Acknowledging Elephants: Bernie Sanders and the Millennial Vote

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, you would hard pressed to find a single Democratic politician who did not secretly, in their heart of hearts, believe that gay rights and gay marriage were just, fair, and an aspirational ideal. But at the same time, you’d be hard-pressed to find any that outright supported it — or indeed, even acknowledged that a LACK of gay rights was any kind of problem. Or talked about the notion of “gay rights” in any way. Or acknowledged that “gay people” existed.

Why? Because the only answer to “gay people don’t have rights” was “give them rights”, a position polling didn’t support. So to avoid looking weak, and to avoid grappling with cognitive dissonance, the Democratic establishment adopted a code of silence. “We politicians won’t acknowledge this issue, but we hope that you voters know how we secretly feel and will keep voting for us, because golly, have you seen the other guys?”

Some, like Obama, clung to that cone of silence for as long as they possibly could — until an outside event (say, a good ol’ fashioned ~BIDEN GAFFE~) forced them to admit their true feelings, or else find themselves in a position where they had to justify injustice.

Others, like Clinton, doubled down and justified injustice with a straight face, in a case of bending over so far backwards you forget where your spine is.

Now flash forward to June of 2015. Gay marriage advocates win in the Supreme Court. Gay marriage equality is the law of the land.

And suddenly, in a surge of rainbow-colored flags, an avalanche of woke-ass fair-weather friends comes pouring out of the goddamn woodwork claiming to have been LGBT+ allies all along. Yay equality! Yay gay people! Yay Democrats! Vote for us, we always secretly supported you, I mean we didn’t do it publicly, but you know what we mean, ha ha woo, yay confetti!

I want to note here that this is not a critique of Obama or Hillary Clinton (both of whom I voted for and donated to, and the latter of whom I canvassed for). Rather, this is my attempt to explain a phenomenon that, for my entire life—even before I was old enough to vote—has driven me skull-fuckingly, soul-numbingly, back-breakingly BATSHIT INSANE about the Democratic party:

The elephant issue — namely, ignoring the one that’s in the room.

What does that mean?

Simply this:

When there exists a political problem (say, a lack of rights for gay people) for which the most logical solution is a far-left policy not popularly supported by current polling, the Democratic Party responds by throwing out the baby with the bath-water, and simply pretending the issue does not exist.

Like, hey, Senator Suchandsuch, it’s 1999! What are your thoughts on gay marriage?

Senator Suchandsuch: Well, I think gay people are (cough cough) and traditional families are (cough cough) and we need to find a way to balance (cough) with (cough cough) that works for all Americans. Awkward joke, ha ha ha, thanks for coming out, no more questions Psst hey Bob pull the bus around, let’s get the fuck outta here.

If the Democratic Party doesn’t know how to deal with an issue, they drop it like it’s hot. If they can’t deal with an elephant in the room, they simply stop acknowledging it. There IS no elephant! Or, it is an elephant, but hey, so what, elephants are fine and only crazy progressives say otherwise. Or, okay, look, there is SOME MAMMAL in the room, but there are also lots of other things in the room, you know, and those are just as important, and anyway LET’S CHANGE THE SUBJECT AND TALK ABOUT JOBS AND THE ECONOMY, PLEASE STOP BADGERING ME, UHH, UHH, PURITY TEST, THIS IS A PURITY TEST, YOU’RE NOT BEING PRAGMATIC, I MEAN LOOK AT THE ALTERNATIVE, THE GOP IS [SMOKE BOMB]

This is the crux of my argument:

From gay rights, to marijuana, to soaring college tuition costs, to climate change, to you-name-it, I think there exist a ton of these “Elephant Issues” that, for as long as I can remember, as long as I have been alive, I have had to sit and stew and watch as Democrats have supported progressive solutions in secret, while ignoring the issue entirely in public. It’s immensely frustrating, and it leads to the feeling that your party is not your party. It doesn’t share your concerns. Your issues don’t appear on its bullshit mailers. Your problems don’t register on its radar. Sublimate yourself before The Almighty Steel-Mill, Dear Democrat, and remain faithful and true to the Party, and someday, O Someday, the time when we talk about YOUR issue will come at last.

I contend that the greatest, if not the sole reason Bernie Sanders exploded as a candidate in the 2016 election is not his far-left solutions to these issue, but simply his admission that these issues WERE issues.

Bernie acknowledged the elephants.

Now you may not agree with Sanders’s policy solutions. You may think free college is impractical; single-payer healthcare is impossible; legalized marijuana is unachievable; 100% green energy is a pipe dream; gay marriage will never happen. But can you point me to one Democrat who doesn’t believe that, proposed solutions aside, college costs are too high? The war on marijuana is a travesty? Everyone should have free healthcare, in an ideal world? Climate change is an existential threat to the human race? Systemic income inequality is a bad thing we should be mad about? Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera?

And yet…how many candidates talk about these issues until they’re cornered and forced to at knife-point?

I’m not saying that Bernie is some kind of truth-telling messiah. He’s not. To be blunt, there are plenty of issues he’s been just as mealy-mouthed on as the rest of the party, and gay marriage is absolutely one of them.

However, what I am saying is this:

There exists a broad swath of issues that are of specific and disproportionate interest to millennial voters that, for our entire lives, we have watched the Democratic Party privately grapple with, while publicly refusing to acknowledge even exist.

Bernie acknowledged these issues. Publicly. Loudly. And not just a few of them, and not in a bespoke way. He acknowledged all of them, hard. He was the elephant issue candidate, lock, stock, and two smoking barrels. It’s like he compiled a list of “problems millennials are mad no one will talk about” and just talked about them, one by one, until he ran out of breath to talk. Climate change is killing us! College debt is bad! The war on marijuana sucks! Cops are racist and keep shooting people! And on, and on, and on.

And for all the talk about how Bernie pushed Hillary to the left, I don’t think that’s what happened at all. There are almost no issues on which the Clinton campaign substantively moved left during the primary, messaging angles aside. Rather, there are issues that the Clinton campaign wasn’t talking about until Bernie did, and then was forced to start talking about.

So let’s be crystal clear here:

Millennials didn’t turn out for Bernie because, like, he was promising free tuition. (We always knew that was a distant aspiration, rather than an immediately achievable policy goal.) We turned out because Bernie was the first mainstream presidential democratic candidate to frankly acknowledge that massive, endemic student loan debt crippling an entire generation is a big fucking problem — and his acknowledgements were equally frank on a dozen other issues.

Now look: when it comes to solutions to these problems—these climate changes and income inequalities and universal healthcares—it may just be that lumpy, wonky, far-left progressive millennials like myself will never see eye-to-eye with the handsome, silver-haired, square-jawed centrists. Alas, we are simply not of their pure pedigree and caliber. We lack the wisdom and bravery to accept “good enough”.

But if there is ONE lesson I would beg Democratic centrists to learn from Bernie’s ascendance, and take to heart before 2020, it’s this:

Until those in the center of the party stop tugging at their collars and glancing askance and start acknowledging elephant issues for what they are, millennials are going to continue tithing our unanswered righteous fury to any protest candidate who gives us a come-hither look — because the nucleus of the Democratic Party not only has no solutions to our problems, but won’t even admit they exist.