Why Hillary holds so little allure for many Millennials

Millennials see Hillary Clinton through a radically different lens than older Democrats do. It is the stark difference between distrust and admiration.

Mike Segar/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters after voting in the New York presidential primary election at the Grafflin School in Chappaqua, N.Y., on Tuesday.

Unlike some of her peers, Hanna Smokoski says she has a lot of respect for Hillary Clinton and the “really impressive career” in politics she’s had during the past few decades.

It’s just that “history has already moved beyond Hillary Clinton,” said the young graduate student, even as she jumped and hooted for Sen. Bernie Sanders during his massive rally in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, on Sunday – which at an estimated 28,000 attendees was his largest to date.

“I mean, I would be really excited for the first female president, but it’s just that we’ve already progressed further left than her now,” says Ms. Smokoski, who works as coordinator of a GED program while studying at Teachers College at Columbia University.

It’s been a familiar refrain, of course, during this year’s race for the Democratic nomination. Millennials, including young women, have overwhelmingly supported the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont and his vision for a communally-centered polity that breaks the power of moneyed interests, uplifts the downtrodden, and creates a more equitable distribution of wealth.  

But in the weeks leading up to New York’s race-shaping presidential primary on Tuesday, his adoring young supporters have become more and more vocal expressing their deep distrust, if not outright dislike, toward the candidate who’s in the lead.

In fact, as the race became something of a five-borough brawl in the nation’s largest city, with skirmishes also upstate and in Long Island suburbs, some of Sanders's supporters at this point even say they would not support former Secretary Clinton should she win the nomination.

Why are so many millennials at odds with her? Part of it is the antiestablishment fervor sweeping through American politics, surely.

But there is an irony to that view almost completely lost on young voters. Clinton, after all, was once the young liberal crusader, fighting an idealistic and perhaps politically impractical battle for universal health care and insisting that it took a village to raise a child, not just single or stay-at-home moms.

The political freedom that young millennial women now feel, Clinton played no small role in helping to create. Now, as Clinton inhabits a more centrist position – born in part from her experience as a first lady, senator, and stateswoman – her very success has become her greatest demerit.

For young Americans today, the question is not how to join politics but how to remake it. And Clinton’s contributions, however significant they might be, are seen by many as in the past tense.

“I think many of the struggles she went through are not even relevant for young voters,” says Jeanne Zaino, a political scientist at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “So the idea that she 'stood by Bill Clinton,' the idea that she has been through the wringer with Republicans – all of those things – they just don’t have as much relevance to young people today.”

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To an older generation of Democrats, especially feminist veterans from the cultural trenches of decades past, Clinton now stands at the brink of history and hardly in its wake.

To the younger generation, whether by the brashness and idealism of youth or part of this election’s leitmotif to break the grip of “politics as usual,” Clinton is symbolized by her compromises, her ties to Wall Street donors, and her decades of work within the political system.

“I think Hillary Clinton has been in politics long enough and has been in the upper echelons in politics so long that it’s not surprising that corporate greed and big corporations have affected her,” says Carrie Watt, a graduate student pursuing a masters in drama therapy at New York University in Manhattan.

To voters like her, Sanders connected on the eve of Tuesday’s primary when he mocked Clinton’s refusal to release the transcripts of her speeches to banks such as Goldman Sachs.

“Now, if you give a speech for $225,000, it must be a pretty [darn] good speech,” Sanders reiterated on Sunday. “It must be a brilliant and insightful speech analyzing all of the world’s problems; must be a speech written in Shakespearean prose. And that is why I believe Secretary Clinton should share that speech with all of us.”

On the issue of race, too, Clinton is being squeezed by evolving perceptions. The presidency of Bill Clinton included a dialogue on race relations that seemed progressive for many at the time, and many blacks supported the administration’s tough-on-crime efforts. Yet Sanders and his supporters now begun to use the term “racist” to describe her use of the term “superpredator” back when she supported her husband’s 1994 crime bill. The law is now a symbol of a criminal justice system that has imprisoned a disproportionate number of black and Latino men and made the United States the world leader in incarcerating its citizens.

Millennials are among the leading voices for these concerns.

“They mostly echo these same messages, that she doesn't have a big liberal vision, that she’s too incremental, that she’s not trustworthy, that she’s just going to be more of the same,” says Professor Zaino.

