My Generation’s Betrayal of Bernie Sanders

Bernie understood young people’s anger at being deprived of all the economic benefits we boomers took for granted when we were young.

Lisa Gitlin Nov 17, 2020

Lisa Gitlin. Photo: Courtesy.

I hate all my siblings and all my friends. Because I love them I won’t tell them I hate them. But when Joe Biden was declared the winner and I started receiving all these jubilant, ecstatic texts from them, I wanted to scream at them, not only because I was not ecstatic or jubilant, but because they were making me feel like a jerk for wanting to rain on their parade.

You see, I was a Bernie Sanders supporter. I was the only one of my wide network of baby boomer friends and family members who supported Bernie. Fewer than 10 percent of boomer Democrats supported Bernie. And it made me feel lonely and confused. What happened to all my compatriots in the Woodstock generation? We were anti-war protesters and left wing rebels, who lived in communes and stated that we could fit everything we owned in a VW bus and envisioned a society that prioritized peace over war, cooperation over competition, sharing over selfishness. When I talk about “we,” I’m referring to my contemporaries, the mostly middle-class white kids who were getting all the media attention back then. Because we were the focus of all the attention we naively imagined that we represented our generation, that we were its torchbearers. Tragically, we ignored the existence of the many millions of people our age who  enthusiastically fought in Viet Nam, who supported Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, who lived hardscrabble lives that were invisible to us and ended up making a mockery of our idealism by voting for the people who turned the country into a right-wing playground for the next 40 years.  

It’s obvious to me now that my friends and siblings and fellow baby boomers decided somewhere along the way that their visions for a more egalitarian society were unrealistic, which is why they rejected Bernie Sanders. But like Bernie, I never changed. I never stopped being pissed off by each new disgusting development foisted on us by the right-wing reactionaries who took over our country after Ronald Reagan charmed his way into the national zeitgeist. 

I never stopped being pissed off by each new disgusting development foisted on us by the right-wing reactionaries who took over our country after Ronald Reagan charmed his way into the national zeitgeist. 

I was upset when Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, paving the way for a whole succession of anti-union policies. I was furious when he cheerfully announced that we were transitioning to a “service economy” after the country started bleeding factory jobs, and laid off workers were committing suicide in droves because their new nonunion retail jobs paid so little that they could no longer support themselves or their families. I wanted to scream each time I heard about the greedy conservatives slicing away at yet another social program. And then I watched them slash one regulation after another, giving big businesses carte blanche to poison our planet, consolidate into financial behemoths that muscled out small businesses, and fraudulently manipulate the housing market which caused the 2008 economic collapse and millions of bankruptcies. I was appalled by the “war on crime,” which created one of the most draconian criminal justice systems in the world, in which nonviolent offenders were sentenced to decades or life in prison, children were given life without parole, education and exercise programs were ripped away from prisoners, agitated inmates were confined to “supermax” prisons which are basically torture chambers, and prisons throughout the country became hellholes of overcrowding and violence.

The right-wing policy makers and their donors have kept all the nation’s bounty for themselves. Because of them our country is a wreck. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our storefronts are boarded up because small businesses can’t survive. Most Americans, who lack a college degree and earn less than $30,000 dollars a year, are one emergency away from bankruptcy, foreclosure, or eviction. Why? Because the greedy Republicans think 15 bucks an hour is way too much to pay people working their asses off, slinging burgers and stocking shelves and diapering nursing home patients and dodging traffic on their bicycles in the snow and rain to deliver food. Add to all this the little matter of pandemic and a raving lunatic still in the White House, and we’re having a collective nervous breakdown.  

When Bernie marched onto the national stage in 2015, Hillary was my girl. But I still admired Bernie, who had the chutzpah to challenge her establishment candidacy. I knew that Hillary would be an effective, dynamic president, but I loved Bernie’s rage against the right wing machine. I was thrilled when he announced his candidacy in 2019. Bernie was my kindred spirit, a cranky old lefty Jew from Brooklyn. But not only was he “family,” he expressed everything I’d been feeling over the past 40 years. He built a campaign of millions of people who shared my beliefs, and I didn’t feel so lonely anymore. I donated money and canvassed for him and attended his big, exciting rallies. I was awed at the passion he inspired among young people. I loved that he understood their anger at being deprived of all the economic benefits we boomers took for granted when we were young. We had access to good union jobs and free college and affordable healthcare. We didn’t have to move in with our parents because of skyrocketing housing costs. Why didn’t my fellow boomers, beneficiaries of New Deal economics, want the same opportunities for their children and grandchildren?

