Super Tuesday is in the rearview mirror, and former Vice President Joe Biden is on track to snatch the nomination from Sen. Bernie Sanders. But try as he might, “Amtrak Joe” can’t seem to get millennials on board with his campaign.
In every entrance and exit poll known to man, Mr. Sanders leads handily among twenty- and thirty-somethings. Commentators have bemoaned this persistent youth support for Mr. Sanders as the death knell of moderate Democratic politics, and the start of a noisy, disruptive division within the party’s ranks. But contrary to popular speculation, this is more fealty to brand loyalty than it is the ultimate triumph of socialism.
In fact, the youth are fickle on the hammer and sickle. Political prognosticators and future presidential candidates: Take note.
By now, nearly everyone has seen the headlines proclaiming that “millennial socialism” is on the rise. This received wisdom just feels right. Most of us can conjure images of latte-sipping, hipster-glasses-wearing Marxists who feel the need to deconstruct everything, including their Dr. Praeger’s California veggie burgers.
Millennials are indeed hip to the “s” word, and according to the widely reported results of a 2019 YouGov/Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation survey, 70 percent of the age cohort is at least somewhat likely to vote for a socialist candidate. Compare that to 44 percent for Gen Xers and 36 percent for boomers, and the generational disconnect appears quite jarring. The poll’s other findings, however, paint a completely different picture. An encouraging 50 percent of millennials have at least a somewhat favorable view of capitalism, not far removed from the 58 percent approval or 63 percent approval granted by Gen Xers and Boomers, respectively.
These seemingly irreconcilable findings are actually pretty normal. According to this 2014 Reason-Rupe survey, 56 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 53 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds approve of capitalism — compared to 51 percent among 45- to 54-year-olds. At the same time, 58 percent of Americans ages 18-24 back socialism, nearly double the 30 percent approval afforded by those in the 45-54 bracket.
And when you dive into the questions in the survey, it seems many of these millennials are just superficial socialists without a thorough understanding of the ideology. When Reason-Rupe asked millennial respondents which system — capitalism or socialism — they liked better, the former edged out the latter 52 percent to 42 percent. And when the words “capitalism” and “socialism” were subbed out for “free market economy” and “govt managed economy” respectively, the pro-capitalism response jumped to a respectable 64 percent, while socialism shrank to just 32 percent. Drilling down further, there’s just not much evidence to suggest that America’s young adults are sold on class warfare.
When asked on a scale from 0 to 100 whether “government in Washington ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor” via redistribution, Americans ages 18-29 have held remarkably steady at around 60 (moderately in favor of the proposition) over nearly 50 years. Meanwhile, the average for all Americans hovers in the mid-50s, making young Americans just slightly more woke than the typical citizen. And in 2018, just 22 percent of Americans ages 18-34 took the strongest possible position that the government should reduce income differences, compared to 21 percent of 35- to 49-year-olds and 20 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds.
Turns out, your oat-milk-sipping hipster friends have plenty of mundane, boomer-esque views about the economy once the veneer of “socialism” is stripped away. In fact, they have the very understandable, capitalistic impulse toward brand affinity. As famed political prognosticator Nate Silver points out, the support bases of Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul are very similar: young, white, male, secular and poor-ish, despite the two candidates embracing polar-opposite ideologies.
The brand appeal of two rambling old dudes with simple, consistent messages cannot be overstated, regardless of message. As a former campaign worker actively involved in the good doctor’s 2012 presidential bid, I see a great deal many similarities between Dr. Paul and Sen. Sanders’ campaigns. Some of “Dr. No’s” most steadfast supporters paid heed to maybe one or two of Dr. Paul’s cherished beliefs, but were mainly there for the ride. And I don’t blame them. It was fun screaming “Ron Paul Revolution! Give us back our Constitution!” and doing battle with smug, sweater vest-clad Rick Santorum supporters.
This “thrill up the leg” — not ideological rigor — best explains why millennials and college kids are so pumped about Bernie’s candidacy. Adulting may be hard, but it doesn’t take reading thick ideological tomes to recognize the many benefits of capitalism. And by all indications, America’s young adults get the basic, big picture: Free markets and limited government deliver the good stuff. Boomers needn’t be deluded by scary headlines proclaiming otherwise.
• Ross Marchand is a Young Voices contributor.
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