A majority of millennials favor socialism –
how did this happen?
It was September 2016, and Hillary Clinton had a youth problem.
In a conference room at Democratic National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill, about a third of the folding tables and chairs sat empty at the height of a phone-a-thon for which staffers had bussed in local college kids from multiple campuses. Despite the free pizza and chipper call scripts, they were losing steam. They made the same pitch to likely voters their age, complete with assurances that despite her awkward Snapchat presence she “means well” – and a reminder that she’d poached key campaign promises from Senator Bernie Sanders by then: debt-free college, a minimum-wage raise, and health care as a human right – but mostly they filtered in and out.
In a portentous flourish, one skinny George Washington University sophomore filed in to the phonebank, joined a table of his friends and slapped a fat paperback on the table, announcing his true allegiance like it was the totem of his clan. It was Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) founding member Michael Harrington’s Socialism: Past and Future, its bright red cover bearing a black fist raised in silent protest.
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That summer, thousands of Sanders supporters had flooded Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. One University of Chicago student who’d driven five hours in beach traffic from his north Jersey hometown with his acquiescent girlfriend in tow compared catching what would be Sanders’ final rally of 2016 to seeing a great band play live one last time before they broke up. He had a point: I saw 20-something bros in man buns and teenaged girls in cut-offs and ponytails mouthing along to a familiar refrain about, “the millionaires and billionaires who are destroying this country.”
Everybody knows what happened next.
Clinton’s problem – one of several, as it happened – came to bear, a self-styled billionaire found his way to the White House, and the socialist anxiety percolating among fervid Sanders never died down. It went mainstream. Sanders is on a reunion tour, but he keeps having to remind his fresh-faced electoral heirs that he was there first. In reality, he’d been dancing more or less alone out on fringes of the far left since the 1970s.
The Democratic Socialists of America were a non-entity on the political landscape until Trump won.
The Democratic Socialists of America were a non-entity on the political landscape until Trump won. Socialism itself had been something less than an electoral afterthought, relegated to the realm of fringe activism and academic esoterica since the age of Eugene V. Debs – whose speeches a 30-year-old Sanders used to edit for Burlington High School history class film projectors to supplement his freelance writing and amateur carpentry income.
But in the two years since the DNC sidelined him, the DSA’s membership has grown from less than 5,000 to closer to 60,000 members. Last year, 53% of likely 18- to 29-year-old voters polled by Harvard’s Institute of Politics favored democratic socialism – compared to 48% who expressed a favorable view of capitalism. Polling by Survey Monkey for Axios likewise showed a majority of 18- to 34-year-olds holding a positive view of socialism, and Gallup found the same among Democrats across the board.
How Did This Happen?
To begin with, “I’m just really pleased,” says pioneering late-20th-century socialist activist and reigning matriarch of City University of New York’s famously lefty poli-sci department Frances Fox Piven.
A founding board member of the Democratic Socialists of America – alongside Michael Harrington – Piven was an early architect of the welfare socialist movement in 1960s New York. She and her husband Richard Cloward exerted prominent influence over public policy in the early Clinton years. Now, she’s a “benign adviser” to the DSA.
“Conservatives still use the word ‘socialist’ as a tag to tarnish their opponents,” she complains, “but they’ve been doing that since the Reagan era.” The sense of taboo has helped make socialism fashionable, she and I agree. Even Teen Vogue – as archetypal an arbiter of youth fashion as they come – routinely shills for the far left: An essay celebrating anarchism recently ran alongside “Who Is Karl Marx: Meet the Anti-Capitalist Scholar” and “What ‘Capitalism’ Is and How It Affects People.”
The lefty podcast Chapo Trap House propagates so-called “dirtbag” socialism on the digital airwaves – making irreverent but ideologically strident fun of their neoliberal foes for an audience who funds their dirtbaggery through a flush of online donations. A new dating app, Red Yenta, hooks up socialist singles so they don’t have to answer questions about dystopian Venezuela from the sorts of skeptics they’d meet on Tinder or Match.com.
“This generation is different,” Piven perceives. “They no longer feel, as past generations did, that they have time to fix the world’s problems. Their activism has an edge of earnestness, maybe desperation. Everybody has a sense of crisis.”
As more and more Americans come of voting age with no memory of the Soviet bloc before
the Berlin Wall fell, the more young socialists you’ll meet.
The cultural prominence of socialism is but a secondary symptom of history’s insistent arc toward fairness, Piven then counters. “The real idea is to recover America’s capacity to support social programs that promote fairness,” she says. “This is what we did in the 1930s and continued to do until the Reagan era.” As more and more Americans come of voting age with no memory of the Soviet bloc before the Berlin Wall fell, in other words – the more young socialists you’ll meet.
‘The Era of Compromise Is Effectively Over’
Come 2018, candidates inspired by Sanders’ popularity to call themselves socialists ran at every level. The likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Andrew Gillum, and Julia Salazar gained national coverage they wouldn’t have before Sanders – plenty of it critical, much of it fawning. Some of them even won their races.
Others, like James Thompson in Kansas and two of the four Pennsylvania state house candidates backed by the DSA, successfully primaried entrenched Democrats only to lose to Republicans. They’re still at it, though: Thompson, for one, was already back in the news last month when he got picked up for speeding with a suspended license – and, per the Wichita Eagle’s coverage of his arrest, he’s already planning to run for retiring Republican Senator Pat Roberts’ seat in 2020.
