Bill Maher, the host of “Politically Incorrect,” recently claimed that a large number of younger people like socialism, a theme echoed by the magazine Foreign Policy. Conservative critics of colleges and millennials were quick to agree. A local letter to the editor speculated on why younger people like socialism. Yet none of them were correct about what younger people’s views really are.
A recent Harvard University survey found that 51 percent of those people between the ages of 18 to 29 don’t support capitalism, with 42 percent of that age group supporting capitalism. So naturally, pundits just assumed that it was a zero-sum game: Rejecting capitalism = support for socialism.
Of course, that finding was immediately pounced on by some liberals and conservatives as evidence that younger people like socialism. But they’re both wrong.
That same Harvard poll revealed that only a third of all younger people say that they support socialism, a much lower number than those opting for capitalism. That’s something you don’t see amid all the hand-wringing about millennials.
The International Business Times also claims that younger people are “warming up” to socialism, implying that support for this economic system is on the rise. But it isn’t. Back in 2011, a Pew Research Study found that 49 percent of 18-29 year-olds were favorably disposed to socialism, with 43 percent opposing it. That’s quite a slide for socialism.
Critics of millennials claim that the younger kids “just don’t know” about how bad socialism is because they don’t know anything about the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. I can’t answer for the non-college students, but those who show up to my classes are pretty well aware that the USSR isn’t around and that it fell. There are plenty of contemporary examples of socialist failures in North Korea and Venezuela. And Cuba’s shift from socialism is of interest to them.
The Washington Post correctly reported on how younger people feel about capitalism and socialism, but seemed befuddled by the results. “Young people’s views seem conflicted,” Max Ehrenfreund writes. But that’s because those critiquing millennials falsely assume that there are only two economic ideologies.
Younger people do seem more interested in libertarianism. In the 2011 Pew Research Center survey, half view the ideology in a positive light, with 28 percent seeing it in negative terms. Those numbers are similar to Tea Party support for libertarianism. That’s the highest amount of support any age group gives libertarianism; 30-49 year-olds narrowly support libertarianism (41-35 in positive to negative support), while majorities of those 50-65 and 65+ reject libertarianism.
An even larger percentage of Americans positively perceive the label “progressive” in that Pew poll (it would be nice if Harvard included other ideologies in its 2016 survey). Roughly two-thirds of all Pew poll respondents liked the term.
That could fit with what younger people are looking for. They reject the socialism of Hugo Chavez’s acolytes, as well as that of Kim Jong Un, but look with envy on the social safety net offered by European countries. This seems to fit with the Bernie Sanders campaign message that appeals to younger voters, which calls for an embrace of these social democrat ideas instead of a fawning over failed policies of the Soviet Union.
John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; email@example.com.