Bernie wins! We owe millennials an apology

In light of Bernie Sanders' crushing victory in New Hampshire Tuesday night, it seems like more of the political pundits are starting to finally figure out the source of his surging strength in the polls. In a word, it's millennials. The Sanders victory also means that those pundits, and just about everybody else, owe those millennials a big fat apology.

Here's why: Many of us assumed that younger voters supported Barack Obama in 2008 because he was the younger and flashier candidate. Now we know that was wrong and it is a lot more about economics than cosmetics.

Let's get real. When it comes to appearance, age, background — even the way they speak — Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders couldn't be more different. The media portrayed then-Senator Obama as the essence of cool and style back in 2008 so much so that Hillary Clinton complained about it openly. By contrast, there's nothing flashy or cool about the 74-year-old Sanders with his thick Brooklyn accent and wrinkled suits. I don't think there's any danger of MSNBC's Chris Matthews declaring that Sanders' voice is giving him a stirring tingling in his legs.

Supporters of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Mark Kauzlarich | Reuters
Supporters of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

So millennials are not so shallow after all. Their support for Sanders proves that they're attracted to the common economic messages and themes from the Sanders campaign today and the Obama campaign of 2008. And the large dose of apparent idealism that goes along with the Sanders campaign is also a big draw despite the fact that the experts wrote off youthful idealism as something that died in the early 1970s.

But this is where the apology to the millennials ends and the warnings begin.

Younger voters may not be shallow but the ones supporting Sanders are still following the wrong path about the economy. Many of them are also misconstruing the politics of resentment and blame and seeing it as idealism.

You don't have to listen to too many of Sanders' speeches to glean the central theme that can be summarized by the phrase: "it's someone else's fault!" Can't get a good paying job? It's Wall Street's fault. Can't afford your medications? It's the big pharmaceutical company's fault. Can't afford your college tuition? It's the government's fault for not making it free. The list goes on. It may sometimes sound like idealism, especially when Sanders dresses up phrases like "income inequality" to sound as profound as helping the truly poor. But it's not. It's simply anger born out of fear. And this fear and tendency to blame others for their challenges is something a great deal of millennials have learned from their parents.

For example, when I point out that today's young people are still better off than just about every generation before them it's not the young people themselves who disagree with me the most. It's their parents. And while these parents often swear up and down that their college grad children have no choice but to move back in with them because of economic realities that have nothing to do with coddling, I can usually end the conversation simply by asking: "OK, but are you still doing their laundry?" You don't have to be the wisest parent to know that if we tell children and young adults that their failures are generally someone else's fault, and we're always going to be there to do their laundry, we're going to raise a generation of failures.

The good news is that so many millennials have overcome this and their general tech savvy and other skills have already produced more millennial millionaires and billionaires than the Gen X'ers before them when they were their age. But this is still the generation that has been the most supervised, cared for, and more generally shielded from independence and risk in our history. That's the opposite of a recipe for voters who will embrace rugged individualism and anything resembling conservative free-market principals.

It's not hard times that's made millennials so much more open to socialism; it's the fear of hard times and riding the economy with no training wheels. Big difference. The reason Sanders is connecting so well with young voters compared to Mrs. Clinton and the Republicans is because he's not promising wealth or greatness or even strong economic growth. He's promising safety and protection … like the parents so many of the millennials are used to.

But as such, he's a parent who's failing in his or her most solemn responsibility. Because it's not the job of a parent to keep a child from harm, it's the job of a parent to teach a child the skills to avoid harm all on his or her own. The same is true for creating a healthy economy. And if millennials think that a big government candidate like Bernie Sanders will be able to protect them while still granting them the freedom young people also hold very dear, they're going to be disappointed. Getting to use mommy and daddy's credit card comes with a lot of strings attached.

But unless younger voters come to these conclusions very soon, Sanders will continue to enjoy a great deal of electoral success. And if he inspires millennials to storm the polls as strongly as they did in 2008, he just might win.

Commentary by Jake Novak, the supervising producer of "Power Lunch" and former supervising producer of "The Kudlow Report." Prior to joining CNBC, Novak co-created and oversaw the "Varney and Company" program on FOX Business Network along with anchor Stuart Varney. He also spent seven years at CNN, producing financial news programs including launching the successful "In the Money" show with anchor Jack Cafferty.

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