In article in the conservative Orange County Register is alarmed by the apparent :lucrch to socialism” by Millennials. Unlike some pundits, who claim it’s just a bunch of spoiled idealistic kids who don’t understand the nature of economics, Joel Kotkin recognizes that there are good, solid reasons for this shift, even if he considers it dangerous. Part of it reflects failures of our current economic system, and in part the specific issues facing young people. He points out that such admiration for someone like Sanders would have been unimaginable in any previous generation since the New Deal. The solution, he suggests, is making capitalism work for people, rather than the elites.
Teaching at a university and listening to students, I hear a lot of support for Bernie Sanders. Yet I think Kotkin is a bit too 20th Century in his analysis. It’s not that Millennials “want socialism;” rather, young people are in many ways post-ideological. Whereas the 20th Century was the “century of ideologies,” the current era finds ideological conflict vacuous, a kind of intellectual play with ideas that don’t connect to the real world.
Young people know communism failed. They know the Soviet Union collapsed, and they do not talk about the workers owning the means of production, or the state dismantling the capitalist system. Their focus is on issues – debt, opportunity, the massive concentration of wealth at the top, and the increasing economic problems their generation faces.
Hillary Clinton represents the old way of thinking to them. Ties with Wall Street, insider politics, a focus on interest groups rather than on average people. Sanders is a breath of fresh air, someone who addresses the issues they take seriously.
And the socialism? It’s true that Millennials don’t have the same negative connotation with the word that us 20th Century folk hold. They also know that many European countries have the kind of “socialism” Sanders espouses, and those countries are free, prosperous and often lack the problems facing young Americans.
In other words, young people are interested in opportunity and a better quality of life, not ideological socialism. Now, the Scandinavian system wouldn’t work in the US for a variety of reasons, but we can still learn from what they do that does work. Young people understand that power and wealth are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, the country’s infrastructure is falling apart, and opportunities to make it in the middle class are fading.
If Sanders were to win, he’d have limited success in making his plans a reality. Congress would balk, and he’d need to make major compromises. However, he is demonstrating that young people can’t be counted on to vote for either party, and are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. He is starting a movement, and even if he wants to, he can’t simply direct his supporters to vote Clinton if she gets the nomination.
The good news for people like Kotkin is that Sanders doesn’t represent an attack on market capitalism or some kind of effort to nationalize industry and create a massive central government. That’s not what young people want, they distrust concentrated power. The bad news for those who like the current power structure is that these Millennials will dominate electoral politics soon, and change is coming. And ultimately Kotkin is correct: the solution is to make market capitalism work for the people, not primarily for interest groups and elites.