Over the last decade, there has been an ever-growing sympathy for socialism among Democrats, particularly among the young, aged from 18 to 40, including millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born after 1996). This sympathy showed up in Bernie Sanders’s support in 2016 and 2020, and even to some extent in Elizabeth Warren’s, and in the popularity of Ocasio-Cortez.
In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in January 2020, 60 percent of Sanders’s voters had a positive view of socialism, and only 4 percent held a negative view. (The rest declined to state.) Only 12 percent had a positive view of capitalism. Sanders’s support was concentrated among the young. In the 2016 presidential primaries, Sanders got more votes from 18- to 29-year-olds than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.
In a YouGov poll done for Data for Progress in December 2019, 21 percent of all voters preferred socialism to capitalism, 55 percent preferred capitalism, and 24 percent were not sure. Among Democrats, 38 percent preferred socialism, 27 percent preferred capitalism, and 35 percent were not sure. Among 18- to 29-year-old Democrats, 47 percent preferred socialism, 18 percent capitalism, and 35 percent were not sure. Among 30- to 44-year-olds, 47 percent preferred socialism, 28 percent capitalism, and 25 percent were not sure.
Almost a third of Democrats who had graduated from a four-year college but had not pursued an advanced degree identified as socialists; only about a sixth of those who had not graduated or who had an advanced degree identified as socialists. In other words, those who identified as socialists were probably from the lower stratum of the college-educated. And those who thought of themselves as socialists were very likely to live in a city or suburb rather than in a town or in the country. The socialists were generally under forty-five, had graduated from college, and lived in big metro centers. But there were still significant numbers of socialists who had not graduated from a four-year college.
So, what accounts for the rising support for socialism and opposition to capitalism, particularly among the young?
My theory was that since many of these young socialists were living in big cities, they simply can’t afford their expensive New York and Los Angeles lifestyles and studio apartments, or just don’t know how to make capital. Besides the Sanders presidential campaigns, there are actually three large events or developments and one underlying trend.
The most important event was the Great Recession that began in 2008, reinforcing anxieties about capitalism and about economic security that had been building since the beginning of the twenty-first century. While the reaction to the recession spawned the Tea Party among many older Americans outside big metro areas, it provoked a spate of movements critical of capitalism among the young, beginning with Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and culminating in the Sanders and Warren campaigns.
The second is the specter of climate change. Many of the young harbor the same fears of the effects of climate change that earlier generations felt toward the possibility of nuclear war. Over half think it will pose a “serious threat” in their lifetimes, blaming climate change on the excesses of the fossil fuel industry and more generally on a capitalism run amok. They seek the arrest of it in a Green New Deal that would require massive government intervention.
The third is Trump’s election in 2016 and presidency, which had highlighted the irresponsibility of the “billionaire class” spawned by contemporary capitalism. It has also provoked a vigorous reassertion of a moral commitment to racial and sexual equality. However, the Black Lives Matter movement actually predates Trump’s presidency, but the movements and the protests over police brutality that it helped lead were energized by Trump’s “casual bigotry and threats of repression,” as the media claimed. The protests inspired doubts about what participants call “the system,” a term that has a broader reach than simply the way local police departments are organized, and a call for equality that can extend to capitalism itself.
In addition, the costs of obtaining a degree had risen 213 percent at public colleges and 129 percent at private universities from 1988 to 2018. That has in turn fed the astronomical increase in student debt—$1.6 trillion by 2019. Average student debt for the young rose from $17,297 in 2000 to $29,597 in 2015.
The Great Recession accentuated the economic insecurity that the young experience. In 2010, the unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds was 14.2 percent. Some millennials have found themselves “job-hopping.” Some have taken jobs in the new gig economy without benefits, or they have worked for Starbucks and Uber. One survey of 40 Uber drivers in Washington, D.C. found that 29 had graduated from college, and 13 of them also had graduate degrees. According to a study by the real estate firm Unison, millennials in Los Angeles with the median income would have to wait until they were 73 years old before they could afford to buy a house. The lack of secure employment also fed fears about the costs of healthcare and insurance.
There were also growing doubts, especially among those without advanced degrees, about finding “meaningful work.” According to a McKinsey Study in 2013, 48 percent of college graduates were in jobs like those at Starbucks or with Uber that did not require college degrees.
Software developers who wanted to write “cool” code ended up working for huge companies that dictated what they did. In other words, young college graduates increasingly found their expectations for secure, remunerative, and meaningful work dashed; and they increasingly blamed capitalism.
However, there is an underlying entity that is responsible for the gradual increase of unemployment rates, the disseminating concern for climate change, the hive-mind mentality behind attacking people such as Trump—or anybody for that matter—and the growing belief that socialism would be a good thing for America; that is, the advances in digital technology, particularly the internet and social media, which connects people and ideas, but results in centralized wealth and limited overall economic growth.
I’ll give an example on how social media outlets centralize wealth and kill the economy, but when it comes to all the other factors, they should be pretty self-explanatory if one understands how information is spread digitally. If you don’t, then I’m sorry, you shouldn’t have any say in terms of the direction that western, or any, society should be headed towards.
Remember when we used to take pictures with actual cameras instead of our phones? Kodak was the biggest photography company, employing over 140,000 people and worth $28 billion. They were responsible for the creation of the digital camera. Today, they are bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to facebook for a billion dollars back in 2012, it only employed thirteen people.
Instagram isn’t worth a billion dollars because of these thirteen people. Its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to the network without being paid for it. That is the net effect of centralizing wealth and limiting overall economic growth. The more money and power becomes concentrated around the few people who operate the most central computers in a network, the more everyone else becomes undervalued.
The rapid advances in computers and digital technology has transformed us from producers to mere consumers, who allow their own empowerment to be overtaken by their own consumer passivity. We choose trends, flash, and laziness over civil liberties and privacy, by allowing ourselves to be spied upon all the time. But it’s not that we prefer not to be as smart or empowered as we could be. While there are still some who are dumb to the reality of the matter, many simply don’t care or refuse to see that the deal is not made in their favor.
The only way to sell a loss of freedom, so people will give it up voluntarily, is by making it look like a great bargain at first. We, the consumers, were offered free stuff, such as web searches and social networking, in exchange for our consent to be spied upon for our personal information to be sold to corporations. These corporations are paid by advertisers to use the information collected from you to subtly manipulate you by tweaking the options available to you.
As long as you are wearing sensors on your body—that is, the GPS, camera, and microphone on your smartphone or bracelet—you are far from being free. It’s an all-out assault on our free will.
When we continue down this path, digital technology not only continues to advance, it dominates what’s left of our brittle economy and ushers in periods of hyper-unemployment, creating more political and social chaos, which makes terrible ideas such as socialism appear to be what’s best for America.