Pre-Pandemic Politics: Democratic Socialism and the Youth Vote
By Jennifer Martinez
Until his decision in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak to drop out of the presidential race, Bernie Sanders continuously captured the youth vote in the 2020 Democratic primaries, including a 65% backing from voters under 30 in Texas.
Primary election results before the country was ensnared by the COVID-19 outbreak show his democratic socialist message resonated with young voters.
Alejandro Segura, 21, is one of nearly 4 million Texans who voted in the 2020 primary election. Segura is also a Democratic Socialist – a political ideology seeded during childhood, he said.
“I grew up wanting to tough (it) out because I would hear my Mom saying, ‘How are we going to afford this?’” Segura said.
“It’s disheartening to see my Mom worry about my health, but on top of that, worry about going into debt, going deeper into the hole,” Segura said. “That’s the reality that I live. I don’t want to burden my parents with a medical ailment that I have.”
Segura’s qualms about America’s public health system reflect a growing socialist view in our political landscape, with young voters at the forefront. According to Gallup, Democratic voters aged 18-29 favored socialism over capitalism for the first time in 2018, and in 2019, 49% of millennial and Generation Z voters viewed socialism positively. Similarly, Super Tuesday found 65% of Texas voters aged 18-29 ticking the ballot box for Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who calls himself a democratic socialist.
This trend is not recent. In fact, young voter approval of socialism has teetered along this 50% line for the last decade. The only difference: their support for capitalism faces a steep 15% decline, according to Gallup. As young adults like Segura wrestle with a quality of life starkly different from that of older generations, democratic socialism presents answers to the nation’s social and economic uncertainties for this base.
Established in the 1980s, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organize to address the needs of the working class. Common goals include Medicare for all, free public education, democracy in the workplace, affordable housing for all and a democratically run economy. Unlike traditional Republicans and Democrats, democratic socialists view their organization as a platform for activism, not a political party.
In 2016, Sanders established a presidential platform on these tenets. For many, this was their first exposure to socialism. Over 2 million voters under the age of 30 voted for the Democratic primary candidate in 2016– nearly half a million more than Clinton and Trump combined in the same age group.
“I think I was ignorant before 2016,” Segura said. “Then I went to a rally when Bernie came to Dallas, and he put words to what I was thinking. I learned that we could ask for more from our government.”
The Crowdfunding Generation
Caleb Arring sat beside his husband, Matthew Arring, a shared cocktail and a Queers for Bernie flyer. The couple were hosting a Happy Hour, hoping to preserve momentum for Austin DSA following Sanders’ Super Tuesday loss to Joe Biden. By 8 p.m., the Arrings remained a party of two. Bernie’s base feels deflated, Matthew Arring remarked.
“A lot of people I know see Biden as the nominee, look at that and say there’s no passion behind a Biden presidency, Matthew Arring said. “There’s no fire.”
The pair developed an interest for democratic socialism during Sanders’ 2016 bid. Caleb Arring, an immigration lawyer, believes Sanders speaks to a generation of Americans who struggle with a high cost of living and insufficient government aid.
Nationally, millennials wrestle with stagnant wage increases. Pew Research Center reports that today’s average wage maintains the same purchasing power it did forty years ago, heightening disparities between individual wealth and present-day market costs. Additionally, Pew reports that 31% of American households living in poverty are headed by millennials.
Caleb Arring believes social media offers young people the means to discuss these communal issues. A boom in online crowdfunding links fueled his desire for political organization.
“We would have our medical bills, we would have our student debt, we would freak out in our apartments and talk to our small group of friends, but now what we realize is we’re not a minority in terms of struggle,” Caleb Arring said. “We are the majority.”
Segura has also become disillusioned with feel-good news stories about communal healthcare fundraisers. He grew up with severe asthma, and Segura’s parents could not afford the cost of an inhaler prescription. They did not qualify for Medicaid, nor could they afford monthly Affordable Care Act payments. Segura’s mother resorted to obtaining inhalers from friends who traveled back and forth between Mexico and the US. On more than one occasion, Segura’s inhalers ran dry before his mother could acquire a new prescription.
“Within her community of friends, she was able to provide for me what she could,” Segura said. “Community is good, but you shouldn’t need a community to pitch in and provide medical relief.”
Democratic socialists share a frustration over which socialist programs the nation chooses to fund.
“The market was falling today, and the government put $1.5 trillion dollars into Wall Street. That’s socialism. We don’t call it that, but that’s the government using their money to help people,” Caleb Arring said. “I think the main point of democratic socialism is making sure we, as a country, are not going to make decisions based on a handful of people.”
‘The right to sit out of the system’
Despite optimism about the youth vote from Senator Sanders’ campaign, young voter turnout proves lower than that of 2016. In Texas, 16% of primary voters were younger than 30, prompting concern from the Senator himself.
“Have we been as successful as I would hope in bringing young people in? The answer is no,” Senator Sanders said at a post-Super Tuesday news conference in home state Burlington, VT.
The democratic socialist candidate lagged 64 delegates behind Biden after Super Tuesday, and many of Sanders’ supporters struggle with the idea of a Biden nomination.
Segura said he cannot decide a course of action if Biden receives the delegate majority. He opposes Democratic incrementalism and said there is no virtue in voting for a candidate that does not align with his beliefs.
Caleb Arring recalls Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss.
“There was this sentiment that everybody would just fall in line and vote for her because they were Democrats and that she didn’t have to earn their votes,” he said. “I think a lot of people felt like she didn’t try to turn their vote. She didn’t make them any campaign promises that mattered to them.”
Caleb Arring believes Biden runs the same risk.
“I think people have the right to sit out of the system they don’t feel a part of, which is why I love democratic socialism so much, said Arring. “It’s inviting them to say, okay, I get that the system’s not working. Let’s find out how we can, from the ground up, build it different, start local and move forward.”