The real Sanders “demographic” isn’t age

It’s harder to measure, but real nonetheless—and it’s defining this election

Sanders’ appeal isn’t just to young voters, but those of any age who care for morality, ethics, compassion, authenticity, unity, justice, and civic spirituality

“What the pope is talking about, and what I’m talking about, is to say that we have got to do our best and live our lives in a way that alleviates human suffering, that does not accelerate the disparities of income and wealth. When he talks about wealth being used to serve people, not as an end in itself, I agree with that…what the pope is saying is that human life, our existence, should be more than just the accumulation of more and more wealth. And everybody knows that right now we have the wealth, we have the technology to provide at least a decent standard of living for all of our people. We are living in a world where greed has become for the wealthiest people their own religion, and they make no apologies for it…And I think what the pope has done in a very bold way is not only talk about what he calls the dispossessed—that is, the children who are pushed aside, the elderly who are lonely and are pushed aside, people who just don’t have enough income to survive—and that is of extraordinary importance unto itself—but also to raise the issue of the worship of money, the idolatry of money, and to say maybe that’s not what human life should be about.”  – SEN. BERNIE SANDERS

THAT, RIGHT THERE. Forget age, gender, race, party, or any other conventional demographic. It is a belief in THIS that defines a sort of “demographic” that’s showing up for Sanders, and it crosses every line. It’s not easily measured, yet not so hard to speak about—as Sanders does in just two minutes in this video.

The people who support—who are in fact passionate about—Bernie Sanders believe in THIS. We resonate with it, feel it needs to not only be considered personally but to drive the way we govern, the way we LIVE. We have found kinship in a conscience that has seemed increasingly too rare in our culture.

This is why a Sanders rally—or even a disparate, far-flung group of Facebankers or citizen journalists—feels like a community from the get-go. We feel like brothers and sisters—not only because we share a common principle, but because the very fabric of the platform holds that we are all in fact brothers and sisters. This is our common ground, and it does deeply unite us around a goal that extends well beyond “getting someone elected.”

For us, this is not just politics, not just an election. It is those things, and it is unquestionably and urgently about democracy as well. But it is also about humanity. It is about people—a remarkably, inspiringly large number of people—waking up to, or speaking up about, what really matters.

As such, it is not a religious movement, but it is a spiritual one, in the sense that it dares to raise the vital question of who we are not just as Americans, but as human beings—and who we will be, what we could become. It is about our highest potential—and not as some lofty idea, but as a lived reality. And that too is why all this passion, hope, intensity. Because the possibility of moving the dial forward so expansively is—for this “demographic”—intoxicating. It is aspirational, and mission critical for our planet besides.

Alongside a few other key elements, I believe this distinguishes the two candidates—and their camps—as resoundingly as do the proposals and policies that naturally stem from this ideal.  Although it’s far from a traditional, measurable algorithm, I believe this particular perspective defines us more than anything else—whether we are millennial, Gen X or boomer; white, Latino, or black; Democrat, Independent or Republican; man or woman.

Mark Schmanko, a Harvard Divinity School graduate researching spirituality and religion in contemporary America, echoed what I am seeing when he wrote in a Huffington Post piece,

Bernie Sanders manifests the potential—like no American politician before him—to ignite a movement of “civic spirituality,” something we desperately need in these times. Bernie’s blazing moral vision, rugged human goodness and utter transparency [make him] a living exemplar of a robust moral life and devotion to living the good in the world. His heart, his care, his devotion to truth…a voice not just of hope and idealistic change, but a deeply motivating and highly practical force in the world, committed to transformation, social justice—and showing, not telling, leadership and goodness in action.

Rather than age or race, the defining difference is between those who do—and don’t—see Sanders, this election and this movement as a necessary opportunity to infuse government with such qualities, with a “civic spirituality.” It is the difference between those who are moved and excited by this opportunity, and those who think it is a foolish, naive or even contemptible notion. Those who have been waiting all their lives for a U.S. leader to exemplify and invoke this standard—and those who laugh, scoff, wave hands dismissively or roll their eyes. Those who see this as a pie-eyed, quaint, “impractical” stance—and those who see it as the most pragmatic way we could ever comport ourselves.

