A generation of Democrats is haunted by the party’s infamous 1968 convention in Chicago. After one of the most tumultuous presidential primaries in US history—in which the incumbent Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the race, in which Bobby Kennedy built a multiracial working-class coalition before he was shot and killed, and in which the young college students and activists of the New Left rallied behind Eugene McCarthy, all against the backdrop of urban riots, Vietnam, and a breakaway segregationist faction—the Democratic establishment chose to nominate Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, to maintain its control over the party. Student demonstrators revolted outside the convention hall and were brutally suppressed by Mayor Richard Daley’s police force. That fall, the Democrats blew a winnable election to the race-baiting populism of Richard Nixon, the first of many election losses to come before the baby boomers finally consolidated control of the party under Bill Clinton.
Now history is repeating itself, as Marx warned, as farce, with Bernie Sanders decisively winning the argument over the party’s future while meeting unshakeable resistance from a Democratic establishment composed largely of politicians who were shaped by 1968.
The fact that Joe Biden is beating Sanders by two-to-one margins across the country conceals the equally consistent fact of a stark generational divide within the Democratic primary electorate, with Sanders winning voters under 45 by blowout margins (unfortunately for him, there are far more voters over 45 and Biden is winning them by even bigger margins). A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that strong enthusiasm for Biden among his supporters is the lowest of any Democratic nominee in 20 years, and dramatically trails enthusiasm for Donald Trump among his supporters—a sign, perhaps, of the dangers of nominating a candidate who has completely failed to connect with the younger voters who helped propel Barack Obama to the presidency. At a moment where young people are experiencing radical upheaval, the Democrats are once again promising more of the same.
To be sure, there are many crucial differences between 1968 and today. Since the South Carolina primary, Democrats across the country have made clear their preference for the establishment-approved moderate, Biden, over the champion of today’s New Left, Sanders. Biden’s coalition includes most African-American voters and many working-class white voters who chose Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Unlike Humphrey, Biden can claim to have been chosen by voters, not by party insiders in smoke-filled rooms.
But at least to younger voters, it is Sanders, not Biden, who is speaking to a moment of crisis. If the crisis in 1968 was the Vietnam War and the breakdown of the white supremacist social order, today it is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the resulting financial collapse (the second one millennials have experienced in our young careers), and decades of dehumanizing oligarchic misgovernance, of which Trump is only the most egregious example. Sanders is promising a generation that has never known stability or optimism that a better world is possible; Biden, who in 2018 told millennials he had “no empathy” for our predicament, is insisting both that the pre-Trump status quo can be resumed and that doing so would be desirable.
Sanders’ supporters—and here I refer not to his most vocal and combative boosters on Twitter, a cohort in which I might include myself, but to the millions of young people of all backgrounds who have responded to his message—deserve to have our voices heard and our concerns met with substantive promises and empathetic rhetoric. Putting aside what we deserve, the Democrats cannot reasonably hope to beat Trump in November without millennials turning out in force. The Biden campaign is reportedly aware of this, but thus far has been totally inadequate in attempting to address it.
The moment when these divisions within the party might have been addressed was at this summer’s planned Democratic National Convention two hours north of Chicago (likely faster in quarantine traffic) in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, the coronavirus makes the prospect of gathering tens of thousands of people around an urban convention center a nonstarter, as Biden himself acknowledged this week, proposing instead an unprecedented virtual convention compatible with social distancing.
While the public health rationale for this is hard to dispute, it also represents a lost opportunity for Sanders supporters to make our voices heard and to force Biden and the rest of the Democratic establishment to acknowledge and court us. Instead of traveling to Milwaukee to demand radical changes to the social contract in person, we will be relegated to taking potshots on social media while Biden and his chosen speakers deliver empty rhetoric to empty rooms.
The coronavirus, which has validated everything Sanders has been saying for years about the unconscionable state of US health care, labor, and infrastructure, should be radicalizing us; instead, social distancing is pacifying us. One suspects that Biden, who unlike Sanders showed little ability to draw large crowds to his rare pre-pandemic public events, might be quietly grateful to be holding a stage-managed, un-disruptable convention before a captive and helpless virtual audience.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If Democrats are serious about exciting their entire base in November to defeat Trump, there are still steps they can take to win over the Sanders coalition. Sanders should (and, one expects, will) be given a prominent speaking role at the virtual convention; his allies like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib should be as well. Biden should make explicit in his own remarks that he understands and empathizes with younger voters’ legitimate anger. But endorsements and speeches won’t be enough. Biden must also embrace the substantive aspects of Sanders’ platform—including Medicare For All, which exit polls across the country show clear support for, as well as the Green New Deal and tuition-free college—that have galvanized millennials. Everything about the virtual convention could be designed to showcase this agenda.
While it might seem like a radical break from the platform Biden has run on, we are living through a radical break in our lived experience of the economy. Millions of Americans have just lost their jobs, and with them their employer-sponsored private health insurance, through no fault of their own. Now would be an ideal time for Biden and the Democratic Party to announce that expansions of the social safety net that once seemed radical have become urgently necessary.
But while it would be fatalistic not to demand these things, it may be unrealistic to expect the Democrats to deliver. Everything about Biden’s public record suggests that he takes young voters for granted, doesn’t respect us or take our concerns seriously, and is preparing for a convention that will leave us deflated and alienated from electoral politics for years to come. If that doesn’t change, we won’t be able to express our frustration by massing outside a convention hall like Biden’s generation did in 1968. More likely, many of us will express it the only way we’re able to express anything at the moment: by staying home.