Unless capitalism ... can create a credible future for the young, there’s little reason to expect that this generation will abandon their determination to change the system that, for all its faults, has created more prosperity over time for more people than any other.
The biggest story this election season is not Donald Trump or the fortunes of the two winners in Iowa, the unattractive tag team of Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton. For all their attempts to seem current and contemporary, these candidates – and Trump as well – represent older, more established elements in American life, such as evangelicals, nativists and, in Hillary’s case, the ranks of middle-age women, seniors and public-sector unions.
The biggest and most important development has been the massive support among the new generation of voters for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his open embrace of socialism. In Iowa’s Democratic caucuses, which ended with Clinton and Sanders in a virtual tie, young people opted for Sanders at an almost inconceivable rate of 84-14. In 2008, Barack Obama won this segment, claiming only a 57 percent majority.
So we are seeing the embrace of an openly socialist septuagenarian by a generation that, within a decade, will dominate our electorate and outnumber baby boomers as soon as 2020. That should put more conventional politicians, and business, on notice. Whether you are a Republican, a free-marketer or, even a Democratic-leaning crony capitalist, be afraid – be very afraid.
For the first time since labor leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs in the early 20th century, Americans are flocking in big numbers to a politician who rejects the efficacy of capitalism and seeks to create a new, notionally fairer, system. Now, as then, the reason to support socialist ideas – some of which were implemented during the New Deal – lies with the palpable failures of capitalism. Polls of millennials show consistently that economic issues, such as jobs and college debt, are their dominant concerns.
The new generation’s lurch toward socialism would have been unimaginable at any previous moment in the past half century. A recent yougov.com poll found some 36 percent of people ages 18-29 favor socialism compared with barely 39 percent support for capitalism. Support for socialism drops precipitously, to 26 percent, among people ages 30-44, tumbles to 24 percent support among those ages 45 to 64 and hits 15 percent among those over 65.
Another poll, this one from Pew, finds that 43 percent of millennials have positive connotations about the word “socialism,” compared with less than half that level among people over 50.
Perhaps one reason for this divergence lies in memory, or lack of it. Few millennials remember the collapse of the Soviet Union’s “evil empire,” which occurred when the oldest of them were barely out of diapers. In contrast to older generations, who reacted against Soviet-style politics, millennials seem to make little distinction between liberal progressivism and socialism.
Conservative academics, a small but sometimes hardy band, place blame on a lack of teaching about the realities of socialism by generally left-leaning instructors at universities or high schools. Certainly from what I see, at least, few students seem to know about Stalinist and Maoist purges, famines and thought control.
Yet it’s not just ignorance at work here. Millennials are coming up in a very tough economy where opportunity is limited, even for college graduates, with diminishing returns accompanying soaring tuition. Millennials are finding everything harder than their parents did – leaving a record number living at home into their late 20s and earlier 30s, or sheltering with their friends in apartments. Record levels of student debt, twice the average two decades ago, are slowing economic progress. Relieving this indebtedness is one element of Sanders’ appeal.
At the same time,relatively few young people are starting businesses. Being in debt and asset-free does not augur well for the prospect of nurturing appreciation for the creative power of capitalism in the next generation.
A party divided
The rise of support for socialism among millennials is having an immediate impact on the Democratic Party. Many left-leaning Democrats rightfully detest the kind of modulated crony capitalism epitomized by Hillary Clinton. This could precipitate a civil war among major Democratic donors – notably in Silicon Valley – who may embrace progressive views on cultural and environmental issues, but have little interest in having their massive wealth threatened by regulations or hypertaxation.
“They don’t like [Bernie] Sanders at all,” notes San Francisco-based researcher Greg Ferenstein, who has been polling Internet company founders for an upcoming book. Sanders’ emphasis on income redistribution and protecting union privileges and pensions violates the favorite notions of the tech elite. “He’s an egalitarian liberal,” Ferenstein explains, “these people are tech liberals. Equality is a nonissue in Silicon Valley.”
Although maybe not an issue among the tech oligarchs, class and inequality are not “nonissues” for many progressives of all ages. In blue bastions like San Francisco, grass-roots progressives regard tech billionaires, and their employees, with about the same regard evangelicals have for abortionists. To many old-line Bay Area liberals, the tech moguls – with their tax breaks, special employee buses and expensive tastes – are transforming their once-diverse city into an unconscionably expensive, class-ridden enclave. In many ways, as the Who sang, “the new boss” turns out to be as remarkably oppressive as the “old boss.”
This division will become clearer as the Clinton machine, and its media apparatus, go after Sanders. The Vermont senator was better treated before he posed a serious threat. Now that he is challenging the gentry liberal consensus, the mainstream media, increasingly under the sway of tech oligarchs, are mounting increasingly strident attacks on Sanders. These attacks have been led by the Washington Post, owned by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, whose fortune and sometimes brutal business practices would fare far better under Clinton than Sanders.
Indeed, the defense of crony capitalism is implicit in the Clinton appeal. After all, she is running with funds collected from financial, technology and other crony industries. Some of these same people have also been quite generous toward the Clinton Foundation, Bill and Hillary’s ethically challenged holding company.
Future of capitalism
Some conservatives – particularly given the chaos of the Republican race – might be tempted to revel in the new Democratic lurch to the left, which conceivably could drive the party too far from the mainstream, at least for older generations. But millennials are the future, and, if the GOP retains its reactionary ideas on key social issues – notably the mass expulsion of undocumented immigrants, legalizing marijuana and gay marriage – its chances of reaching millennial voters may be minimal.
Ultimately, the future of capitalism depends on making the system work for the majority of people, including millennials. The current system, frankly, is producing few benefits for the vast majority of Americans, giving the free market a bad name and turning off millennials. Fully half of them, notes a recent Harvard study, already believe the “American Dream” is dead. More than 10 million millennials are outside the system, neither employed nor in education or training, a population that seems ripe for leftist agitation.
Simply put, to change millennial views, capitalism also needs to change from its current trajectory. The predominant system of crony capitalism, most ensconced in blue states like California, clearly favors the already affluent. At the same time, nonsocialists need to do a better job of explaining the past failures of state control; most millennials, as the Reason Foundation has pointed out, do not even associate socialism with a state-centered economy, which most of them say they would strongly oppose.
And, to be sure, there are elements of millennial attitudes that push back against socialist practices. Millennials, for example, tend to distrust all institutions, including government, according to Pew, and half consider themselves independents, far more than in any other generation. They may be alienated from large financial and corporate institutions but may not remain permanently in the tank for ever more intrusive government.
Ultimately, reality, not knowledge, changes attitudes. Until capitalists focus more on jobs and upward mobility, and less on asset inflation, young people have little reason to change their minds. Unless capitalism or its crony offshoots can create a credible future for the young, there’s little reason to expect that this generation will abandon their determination to change the system that, for all its faults, has created more prosperity over time for more people than any other.
Staff opinion columnist Joel Kotkin is R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University. He is executive editor of www.newgeography.com and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.
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