People who support HRC, by and large, in my observation are not necessarily jazzed by this point of view. They’re not particularly invested in it. Their interests lie elsewhere (in ways that have been covered and vetted extensively). Some surrogates actively patronize and even ridicule it. Paul Krugman’s sneery opinion piece in the New York Times last week deems this platform nothing more than “a good story.” A story? It speaks volumes when a just, honest and ethical stance is scorned as both a baseless fiction and a bad attitude (!) (especially coming from a campaign that’s heavily dependent on superficial boilerplate rhetoric).

Regardless, it’s difficult to argue with any credibility or logic that HRC’s “platform” is deeply rooted in the moral/ethical conviction that Sanders presents here. You cannot with sincerity take the words, the career or the motives of Clinton and draw a consistent line from them to this core belief. There is far, far too much in her world that runs directly counter to the world Sanders is talking about creating—a world that millions of people have now stood up behind him to fight for.

Many want to tell us that this comportment is not who we are or can be as people, that it will not fly. People cynical not only about politics but humanity say we don’t have it in our nature to care about more than just ourselves and our own lives—to care about the whole, the common good. (Or, as Clinton once stated, “This is not Denmark.”)

To be sure, what Sanders outlays in this video, in his Vatican speech, and in his movement does stubbornly remain a less popular creed in America than “he who dies with the most toys wins.” And yet, behold the size of the movement lining up behind Sanders’ articulation of this potential. Behold the wins in 8 of last 9 contests (mostly landslides), rallies of 10,000-28,000+, and tightening polls—all with zero help (and considerable harm) from mainstream media. Behold the chanting “Bernie! Bernie!” at the most recent debate, and the standing ovation (which CNN “forgot” to televise, but which, thanks to social media, we got to see anyway).

Call this—call us—whatever you would like. Call us hippies, socialists, freaks, fools, dreamers (as some do). Label it your “ism” of choice. But know this: it’s not just the “young,” and it’s for sure not people who want “free stuff.” That last assertion is especially galling precisely because this “demographic” is steeped not in self-interest, but in a genuine fundamental care for all.  (The dismissive condescension with which the ironically self-interest-driven HRC and surrogates have head-patted Sanders’ purportedly all-millennial following—stating that she “feels sorry for” those of us “deluded” by these ideas—is both offensive and purely strategic.)

I greatly appreciated Shaun King’s recent resounding, thorough (yet respectful) rebuttal to his own paper’s (Daily News) frustrating but predictable endorsement of Hillary Clinton (the Daily News owner is a close friend of Clinton’s and a contributor; what did we expect days after she vowed to “disqualify” her opponent?) But I take issue with one point: to some degree, King chalked the editorial board’s choice up to age.

“First off, without impugning the character of my colleagues, I think age is a real factor here. In fact, I think the single biggest difference in how most people view Sanders isn’t race, or sex or ethnicity — or even political history — but age.”  

Yet I think he got closer to what I suggest is the deeper factor when he wrote:

“Maybe it is because we have more time in front of us than behind us?
Maybe it is because every bit of hope has not yet been squeezed out of us?
Maybe it is because we actually trust that Sanders says what he means and means what he says, in an age where politicians will say anything to get elected, that we are inspired by him?
Maybe we see the images and videos of a young Sanders being arrested for protesting inequity in the sixties, and hear him with the same zeal a full 50 years later, that we who also despise injustice are inspired?”

Yes. And age may well be one proxy for that optimism or idealism. But it’s certainly not limited to the “young” (and Sanders has repeatedly stated he sees “young” as under 50 or under 45).  Many Gen X and Boomer supporters feel unrepresented by media narratives pigeonholing Sanders’ support. (For example, in February this poll showed Clinton winning 53% of those aged 45-64—not exactly a sweep.) We see each other in large numbers in our communities, at rallies, and we know that this compassionate awakeness is alive and kicking in plenty of those 40-60+.

