Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Grumpy Old Men: The Youth Appeal of Sanders, Corbyn & Melenchon

On a sunny May afternoon in a suburb of Liverpool, young people packed into the local soccer pitch for a music festival. It’s a typical scene of millennial culture, replicated the world over from the deserts of California to the urban parks of Australia. This particular afternoon is anything but normal; a surprise guest has the crowd more excited than any of the music acts on the day’s schedule. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is stopping by to speak, his furious underdog campaign in the British general election in full swing.

Though Corbyn spoke for just a few minutes, the slender 68-year old with a gaunt face and a scraggly white beard whipped Liverpudlian kids a third of his age into a frenzy worthy of the Beatles in their Liverpool heyday. He roared, “Do you want housing, do you want care, do you want a society coming together, or do you want selective education and fox hunting?” He let the contempt drip into his voice on that last part, and the crowd erupted into a derisive chorus of boos at the mention of one of incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May’s least popular proposals. He left the arena almost as quickly as he came, accompanied by thunderous applause and the crowd singing his name.

Over the past two years, similar scenes to this took place across the US, UK and France. Men who had for years been derided as relics of a bygone era suddenly had the magic formula for captivating the youth of their respective countries, mystifying the political and media establishment. Politicians like Jean-Luc Melenchon, Jeremy Corbyn & Bernie Sanders defy conventional wisdom on what sorts of politicians appeal to young people.

When most people think of a politician who appeals to youngsters, many will conjure up Barack Obama or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Members of the older generation will think of John F. Kennedy. These men all share a similar profile. They were all relatively young; Trudeau and Kennedy were 43 when they came to power, while Obama was 46. All three sold a winning vision of bringing change to the political establishment. This despite the fact that Trudeau was the son of a former Prime Minister, Kennedy was born to one of the world’s wealthiest families & Obama was a law professor.

Corbyn, Sanders and Melenchon defy the conventional wisdom of what connects with young people in almost every respect. They are all at least 65 years old & have all spent much of their adult lives as part of the political apparatus.

Melenchon has served in the French Senate since 1986; Sanders has been in Congress since 1991; Corbyn has represented the same North London seat in Parliament since 1983. Any claims that these men embody a challenge to the ways of Washington, London, or Paris should seem ludicrous on their face. So how have they attracted such enormous legions of young followers?

Melenchon, Sanders and Corbyn’s long electoral records become an asset with young people because of the unique natures of their respective political careers. While they’ve each served in office for decades, they have a consistent track record of being on the margins, long viewed as gadflies on the fringes of their respective parties. Corbyn arrived in the House of Commons just after the left wing of the Labour Party had been discredited by its disastrous defeat in the elections of 1983.

When Labour returned to power in the late 90s, it was firmly in the hands of centrist Tony Blair, and Corbyn was a consistent thorn in the side of Blair’s government during his 10-year reign. Most notably, Corbyn served as Chairman of the Stop the War campaign while Blair was blindly following George W. Bush into the Iraq War. Sanders was long regarded as a curiosity in DC circles for his decades-long identification as a democratic socialist, at a time when a free market ideology seemed to be the American political consensus. Melenchon was consistently on the left wing of the French Socialist Party, advocating against its move to the center in the late 1980s, before eventually breaking with them in 2008.

It’s a cliché that authenticity is a trait that young people appreciate. Any hack advertiser trying to sell a new flavor of chips can tell you that. The appeal of these three politicians is fundamentally rooted in their authenticity. They challenge the conventional wisdom that has dominated the political culture of the West for the past 30 years, which has focused on shrinking the government, privatization, deregulation, and austerity measures in response to economic downturn.

Since the early 1980s, the pathway for most ambitious young politicians lay through either embracing these trends wholeheartedly or incrementally trying to rein them in. Only in the wake of events such as the Iraq War and the ‘08 financial crisis did the prevailing winds of politics in the West fundamentally shift. The views of these men on issues of foreign intervention and economics, which had only a few years before been easily dismissed by the establishment as relics of a bygone era, now were seen by millions as forward-thinking.

The stances that these “grumpy old men” have taken may have once been seen as extreme. Nowadays, they make eminent sense to a generation whose formative years were marked by the unwinnable wars in the Middle East and fiscal policies that directly led to the Great Recession. Both of these epic flops were long supported by politicians across the spectrum. When Sanders, Corbyn and Melenchon say that they’ve taken on the establishment, they have a long track record backing up their assertions.

Of course, all of this would not matter if it were not for the fact that the policies they espouse are fundamentally popular in the countries, especially with youth. Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal is supported by 60% of the American people, according to the latest polling. Corbyn’s surge in British election polling came about after the release of his policy manifesto, which even Tory-friendly writers in Britain admit contains sensible policies such as nationalizing the railway lines and mail services. The same is true for Melenchon’s proposed defiance of European-imposed austerity and privatization measures, as well as his proposal to lower the French workweek to 32 hours.

The rise of the “grumpy old men” to the national stage in their respective countries is, above all else, a symptom of the fact that in much of the Western world, the elite consensus on what constitutes “mainstream” politics became a kind of closed loop. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, it seemed as if there was no alternative for elected officials but to wholeheartedly embrace the ideology of deregulation, privatization and austerity, save for perhaps triangulation and incremental accommodation. Young people, burdened with massive debt, facing mounting inequality, and despairing of ever achieving the material security of their parents, thoroughly reject this old paradigm. Sanders, Corbyn and Melenchon have proven to be skilled politicians once given the spotlight. However, they would have remained in obscurity if they were not representative of a mass desire for a different kind of politics, the kind of passion that makes the crabby gray-haired man seem less like an intrusive panhandler and more like a prophet.