Since 2019, many young Americans, even Republicans, have become more open to socialism.
If you’re finding it harder to get by these days, you’re not alone. Almost all of us are feeling the squeeze. The high cost of living, debt, low-paying jobs, political mayhem, regional disasters, and the ongoing pandemic can make every day a struggle. A survey taken earlier this month by Axios/Momentive found that across the spectrum, people are more worried about jobs and the economy than many of the other challenges facing us today. However, what people think should be done about it is changing. Overall, a growing number of Americans are more open to socialism than they used to be. Most surprisingly, this shift is most apparent in young Republicans.
Of course, it’s not always clear what people mean when they say they are open to socialism. The word means different things to different people, and covers everything from “public ownership of the means of production” to “when government does anything that helps people.” There’s even a particularly American interpretation of socialism, a dog-whistle term that hearkens back to the post-Civil War era when white Southerners felt threatened by the idea that recently freed African-American men might use their new voting power to improve their lot by increasing taxes and turning private wealth into public goods like schools and hospitals. Socialism has been used as a racialized scare-word ever since, which makes the Axios poll results that much more astounding.
According to the poll, Americans are split, unsurprisingly, along a political divide when it comes to their opinions on capitalism and socialism. Those who identify as conservative have vastly more positive feelings about capitalism and negative associations with socialism than do those who identify as liberal.
Overall, 57% of Americans react positively (and 36% react negatively) to the word “capitalism” while 41% react positively (and 52% negatively) to the word “socialism.” These views haven’t changed much for older people. However, young people are increasingly open to socialism across the board; among the 18-34 age group, a roughly equal number of people hold positive and negative views of capitalism, a big change from 2019 when the split was 58% positive and 38% negative. The change is even more striking among Republicans aged 18-34. In 2019, 81% of these young Republicans had a positive view of capitalism; now it’s only 66%. Then, only 40% of young Republicans thought the government should act to reduce inequality, but now, it’s up to 56%.
The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), a right-wing libertarian think tank, was alarmed to hear that young Republicans find arguments like theirs less convincing in the light of a pandemic, economic dysfunction, and four years of a President who coasted into power as an economic populist but whose policies were still the same old “feed the rich” agenda. “From student loan debt to jobs and opportunity to climate change and all the other issues young people care about today, we must do our utmost to explain how big government, not free-market capitalism, is what’s really causing the problem,” wrote Brad Polumbo, a FEE journalist. That’s a hard sell when we can see the market causing problems all around us. Do they think young people are stupid?
In the end, we might well have former President Donald J. Trump to thank for the explosion of pro-socialist sentiment in the United States today. According to journalist and political observer Justin King (who posts as popular YouTuber “Beau of the Fifth Column”), Trump did more for the political Left in the United States than any leftist ever could. By opposing “socialism” and tagging centrist and center-Right Democrats with that epithet, he drew attention to it in a way that made people who were disgusted by his policy agenda think that maybe socialism was a system worth looking into.
This surge in the number of young Americans hostile to predatory capitalism and open to socialism could have an outsized impact on the country as they begin to take the political reins from aging Baby Boomers. There’s the possibility that the United States, a country so skewed to the Right that even the political party popularly considered Leftish is still visibly Right-of-center, could someday have a functional Left again (by international standards). At the very least, it’ll be harder for Republicans to use “Socialist!” as an insult against those who wear it as a badge of pride.
Related: Socialism. You Keep Using That Word…