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Can "Clean for Gene" Become "Learn from Bern"?

Young Americans
Can "Clean for Gene" Become "Learn from Bern"?

Once upon a time I introduced Senator Gene McCarthy to an audience of students at Dartmouth during the 1968 primary season. The largest auditorium at the College was packed to overflowing—the stage was full of people as well as all the seats and aisles. When “Gene” came on stage the audience exploded.

Fifty years later another insurgent is challenging the establishment of the Democratic Party. In 1968 McCarthy did not win in New Hampshire, but President Johnson decided not to seek another term. In 2016, the question is whether a former first lady will, amazingly, end up without the Dems’ nomination just as LBJ did?

One of the most important unknowables right now is whether young and enthusiastic supporters of the “insurgent” can face a few facts and become a more cohesive political force. “Clean for Gene” was all about asking young men and women in 1968 to shed their counter-culture characteristics and go canvassing in clothes that would not wrong-foot them when they called on regular folks. They did so.

The equivalent today is surely to persuade young supporters of Bernie Sanders to get serious. I have been watching politics for a long time, and I cannot recall ever seeing the number 86 beside a percentage point except in totalitarian countries; but 86 is the percentage of under-25 voters Sanders won in the Iowa caucuses on February 1st. IMHO that is stunning.

What “getting serious” means is doing something more than “liking” this or that on Facebook, or following a trend on Twitter. A few days ago there was a very important and totally relevant Op-Ed in the New York Times. In it, Tom Friedman gave a young Egyptian the opportunity to share with a wide audience his experience with using social media as a political tool.

The nub of the matter is that while social media launched the “Arab Spring” and played decisive roles in the overthrow of Mubarek in Egypt and other authoritarian rulers elsewhere in the Middle East, the role of FB and the others in creating a new regime—anywhere—was very limited indeed, if not totally absent. Young Americans, engaged in politics for the first in their lives in 2016 must learn a lesson from that history if they are to help the revolution Sanders proposes to lead.

The fact that—I am told—Sanders supporters are posting horrendous words about Hillary Clinton has to mean that his young backers have to “Learn from Bern!”

The first thing is to learn patience. The first thing is to learn consistency. The first thing is to learn civility. The first thing to learn is channeling passion. The first thing to learn is persistence. A great many “First Things to Learn;” all of them are options. Different people will find some lessons easy, and they can act on their new knowledge immediately. But all of them will need to learn all of them if Bernie’s work is to prosper and succeed.

If he wins the Democratic nomination he will win the presidency. And a large percentage of the one-percent will have to figure out how to respond. I am sure I am one of millions who are looking forward to finding out what they make of it all.

Peter Smith was the director of the arts center at Dartmouth when he introduced Gene McCarthy; before that he had been a member of the founding administration of UC Santa Cruz; after Dartmouth he worked for Columbia University. He has been living in Allentown since 2002.

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