The “liberal” cable news channels that many of my fellow boomers watched hated Bernie even more than the Republicans. They kept saying, how can we stop Bernie? Can Pete stop Bernie? Can Amy stop Bernie? Why isn’t Joe doing more to stop Bernie? They talked about him with raging contempt. MSNBC’s “legal analyst” Mimi Rocah actually said on the air that “Bernie Sanders makes my skin crawl.” James Carville went on MSNBC when Bernie won Nevada and screamed that he hoped Putin was happy now that the country might turn into Russia. Chris Matthews howled that Bernie’s surge reminded him of the Nazis marching into France, apparently not remembering that Bernie lost family members in the Holocaust. Joy Reed — and shame on her — invited a so-called “body language expert” on her show who cited silly pseudo-theories to prove that Bernie was a liar. And let’s not forget MSNBC commentator Jason Johnson sneering in an XM Radio interview that Bernie didn’t care about racial issues relations no matter how many campaign staffers he recruited from “the island of misfit Black girls.”

My friends who tuned into the “liberal” media shows didn’t seem to notice any of those virulent insults. A lot of them told me they had nothing against Bernie, that they actually liked him, but they didn’t think he could win. They watched the news programs night after night and listened to pundits insisting that he was “too far left” to win the election, even though there was nothing “far left” about his ideas at all. What was so radical about advocating for a reasonable minimum wage and union membership and affordable college and healthcare for all Americans? What was so radical about wanting billionaires to pay their fair share of taxes? We used to have all that stuff, and then the right wingers took it all away. Contrary to the establishment media’s contentions, the American people didn’t seem to think that Bernie was “too far left” to win. The polls consistently showed him ahead of Trump. Millions of passionate supporters attended his rallies and donated to his campaign. He was certainly a more exciting, more popular, more dynamic candidate than Joe Biden. Of course he could have beat Trump. In my opinion, he would have blown him out of the water.  

When I expressed my grief over Bernie’s loss, my friends blamed his supporters. They say, “Well not enough of all those younger people showed up at the polls!” But I want to say to them, “But what about you? What about all you boomers who listened to all the baloney spewed by the cable news commentators? What about all you guys who were scared off by the word “socialist” without paying attention to what Bernie was actually saying? What about all of you who were content to marginalize him because the corporate media was marginalizing him, even though he had millions of passionate supporters and ran a formidable campaign and came in second in spite of all the vitriol hurled at him? My fellow boomers accuse his base for failing him, but they failed him most of all!  The Democratic boomer voters could have pushed him over the finish line! But they cynically turned their backs on him.

I don’t hate my fellow boomers for not supporting Bernie. I just don’t understand them.

I voted for Joe Biden of course. I have nothing against Joe and in fact have a certain amount of affection for him. Unlike the current White House occupant, he is empathetic and caring and wants to do right by the American people. But he doesn’t have a real platform. He just says that we need to restore the soul of the country. That’s a nice sentiment, but I hope that doesn’t mean pulling us back to the Obama years. We need to move forward, not backward. That’s something Bernie understands.

Even though I said I hate my friends and siblings and my fellow boomers for not supporting Bernie, it’s not really true. I don’t hate them. I just don’t understand them. What happened to them between the Nixon years and now? Whatever happened to them never happened to me. And it never happened to Bernie. We still think we can achieve those things that we once envisioned. And a whole generation of younger people agree with us. But they have many years to see the sun push its way through the darkness. I don’t have that many years. I got a glimpse of the sun peaking through the clouds, and then it disappeared, and I’m afraid I’ll never see it again. Many former lefties are resigned to dying in the darkness. They rejected Bernie because they didn’t want to dare to hope again. Hoping hard, especially when all around you people are surrendering to cynicism. There’s something heroic about a 79-year-old man who has never given up hope and continues to fight for what he believes in while the most powerful people in the world are doing everything they can to silence him. 

The Democratic establishment coalesced around Biden to deflate Bernie’s campaign. I was furious when I watched this happen. They crushed my dream, and I still haven’t forgiven them. That’s why I wasn’t jumping for joy when the election was called for Joe, and why I was annoyed to receive all those ecstatic texts from friends and family whose votes could have helped to change the course of history. But Bernie and Joe have been working together to create an agenda that has the potential to pull us out of the mess we’re in. I hope Joe isn’t just paying lip service to this collaboration. Because America still needs Bernie Sanders.

Lisa Gitlin is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is the author of Postcards from the Canyon and I Came Out for This? 

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