The ongoing and rather turbulent journey that is the American presidential election provides many opportunities to despair for the future of democratic institutions. However, a lone beacon for optimism arising from the whole spectacle may be the completely unanticipated appeal of one Mr. Bernie Sanders.
Mr. Sanders, the 75-year-old Brooklyn born son of Polish-Jewish immigrants and current junior senator from the tiny, off-the-beaten-track state of Vermont, doesn’t look, sound or behave like someone who should be contending for the presidency in 21st century America. His political biography sounds like an extended version of Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. A former carpenter, filmmaker, writer and populist mayor (Burlington, Vermont) gets elected to congress as a self-professed socialist with no affiliation to major political parties (until 2015 when he finally became a Democrat). He opposes tax cuts, campaign funding, infringement of privacy and foreign wars. He promotes social welfare programs, environmental and LGBT issues, parental leave and universal healthcare. He filibusters on points of political principle. Since declaring his candidacy for the presidency, his views have not deviated. His speaking style is unpolished, his campaign rudimentary compared to the well funded approaches of his opponents, and his policies, although appealing in their idealism, seem overly simplistic and perhaps naïve approaches to rather profound social and economic issues.
He is, in many ways, a poster child for the Baby Boomer generation. That’s the huge segment of society born in the post World War II years who are now largely in their 60s and 70s. These folks, who were rebellious, idealistic, free living, pot smoking “hippies” in their youth, largely moved away from those socialistic ideals as they grew older and become hard working supporters of “the system” and are now the conforming leaders of our private and public institutions. Except, of course, for Mr. Sanders. It seems he’s never moved away from the liberal, leftist ideals and unapologetic honesty of his youth. All of this is causing fits for his fellow Baby Boomer opponent Ms. Clinton, whose political experience, strong corporate support and polished dialogue almost become liabilities in contrast.
The most remarkable aspect of Mr. Sander’s success is his base of support. It’s not, as one might expect, his fellow unrepentant Baby Boomers. His main support is, surprisingly, coming from young people. In particular from those much maligned Millennials. In fact, he far outpolls Ms. Clinton in the 18-29 year old demographic, in marked contrast to his performance in all others. (http://www.statista.com/statistics/521935/michigan-democratic-primary-2016-exit-polls-votes-by-age/).
Exit polls of the 2016 Michigan Democratic primary in the United States on March 8, 2016, share of votes by age
The Millennials, you’ll recall, are that generational group born between 1982 and 2004. Their major cultural influences have been massive advances in technology and economic uncertainty. They have been regarded as privileged, entitled and narcissistic. Their enthusiastic support of Mr. Sanders is truly one of the most intriguing themes in this bewildering election campaign.
What’s the explanation?
In my view, it comes down to a single word, that word being Authenticity. For this purpose, authenticity can be defined as “the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures”. Authenticity is about being truthful, genuine and credible. It’s very difficult to fake over the long term, and the millennial generation appears to be particularly adept at seeking it out. They also value it greatly, and for good reason. Authenticity is rooted in truthfulness, and engenders trust. We may not always agree with authentic people, but we believe what they say and feel we can rely on them to act on their professed beliefs. Mr. Sanders, I think we all would agree, is nothing if not unfailingly authentic.
There are lessons here for those of us involved in education, which is largely about gaining the trust and confidence of these bright, young and eager millennials. The authenticity that works so well for Mr. Sanders can be thought of as comprising three key elements:
- Credibility, or fundamental believability. Also referred to as “street cred”. This arises from a combination of reputation, behaviour and qualifications. Not sufficient in itself, but a necessary starting point.
- Genuineness, which is honest dedication or devotion to what we profess to teach or believe. Again, hard to fake if not sincere.
- Validity. This refers to the “real goods”. It’s not enough to appear credible or sincere. An effective teacher must prove their effectiveness by achieving real learning for their students. Fundamentally, if they’re not learning, you’re not teaching.
Mr. Sanders will likely not become President, but his valiant campaign, dogged adherence to his principles and unexpected resonance with young people provide lessons for us all on how to bridge generational gaps, and a hopeful tone to an otherwise demoralizing electoral process.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education