OPINION | Why the young back Bernie Sanders

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IN one respect, at least, the Democratic nominating contest is running true to form: Sen. Bernie Sanders is getting the lion’s share of young adults’ votes. In New Hampshire, for example, voters under 30 represented 15% of the total but 28% of Mr. Sanders’s support. Voters 65 and older were 25% of the total but only 13% of the Sanders coalition.

The youngest voters haven’t always leaned left. In 1984 Ronald Reagan won 61% of voters under 25, more than his 59% of the popular vote. Something deeper, specific to our time, is at work.

Consider the formative experiences of adults 30 and younger. For them, the Cold War exists only in history books — which they didn’t necessarily read. High schools in only 31 states require a yearlong U.S. history course. Throughout their adolescence and young adulthood, they have seen their country embroiled in Middle Eastern wars triggered by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Intelligence shortfalls and security failures opened the door to these attacks; outright intelligence failures paved the way for the invasion of Iraq; and the inability of three administrations to define clear, achievable goals in Afghanistan explains why today’s 18-year-olds have spent their entire lives with American troops in Kabul and Kandahar.

Next came the financial collapse of 2008 and the ensuing 2007-09 recession, the deepest downturn since the 1930s. As today’s 30-year-olds entered college that fall, they experienced sharply rising tuition as cash-strapped state governments slashed aid to public higher education, forcing them and their families to assume unprecedented amounts of student debt. They emerged from college to find a depressed labor market that forced many to take low-paying jobs that made no use of the skills they had acquired. They struggled to repay their loans. They responded by postponing marriage and home purchases, and returned in record numbers to live with their parents.

Even as the economy has improved in recent years, many young Americans haven’t felt the benefits. Figures from the New York Federal Reserve show that median incomes for college graduates have declined since 2015 and that the bottom half of college graduates are earning about 10% less than the same cohort did three decades ago, in inflation-adjusted terms.

Today’s young adults are demographically distinctive. Nearly half are nonwhite and many are children of immigrants from countries like India and Pakistan, which were long underrepresented in the U.S. immigration pool. Most young adults are comfortable with demographic diversity and don’t understand why their parents and grandparents find it troubling. According to a recent Pew survey, 71% of young adults believe that the growing number of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society, a proposition endorsed by only 47% of American 65 and older. Sixty-one percent of young adults believe Islam does no more to encourage violence than do other religions; only 41% of Americans 65 and older agree.

Young Republicans as well as young Democrats are likely to be more comfortable with demographic diversity than are their elders. For example, 85% of Republicans 65 and older view illegal immigration as a “very big problem” for the country today, compared with 35% of Republicans under 30. About half of younger Republicans believe newcomers strengthen American society, a view echoed by only 22% of Republicans 50 and older.

As today’s young adults have entered the electorate, sentiments on social issues such as same-sex marriage and drug legalization have shifted rapidly. Here again, these changes cross party lines. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans under 30 believe the legalization of same-sex marriage has been good for society, compared with 27% of Republicans 65 and older. Young adults are retreating from organized religion, and fully 75% believe it isn’t necessary to believe in God to be moral.

Finally, climate change: 59% of young adults view it as a “very big” problem, the only age cohort in which a majority does. Many of these young adults resent what they see as older generations’ culpable failure to respond, which threatens their future.

Young adults have diverse concerns, of course. Young African-Americans care deeply about the criminal-justice system; their Latino counterparts would add immigration and asylum policy to the list. Young whites in small towns and rural areas worry about the disappearance of opportunity where they were born and raised, while middle-class whites in cities and suburbs worry about the cost of meeting meritocratic education norms and the consequences of failing to do so.

Against this backdrop, it isn’t hard to understand why only 15% of those under 30 think the U.S. is the greatest nation on earth, why nearly half believe hard work is no guarantor of success, or why so many of them support a single national health-care program — and Bernie Sanders for president.

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