Socialism, Capitalism Seen in New Light by Younger Americans
Surveys show a leftward tilt, and pessimism about the future, among millennials
By Eli Stokols, The Wall Street Journal
Dec. 6, 2017
ELON, N.C.—John Della Volpe, who has been polling millennials for 17 years, stood before about 150 students in a gleaming new center at Elon University this fall in search of an answer.
In his 2016 survey for Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, 42% of younger Americans said they support capitalism, and only 19% identified themselves as capitalists. While this was a new question in his survey, the low percentage of young people embracing capitalism surprised him. He had come here, in part, to better understand why.
“Maybe it had to do with the ‘American Dream,’ and how capitalism was correlated with it, but a lot of young people don’t believe in it anymore,” said Ana Garcia, a junior at the Elon event. “We don’t trust capitalism because we don’t see ourselves getting ahead.”
Largely because of such millennials, generally those born in the 1980s and 1990s, socialism has moved from being a taboo because of its associations with the Cold War to something that has found rising appeal among those polled by Harvard and in other surveys that compared different generations.
Grace Magness, an Elon freshman, has experienced the shift firsthand. Her great grandfather, she said, was named Eugene Debs after the labor leader who ran for president five times for the Socialist Party at the turn of the 20th century. “He was so embarrassed about it when he was older that he would never introduce himself using his full name,” Ms. Magness said.
For her, she says, “socialism has gotten less spooky; it’s no longer associated with communism the way it was.” She adds: “straight-up capitalism seems like it has a lot of potential to be really corrupt.”
Young people across the generations tend to be viewed as more left-leaning than their elders. Underlying the millennial generation’s leftward tilt is angst about the future, Mr. Della Volpe said. In a new smaller Harvard survey, released Tuesday, 67% of those polled said they are more worried than hopeful about the direction of the country. The fall survey sampled 2,037 peopled aged 18 to 29 in live interviews.
“If something unites these young people,” Mr. Della Volpe said, “it’s fear,” driven by their perception that they have limited economic opportunities and that society as a whole has become more unequal.
The 2016 poll also found that the millennial generation is less religious than their parents and losing faith in institutions—a finding consistent with other polls that track some of that loss of faith to the slow recovery from the deep recession that began in 2008.
“Every new group of voters is disproportionally affected by whatever was salient when they were growing up,” said Celinda Lake, a long-time Democratic pollster. “That’s led this group to be really cynical about institutions: military, government.”
In the view of Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster and the author of, “The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America and How Republicans Can Keep Up,” the idea that young people tend to be liberal and become more conservative with age is misguided. “The oldest millennials are actually the most left-leaning,” she said. “If you came of age, graduated college and were job hunting around the time of the financial crisis, you might be asking, What have free markets done for you? The easy rhetoric that ‘markets are bad, government is bad’ is appealing.”
The Harvard survey has polled roughly 1,000 respondents between 18 and 29 years old annually since 2001. The sample size has grown over time. In the spring 2016 survey, it was a measure of nearly 3,200 people. The survey has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points...
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