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It seems like only a few years ago being called a socialist in American politics was an insult. Today, however, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders—a self-avowed socialist—is quickly rising in the polls, and millennials are largely driving his support.
The Iowa caucus entrance poll found Sanders garnered an overwhelming 84 percent of the 30 and under vote. Exit polls from New Hampshire found 85 percent support for Sanders among voters ages 30 and younger.
What is going on? Millennials are simply not that alarmed by the idea of socialism.
For instance, a national Reason-Rupe survey found that 53 percent of to year-olds view socialism favorably, compared to only a quarter of Americans over A more recent January YouGov survey found that 43 percent of respondents younger than 30 viewed socialism favorably, compared to 32 percent thinking favorably of capitalism.
In fact, millennials are the only age cohort in which more are favorable toward socialism than unfavorable. Young people are also more comfortable with a political candidate who describes him- or herself as a socialist.
Among those older than 45, only about half that agree. So why are millennials so much more favorable toward socialism compared to older Americans? The definition of socialism is government ownership of the means of production—in other words, true socialism requires that government run the businesses.
Incidentally, 56 percent of Tea Partiers accurately defined it.
In fact, those most concerned about socialism are those best able to explain it. With so few able to define socialism, perhaps less surprisingly a Reason-Rupe national survey found college-aged millennials were about as likely to have a favorable view of socialism 58 percent as they were about capitalism 56 percent.
While attitudes toward capitalism remain fairly constant across age groups, support for socialism drops off significantly when moving to older age cohorts. Only about a quarter of Americans older than 55 have a favorable view of socialism.
Government is slow, rigid, and outdated, while businesses have to compete with each other and only make money if they serve the needs and desires of their customers, so businesses have to be more innovative, quick, and flexible. If not, they fail. Government does not face those same constraints.
The Cold War Presented a Stark Contrast But there must be more to the story, because most Americans have an unfavorable opinion of socialism despite not being able to define it outright. So why might millennials have less negative visceral reaction to socialism? Partly because the Cold War has ended.
Throughout the Cold War, socialism in the public mind became associated with clearly visualized economic, political, religious, and moral evils. A major reason Americans internalized the dangers of socialism in the past was that it was linked to the foreign threat of the Soviet Union and tyranny—and that is something regular people can understand.
Because Americans were already predisposed to associate socialism with their enemy, people were more willing to accept the reasons socialism is problematic.
Thus, throughout the Cold War, socialism in the public mind became associated with clearly visualized economic, political, religious, and moral evils.
First, it was clear that Soviet socialism was at odds with the American-style free enterprise system. The USSR had a completely centrally planned economy with shortages, rationing, long lines, less innovation, less variety, lower-quality goods and services, and a lower standard of living as the consequence.
Thus, free-market economists probably had an easier time convincing Americans that American capitalism was far preferable to Soviet socialism. Second, the Soviet socialist system was a system of political repression that disregarded human freedom, particularly evidenced by it sending tens of millions to forced labor camps.
Thus Soviet officials sought to stamp out any source of possible opposition to state authority, including from artists, musicians, religious clergy, and even regular people making jokes or raising complaints about the government. The Soviet socialist system was a system of political repression that disregarded human freedom, particularly evidenced by it sending tens of millions to forced labor camps.
Third, Americans also internalized the moral dangers of socialism. For instance, in interviews with older Tea Party activists Emily conducted throughout the country for her research, many explained socialism in moral terms.
They would reference the USSR and explain how socialism hurts the human spirit because it takes the drive out of people and makes them dependent, thereby undermining their self-worth and self-efficacy.
They saw socialism as inherently demoralizing for punishing producers and achievers and rewarding indolence. Thus, socialism became a moral evil, as well as a political and economic one. Fourth, many Americans came to view socialism as threat to religion.
Given how the USSR treated religious groups, Americans came to view socialism as a system that attempted to replace faith and community with government. Neither have they learned much about it in school. Also, without the obvious association between socialism and foreign threat, they have less of a reason to accept arguments for why socialism is economically and politically restrictive.
Millennials are also less religious than previous cohorts, so they are less sensitive to the concern that socialism replaces God with government.
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