"They think the system's rigged": Why millennials love Bernie Sanders (and hate Donald Trump)

Millennials are sick of a status quo that leaves them underpaid and indebted, pollster Stan Greenberg tells Salon

Published February 11, 2016 6:31PM (EST)

Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Rick Wilking/Craig Lassig/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Rick Wilking/Craig Lassig/Photo montage by Salon)

This isn't true in the Republican Party, where the median voter's age is 82 (not really), but in the Democratic Party's presidential primary right now, young voters — "millennials," to use the parlance of our times — are dominating the media's attention.

Why do millennials love Sen. Bernie Sanders so much? What don't they love about Secretary Hillary Clinton? Are they all a bunch of goddamn pinkos? Or do they just wanna be with the boys? (And what the hell is Snapchat, anyway?)

As you can tell, this conversation has not been overly weighed down by any kind of empirical or scientific inquiry. And while it'd be wrong to suggest that a focus group is the same as a peer-reviewed study, that's still the reason why a recent memo from Democracy Corps and the Roosevelt Institute makes for valuable reading.

The memo concerns findings from two recent focus groups —  one with a group of white millennial men, and another with a group of African-American millennial women — and were conducted in mid-January. Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with the pollster Stan Greenberg, who co-authored the memo. An edited version of our conversation can be found below.

So what were some of your questions about millennials, going in?

We know that millennials have crossed the threshold and are exceeding the baby boom in the population; but we also know that they’re the ones who are the least engaged in politics — or the most alienated from politics.

My starting issue was, how alienated are they? Is it going to keep them from getting involved [in the 2016 campaign]? Are they paying attention to these big battles taking place within the parties? Or what’s happening to the party leaders? What’s happening in their lives? When will they pay attention to the madness taking place in the political world?

They're not paying attention yet? 

It’s really funny because the first words out of their mouths were, God, I hate politics, I don’t pay attention to that; or Politicians are liars, the game is rigged. It began with all that negativity.

But the second you asked them anything about what was happening in the Republican primaries, they laughed, they talked about Trump, and it was very obvious that they were paying a lot of attention. That Trump would actually emerge from [the GOP primary], it was laughable, on one hand; on the other hand, they were scared. It led me to step back and say, Do I really believe them?

"Believe them" in what sense?

When they say they are so tuned out politically. There’s no doubt they have such low expectations of the political system and political leaders. But they are paying a lot of attention to the Republican primary — mostly in a negative way, but also in a humorous way; the same way as "Saturday Night Live."

They find it all entertaining, but they doubt that it will have an impact — certainly not a positive one — on their lives.

They can get engaged politically by the negativity, by wanting to avoid the risk of having a Trump presidency (they talk more about Trump than Cruz). But that could motivate them.

Aside from being a form of hate-watch entertainment, what is it about Trump that makes him so prominent in their minds when it comes to politics?

They think the system's rigged, and the losers are the middle class while the winners go right to the 1 percent. So their economic analysis immediately brings Trump into it and they have this view of a crony capitalist [system] where people with the big money are buying influence.

There’s this deep sense that they have worked hard, they’ve learned the right values from their parents; they did everything possible to get an education and became burdened with debt. They have jobs that don’t pay very much, so they’re immediately weighed down by the debtThere is a real poignant sense that the values that they were taught and accepted have really been poisoned.

In some ways, that sounds like a narrative you'll hear from Trump supporters. They also think the system is rigged and that the social contract as they understood it has been reneged upon. So does that mean millennials might be open to an argument that says the solution is to destroy government ("the system") instead of trying to reform it?

No, that's not where they go. We gave them an exercise where we put an agenda and different conservative and liberal economic visions. And they did an exercise where they looked at a whole range of policies, but their policy focus was on two things: one was trying to reform politics — that is, deal with the role of money in politics — and they were excited about somebody trying to take that on. They were pretty activist in their responses. 

But all their other responses were focused on education. They were interested in curriculum that was relevant, in more spending on preschool and public education; in policies that relieved student debt, that made college affordable. They had a long list of [topics], but their responses were almost totally focused on debt-linked education and some reform of the political process. They still seem innocent [enough] to believe that you could have a leader who would prioritize [their concerns].

That's surprisingly optimistic, given how dire they think the situation is, overall.

What was interesting was, at the end, we gave them a postcard and said, “You are going to create a Facebook post and ask people about getting involved in politics [and/or the] community.” And suddenly it was an entirely different mood.

How so?

They wrote things like, “Speak now or never be heard"; “Your voice matters, don’t be discouraged"; “Foundation is key, let’s build”; “One person can make a difference”; “There’s more to the world than just your own life"; “We all have to make it in this world. We have to step back and see the big picture”; etc.

So when they took a step back from politics, they became motivational speakers, calling on other young people to do something. I think even though millennials face all these tough economic issues, young people still have this optimism for the future that they’re just not willing to close down, particularly if they can get to the [topics] of family, the individual, and the community — rather than government — to focus on the issues they know matter.

Do they care if the proponent of these new policies are themselves new faces? In other words, will they not buy into this platform if it's coming from someone they associate with the old paradigm?

It’s hard to tell from these groups. They didn’t know a lot about Bernie Sanders. Most had heard of the name, but they didn’t know very much. They talked about Hillary; it wasn’t negative. They knew some of her history. There was some discussion of having the first woman president; we didn’t see the data here of them not being interested in the first woman president. Sanders is obviously not young, so I didn’t see any generational filter for the leaders that they were paying attention to.

It sounds like most of what they cared about would fit under the (imperfect) umbrella term "economic issues." That goes against the conventional narrative that millennials are all about "identity politics," no?

There’s no doubt that the dominant issues they were focused on were economicThere’s this powerful story — that’s very real and universally shared — that their jobs [and their salaries] don’t match the financial burdens that they face. That’s the heart of the story.

But I should mention one thing that was interesting: when we talked about Black Lives Matter, their response was not that intuitive. Some of the white millennials responded pretty positively to it and talked about inequality, discrimination and the legacy [of white supremacy]. They understood the issues being raised. But in the black women’s group, while they were supportive, they were also upset that they weren’t getting [as much] police protection in their neighborhoods. They were also focused on crime and safety.

It’s not the only thing, it’s not just economics. But the core motivation that seems to be driving any potential political engagement is very economic

So, drawing on these focus groups, what message do you think would be most likely to resonate with millennials and to inspire them to get involved with politics and the campaign?  

I think three pieces.

One has to do with the reform of politics. They think money controls politics, and that that’s how the 1 percent governs everything. When you looked at the policies they flagged, near the top was cleaning up money in politics. They’re looking for a reform agenda, so that’s what you have to start with — campaigning [on] the way money influences politics and government. 

Second is a recognition that they’re more comfortable in a Facebook world than a political world. It’s in that context that they began talking about community and family and getting involved. They’re clearly very ready to get engaged. They may not be saying they’re going to vote or they're following the news, but they are very open to engaging with other people at the level of civil society.

And third is a pretty radical offer for dealing with what jobs pay and the level of student debt people carry. There’s nothing more central [to millennials]. They think it just violates everything about how they [will prosper if they] work hard; and the candidate that makes that central [to their campaign] will ultimately get their attention.

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By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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