“It’s fascinating because, for these young people, they weren’t politically cognizant or not even alive during President Clinton’s era, when Hillary was coming up,” Zaino continues. “So they also have a very different sense of the kind of struggles somebody like Hillary Clinton went through.”

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Indeed, few on Sunday had ever heard of Clinton’s experience as a less-than-demure first lady, initially appointed to launch a massive (and ultimately failing) effort to reform the nation’s health care system in early 1990s. Past scandals over Whitewater, Travelgate, or her fears of a “vast right wing conspiracy” – each were subjects that often elicited blank stares and shrugs.

Ms. Watt says she understands the older generation’s feminist solidarity with Clinton – as well as the fact that theirs was a different world for strong, pioneering women like Clinton more than two decades ago.

“I don’t think I’ve experienced what it was like at one point in the workplace, and I have professors in my graduate program right now, all of them are like 50, and they feel outraged that we would not vote for Hillary,” she says. “I understand that, but I also think that because I haven’t had that experience, it’s difficult for me to chose to vote for someone who isn’t a supporter of a larger community. I mean, Bernie is about a collectivist type of government, and Hillary Clinton is very much an individual, who believes we can fight on our own for ourselves.”

She was not much aware of Clinton’s controversial 1996 book, “It Takes a Village.”

In New York, the Democratic campaign’s story lines have only been amplified. Sanders has had three enormous rallies throughout the city’s boroughs, featuring tens of thousands of energetic, and typically young, supporters in the Bronx and Greenwich Village in Manhattan.

Clinton, by contrast, has visited smaller venues with crowds usually under 1,000 supporters. But she has built her double-digit leads in polls with an older section of voters, including the vast majority of working class and professional black voters, and she and her husband have assiduously courted elected officials and worked the traditional paths of grass-roots politics.

The contrast was stark on Sunday. While Sanders spoke in front of a record crowd at his rally in Prospect Park, Clinton spoke at small event of around 500 people on Staten Island – New York’s one conservative-leaning borough – pitching her moderate, centrist bonafides.

“I will go anywhere, anytime to meet with anyone,” Clinton said at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center. “I have no time for people who are partisan for the sake of being partisan,” she told her supporters, speaking out against “folks who think it’s their way or no way” and believe they have special “access to the truth.”

It was a shot at Sanders and his supporters calling for a “revolution.” Clinton, and her backers too, have seen in Sanders’s proposals a kind of naiveté about the political system, and the virtual impossibility of passing bills that would establish free tuition, universal health care, or revamp the tax code to become more progressive.

The critique fails to connect with many Sanders supporters.

“Of course there are things that aren’t going to pass,” says Lauren Montanari, a rally attendee who lived in Brooklyn before moving to Los Angeles for her job as an interior designer. “But it will start the process of reform, and reinvigorate new ideas about health care. I think he will be able to get a lot accomplished, even if he doesn't get everything, which is what is to be expected.”

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What stands out as much anything in young Sanders supporters is their aspiration for a new politics of the left – one that goes well beyond merely electing a woman for the sake of that milestone.

Smokoski says she sees Sanders’ platform as not simply a pie-in-the-sky list of revolutionary hopes. And she’s irked that Clinton has expressed a willingness to compromise on restrictions on late-term abortions, while Sanders says it should always be a decision between a woman and her doctor.

“And like Bernie said to Hillary during the last debate, ‘Oh, so now you’ve joined the ‘fight for 15’!” Smokoski says, referring to the candidates’ views on the minimum wage, in which Clinton favors a more flexible and regional approach to the issue, even if it’s sometimes less than a $15 minimum.

Zaino describes the former New York senator’s approach to the minimum wage issue as vintage Clinton. During the campaign, Clinton highlighted the efforts of New York’s moderate Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who last month pushed through a minimum wage bill that would allow New York City to raise its wage to $15 an hour by 2018, with other parts of the state able to cap the increase to $12.50.

“It wasn’t about the minimum wage as much as, 'Look at how he was able to get this done,' ” Zaino says. “But trust me, as a person who teaches political science and talks to Millennials, nothing is more boring to people than, 'This is how you make policies, the kinds that can pass.' And that’s kind of where she always is.”

For many of the Sanders supporters in Brooklyn on Sunday, an accomplished, career politician with a history of pragmatism and legislative nuance is hardly what they’re seeking.

“I think it would be incredible to have a female president, and I long for the day for that to happen,” says Watt. “But I just don’t know that Hillary is the person I would want, necessarily, to be in the White House.”

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