I think the main reason to paint Bernie Sanders as the candidate of the too-young is that he and they have two generations of libelous stereotypes in common. His lack of “realism” is code for the 1960s counterculture that produced him, a hippie stereotype that’s been rebooted for the well-informed, clear-eyed millennials who respond to his message. Bill Clinton ran against his own involvement in the dissent of the ’60s, and Hillary invokes an antagonism to it in how she characterizes Bernie.
At the same time, she tries to portray herself as a more legitimate veteran of it. It’s been well-memed that Bernie’s credentials as a principled and dignified dissident in those days are much stronger and more clearly documented than Hillary’s (she was supporting ultra-right candidate Barry Goldwater in the same era). The interpretation of the years since presents a similar paradox.
Sanders, a bit absurdly for a 74-year-old man, is depicted as some naive outsider, and Clinton, as the resourceful professional who has made the system work from within. But Bernie has been in the system for 35 years, holding office and getting elected to ever higher positions and accomplishing many progressive goals.
He is a living example of how humanist values can survive in the context of American politics; he is only a rare one because it is so seldom tried, and the machinery of political parties’ leadership tends to discourage it and desert its adherents.
And yet, while the “New Democrat” movement spearheaded by Bill Clinton has capitulated time and again to the right wing of the GOP, often before the legislative battle begins (on lopsided, corporation-favoring trade deals; on wars of choice), Bernie has gotten significant legislation passed, to make alternative energy affordable, to protect pensions, to help ensure healthcare for veterans, to reign in excesses of the financial class, in many cases with Republican co-sponsors.
Hillary, on the other hand, is not known for adjusting the ideals of the ’60s, but abandoning them. Her legislative record is almost 100-percent Republican (voting for the Iraq War, the PATRIOT Act, etc.). She runs on a background of accomplishments —- like her signature service with the Children’s Defense Fund — that all occurred when she was not holding elective office; and when she was a policy-maker in the first Clinton White House, the CDF’s founder broke with her bitterly over the social services gutted by the 1996 “welfare reform” she championed; not the most encouraging indicator for when she might govern. Most troubling of all, she runs not only on what Bernie “can’t” accomplish (i.e., single-payer national healthcare), but on what she herself couldn’t (i.e., her failed “Hillarycare” of the early 1990s, which in fact was defeated due to another clumsy ceding of the narrative to the plan’s opponents) — this rallying cry of expectations curtailed before you start should not be an agenda for anyone to feel they are voting “for.”
Bernie’s generation of youth saw the world for what it wasn’t but should be; many of his peers self-destructed in antagonizing radicalism, or self-defeated in joining the status quo and becoming indistinguishable from it. Some, like Bernie, adapted their convictions to the daily realities of those they seek to serve, and keyed their message to the interests that reasonable, struggling people can share. The current young generation sees very sharply “how the world works,” and recognizes, in paralyzing student debt and narrow employment prospects and perpetual war and environmental peril, that it is not working for them. They are ready to do the work of citizenship themselves, seasoned by the uphill battle against moneyed interests and conformist politics and ingrained demoralization and suppressed democratic processes they have already taken on in supporting Sanders. They are hearing his call to participate in their own country and destiny, based on the example he has set for decades; not to trust in a unitary figure to do as president the exact opposite of everything she is on record as having worked for (war, big business, secrecy) in previous positions.
There’s a big difference between being tempered by the realities of politics and being compromised by its preconceptions. If Bernie is not the standard-bearer for a genuinely-named Democratic Party in November, it won’t be because of what he “couldn’t” do, but because of what the elites of our divided society, and we its weary and discouraged citizens, won’t do.