What King leaves out of the equation is that you don’t have to have a lot of time left yourself to really, really care about the future. By definition, if you’re the “demographic” I’m describing here—even more passionate about a greater, higher good than your own personal gain—you’re actually concerned about how things will be after you’re gone. You realize it’s not just about you, or even your own family or tribe—and certainly not just about accumulation of wealth.

Short-term self-interest might be the chief hubris of human ego, and undoubtedly predominates in our culture. It’s arguably the nucleus of nearly every societal ill we confront. It drives choices that at times seem nearly suicidal. It’s the cognitive dissonance some of us wonder about when corporate executives make decisions poisonous to our health or our planet. We might say, “don’t they have grandchildren?” And yet the “demographic avatar” I’m evoking here isn’t even so much thinking about our grandchildren—we’re thinking about everyone’s. We actually feel that they’re all, in some sense, “ours.”

Some of us think that having more humans operating from that viewpoint would represent evolution. (As opposed to the notion that, say, deciding to support gay marriage after opposing it for a couple decades is “evolution.”) Evolution to us would be a lot more people who recognize that the ultimate challenge underpinning all our other issues is this moral one—and even better, who will put money and action where their mouths are.

The human race currently seems to be some mix of people who see life that way, and those who don’t so much. And that is no small thing we’re watching play out in this primary.

Maybe one day we’ll nearly all feel…not “the Bern,” but the fire of the imperative Sanders invokes here. Maybe one day it will seem freakish and weak not to. But today, even if not all of us, enough of us are powering a movement that’s making it possible—astonishingly within reach—to elect a leader who is serious about moral challenges and the common good.

While the establishment may scoff and dismiss, this platform has quickly become a lot less lonely. Sanders has made it safer—and important and worthwhile—for this demographic to “come out.” So many of us in this age and place have felt ourselves out of step, a minority if you will, for believing that this—what Sanders points to, what the Pope points to—is what life is really about. For questioning greed and excess at the expense of every living thing. For challenging entrenched definitions of “success” and “winning.” For thinking that maybe tribalism is not where it’s at—that being an American should mean something more; that being a global citizen isn’t just a nice idea you have while wearing tie-dye and singing Kumbayah.

American culture hasn’t exactly prized, prioritized or celebrated such a moral-spiritual code—at least not lately. In fact, a faction of our society considers it downright “un-American” to even question the idolatry of money—even though Sanders is (despite aspersions to the contrary) still a capitalist, just not the kind who is okay with worshipping ourselves into oblivion with it. We’re talking about balance and equity, not monastic asceticism.

Til now, we might have lived our lives by this less-common credo, perhaps worked personally to further this consciousness. But for many of us, now is the first time we’ve seen our core morality, spirituality, or awareness—our truest instinct about life and what matters most—parlayed into something as public and powerful as an American election. In the process, we’ve discovered with some wonder that collectively, this vision may be more widely held than we thought.

Those of us with this sensibility don’t just want experience, knowledge, relationships and intelligence—though of course we want those too, and are thrilled that Sanders has those in spades; anyone who claims otherwise has unfortunately swallowed deceptive narratives or is working to get someone else elected. We want someone who’s actually going to apply that experience and knowledge to the right things, for the right reasons. A leader with the guts and fortitude to represent our best selves—AND, yes, the wisdom and experience to translate them into productive, actionable policies and programs.

This moral and spiritual angle reaches all the way down to the very crux of something also rarely raised directly regarding the candidates—their motives for running. Again, some of us see a stark contrast between personal ambition/self-interest vs a surrender to service, submitting to the call of something far greater than himself. #NotMeUs. Very few would argue Sanders is doing this for his own gain. And the “demographic” I’m describing finds this eminently appealing as well. We are lit up by a candidate whose career is an instrument of service and justice, not an end unto itself.

