Young adults support Bernie Sanders because they want to benefit from 'boomer socialism' that older Americans already enjoy

jzeballos@businessinsider.com (Joseph Zeballos-Roig)
The Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally at the University of Minnesotas Williams Arena on November 3.

Scott Heins/Getty Images

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders is drawing strong support among young voters, particularly those ages 18 to 29, as a result of his pledges to enact universal healthcare and wipe out student debt.
  • But older voters are mostly absent from the Sanders coalition, and many hold unfavorable views of socialism.
  • One economist has said older Americans benefit from "boomer socialism."
  • It's led younger adults to seek a greater share of the economic pie and call for the federal government to widen the social safety net for them.
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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is solidifying his standing as the frontrunner of the Democratic presidential race after a victory in the New Hampshire primary and a strong finish in the Iowa caucuses. The self-proclaimed democratic socialist seeks to enact universal healthcare in the US, wipe out student debt, and fight climate change.

Combined with promises to take on the political and financial elite, the ambitious proposals are helping generate a wave of enthusiasm among younger voters that's propelling his unabashedly progressive campaign, similar to 2016.

Business Insider recently reviewed exit polls from the New Hampshire primary on February 11, and they indicated that Sanders drew nearly half of voters ages 18 to 29, more than the other four major Democrats on the ballot combined.

But conspicuously missing from his nascent coalition of voters was older Americans, long a force at the voting booth. Exit polls from New Hampshire indicated that Sanders drew only 15% of voters over age 65.

Put simply, older voters aren't flocking to back Sanders in similar numbers as young voters. A CNN poll last month found the Vermont senator's support from registered voters who leaned Democratic to be 31 percentage points higher among those under the age of 45 than it was among those over 65.

Part of the reason is the unpopularity of socialism, which an October Gallup poll found was viewed negatively by two out of three respondents born before 1975. The same poll found young adults' views of capitalism had soured over the past decade, with 47% of those ages 18 to 34 saying they had a positive view of it, compared with 52% who said they had a positive view of socialism.

The rising price tags of healthcare, education, and homeownership have left many young people feeling marginalized from the economy, leading to calls for drastic reform that levels the playing field for them and curbs widening inequality. Sanders has pledged to deliver transformational change that deals with their deepening anxieties.

"Unless we turn this around, young people are going to be on a lower standard of living than their parents," the Vermont senator told the New York Times editorial board. "That means they are leaving school deeply in debt."

He went on: "The jobs they're getting may not necessarily in real dollars be equivalent to what their parents had. They can't afford housing. This is a generation that is struggling, and we have to address that."

Tuition and fees at colleges and universities have grown faster than wages, helping to leave one in three adults in their 20s to pay off student debt. Healthcare costs are swelling, and millennials have long been found to have lower rates of homeownership than their parents' generations.

Sanders has vowed to remake the economy and redistribute its riches through higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for an array of expansive plans. They add up to over $50 trillion in federal spending and would usher in a profound expansion of the welfare state benefiting millions of people.

But Sanders has long struggled with older voters who tend to link socialism with Soviet communism and distrust his platform.

The economist Ed Glaeser, though, has argued that older Americans already benefit from a group of policies he's called "boomer socialism."

"In many cases, there seems to be a sense in which insiders have managed to stack the deck against outsiders," Glaeser told The Wall Street Journal.

Glaeser pointed out that groups of people — like retirees and homeowners — had locked in benefits for themselves and made it more difficult for newcomers, whether young people or immigrants, to obtain similar chances of prosperity.

Here are three federal programs that mostly benefit older Americans, per The Atlantic's Derek Thompson:

  • Medicare represents a form of single-payer healthcare for people ages 65 and over, insuring almost 60 million Americans, or one in five people in the US.
  • Social Security is a program that operates similarly to universal basic income, guaranteeing monthly payments to elderly and disabled Americans.
  • The mortgage-interest deduction cuts a person's tax bill by the amount of interest paid on a home loan. In other words, it's a tax break for homeowners, who skew older.

Young adults are pressing to widen the reach of government benefits to include them. A key reason is that the traditional stepping stones toward a life of prosperity are no longer easy to secure. Higher education, affordable housing, and quality healthcare are out of reach for many.

As Thompson put it, Sanders seeks to expand the "existing social contract" that older people already enjoy to include a new generation of Americans.

Still, the Vermont senator's call for a progressive revolution appears to have its limits.

In this year's New Hampshire primary, the share of Democratic voters ages 18 to 29 dropped from 2016, The Washington Post reported. Turnout was also lower in the disastrous Iowa caucuses.

Whether that trend continues as the primaries head south and west could be decisive for Sanders, who has pinned his presidential ambitions on turning out young adults in record numbers.

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