Why Do So Many Millennials Embrace Socialism?

February 22, 2019

Tax the rich! Universal health care! Free education! The cries for socialism are growing louder.

During the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a self-described “democratic socialist,” won more than 12 million votes. The following election cycle saw the rise of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a self-described “radical” whose outspoken support of Medicare for All and other big-government policies have catapulted her into a media darling. Throw in said media’s flattering depictions of the welfare state, and free-market advocates have their work cut out for them.

Based on recent polls, socialism is winning the branding battle. Most Americans (54 percent) associate socialism with health insurance, retirement support, and access to free education, while barely 40 percent equate it to government control of the economy. It’s no wonder that 52 percent of millennials would prefer to live in a socialist or communist country than a capitalist one.

Which brings us to the million-dollar question: Why is socialism so popular among millennials?

As a millennial myself, I can think of three explanations for young America’s socialist sympathies (among others):

What is “socialism”?

Do most millennials actually support socialism, an economy orchestrated unilaterally by an encroaching government? Or do they support a romanticized version of the welfare state, in which the wealthy empower the less fortunate with the government’s help?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “socialism” as “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.” But how many young Americans define it in such blunt terms? Many millennials advocate for higher taxes on the “one percent,” sure, but not necessarily the 70 percent tax rates being floated by congressional Democrats. “Paying your fair share” is a popular concept among millennials, but not many are willing to drill down on the numbers—the inconvenient truths of socialism. It’s far more difficult for a millennial to justify 70 percent tax rates than some vague notion of “giving back.”

“Socialism” depends on who you ask.

That being said, it’s not so difficult for millennials to romanticize socialism when they’ve never actually witnessed its consequences in practice—even from afar. Age influences perception. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans aged 18   to 29 have a positive image of socialism, while only 27 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds do. Even fewer Americans aged 65 or older (24 percent) view socialism favorably.

Why would they? Many associate socialism with the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s—which claimed more than three million lives—or Stalin’s Gulags that wiped out millions more. To those who lived through the Cold War, “socialism” often translates to the eradication of free enterprise and the silencing of free speech, not some idyllic picture of government-engineered harmony.

For socialist millennials, modern-day parallels in China or Venezuela don’t quite hit as close to home, in part because U.S.-Soviet tensions produced a direct juxtaposition of political systems—one lived and learned by Americans for decades. Today’s millennials look to the likes of Denmark and Sweden as model societies because they are not so different from our own, and their drawbacks are not exposed to us on a daily basis. Food shortages and hyperinflation in Venezuela are just too far afield. Cue the “it could never happen here.”

The “solution” to income inequality.

Of course, there are plenty of millennials who can define socialism and fully grasp its historical legacy—and still prefer it over capitalism. In fact, most millennials believe America’s economic system works against them, with 40 percent supporting a “complete change” to that system. Why? To ensure that high earners “pay their fair share.”

If President Trump’s election and the Brexit vote were driven primarily by economic anxiety, then socialist sympathies are not so different. By and large, millennials are struggling to save money and prepare themselves for the future. Based on research from Stanford University, “young people entering the workforce today are far less likely to earn more than their parents when compared to children born two generations before them.” In pursuit of financial security, more than half of millennials (51 percent) hold some kind of second job.

When you lack that financial security, you’re more likely to scapegoat the “one percent” and support radical overhauls of the “system.” If the status quo ain’t sexy, then socialism just might be—or so they hope.

It’s up to free-market advocates to convince them otherwise—and that won’t be easy. On the bright side, capitalism has a lot going for it. Not only does economic freedom promote technological innovation and other forms of entrepreneurship, but it has done more to combat poverty than any other economic system over the course of history. Even now, an average of 60,000 people escape extreme poverty every single day. There is an indisputable connection between the private ownership of capital and economic growth—a rising tide that lifts all boats.

The voluntary exchange of goods and services, reinforced by the rule of law, is the surest path to individual liberty. In the words of President Reagan: “As government expands, liberty contracts.”

Those words resonate now more than ever. The rise of socialism calls for the strongest defense of liberty yet.

Luka Ladan is the President and CEO of Zenica Public Relations and a Catalyst Policy Fellow. Prior to founding Zenica, Ladan served as Communications Director at a leading public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
Catalyst articles by Luka Ladan