More socialist upstarts ran on the DSA’s platform than actually won – but more are running than ever before. One such candidate was Nomiki Konst, 35, a fixture in far-left politics and a frequent cable news commentator ever since the 2016 race. Something of a self-promotional chameleon, her inconsistently accurate biography met new scrutiny during her recent campaign to succeed Letitia James as New York City’s public advocate. She ran to the left of – and ultimately lost to – fellow democratic-socialist candidate, Jumaane Williams.
Konst is still weighing what her next role in the socialist revolution should be, she tells me – but, for now, she’s “mainly resting.” But whatever the political future holds, she doesn’t doubt it will be dominated by angsty young socialists.
Her campaign volunteers were primarily young millennial members of the Democratic Socialists of America. Their eager embrace of socialist tenets – free health care, college, housing, and a universal basic income for all – has less to do with their having been born into a post-Cold-War world, she tells me, and more to do with those millionaires and billionaires Bernie Sanders mentioned.
“It comes down to how the economy failed a majority of Americans,” Konst explains, turning down the volume on cable news so we can hear each other. “Occupy [Wall Street] was a response. Senator Sanders’ rise was a response to institutions’ not talking about working class people.” And so surely, she doesn’t go so far as to say, was Trump’s rise. “Late-stage capitalism has dominated our politics for too long,” she adds, invoking the 1930s-era catch-all term lately repopularized to refer to any and all perceived unfairness. “The era of compromise is effectively over.”
I’m Like, ‘This Isn’t the Cold War’
Young socialists are everywhere.
Even Utah State University, in the deeply conservative canyon town of Logan, has a democratic socialist club, thanks to 25-year-old junior Diego Mendiola. Since he organized the group in mid-January, finally finding an adviser from the philosophy department after every political-science professor he approached recoiled from the “socialist” label, the mailing list has grown to more than 50 members. One girl who found herself accidentally added to their listserv blasted an all-caps reply-all, Mendiola recalls: “She wrote, ‘I AM A RIGHT WING CONSERVATIVE WE DO NOT SHARE ANY VALUES PLEASE TAKE ME OFF YOUR LIST.’ I replied with a private apology, and an invitation to come discuss ideas.” She hasn’t yet.
Their first “direct action” on campus was a silent protest, hoisting a banner that read “DOWN WITH KOCH INFLUENCE” during a talk by Sheryl Corrigan, the director of environment, health and safety for Koch Industries. “It definitely worked,” he says, “The cops ended up coming at me.” He and another student were questioned by police in the university’s Huntsman Hall – and the campus and local papers both covered their protest. “I’ve never had so many people ask me, ‘Who are the “Kotch” brothers,’” he laughs.
Like many millennials, Mendiola started calling himself a socialist in 2017. “But I was a lot further left than Bernie,” he qualifies, “I considered myself an anarcho-syndicalist.” Most of the critiques he hears from classmates concern Venezuela’s dystopian hellscape of a socialist experiment. Some of Mendiola’s critics on campus become tentative friends, like one libertarian classmate, Chris, whom he met during a demonstration a few weeks ago.
“We had a tabling event on campus, and he came up to us and took one of our little pamphlets and said, ‘What about the dictatorship of the proletariat?,’” he recalls. “We were a little confused. We were like, ‘What about it?’”
“Then we realized we have things in common: We like Radiohead, we like philosophy, we like traveling. Now we understand each other.” They may not agree but Chris’ views made sense, Mendiola then realized. “It’s easier to lean toward libertarian ideologies because it’s more familiar to the American way of life,” he allows – in a kind of living affront to Konst’s admonition that the era of compromise is over.
Washington, D.C.’s typically conservative Catholic University of America has a fledgling democratic socialist club now, too. Second-semester senior Duane Patrick Murphy, 23, who founded it earlier this year, is still feeling out its utility on campus. “We need to have a serious discussion about what the ideology actual is in practice, a dialogue beyond just ‘well look at Denmark,’” he tells me, sounding circumspect beyond his years. (And he has a point: As Danish Prime Minister Lars-Løkke Rasmussen told an audience at Harvard in 2015, “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”)
Among campus socialists Murphy sounds like something of a rebel, but he comes by it naturally, having grown up in Orange County, California – with Fox News a more-or-less constant background presence in his parents’ house. “My dad is a Reaganite. He’s like, ‘What’s going on here?’ And I’m like, ‘This isn’t the Cold War.’” Murphy hopes to find work as a far-left political organizer after graduation but expects to move into a more remunerative field once he’s ready to start a family – by which point, Murphy’s dad believes, he’ll be ready to reconsider his worldview too.
There might be something to that paternal prediction. Support for socialist programs is closely linked to age – with a majority of Americans under 35, those with no clear memories of 20th century communism in other words, increasingly favoring socialism. Gallup’s 2018 poll of Democrats breaks the spread at age 30, after which support for capitalism increases from 45% to 58%. And Axios’ data show that older millennials polled across party lines tend to soften on capitalism, which six out of 10 25-to-34-year-old respondents view positively, compared to five in 10 with a favorable view of socialism. Respondents in their late twenties and early thirties don’t remember Reagan any better. But they have been living and working in American society longer than their college-aged counterparts – and, not unlike DSA Diego meeting libertarian Chris, they must have found something that made sense.
Alice Lloyd is a writer in Washington, D.C. and a Weekly Standard widow.