“The Depression was a way of life for me,” Chicago schoolteacher Elsa Poncelle told the legendary historian Studs Terkel during an interview in the late 1960s. “I thought it was going to be forever and ever and ever. That people would always live in fear of losing their jobs. You know, fear.”
Fear and insecurity prompted a wave of both grassroots organizing and federal action that transformed America during the Great Depression. By 1939, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had committed the government to providing a minimum wage, old-age pensions through Social Security, jobs programs, and banking regulation; underwriting loans for homeowners; and providing protections for workers’ right to organize and collectively bargain. But the New Deal didn’t abolish capitalism in the United States, and even by its own standards, it often fell short: Neither Roosevelt nor his successor Harry Truman were able to pass a universal health coverage plan in the 1930s or 1940s.
But the lives of millions of Americans dramatically improved thanks to the New Deal, and when Roosevelt declared in his 1941 State of the Union address that everyone had the right to four basic freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear — he was making a broader case for liberal social democracy and the fundamental security it provides to all citizens.
This is the vision Sen. Bernie Sanders laid out in the 2020 Democratic primary, as pundits puzzle over how a 78-year-old man with a heart condition overwhelmingly captured the under-45 vote. In state after state, Sanders won over younger voters. In California, 63% of Millennials (voters born between 1980 and 1996) voted for Sanders; 18-to-24-year-olds — Generation Z — handed Sanders 72% of their vote. Vice President Joe Biden, by contrast, has received a negligible amount of the youth vote. Biden has won over young voters in only three states where exit polls are available: Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia (and only older Millennials in Virginia).