Zayde for President

Grumpy, cool, fun grandpa speaks to millennials

When Larry David hosted “Saturday Night Live” on February 6, Bernie Sanders made a surprise appearance during a skit about a sinking ship — an apt metaphor, some might say, for the state of the union.

With David playing the part of a rich man arguing that his wealth earned him a spot in the lifeboat along with the women and children, Sanders was given the opportunity to deliver a few lines about the one percent “getting preferential treatment,” and the “need to unite and work together.” A brief exchange regarding democratic socialism followed, leading David to ask, “Who are you?” Sanders replied, “I am Bernie Sanderswitzky — but we’re gonna change it when we get to America, so it doesn’t sound quite so Jewish.” “Yeah, that’ll trick ’em,” David shot back sarcastically.

And certainly there is no disguising the fact that Sanders is Jewish, although this was one of the rare moments in media coverage of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that any mention has been made of his ethnic and religious identity. And that arguably is odd, given how much emphasis was placed on the fact that Barack Obama became the first African-American president, and on Hillary Clinton potentially becoming the first woman to be president.

Maybe it seems that by contrast with African-Americans and women, Sanders becoming the first Jewish president would be less of a monumental breakthrough for the nation. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that some Americans believe that we already have a non-Christian president — that Obama is a secret Muslim. Or maybe it’s a matter of longstanding Jewish reticence, as reflected in the name change mentioned in the skit. Sanders is a traditional Anglo-Saxon name; interestingly enough, it originated in the same impulse that was prevalent among the Jews of antiquity, to name their children after Alexander the Great.

Of course, Sanders’ self-identification as a “democratic socialist” often is referenced by the news media, as it was on the Saturday Night Live skit, but would that make him the first socialist president of the United States if he is elected? Not according to Republican rhetoric, given that most Democrats have been accused of promoting socialist policies. More significantly, not according to Sanders himself, who positions himself in the tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and policies, as extended by John F. Kennedy and, significantly, by Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. Those presidents avoided the label of socialist, however, given American opposition, from the Russian Revolution on, to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, even during the brief period we fought together to defeat Nazi Germany.

To get a sense of the brief moment in our history when socialism first represented a serious political movement, we might turn to another Sanders, Edward Sanders. Perhaps best known as one of the founders of the 1960s rock band The Fugs, Ed Sanders also has distinguished himself as an activist, author, and award-winning poet. And his extended poem, called “Yiddish-Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side,” stands as a tribute to the likes of Meyer London, Morris Hillquit, Scott Nearing, Eugene Debs, and Emma Goldman:

To make a New World
inside the New World
at Century’s turn
the Yiddish speaking socialists
of the Lower East Side.

As the poem explains, they had, “a passion for Justice that never fades away,” although they failed in their efforts to translate their ideals into a successful political revolution. Ed Sanders, who is just two years older than Bernie, was an icon and leader of the counterculture of the ’60s and early ’70s. Although he was not Jewish, he took inspiration from the social justice activism of these early 20th century pioneers.

Movements like these seem to run in cycles, so it may well be that the socialism that arose at the turn of the 20th century and returned in the form of the counterculture over half a century ago is due to make a comeback now. Without a doubt, the counterculture movement also was a youth movement, and not surprisingly, Bernie Sanders has enjoyed widespread support among the youngest of our eligible voters, the generation referred to as Millennials. Indeed, this has been a frequently invoked theme in news coverage of the campaign, with the pundits often seeming at a loss as to why twenty-somethings would support a 74-year-old candidate.

The expectation that young people automatically should favor the youngest candidate perhaps has its roots in the fact that baby boomers venerated John F. Kennedy, who was the youngest person ever elected president, but this overlooks the fact that no one from that generation was old enough to vote in the 1960 election. As much as JFK’s appearance of youth and vigor seemed to resonate with the ascendancy of the boomers, we have no way of knowing how that generation would have regarded him had his career and life not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet. We do know that his successor, LBJ, was vilified for his escalation of the Vietnam War, and that happened despite his progressive domestic initiatives.

In the same sense that political movements may be cyclical in nature, so too are filial relationships. That’s why we often speak of traits and qualities skipping a generation. Millennial support for Sanders therefore should come as no surprise, as he easily fits into the role of America’s grandpa, or more accurately, America’s zayde. Often he comes across as a grumpy grandpa, as Amber Phillips of the Washington Post suggested last July. But Emma Roller of the New York Times labeled him “your cool socialist grandpa” in December, and just a few weeks ago, People profiled him as a “fun grandpa,” according to his own grandchildren.

Jeb Bush, who had been struggling to gain the slightest bit of traction, recently had his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, venture out into the New Hampshire snow to help him in his primary campaign. The news media has made frequent reference to her enormous popularity, referring to her as “America’s grandmother.” And there is no question that she fits the image, and did so even back when her husband was president. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has included the fact that she recently became a grandmother as part of her campaign rhetoric, but she has not been able to come across as particularly grandmotherly, drawing criticism this past December for comparing herself to an abuela (Latina grandmother).

Grumpy, cool, and fun are not mutually exclusive traits, and there is something about the image of older Jewish men that plays well in contemporary American culture, and especially on television. It is indeed a mixture of idealism and humor, impatience with injustice, and infinite patience with the young. Whether this is a wining formula for the Democratic primary remains to be seen, but the source of his appeal to Millennials, as a socialist zayde, should not be a mystery.