I think someone who gets to the heart of that is economist Robert Reich—Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, who served as Secretary of Labor in Bill Clinton’s administration (for which Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the 20th century)—in short, no average joe. Reich endorses Sanders, and recently wrote,

Bernie Sanders’s candidacy is not really about Bernie. It’s about a movement to reclaim our economy and democracy from the moneyed interests that have a chokehold on it. Bernie is the voice of that movement—which gives his candidacy purpose and urgency. Hillary Clinton’s fundamental handicap is that her candidacy is about her. She is not leading a movement. Which leaves her candidacy with only one real purpose—to elect her. And in many people’s minds, at least at this point, that purpose doesn’t feel particularly urgent.

(While I would certainly not call it her only handicap, it certainly is a fundamental one.)

This profound care, moral fiber, and abiding love cannot be manufactured or faked. Anything less than this is not…this. You can truly embody it, as Sanders does, or you can lip-sync it—and it will be palpable either way. This is why Clinton’s merely parroting Sanders’ words and co-opting his themes remains unconvincing to so many. (It’s a grave miscalculation to think that words alone will push the right buttons.) It’s why the word “authenticity” comes up again and again and again when people talk about Sanders—as does the lack thereof when they talk about Clinton.

The moral conversation Sanders has sparked is as far from a gimmick as you can get, and that makes it inviolable. The establishment can’t emulate it, buy it, or manipulate us out of it. We’re not for sale either—that’s built in to this “demographic” too.

My sense is that most of us in this campaign experience it as a privilege and a joy to support a presidential candidate who embodies our highest beliefs—with a faith that is the very opposite of blind. It’s a faith borne of a perceptual acuity we can only hope more will gain. It’s a faith—regardless of religion—that humans really can create heaven on earth. Maybe even in our lifetimes after all.

 “…we have the technology and know-how to solve our problems – from poverty to climate change to health care to protection of biodiversity. We also have the vast wealth to do so…The challenges facing our planet are not mainly technological or even financial, because as a world we are rich enough to increase our investments in skills, infrastructure, and technological know-how to meet our needs and to protect the planet. Our challenge is mostly a moral one, to redirect our efforts and vision to the common good.”

~ from Sanders’ speech at the Vatican


Robyn Landis is a writer, author of two bestselling health books, blogger, fitness trainer, and award-winning songwriter who is passionate about the environment and social justice. Find her at and, and on Twitter @cagefreechick. She is a NYC native, a longtime Seattleite, and now lives in Tucson, AZ.

Robyn Landis

Robyn Landis

Robyn Landis is a writer, the author of two bestselling health books, blogger, fitness trainer and award-winning songwriter who is passionate about the environment and social justice. Find her at and, and on Twitter @cagefreechick. She is a NYC native, a longtime Seattleite, and now lives in Tucson, AZ.

3 thoughts on “The real Sanders “demographic” isn’t age

  • Avatar
    April 18, 2016 at 7:31 am

    Great piece! I will be 62 years old soon, and I’ve been saying the same thing all along! I’ve been on the “Bernie Train” since the very beginning, and while it does my heart good to see so, so many young, enthusiastic people climb aboard, the brush being used to paint this movement seems to want to minimize the huge age spectrum which is supporting this man and his agenda. My most fervent hope is that these legions of young people will sustain their passion and enthusiasm for the movement long after the election cycle! It truly is their future, and I believe that they know it and are committed to making the changes (the revolution, if you will) happen!! #Bernie2016 #NotMeUs

  • Avatar
    April 19, 2016 at 6:41 am

    Robyn’s articulate passion is so infectious, I wish more eyeballs could see this. Her mindset needs to spill over to congressional runs and beyond, to renew public discourse. I recall similar hopes for both Obama and Bill Clinton which were dashed later on. But the important thing was the *yearning* to see venality and cynicism transcended. Despite all setbacks, the momentum of nobler yearnings does grow and can still prevail. There will always be a dance between darkness and light, but we must take the long view, roll up our sleeves, and uphold the latter as best we can.

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