The Kids Are for Bernie

Sanders’s youth movement is powered by the energy of the new campus left. What does it believe?

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

RINDGE, New Hampshire—Twenty-three minutes into his typically rambling, hourlong stump speech in the arena here, at a private liberal-arts college on the Massachusetts border—after he had decried the Koch brothers and the prescription-drug companies, after he had accused Wall Street of bribing its way to deregulation, after he had called out the corporate media and the political establishment—Bernie Sanders turned to the bleachers behind him, which were filled with college students waving blue signs and chanting his name.

A sly, unusual smile crossed his face. “I feel like a rock-n-roll star!” he exclaimed, taking off his jacket and tossing it to a startled youth behind him. He pantomimed tearing off his sweater, too, prompting a fresh chant of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” Then he grinned sheepishly. “All right, nothing else is coming off,” he said, and continued to the next topic—the sins of Walmart.

The kids are for Bernie.

In Iowa, where Sanders came just a few delegates short of the supposed front-runner, Hillary Clinton, he won a staggering 84 percent of the voters under 30. Just as important, he got them to vote—they made up an unusually large 18 percent of the electorate. A recent New Hampshire poll had him taking 87 percent of the youth vote in the Granite State.

They line up for hours to see Sanders, snow accumulating on their puffy jackets and knit caps and uncombed hair. They fill college arenas, chanting, “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” They gather in little knots as they wait for him to appear, engaging in impromptu rap sessions about pot legalization and campaign-finance reform. They are feeling the Bern.

If Sanders wins the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, as he is favored to do, it will be because of the youth movement he has inspired. It will be a stunning result in a state that has historically been friendly to Bill and Hillary Clinton, a dramatic overthrow of the Democratic machine by a rebellious new generation of liberals. And if nobody saw this coming, that may be because nobody was listening to what the kids were trying to tell us.

For years now, a new leftist movement has been rising on college campuses. It speaks a new, radical language of intersectional identity politics. It is obsessed with social justice, with promoting the interests of the historically marginalized— and with policing its own adherents for their violations of its norms.

It has its own buzzwords, inscrutable to older generations of liberals: white privilege, rape culture, microaggressions, safe spaces. It has marched against its proximate oppressors, university administrations, and gotten college presidents fired; it has demanded apologies for the sins of the past; it seeks to exorcise the ghosts of Woodrow Wilson and John Calhoun. At a rally against police violence at Dartmouth in November, a protester screamed at a frightened girl, “Fuck your white tears!” They are the children of the children of the ’60s, and they are tired of being talked over and ignored. They are rebelling against the establishment, just as their grandparents did—only now, their grandparents are the establishment against which they're rebelling. They are the most liberal generation in American history, and they want their due.

Into this simmering mix has come Bernie Sanders, an old-fashioned class warrior with no particular ear for the new slang. He has sometimes gotten it wrong, but he is trying to learn. The new campus left has adopted him as its champion, and now he is riding the wave it has created.

Sanders’s campaign strategy now hinges on getting them to vote, in ever greater numbers. He has been to three college campuses in the past three days. There are more than 200 chapters of Students for Bernie across the country.

“If we can bring out a decent vote on Tuesday, I am confident that we are going to win,” Sanders told the students here at Franklin Pierce University. “And the reason is that we are doing something extremely radical: We are telling the American people the truth.”

Sanders intends this as a sarcastic line: They call me a radical, but what’s so radical about telling the truth? But that’s not how the kids take it. They want radical. It’s what they came for.

The bad news, he says, is that corporations have millions and millions of dollars that they use to buy elections. “But the good news,” he says, “is that you all get to vote!”

The kids cheer. The kids are for Bernie. But what do the kids believe?

The kids have always been liberal, but something seems different now.

“Socialism shouldn’t be a dirty word,” Phillip Moran, a green-eyed aspiring glassblower with a black beard and blue bandana on his head, told me. “It’s really a breath of fresh air. It’s about helping the people instead of the rich getting richer.”

The kids want legal marijuana. They want rights for gay people and trans people and people in between genders. They want free college.

The kids consider themselves feminist, male and female alike. “I am a feminist,” said Sean Mitchell, a bearded political-science major with a ski ticket hanging off his jacket, whose fraternity marched for Men Against Violence Against Women Month. (He chose the frat in part because of its progressive orientation.) “He knows I’d kill him if he didn’t say that,” teased his girlfriend, 21-year-old Annie Guare, an aspiring lawyer who supported a solidarity march for Emma Sulkowicz, the student who carried a mattress around Columbia University to call attention to her alleged sexual assault.

“I work for our sexual-assault prevention program, educating people about seeking and receiving consent,” said Sami Cola, a women’s studies major at the University of New Hampshire with a blond topknot and ripped black jeans. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’ve gotten a lot of resources for victims and allies of victims.”

“Patriarchy is something I think about a lot,” said Natalie Cooney, a 20-year-old English major. “Rape culture is something we have to fight against. The idea of women being blamed socially for their sexuality—it speaks to the greater sexism of our culture and it needs to be destroyed.” Cooney said she considered Sanders “more pro-woman” than Clinton.

“Being an intersectional feminist, I want equality for people of every gender, race, color, and social standing,” said Angelika Nadeau, a freshman political-science major with blue-blond hair and icy blue eyes. “When a woman becomes president, that will be a great thing, and it will happen. But that doesn’t mean Hillary is the right woman.”

The kids do not like Clinton. They especially did not like it, the last couple of days, when some of Clinton’s female backers suggested it would be disloyal for young women not to support her. “That really pissed me off,” said Guare. “Feminism is about women making their own choices.”

