Roxie Richner is picking at a California roll with her chopsticks and trying to describe Bernie Sanders’s 1980s cable-access television show to a friend. “It’s like Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” she says, “but the Bernie version.”
She pauses, asking if she can just use her hands for the sushi (chopsticks aren’t her strong suit).
Richner, 17, loves videos of the show, which first aired two decades before she was born. For one, they are extremely funny. In one clip, a 45-year-old Sanders, then Burlington, Vermont’s mayor, asks children at a summer picnic if they’d ever heard of cocaine. In others, Sanders asks two goth-punk teenagers at the mall about their affinity for anarchy and responds to a kid who says she wants to build an amusement park with a tirade about zoning policy. Politico published the archives in May. Richner, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, watched the tapes with her dad.
For Richner, Bernie Speaks With the Community is also representative of what drew her to Sanders in the first place. She sees Sanders talking to those kids like adults. “More than anything, I want to be taken seriously,” Richner says. Sanders takes young people like her seriously.
Richner belongs to a generation of teens capable of organizing celebrity-attended marches in the capital calling for gun control. Teens who want to make change. Not yet old enough to vote, she’s already worked for two campaigns, statewide and national. In March, she hosted a campaign kickoff party for Sanders — one of thousands held across the country by the presidential candidate’s supporters, young and old — in her parents’ living room. Nine people showed up: “four random adults and five of my peers,” she says.
Last year, she worked on Sanders protégé Abdul El-Sayed’s bid for Michigan governor; she managed the campaign’s volunteer program, corralling people more than double her age to knock on doors and training volunteers in the art of talking to strangers. She says the Sanders campaign wants her to do more for them, but for now, she’s focused on launching a nonprofit. And getting through her senior year of high school.
The week after our sushi dinner, Richner tagged me on Instagram in a long caption about finding purpose in life. “It’s the biggest con in the world that adults tricked us into thinking they know what they’re doing,” she wrote.
That same morning, Sanders had tweeted his own message to young people. “You are far more powerful than the establishment allows you to think you are.” It was as if he’d read her mind.
Tapping youthful idealism
Sanders’s focus on young people suggests just how much power he thinks they have. “If young people voted at the same levels as older people, they could transform this country,” the Sanders campaign has tweeted. He’s called for automatic voter registration for all Americans 18 years and older.
If you are 18 or older you should be automatically registered to vote.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 15, 2019
More teens like Richner are turning 18 and actually voting. In the past 30 years, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds has only surmounted 20 percent three times — in 1986, 1994, and 2018. In 2018, nearly 36 percent of 18- to 29-year-old citizens reported voting, a 16 percentage point jump from 2014, according to the US census. In other words, more than twice as many young people voted in 2018 as did in 2014 — thanks in part to a midterm cycle that served as a referendum on President Donald Trump and helped usher in the most diverse cohort of congressional Democrats in history, including progressive firebrands Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).
A lot of these young voters support Sanders. A March Harvard University poll of young voters found Sanders leading the pack of Democratic candidates among 18- to 29-year-olds, beating millennial South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden.
I’ve surveyed more than 40 Bernie teens across the country and personally interviewed a dozen. Precocious and politically minded, they are in the mood for a revolution. In that way, they’re not unlike the draft resisters from the Vietnam War, or the black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, who inspired sit-ins nationwide to desegregate public spaces in the 1960s.
Each political movement tries to harness this youthful energy: Turning Point USA, a conservative advocacy group, says it’s the fastest-growing conservative student organization in the United States, hell-bent on bringing “Make America Great Again” to college campuses.
For Sanders, the teens are the strategy. They are part of the formula to win, a campaign adviser told me. “We expect high turnout in this election. Anytime you have big turnout that tilts younger ... the math adds up because he has got this strong base.”
In 2016, the Sanders campaign specifically targeted teenagers to caucus for the candidate in Iowa, where he nearly won; in New Hampshire, college students helped Sanders achieve a historic turnout on the way to victory. Sanders won 43 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016, losing the nomination. But even in states he lost to Hillary Clinton, he won among young voters — crushing Barack Obama’s record.
“If there’s a high school, we’ve probably made the connection to at least get to the senior class one way or the other,” Pete D’Alessandro, Sanders’s 2016 Iowa state director, told Politico at the time. “You use all the new technology you can.”
What is it about this gruff, 77-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont that’s wooed the young voters of America? Sanders brought more people into the political conversation, the teens I interviewed said. He was willing to fight for the big ideas even when the party leaders fought against them. And there was a certain je ne sais quoi: They just like the guy.
Miles Joseph Kwiatek, an 18-year-old from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, recalled first being a fan of moderate Lincoln Chafee, the often forgotten former Democratic Rhode Island governor who ran an ill-fated five-month presidential campaign in 2015.
