Millennials are simply not that alarmed by the idea of socialism. For instance, a national Reason-Rupe survey found that 53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds view socialism favorably, compared to only a quarter of Americans over 55. A more recent January YouGov survey found that 43 percent of respondents younger than 30 viewed socialism favorably, compared to 32 percent thinking favorably of capitalism.
In fact, millennials are the only age cohort in which more are favorable toward socialism than unfavorable.
First, millennials don’t seem to know what socialism is, and how it’s different from other styles of government. The definition of socialism is government ownership of the means of production—in other words, true socialism requires that government run the businesses. However, a CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of millennials could accurately define socialism, while 30 percent of Americans over 30 could. (Incidentally, 56 percent of Tea Partiers accurately defined it. In fact, those most concerned about socialism are those best able to explain it.)
So what do millennials think socialism is? A 2014 Reason-Rupe survey asked respondents to use their own words to describe socialism and found millennials who viewed it favorably were more likely to think of it as just people being kind or “being together,” as one millennial put it. Others thought of socialism as just a more generous social safety net where “the government pays for our own needs,” as another explained it.
If socialism is framed the way Sanders does, as just being a generous social safety net, it’s much harder to undermine among millennials. This narrative says government is a benevolent caretaker and pays for everybody’s needs (from everybody’s pockets), along the lines of the Obama administration’s Life of Julia montage. Millennials Don’t Want Government Running Businesses
However, young people do not like the true definition of socialism—the idea of government running businesses. If socialism is framed as government running Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, etc., it does not go over well.
A major reason Americans internalized the dangers of socialism in the past was that it was linked to the foreign threat of the Soviet Union and tyranny—and that is something regular people can understand. Because Americans were already predisposed to associate socialism with their enemy, people were more willing to accept the reasons socialism is problematic. Thus, throughout the Cold War, socialism in the public mind became associated with clearly visualized economic, political, religious, and moral evils.
First, it was clear that Soviet socialism was at odds with the American-style free enterprise system. The USSR had a completely centrally planned economy with shortages, rationing, long lines, less innovation, less variety, lower-quality goods and services, and a lower standard of living as the consequence. Thus, free-market economists probably had an easier time convincing Americans that American capitalism was far preferable to Soviet socialism.
Second, the Soviet socialist system was a system of political repression that disregarded human freedom, particularly evidenced by it sending tens of millions to forced labor camps. Soviet socialism required utmost control not just over the economy but also over people’s lives—it demanded conformity, not autonomy, as a centralized bureaucratic force attempted to achieve equality of outcomes. Thus Soviet officials sought to stamp out any source of possible opposition to state authority, including from artists, musicians, religious clergy, and even regular people making jokes or raising complaints about the government. The Soviet socialist system was a system of political repression that disregarded human freedom, particularly evidenced by it sending tens of millions to forced labor camps.
Third, Americans also internalized the moral dangers of socialism. For instance, in interviews with older Tea Party activists Emily conducted throughout the country for her research, many explained socialism in moral terms. They would reference the USSR and explain how socialism hurts the human spirit because it takes the drive out of people and makes them dependent, thereby undermining their self-worth and self-efficacy. They saw socialism as inherently demoralizing for punishing producers and achievers and rewarding indolence. Thus, socialism became a moral evil, as well as a political and economic one.
Fourth, many Americans came to view socialism as threat to religion. The USSR’s state-sponsored anti-religious campaigns in efforts to promote atheism shut down most of the churches and decimated clergy. Given how the USSR treated religious groups, Americans came to view socialism as a system that attempted to replace faith and community with government.
Millennials reached adulthood after the Cold War ended, however, and they don’t remember hearing much about Soviet socialism. Neither have they learned much about it in school. Also, without the obvious association between socialism and foreign threat, they have less of a reason to accept arguments for why socialism is economically and politically restrictive.
Perhaps the most important reason millennials are less concerned about socialism is that they associate socialism with Scandinavia, not the Soviet Union. Modern “socialism” today appears to be a gentler, kinder version. For instance, countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway offer a far more generous social safety net with much higher taxes.
In this view, government just covers people’s basic needs (from everybody’s pockets, of course), but doesn’t seize all the businesses and try to run them, or overtly attempt to control people’s consciences.
These countries actually are not socialist, but “socialistic.” To accommodate their massive social welfare spending, these countries opened their economies to free-market forces in the 1990s, sold off state-owned companies, eased restrictions on business start-ups, reduced barriers to trade and business regulation, and introduced more competition into health care and public services.
In fact, today these countries outrank the United States on business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights, according to the Heritage Economic Freedom Index. So, if anything, the lesson from Scandinavian countries is that market reforms, not socialist ones, explain their prosperity.
Unlike the USSR, this modern version of this quasi-socialism has also learned to defer its costs, effectively consuming the future to make things materially more comfortable for those in the present. Like the United States, European welfare states have racked up huge debts and unfunded liabilities. However, their populaces don’t feel that immediately, because citizens haven’t yet had to pay all the taxes that must come with it.
If young people had to pay for all the socialist schemes they ostensibly support, their support might rapidly erode.