tangible commitments he can make, and actions he can take, to earn the trust of the vast majority of voters under 45 who rejected his “return to normalcy” message.
Biden’s path to victory in 2020 comes from reassembling the Obama coalition. But most of the young people who were inspired by “Yes We Can” haven’t felt the same way about Biden’s message of going back in time to the Obama era. Voters under 35 have lived through two global recessions, a failed war of choice in Iraq, mass incarceration and deportation, inaction in the face of the climate crisis, and a gun violence epidemic. We’ve seen a Republican Party that’s increasingly open to white nationalism, plutocracy, and authoritarianism, and a Democratic Party that hasn’t quite figured out how to respond.
The idea of returning to normal doesn’t make sense to us, because the political status quo has never worked particularly well during our lifetimes. For millions of young people, our path to a safe and secure middle-class life is far more out of reach than it was for our parents or grandparents. And now, according to latest research, a majority of voters under 45 has lost their job, been placed on leave, or had hours cut because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Young leaders know how important it is to defeat Trump. But young people also want to see a Democratic nominee fighting for solutions to the massive social problems that have kept our generation from enjoying secure, stable middle-class lives.
During this time of crisis, if Biden is going to tap into the well of hope that drove Obama’s success, we need him to root himself in the New Deal and Great Society traditions of the Democratic Party and champion the bold ideas that have galvanized generations before us and inspire our generation today.
Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson didn’t start out as leaders aligned with social movements calling for dramatic changes in their time. But they were pressured enough to finally feel the ground of history moving beneath their feet and eventually met the test of leadership the historical moment demanded.
To his credit, Biden tweeted yesterday, “I know that I need to earn your votes. And I know that might take time. But I want you to know that I see you, I hear you, and I understand the urgency of this moment. I hope you’ll join us. You’re more than welcome: You’re needed.”
We hope he means it, because we agree. That’s why we wrote our open letter. We wanted to make our top-line suggestions for commitments clear.
Biden’s personnel decisions will say a lot about how much he intends to stand up to oligarchy and fight for structural change in our democracy and economy. To unite the party, he should pledge to reject Wall Street executives and corporate lobbyists from adviser roles, his transition team, and cabinet. He should also pledge to appoint elected leaders who endorsed Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as cochairs of his transition team, and key progressive leaders to his campaign’s policy working groups.
Biden’s commitments on policy could also go a long way to earning the support of young people. In March, Representative James Clyburn said Biden “should incorporate as much of the efforts being proposed by Bernie Sanders as he can.” Many young voters are baffled by his rejection of popular proposals like a Green New Deal, marijuana legalization, and a wealth tax. The pandemic has also amplified the ways in which our employer-based health care system is disastrous for millions of Americans. Biden’s attachment to that model must dramatically change.
We can look to Spain for a good model of how this might all work out. After running against it in the elections, the millennial-powered Podemos Party secured personnel and policy commitments from the more established center-left Socialist Party and then joined it in a coalition government as a junior partner. Since the pandemic’s arrival in Spain, Podemos has also secured the nationalization of health care, the cancellation of rent, and a moratorium on evictions.
The youth-powered Bernie coalition has the chance to secure similar commitments from the Biden campaign before we join in a coalition to defeat Trump.
Despite being a 78-year-old white man from one of the whitest states in America in a field full of more diverse, younger candidates, Bernie won over the most diverse generation in American history. Not because of any gimmicks. But because his core ideology, policies, and message match our generation’s experience.
Just as Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful campaign in 1964 proved to be a harbinger for Ronald Reagan and the splintering of the New Deal consensus in the Democratic Party, Bernie’s campaign will likely be a harbinger of the coming era of social democratic hegemony. Young Goldwater operatives spent nearly two decades building institutions to remake the Republican Party into a vehicle for free-market economics and the right-wing culture war. Young Berniecrats will create organizations to ensure that the Democratic Party becomes a vehicle for multiracial social democracy. But they must make themselves essential to the party’s success.
That’s why we don’t want to see the Democratic Party fail, or Joe Biden fail. We certainly do not want to see Trump win.
In order to win up and down the ballot in November, the Democratic Party needs the energy and enthusiasm of our generation. The victorious “Obama coalition,” after all, included millions of young people demanding change. We need a nominee we can believe is going to work with us to deliver it.