“I swear to God, I was,” Kwiatek wrote in an email interview with Vox. “Then I read more about Sanders’s platform, and figured that universal single-payer healthcare and free public college tuition were certainly worth supporting.”
Quinn Albright, a 17-year-old from Toledo, Ohio, was first wooed by Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) libertarian, anti-interventionist rhetoric, which he watched on YouTube. He flirted with Trump’s antiwar platform, even briefly fell into Trump’s “really gross racist ideology,” before encountering leftists on Reddit and ultimately making his way to Sanders. Why Sanders? On the phone, he paused, cleared his throat and began a polemic that could have been written by a political operative.
“Neoliberal capitalism has failed,” he told me. “And better than I think any other, my generation knows it. Unending wars abroad, an economy that only gets worse and worse for the many while the few line their pockets with ever bigger bonuses, and a climate crisis, which, if not addressed pretty immediately, could literally be the end of our species — the time for moderate politics is pretty much done. It’s time for a bold, progressive, international, and anti-capitalist politics, and I think of the people currently running for president, only Bernie really understands that.”
The path to becoming a Bernie teen is complicated and varied. But ask these teenagers what their biggest concerns are and they’ll tick off similar lists: a historically unpopular president who has made a career out of racist demagoguery, a government stuck in partisan gridlock, too many school shootings to count, a future of crippling student debt, and a job market that promises them less than what their parents made. People ages 18 to 24 expressed positive views of “socialism” and “capitalism” in roughly equal numbers in a January Axios poll. Richner has grown up watching her upper-middle-class family struggle to pay the health care bills for her sister, who has autism. If they can barely do it, then what about less privileged families, she wondered.
She doesn’t remember how she first came across Sanders, just that she was adamant about supporting him. She and her friends attended his rallies in Ann Arbor when she was 13. She went on his website and memorized all his policies.
Sitting at a coffee shop across from their high school, 16-year-old Angelina Smith, Richner’s classmate and friend, suggested that other generations don’t have the same urgency. “We are the new generation that sees that the way things are right now isn’t working,” she said. “Change is possible. We still have hope. And we love all of Bernie’s new ideas of change. I feel like a lot of older people aren’t so sold to that idea.”
Nodding, Leah Dame, 17, another of Richner’s classmates, said she recently asked her mom about Sanders.
“She’s like, ‘It’s just too far, it’s way too left, and he’ll never get elected. It’s just too sudden for the country; we’ve never tried,’” Dame said. “And I’m like, if we have never done that, it doesn’t hurt to try and see if it works, because it’s not working right now.”
Some things about Richner are predictably teenaged. She will wholeheartedly make the case that Instagram is a societal good, but she has strong feelings about “influencers” branding themselves as activists to cash in on corporate sponsorships. She doesn’t yet know where she wants to go to college. When she wants to gossip, she says she has “the tea.” She references the Kardashians with some regularity.
But then she describes her idea for a nonprofit, one that would close the socioeconomic and age gaps in political campaigning. Her goal is to create a program that would pay lower-income young people to learn campaigning skills, and then fund internships on actual political campaigns.
Richner recalls how once, at an event for Gretchen Whitmer, then El-Sayed’s opponent and now Michigan’s governor, she had asked how she could get involved in politics. Whitmer’s answer, she says, “was basically, wait until you’re older and then run.”
“I was not really happy with that answer,” Richner says, “So I went home and did all this research and found Abdul,” someone who gave her the opportunity to get involved. She feels the same about Sanders’s campaign.
Of course, there are things about Sanders the teens wish they could change. It would be nice if he were a bit younger. He could do a better job expressing his support for marginalized groups and acknowledging his racial weak points, Aditya Sunar, a 16-year-old from New York, wrote in an email. To Kwiatek, the 18-year-old from Pennsylvania, Sanders is “kinda crap” on intersectional concerns of marginalized people.
Others are more willing to defend the candidate.
“Despite having the most comprehensive plans for racial and gender justice, he has in the past had a hard time being able to explain the ways in which his universal policies disproportionately help [people of color] and women,” Oren Schweitzer, a 17-year-old from New York, wrote me. “I think he has gotten a lot better at this though. He also isn’t good with dealing with questions that annoy him because he doesn’t really think like a traditional politician, which isn’t always the best for him.”
He’s old — and grumpy — but he’s worth it, they say.
And the campaign is building on that, looking to people such as Richner to organize their peers and bring more people into the political process. She isn’t sure what role she’ll have with the campaign over the next two years; she is busy working to get the financing settled for her nonprofit and applying to college. But if you come across Roxie Richner, in person or online, you’re going to hear her political message whether you want to or not.
“The other day, my friend didn’t know who [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos was, and I almost lost it, oh, my god,” Richner told me incredulously at one point.
It was her ex-boyfriend, she admitted to me later, laughing. Ex.