For generations, younger Americans found Communists just as scary as Count Dracula, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Darth Vader. Socialism, so strongly associated with Marx and Lenin, never caught on in the United States. To modern millennials, however, fear of socialism seems as ancient as a rotary phone. In March 2019, Axios released results from a Harris poll showing that about half of millennial and Generation Z respondents believed that “our economy should be mostly socialist.” That result is no outlier, but rather a consistent finding over recent years. In 2018, Gallup found that 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Americans view socialism favorably; only 45 percent look at capitalism positively. An August 2018 YouGov poll revealed that only 30 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds had good feelings toward capitalism, while 35 percent regarded socialism positively. Bernie Sanders, an avowed Democratic Socialist, nearly captured the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, thanks in part to youth support. Another Democratic Socialist, newly elected House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, herself a millennial, has achieved overnight celebrity, accumulating more than 3 million Twitter followers while trumpeting a 70 percent marginal tax rate.
Just 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, how can socialism have made such a comeback? The likeliest answer: the Great Recession left millennials looking for alternatives to capitalism, without the Cold War ideological guideposts that positioned older generations. Both the Right and the Left have redefined socialism, moreover, so that many young supporters now think that it just means a cuddlier, more equitable government.
Yet even if socialism has been redefined, its rising approval among the young is still a problem for proponents of economic liberty. For decades, apostles of free markets could condemn bad economic ideas merely by branding them “socialist,” because real-world Marxists did such a good job of showing how much evil could radiate from a state-controlled economy. But those negative examples are mostly vanquished now. The task ahead is to convince today’s young people that society requires liberty as well as compassion. The private ingenuity that generates new products and new jobs needs both incentives and reasonable regulation. If our current politics tell us anything, it is that this case must be made again, with arguments that resonate among Americans who’ve probably never heard of Lavrentiy Beria.