Millennial Socialist Moment Mostly Media Hype

Millennials may have mixed views of capitalism, but they hold socialism in even lower regard.


Michael Nigro/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Are millennials increasingly anti-capitalist? That's the question Chicago public radio station WBEZ posed recently to me and The Nation's Sarah Leonard. (You can listen to the whole thing here.)

"The explosive popularity of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. among younger voters revealed millennials' desire for a new economic system," states the promo for the segment on WBEZ program Worldview. "It's no wonder, as millennials are likely to be economically worse off than their parents or grandparents, especially those who became job-seeking adults after the Great Recession of 2008."

That all makes for a tidy narrative, but it's one built on the flimsiest of evidence. The main data offered during the Worldview segment was a 2016 Harvard poll, in which 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-old respondents had an unfavorable view of capitalism. But as I pointed out at the time (and on the show), the same poll showed that an even greater number of young people—59 percent—had an unfavorable view of socialism.

And while 42 percent of the millennials that Harvard surveyed had a positive view of capitalism, just 33 percent had a positive view of socialism.

In an array of other surveys from the past few years, millennial support for socialist and capitalist policies varies widely based on how poll questions are asked. For instance, socialism is much more popular than a government-managed economy, and a free-market economy is more popular than capitalism. And in policy-based polls, millennial economic preferences run the gamut. Yes, many support student-loan forgiveness programs and government-managed health care, but they also express strong support for entrepreneurship, dream of owning their own small businesses, and reject hypothetical government expansions when they come with personal tax hikes. In other words…they look a lot like Americans across the age spectrum.

Polls only tell part of the story, of course, but the part they do tell is not one of an increasingly socialist youth populace. That's probably important to keep in mind as the media coalesces on the Socialist Moment plot-line. Sure, the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House has a lot of fans, and more Twitter avatars now sport red roses (long a socialist symbol). But the subset of American young people poised to notice either of those things is infinitesimally smaller than those who aren't. These are the kinds of affectations and antiheroes that the media latch onto and elevate because—like the Pepe the Frog–tweeting alt-right accounts during the election—they're very salient in online media and activism worlds. But it's a mistake to take that salience as indicative of actual numbers or influence.

So what about Bernie? Yes, young Americans vastly preferred the socialist-lite Vermont senator to Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or any of the GOP-primary candidates. But their alternatives were Clinton, Trump, and the likes of Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. They are the most establishment of The Establishment, with the exception of Trump—who, like Sanders, benefited from people's desperation to ditch this dynastic, cronyist electoral loop we seemed caught in. That Sanders secured so much millennial support doesn't necessarily equate to a full socialist embrace by these young folks, just that he was the best of exceedingly bad options.

To their credit, more committed and long-term leftists have managed to swing some of Bernie's millennial momentum into post-election momentum for leftist policies more broadly. And young people are certainly—now and at least throughout recent history—more receptive to redistributive economic policies and strict labor regulation. Perhaps the left can capture some of these tepid socialism supporters at the right moment to convert them for good, and this same discussion will look a lot different in a few years.

But I doubt it. Sanders—and Trump—seem to me the 2016 heirs of the Hope and Change phenomenon, which propelled not just Barack Obama to 2008 victory but the rise of the Ron Paul movement. At its essence is the idea the system is fundamentally broken and only bold changes can begin to fix it. And the particulars of these bold changes seem to matter less than how convincing their messenger and the movement around them.

I was amazed talking to young people last year how many had been Paul and/or Obama fans in previous election cycles yet were now professing support for Sanders or Trump. The vast political gulfs between these candidates (especially on economic issues) didn't resonate as much as the areas and ways in which they promised reform.

Older folks and the extremely party-loyal tend to take this as youthful flakiness, a side-effect of unserious passions, hastily-conceived beliefs, or a juvenile contrarian streak. But perhaps a lot of younger Americans—not yet sold on the idea that it's one's civic duty to choose the lesser of two evils at election time, nor narcotized by years of show-pony partisanship into believing in vast differences between Democrats and Republicans—are reacting rationally to the options presented to them. The good news for libertarians (and socialists) is that millennials are definitely dissatisfied with the centrist Republican-Democrat status quo. But as the 2016 election made clear, there's room for this dissatisfaction to go in all sorts of different and unexpected directions.