“I’ve had friends say to me, ‘As a woman of color, why would you vote for a cis white male?’” said Jess King, a 22-year-old Americorps volunteer who graduated last year. “Yes, white-male dominance is real, and we have to fix that. But it’s not about that. It’s about listening to what he’s saying.”

The kids are, truthfully, adults. They are old enough to vote. But “the young adults are for Bernie” doesn’t have the same ring to it. And, after all, isn’t this how the system treats them? Patronizingly, dismissively, as if they didn’t have just as much individual political power as a 65-year-old suburbanite.

But the kids have real power. In 2008, there were whole states Obama won on the strength of the youth vote. In North Carolina and Indiana, he won the under-30 vote and no other age group—but he carried both states in November because youth turnout was so high. That’s the trick Sanders hopes to repeat, first in the primary and then in the general election. “We didn’t realize it when we first started, but we quickly realized college venues were very good for us,” Sanders’s strategist, Tad Devine, told me. “This tremendous support from young people—it manifested at the early rallies and just kept growing from there.”

The kids have checked their privilege. “I know I enjoy white privilege,” said Russel Evans, a 20-year-old history major at the University of Vermont with shoulder-length dirty-blond hair. “I know there are things I only get away with because I’m white. That shouldn’t be what America is.” Evans helped start a chapter of the Student Labor Action Project on his campus, which marched on the administration with a set of demands including a $15-per-hour wage for campus workers, cancellation of student debt, and a tuition freeze.

The kids are organized.

The kids believe in freedom, but only to a point. “Freedom of speech is valuable, but we also can’t persecute people because there’s something about them we don’t like,” said Joseph Stallcop, a 19-year-old sophomore at Keene State. “Those things have to be balanced. It can’t be all one or the other.”

The kids are earnest and well-meaning and sweet. They come to see Sanders in couples, leaning on each other’s shoulder, wearing matching pot-themed T-shirts (“KEEP CALM AND BERN ONE”). They just want everyone’s lives to be better.

“I try to get people to recycle, because I care about what happens to the earth,” said Nicole Rode, a junior biology major, who wishes she could stop having political arguments on Facebook but can’t help herself. “I hate water bottles—it’s just pollution! I don’t identify with a religion. I care about the earth more than anything imaginary.”

The kids are, frankly, getting screwed. They are graduating (or not) with insane, world-historical levels of student debt; the youth-unemployment rate is sky-high; jobs are scarce; and smarmy politicians are lining up to inform them that they won’t have Social Security or pensions when they get old. And then the older generation that has sucked the national economy dry turns around and calls them spoiled and entitled and lazy.

“I think our parents had it easier when they were younger,” said Amanda Pelchat, a 2012 graduate, now 25, who’s certified as an English teacher but has only been able to find work as a special-ed teaching aide. “College was a lot cheaper, and there were more jobs. I have friends who graduated six or seven years ago who are still working at coffeeshops.” Pelchat would like to see money cut from military spending, and new taxes levied on the 1 percent, to be “redistributed” to pay for education.

“I don’t know if we’re angry, but we’re frustrated,” Sam Watkins, a 26-year-old who lives in Manchester, told me. “It seems like the voice of the people is an afterthought, and people are sick and tired of that.”

Like the supporters of Donald Trump, the kids have a sense they’re being kept down—shafted by a system in which they lack power. They are rising up against the sinister cabal that has shut them out. And they have found their man.

A couple of days after the Franklin Pierce rally, at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, Sanders held a rally featuring performances by several hip bands, such as the Fantastic Negrito and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. The line began forming before 4 p.m., two hours before its scheduled start, despite a bitter, driving snowstorm.

Inside, through the Secret Service metal detectors, past the concession stands and rows of bleachers, on the floor of the hockey rink, a group of friends talked about their hero.

“I’ve got a third-degree Bern!” said 22-year-old Sam Richardson.

“I’m lit on fire right now! I’ve got the Bern so bad!” said 25-year-old Greg Smith.

“Bernie’s an arsonist!” cried Daniel Pontoh, 23. And they fell apart, laughing.

Emily Ratajkowski, the swimsuit model best known as the girl in the the “Blurred Lines” video, emceed the event and began with a fiery repudiation of Gloria Steinem, who had implied that young women only supported Sanders because they wanted to meet boys. (Steinem later apologized.) “I’m a young woman, and I want to make one thing clear: I’m here because I support Bernie Sanders. I’m not here for the boys,” Ratajkowski said. “I want my first female president to be more than a symbol!”

Sanders would not arrive for several more hours. A band called Big Data played, its two singers, a man and women in tight black shirts and sunglasses, performing a choreographed dance routine at the front of the stage. A 20-year-old sustainable-agriculture major named George Bolosky told me about the military-industrial complex, which “is probably 80 percent of our tax dollars,” and the importance of labeling genetically modified food, “because we don’t know about the health effects.”

The final act, the Magnetic Zeros, was fronted by a charismatic hippie named Alex Ebert with a messy updo, a trench coat, and khaki capri pants. He played an original composition called “Feel the Bern,” then went out into the crowd and sat down in the middle of the floor. The students around him all sat down, too, and he urged them to put their arms around each other. It had the feel of an old-school love-in. He led them in an a cappella rendition of “Lean on Me.”

When Sanders finally took the stage, around 8:30 p.m., the crowd was ready. “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he cried, urging them to come out and vote. The pundits, he noted, are always saying that young people don’t bother to vote. “I don’t believe that!” he said. “I believe that you understand that while the decisions made in Washington affect every American, they impact the younger generation even more.”

Sanders reached the section of the speech about student debt. “You tell ‘em, Bernie!” someone cried.

“I’m going to tell ’em!” he yelled back.

The kids roared. The kids were ready. The kids were going to do it. The kids were going to give Bernie New Hampshire—and maybe more.