I am constantly being asked variations of the question, “Why are Bernie Sanders’ supporters so angry?” Usually, the person asking the question has the not-so-subtle intent of linking the followers of Trump and Sanders together. The two groups may, the story goes, have different thoughts about what the problems facing America are, but they are united by the “fact” that both groups are feeding off the same underlying rage.
The latest such hit piece on Bernie’s followers was a piece by Spandan Chakrabarti entitled, Donald Trump is Inciting Unchecked Anger. So is Bernie Sanders. This piece tries to draw a distinction between passion and anger. Passion, we are told, is the constructive “driver of progress,” whereas anger “is a destructive force.” Then Chakrabarti issues his verdict: “Rather than channeling a destructive emotion like anger and channeling it to constructive change, both Trump and Sanders have been telling their supporters that if anything, they should be even angrier (and thus, more destructive.)”
I would like to respond to Chakrabarti by making several points. First, anger and passion, as Chakrabarti defines them, are not at cross purposes. In fact, passion for change will rarely come about without tapping into underlying discontent. Second, Sanders supporters are, by and large, absolutely right to be angry. Third, I will argue that we are channeling this anger into constructive purposes, but that in those efforts we are being frustrated by conservative forces within the Democratic Party that are resistant to change and are devoted to maintaining the status quo. Since the status quo is itself destructive, it is in fact the detractors of the Bernie Revolution that are engaging in destructive behavior. I will finally argue that the arrogance of establishment politics is unwarranted by their successes (or rather, lack thereof.)
Anger can, of course, be destructive. But it is also the driving force behind all social progress. Where would we be today if no one had become angry at the institution of slavery, or the subsequent civil rights violations that followed abolition? Where would our society be if no one had become angry that gay people were discriminated against and forced into the closets? Where would society be if no one had become angry at unequal pay and working conditions for women? Society, of course, still has a long way to go on issues of racism, sexism, and toleration for sexual minorities. But who can deny that we have achieved some progress, and that whatever progress we achieved is entirely due to the fact that people began to resist the status quo and demand change because they found the state of their society unacceptable? Justice is rooted in anger. If seeing oppression does not bring out anger in us, then we are not a just society at all. Of course, Chakrabarti is correct that anger that is not checked by constructive direction is rarely helpful. But anger itself is important; no one should speak out against legitimate anger. Rather, we must strive to channel that anger constructively.
But is our anger legitimate? First, consider the typical demographics of Hillary’s supporters versus Bernie’s supporters. Bernie’s supporters tend overwhelmingly to be young, whereas Hillary’s supporters tend to be much older. In reality, then, this is a generational conflict. The one group is the group that has nurtured the current system, whereas the other group is the recipient of the world thus created. And what type of world have you bequeathed us? Is it a better world than the world that our parents inherited?
To quote Jefferson, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.” The Hillary generation turned our environment over to corporate interests who proceeded to rape it. You’ve cut down our forests, poisoned our water and air, overfished our seas to the point of collapse, and turned a blind eye towards climate change as our planet proceeded to warm, perhaps irrecoverably. You have initiated a mass extinction of life on our planet, the full ramifications of which are not even remotely understood. None of this was unforseen by you. For decades you have received warning from respected and accomplished scientists that our environment and climate is imperiled. But you could not recover from your addiction to cheap oil because it funded your “economic growth,” which has practically been the religion of your generation.
If you are going to rape your world to the point of collapse, you should at least have something to show for it, right? Well, you did, with an emphasis on the past tense. But since the 80’s, you have committed to a reckless laissez faire policy by which you give corporate power the right to plunder our wealth. You have allowed these corporations to move all of America’s important manufacturing overseas. Sure, the job loss affected you somewhat, but not enough to motivate you to do anything about it. You couldn’t be inconvenienced because, for the most part, you were just mortgaging our future, not your own. Employers often cut jobs through attrition, so you kept most of your jobs. It is the younger generation that has no jobs available to us. We cannot bargain collectively because you have decimated what is left of the once-proud labor unions that once fought for, and obtained, good wages and benefits for American workers. You allow the universities to charge us exhorbitant tuition so that when we graduate from college we are burdened by tens of thousands of dollars of debt that we have no hope of discharging. We work pointless jobs (yes jobs, not the careers your generation had) for meager wages and lousy benefits, and we have almost no job security. And what are our expensive degrees worth on the job market? Got a PhD? Here’s a spatula, I need this burger flipped. That’s because, despite the constantly rising tuition, you refuse to pay highly educated people proper wages to teach in the universities. A PhD is a ticket to a less-than-minimum-wage job teaching part-time as an adjunct professor at a community college.
