What Young Voters Want When They Want Socialism

  1. The Kids Of Cold War Kids

The conservative right’s socialism smears on the left feel like the rickety old Cold War politics of the 70s and 80s. Even the Ned Isakoffs of the world knew that game was over:

ELAINE: OH, AH! OH! WOW! WHOA! A COMMIE! Wow, gee, man it must be a bummer for you guys, what with the fall of the Soviet empire and everything.

NED: Yeah, well, we still got China, and Cuba,

ELAINE: Yeah, but come on . . .

NED: I know it’s not the same.

ELAINE: Well, you had a good run, what was it 75, 80 years? Wreaking havoc, making everybody nervous.

NED: Yeah, we had a good run.

Seinfeld: “The Race,” Season 6, Episode 10

It’s 2019. The West won. Socialism was a victim of liberal democracy’s success. The irony of Ned the communist closing in on Social Security and 10% off at Applebee’s is delicious. 

America may have a gangster, proto-fascist president, but it will never have a Leonid Brezhnev. Congress will never dictate the seizure of the means of production. A Hunt For Red October scenario could happen, but Russia is just a kleptocratic regional power now, so that story would be devoid of ideological drama.

Likewise, the generation that ran “duck and cover” drills in classrooms is on its long march into history. The generation after it (mine) has a cool, ironic nostalgia for the Cold War. (I’m not even sure The Gulf War actually happened.) For us Gen Xers the Space Race, The Day After, the fall of the Berlin Wall, pop songs like “Red Skies At Night” and “Forever Young,” and even the Challenger Explosion have more cultural than historical value as artifacts of Atomic Age youth.

But the oldest Millennial was born the year America boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Try impressing some hipster with “100 million dead!” and the evils of socialism. And tell that hipster in a tone meant to protect today’s brand of winner-take-all capitalism at all cost. Her rolled eyes will cancel you quickly because capitalism hasn’t done for her what it did for her parents and grandparents.

  1. Our Gen Y And Z Comrades

Last year a Gallup poll noted that 68% of 18 to 29 year-olds had a positive view of capitalism in 2010, while 51% had a positive view of socialism. However, over time positive views of capitalism fell to 56% in 2012, rose a smidge to 57% in 2016, then dove to 45% in 2018.

While positive views of socialism remained steady among young adults from 2010 through 2018, Gallup’s report of a 23% drop in positive views of capitalism since 2010 fits nicely into the larger narrative of young people supporting “socialist” ideas and policy prescriptions.

Axios reports data from a Harris poll in which Millennials and iGen (Generation Z) are “more likely to embrace “socialistic” policies and principles than past generations” on a number of policy issues such as universal healthcare, tuition-free college, and abolishing ICE. They also prefer living in a “socialist” country.

A 2015 YouGov marketing study reports:

“52% of Americans have a favorable view of capitalism, while only 26% have a favorable view of socialism. Among younger Americans, however, attitudes are a lot more divided. 36% of under-30s have a positive view of socialism, while 39% have a positive view of capitalism. Among over-65s, who came of age at the height of the Cold War, only 15% look upon socialism favorably while 59% have a like capitalism.” [sic]

“One-third of millennials view socialism favorably” | YouGov | Peter Moore | 2015

Deciding what to take away from these polls and what needs further interrogation can be tricky. Gallup did not define “socialism” in its survey. However, two statements at the end of its report are telling:

“Socialism as a concept is open to many interpretations. Gallup was describing socialism in questions asked in the 1940s in terms of government ownership of businesses — something that Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and most other left-leaning Democratic candidates have not advocated. [1] Instead, socialism today seems to embody sets of programs by which the government helps regulate and in some instances run and pay for social programs focused on basic population needs in health, education, housing and employment.

Socialism clearly sounds better as a concept to young people than to those who are older, as it has over the past eight years. Evidence for this is found in the strong support younger voters gave Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign (despite his septuagenarian status) and in the candidacy of Ocasio-Cortez (who is herself 28 years old). [2] Whether the appeal of socialism to young adults is a standard function of idealism at that age that dissipates as one grows older, or will turn out to be a more permanent part of the political beliefs held by the cohort of millennials who have come of age over the past decade, remains to be seen.”

If the current economic state of Millennials is any indication, support for this kind of “socialism” will be on their agenda for a long time.

  1. Dude, Can You Spare A Macchiato?

A few observations regarding what younger voters want when they express liking socialism:

1) Socialism is now a fuzzy, flexible concept. How one understands its meaning largely depends on age as well as one’s historical and cultural frame of reference. Thus it’s misleading and cynical to characterize positive or favorable views of socialism in 2019 as one would have in 1989. In other words, “socialism” no longer means SOCIALISM. Only a despot wants the SOCIALISM of 70s East Berlin, Moscow, or Beijing. Rather, those favorable to socialism in its current, more relaxed sense want a more mixed, less extreme, and less extractive economic system that provides the benefits of (for instance) the Nordic Model in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. Perhaps FDR’s New Deal recalibrated for the 21st century could be another way of thinking about it.

