For millennials, Sanders is a grandpa who gets them

Editor’s Note: Dasha Burns, a millennial, is a writer and works as a strategist and creative content producer at Oliver Global, a consulting agency where she focuses on leveraging media and digital technology for global development. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

Dasha Burns: Bernie Sanders' poll numbers high among millennials -- not surprising, as his platform addresses their concerns

She says Hillary Clinton can come off as inauthentic, conventional; Sanders as a grandpa so uncool he's cool

CNN  — 

Bernie Sanders is no one’s idea of a camera-ready presidential candidate. He’s a “democratic socialist” running against an icon of the Democratic establishment. (And as satisfying as anti-establishment sentiment may feel for some right now – the establishment is still pretty damn important.)

His white hair is kind of wild, he’s awkward, doesn’t smile much, he hunches over and waves his arms when he speaks. He campaigns in rolled-up shirtsleeves and has pens in his shirt pocket.

When it comes down to it, his radical policy positions and general cranky-grandpa vibe don’t exactly scream “President of the United States.”

And yet – his surging popularity and recent poll numbers from Iowa and New Hampshire have surprised many and sent the media into a frenzy.

Dasha Burns

People are especially stunned by the power this old man has with young voters, building a clear lead over Clinton in this demographic in key states, according to a USA Today/Rock the Vote poll.

Some find this reminiscent of the Obama campaign, fueled in large part by the young people its “change” message managed to engage. But this wasn’t so surprising with a fresh-faced young black senator. What’s shocking and setting the media ablaze today is that many millennials seem even more invigorated by a 74-year-old white man from Vermont calling for revolution.

Just about everything that the Sanders campaign espouses hits home for the millennial generation – even more so than Obama’s run in 2008.

Socially liberal, saddled with mountains of student debt, disillusioned with the status quo and eager to break with traditional models – it’s no wonder millennials respond to Sanders’ Uncle Sam-style finger-pointing. Next to this disheveled firebrand, the well-oiled “Clinton machine” can at times come off as too measured, inauthentic and conventional.

Anyone who is surprised by this hasn’t been paying attention to the social and economic trends confronting young people. It’s inspirational ideologue versus sober pragmatist. Now think: How many 20-somethings you know would eagerly opt for a sober pragmatist?

Many young people don’t pay attention to politics because they grew up watching their parents quarrel and come undone over finances while the government bailed out big banks. Morale really hit a low as we were figuring out how to pay (or repay) for college while realizing the promised exchange of higher education for good job was a myth from generations past.

Millennials have watched as the government shut down and gridlock stalled progress, and many have lost faith that the government can accomplish anything, let alone something that might actually benefit them. They see their representatives as too entrenched in gamesmanship to take a stand on what matters to constituents.

Then suddenly – in from left field– comes a candidate touting income inequality as his primary platform. He’s calling for things most politicians would never be bold enough to demand. And he’s doing so loudly, unconventionally, and with a wonky, crotchety nerdiness so uncool it’s become completely cool.

Where his opponents call for affordable college education, he demands free college education. When Clinton was asked, “Should corporate America love Hillary Clinton?” she responded, “Everybody should.” When asked the same question, without a flinch Sanders admitted, “No I think they won’t. … Wall Street will like me even less.”

Not only has he embraced the tenuous title of “socialist,” but he’s unafraid to condemn capitalism. He is outwardly angry at the influence of big money in politics, advocating for aggressive change. And his is the only “people-powered campaign” in the race, not dependent on super PACs or billionaire donors.

He’s not playing what has become, in the uncivil present day, “traditional politics.” Rather than sling mud at his opponents, he sticks hard to the issues at hand. He admits at debates when he agrees with opponents; he even apologized, and explained, to Clinton after his aides breached her campaign’s proprietary voter lists. And he refused to answer one interviewer’s frivolous questions about Clinton’s hair.

All of this makes him feel genuine and refreshing – especially because he’s held steadfastly to his beliefs since long before his hair turned white. He’s giving us the comfort of stability along with the excitement of radicalism.

So it makes sense that younger people have rallied behind this idealistic anti-establishment attitude – we’ve historically loved sticking it to the man. Especially with the challenges facing most millennials, it’s taken someone far from the norm to wake those sedated by lethargy, dejection and skepticism.

It’s doubtful (despite the media hype) that this will translate into a nomination, and even less likely a win. But in any case, Sanders has pushed us all, including Clinton, to embrace a youthful sense of aspiration while reinvigorating a demographic that threatened to turn away.

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