Meanwhile, while you completely neglected the economy and environment, you focused your attention on making America the most despised and feared nation on the planet. You have, frankly, acted like the playground bully on the world’s stage. You have done everything possible to destroy the right of people to self-determination. You have spent your time supporting dictators, undermining legitimately elected governments, staging military coups, and spreading propaganda in the third world. When all that fails, you then send the military in to enforce your will through brute military might. Rather than take your place within the community of nations, you have tried to dictate terms to the rest of the world. And all that geo-political engineering, of course, comes at a price. There is the non-monetary price of earning the contempt of people around the world. And there is the monetary price that comes with supporting a military that is as large as those of the next ten countries combined. You could, of course, have spent that money on things like, say, supporting U.S. industry or education, shoring up Social Security and Medicare, or even on infrastructure or scientific research. It sure would have been nice to cure cancer, after all. But instead, you squandered it on being a bully towards people who are making less than a dollar per day. Nice job, mom and dad.
Well, at least we are free, right? Not so fast. You’ve been eroding freedoms here at home in the wake of 911. You’ve instituted the largest surveillance state in the history of the world, killed American citizens without due process, militarized the police, institutionalized torture, and made America the prison capital of the world. Sure, we may throw more of our people behind bars than China, which is a totalitarian government with four times our population, but at least we are free to speak out against it. But if we do speak up, you will pronounce us “angry” and dismiss everything we say. And the internet is really our only place to speak up because you have allowed a handful of corporations to take over all of the media in this country. Since the internet is our domain, while CBS evening news is yours, you have insulated yourself from hearing anything we have to say.
I could, of course, go on and on ad infinitum. But I can already hear you protesting. “We also defeated communism and won the battle for civil rights. And didn’t we just give you gay rights?” You managed to do a couple things right, but frankly those battles for social justice aren’t over yet, and we probably would have just gone ahead and left the communists to themselves. You pat yourselves on the back for your “social progress,” but then you whine when we try to help society progress even more. You love Martin Luther King Jr., but you hate the Black Lives Matter movement because you are stuck in the 60’s. You think that whatever social progress you have given us is the final destination, rather than simply being a good start. And truthfully, you did not give us gay rights, we took them from you, using some of that anger that irritates you so much. And we are just getting started.
Here’s the thing, mom and dad and grandma and grampa: You had more opportunity than any other American generation, but you squandered it. The world we inherited is not as good as the one you inherited, and it’s liable to get much worse unless someone cleans up your mess. Everything that I mentioned above is sufficient reason to be angry, but believe it or not that is not really why we are so angry. The real reason that we are angry is that we are trying to clean up your mess, but you won’t get out of our way. You are like the village know-it-all who, despite his proven track record of being wrong, nonetheless thinks that he has it all figured out. We are trying to put forward bold and innovative solutions to fix the problems in our world: we are supporting environmental intiatives, education reform, corporate reform, election reform, health-care reform, a livable wage, and trying to create better programs to supply a social safety net. We are trying to reinvest in necessary entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare (which under your stewardship have been mismanaged to the point of near bankruptcy). We are trying to engage with the rest of the world in partnership rather than as the global beat cop. And despite all that, you oppose us at every turn, sabotaging our movement and insisting that, despite decades of failure, your way is really the best after all. You begrudge us our opportunity to make our world better, standing in our way and using your superior numbers to ensure that we will not be able to implement the needed changes. You do this, despite the fact that it is our generation, not yours, that has to live with the consequences. Your hubris is, frankly, annoying and frustrating. You give us a condescending pat on the back while scorning our “youthful ignorance.” You proclaim that you are going to save us from ourselves as you pull the level for Hillary Clinton, muttering under your breath something incoherent about “George McGovern”or “Walter Mondale.” Then, you try to shame us by declaring that we will be responsible for whatever happens if we do not turn out to support your uninspiring, scandal-ridden, untrustworthy candidate in a general election. Your cynicism about what is possible, a relic from a world that is radically different from ours, is frustrating. Bernie Sanders isn’t Walter Mondale. The world has changed. In a world where Donald Trump is the likely GOP nominee, we’re willing to take our chances on Bernie’s electability. And, frankly, any reason for opposing Bernie (the overwhelming choice of our generation) on any other grounds than his perceived electability is not your call to make. It’s our world now; you’re only living in it.
So frankly grandma and grandpa, if you won’t line up behind our choice I wish you would go ahead and sit this election out. You’re nice people and all, don’t get me wrong. I love your shuffleboard and bingo games, and you make a nice Thanksgiving dinner. But really, we just don’t trust your judgment. You want to control the future of a world you won’t even be around to see. We will be around to see it, and to be honest you are rapidly making it a world that is not worth living in.
So I guess that’s why we are angry. In case you wanted to know.