US elections: Hillary Clinton’s millennial dilemma

The politics of principle that fuels Bernie Sanders’ campaign is opposed to Hillary Clinton’s politics of practicality.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton [AP]
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton [AP]

Fairouz stared blankly at the screen. Dejected at the incoming tallies, the 22-year-old headscarved college student with “Bernie Sanders” emblazoned across her chest slumped lower with each incoming projection.

First, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina went in favour of Hillary Clinton. Followed by Illinois and Missouri, two states the emerging activist hoped would go “the same way as Michigan”, her home state.

However, this time no historic upsets were on the cards. Clinton pulled a clean sweep, upped her delegate count, and dealt a considerable blow to the “political revolution” led by Sanders, which captured the imagination of Fairouz, and legions of young voters everywhere.

Bernie Sanders surprises with Michigan primary win

The 2016 democratic nomination is, at its core, a contest between principle and realpolitik. Sanders and his swelling base of young supporters galvanise around the redistribution of resources from the wealthy to the poor and narrowing middle class – the essential message of his campaign.

Political pragmatism

On the other hand, Clinton’s more established base coordinates around political pragmatism, echoing her political background and “ability to get things done” as their principal mantras of support.

One campaign is aspirational, while the other is establishment. One campaign forward-thinking, and the other steeped in the moderating realities of the status quo. One campaign a full-fledged grassroots movement spearheaded by radical principles and ideas, pitted against a political project to get a known commodity elected.

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It is fundamentally Sanders’ aspirational message that resonates deeply with millennials and young voters, and pushes them to rally, canvass, and vote in throngs.

For young voters, Sanders is more talisman than politician, representing the economic and racial justice possibilities foreclosed by the political commodities holding down Washington DC.

Sanders boasts a considerable edge over Clinton with the young voting demographic (18-29), winning as much as 83 percent of that vote in some states and virtually sweeping college and university towns – bastions of young voters and, just as importantly, grassroots movements.

The Sanders campaign, while radical in economic message and gradually improving on race, is functionally an extension of the social protest movements that have swept through America in the past decade. For young voters, Sanders is more talisman than politician, representing the economic and racial justice possibilities foreclosed by the political commodities holding down Washington DC. Including Hillary Clinton’s, whose last name has seemingly eroded the appeal of her gender for young progressives, and drowned out her increasingly left-moving rhetoric.

This poses a significant dilemma for Clinton if she wins the democratic nomination. With each passing primary, this seems more and more inevitable. Namely, how can the pointedly political aims of her campaign – including the possible interest of staving off a Donald Trump presidency – resonate with a Sanders base that is more driven by principle?

Middling culture

Particularly for a candidate in Clinton who is associated with the Wall Street-backing, establishment-machine politics and middling culture of Washington DC that the Sanders movement is marching against?

Indeed, the politics of principle that fuels the Sanders campaign – especially for millenials and young voters – is diametrically opposed to the politics of practicality embodied by Clinton.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders [AP]Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders [AP]

The rising Clinton campaign call to “unite the party” may fall on deaf ears for Sanders supporters ideologically opposed to party politics, and mirroring the longtime Independent affiliation of the Vermont Senator, disinterested in uniting with a party they never had affinity with.

It is the very politics of principle and protest that mobilised legions of young voters to make the Sanders campaign competitive that stifle their fluid shift over to Clinton’s ledger of prospective voters.

On the one hand, this creates fertile soil for a non-aligned political party built around the progressive economic and social vision championed by Sanders; but on the other, it widens the door of possibility of a Trump – and Ted Cruz – presidency.

Nobody said the politics of protest were safe and not opening the door to uncertainty and discomfort. With each primary that went Clinton’s way on March 15, Fairouz darted criticism at the Clinton campaign, symbolising the coordinated rebellion from the politics of pragmatism Hillary embodies for young voters, and the narrowing likelihood that she could mobilise them to vote for her in the general election.

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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