While campaign stickers and t-shirts for now-defeated Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders still occasionally crop up around campus, “Feeling the Bern” chalk drawings and posters, marches in support of the far-left politician and the fiery vigor that once surrounded his campaign on college campuses have all but disappeared.
Forced to support either of the two polarizing major party candidates or risk a third-party vote, Sanders supporter junior Larissa Allen is one of many whose enthusiasm for the upcoming election has declined.
“I’d much prefer Clinton to Trump, so I’ve resigned myself to the fact that Clinton is who will be getting my vote,” Allen said. “My personal endeavor is to not have Trump in office.”
After Hillary Clinton cinched the Democratic nomination in July 2016, Americans who had long been following Bernie Sanders’ seemingly revolutionary march to the presidency were left jaded. Briefly, the Bernie or Bust movement, in which Sanders supporters pledged not to vote for anyone if Sanders wasn’t on the ticket, gained traction. But Sanders has since encouraged those faithfuls to vote for Clinton, and some others have switched to third parties — namely Green party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
The largest demographic component of Sanders’ fanbase, left floundering after the Democratic National Convention, were millennials.
According to data published by the The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement in April 2016, almost 2 million people ages 17 to 29 voted for Sanders in the primaries across 20 states. More young people voted for Sanders than the amount of the same group who voted for Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump combined.
So what are those impassioned young people in Pittsburgh — many of them college students — doing now?
Trump will collect very few, if any, votes from former Sanders supporters, according to Fox News, CNN, Marist and YouGov polls who all found Trump would get support from less than ten percent of former Sanders supporters.
Some of his advocates, like Allen, will shift their enthusiasm for Sanders to their party affiliation.
“I’m still going out and getting people to register to vote. I’m still engaging in political conversation and trying to tell people about the Democratic Party,” Allen said. “Even though I don’t fully support the candidate that we have, I remain loyal to the party.”
Others, including Pitt Students for Bernie Sanders club creator and grad student Alex Austin, have maintained Sanders’ progressive ideals without relying on the 75-year-old senator’s name to do so.
The Sanders support was once viable on campus — when Austin ran Pitt Students for Bernie Sanders in 2015, he led a tuition march of about 300 students down Forbes and Fifth Avenues.
Now, he’s throwing his energy behind the new Sanders-inspired charge, a movement called
“Our Revolution” that aims to transform American politics through awareness-raising and political engagement.
“We met for the launch of [Our Revolution] … to make sure we’re getting rid of bad politicians in office,” Austin said, adding that the group “turned over from Pitt Students for Bernie Sanders into Bridges Not Walls, which will continue…hopefully at least the next four to eight years.”
In a similar transition, the website Collegestudentsforbernie.org is now a single page that links viewers to the campus groups Young Democratic Socialists and Young Progressives Demanding Action, encouraging policy work as “necessary” to bring about the “Political Revolution.”
This transformation of Sanders’ campaign — from electoral to policy-focused — makes sense, according to Pitt history professor Richard Oestreicher, who said the progressive candidate’s supporters rallied around his ideals more than his persona.
The loyalty from the Sanders camp does not compare to other political candidates, Ostreicher said, but lines up with social movements. In the past, he said, movements such as the Women’s Rights Movement and Civil Rights Movement, had a “lifecycle” that revolved around issues similar to Sanders’ call for an economic revolution to help students in college loan debt.
“If the organizers of the movement have read the mood of the moment correctly and have identified a problem that lots of people perceive as a problem, then social movements will take off in an explosive way with a great deal of enthusiasm,” Ostreicher said.
Sanders supporter Nadia Pacheco, who graduated from Pitt in 2016 and now works for a nonprofit which she cannot disclose, was one of many who saw Sanders as a beacon of change in a broken political system.
Clinton, she said, is fine if more conservative voters are looking for more of the same.
“I personally believe that Clinton would be the perfect president for the political system that we have in place right now,” Pacheco said, “but Sanders would’ve been the perfect president for the political system that we should have. The political system that we deserve to have.”
When it comes to changing the political status quo, Austin said there’s still a chance to do some in local and state-level races.
“It’s hard to put all of our attention on the presidential race when most change happens at the lower levels,” Austin said. “We know we immediately want to get rid of Toomey as Senator and give some support to Erin McClelland [D-PA, for Congress] because she’s strong on unions and education policy.”
Until the election, it’s impossible to tell exactly what kind of impact Sanders’ tribe of energetic millennials are going to have and whether they’ll continue his idealistic momentum in other ways or jump political ship completely.
“Now you’re at the fork in the road,” Oestreicher said. “Do people find ways of responding to a defeat and find ways to reinvent themselves and address the issues that Sanders was addressing in other ways or not?”