2) Actually, Millennials haven’t really thought more or less favorably of socialism. Support for “socialistic” programs remained constant over eight years. What Gallup’s and YouGov’s polling really suggest is that young people have thought less of capitalism over time. Now, decades after “the end of history” and the triumph of market over planned economies, young people want more from an economic regime that has screwed them.

3) America’s ascending generation (age 23-38; born 1981-1996) is doing so on a flattening trajectory. They carry mortgage and student debt totaling approximately $1 trillion for 19 to 29-year-olds, a little less than total American auto-loan debt. They’re weighed down by credit card debt. Their debt load is larger than that of the two previous generations.

A quarter of millennials — those 18 to 34 years old — are over $30,000 in debt, including 11 percent who are over $100,000 in debt. Only 22 percent of millennials are debt free.

As a result, saving has taken a backseat, which has affected the pace at which millennials live their lives and left most unprepared for a financial emergency. Credit cards, meanwhile, are playing an even bigger role than student loans.

Credit card debt is the most prevalent type among the group, while just two in 10 millennials say they have a mortgage or home loan.

“Poll: Majority of millennials are in debt, hitting pause on major life events” | NBC News | Arenge, A., Perry, S. and Tallevi, A. | 04/04/2018

Millennials are also more likely to have second jobs than other generations. They’re not broke and they’re not poor, but they’re struggling in a supposedly booming economy.

Worse, in the most cynical case of “socialism for me, capitalism for thee,” Millennials came of age in a time when investment houses that took on too much risk brought financial systems to the brink of collapse and yet were bailed out without a single banker paying a real price. (Even former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld is back in business.) And then they watched as an era of free money helped produce staggering levels of wealth inequality while their own wages and salaries flattened. We shouldn’t be surprised that their economic vision for America is opposed to the president’s—even for white Millennials who mostly voted for him.   

For the largest voting block in the 2020 election capitalism as they’ve known it seems beyond their control, mobilized against them, and increasingly incapable of real prosperity as it did for their parents and grandparents. This is why they want different economic and social arrangements.

  1. When Hawks Cry

Millennial socialism is a critique of Boomer capitalism, the kind of capitalism that erodes social safety nets, creates massive inequalities, and renders even our values to the pressures and logic of market forces. This presents a particular and potentially dangerous demographic problem for conservatives and right-wing reactionaries.

Indeed, this is one subject for which the right has failed to produce compelling, focused responses. Lame attacks abound, however. There are personal attacks from the far right on YoutTube, a blizzard of ad hominem attacks on Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, worn and tired attacks on Soviet-style command and control economies that no one wants to live in, attacks meant to convince Millennials that they actually are prosperous, and good old-fashioned attacks on Millennials as a stupid generation.

In these and other attacks, one senses desperation on the right. The replacement of their core constituencies of Silents and Baby Boomers by Millennials and iGen voters is well underway and will increase. The Gallup poll referenced earlier shows that older generations are more in support of capitalism than any other. How does the GOP adjust as the most prosperous generation in history is replaced by the one that’s treading the most water? The right’s current messaging apparatus will likely need an overhaul. But is it too late? How many moderate and conservative Millenials and IGens will remember how Republican ideologues lumped them in with the avocado toast crowd and abandon an ever more extreme  GOP?

Right-wing anti-socialism has lost its emotional effect as an ideological stance as well as its ability to make sense of current social and economic conditions. It will be replaced by a different understanding of capitalism that the right has resisted for more than a century—that capitalism is as much a historical process as it is an ideology. In its current incarnation, capitalism is not the cure for which all social and economic ailments need more of. Capitalism’s genius is that it adapts and changes as human desires and enterprises warrant. The only real question now is how tightly will the old world hold on to Reagan and Thatcher-era capitalism before the new world seizes it from them and adapts it to its own needs.


Where are your hammers for these nails?

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IMAGE SOURCE: CC0 Creative Commons


4 thoughts on “What Young Voters Want When They Want Socialism

  1. As a Gen Y-er working two jobs, 40k in the hole, with a degree worth its weight in ramen noodles, this hits the nail on the head. My Uncle (an early Gen-X-er who has worked a factory job his entire life and lives in a paid off house in the middle of nowhere, with no children or spouses) recently asked me why my plans to move to a different state were on hold. I said I needed to pay down debt, build a small savings to finance the move, find affordable housing and a job offer. He said that was too much planning, and that I ought to just pack my things and go, and “worry about finding a place and a job once you get there!”

    It was at that moment that I realized how out of touch older generations are with the current economic climate of the younger generations.

    Great read, keep up the good content.


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