Bernie Sanders got an astounding 85 percent of the vote from 18 to 29 year olds in the New Hampshire primary. By any accounting, that's an amazing stat. People have bemoaned the apathy of today's college students, but for some reason, they're Feeling the Bern, big time. Does it mean we're at the beginning of a new period of student activism and engagement? Very possibly. Look at the inroads the Black Lives Matter movement is making on college campuses, which is part of a larger surge of minority activism involving gender and sexual issues along with race. But I think there's something more. I think college students have been dragged into the political fight because of their personal concerns about their economic futures, and Bernie is talking to their concerns far more directly than Hillary.
I was at a University of California campus in the Sixties. The Civil Rights struggle had come to nationwide prominence during my high school years, and it remained a big issue for college students on the left, but it didn't lead white students like me to direct activism. If a race-based issue came up on campus, we supported the rights of black and other minority students, and we didn't eat grapes to show our support for the United Farm Workers of America, but only a few white students and young adults were directly involved in either struggle. The issues may have tugged at our hearts, but they didn't hit us where we lived.
By contrast, the escalation of the Vietnam War created a massive protest movement on campus. People marched, chanted and stopped education as usual for days and weeks at a time. Privileged white college students literally put their bodies in danger in confrontations with police during demonstrations. Why the difference? Part of it was, unlike the other issues, Vietnam put our asses on the line. We could be drafted and sent onto the battlefield. We rightly condemned the killing and environmental devastation our country was raining down on the people of Vietnam, but if we weren't in danger of being thrown in the middle of the horror, our reactions would have been quieter.
We don't have a draft today. The decision to invade Iraq was at least as outrageous and damaging as our decision to escalate our involvement in Vietnam, but college students aren't in danger of being sent to the Middle East. College students are often criticized by older people on the left for not putting themselves in the forefront of protests condemning our involvement in Iraq like we did back in the Vietnam War days. But there's an existential difference. Their asses aren't on the line like ours were.
Generally, college students live in academic and social communities at a safe arms distance from society. They're not children anymore, but they're not living as adults either, so while issues that don't affect them directly may be interesting, they're not vitally important. Most social and political issues of the past decade have elicited mild interest and yawns from college students, which puts them in the company of college students during most of our history. "Yeah, it's important, but I've got other things to do right now."
But college students see their college bills mounting, and they see recent graduates competing for scarce jobs that pay well while
their college loans eat a hole in their salaries. That's real. That's scary. They're not being drafted into the armed forces, but by going to college, many of them have joined the army of graduates who will be struggling to make a living and pay off their college educations for what looks like the rest of their lives.
And then, along comes Bernie, the only presidential candidate to tell them he wants to make public colleges free and reduce the loan burden for current graduates. That's gotta wake college students up. It makes Bernie's emphasis on income inequality and his crusade against big campaign contributors who slant legislation toward their own ends personal. Students must be thinking, "A vote for Bernie is a vote for me!" That's enough to get them working for and voting for the one candidate who has placed their best interests at the center of his campaign.
I looked over Hillary's statements about college tuition and college loans on her website. They're not bad, but they're underwhelming. They're gradual, and need a buy-in from states. We can argue about how practical or impractical Bernie's ideas are (When I was at U.C., my tuition was under $50 a quarter, tuition at California state colleges was less, and community colleges were free, so Bernie's idea isn't some utopian pipe dream), but there's no question, Bernie is tapping into the fears and hopes of voters under 30, and many over 30 who are still paying for their college educations and see no end in sight.
When I wrote about Bernie's rally in Tucson in October, I noted the line
that earned him the loudest and longest applause.
[T]he longest sustained applause came when he said, "Every public college and university must be tuition free!"
If Hillary hopes to win over young voters as she says she does, she needs to understand that it's not Bernie's white hair, his Brooklyn accent and his eccentric delivery that's winning their hearts and minds. It's his focus on their most immediate concern: their economic futures.