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 18- to 29-year-olds view socialism favorably, compared to only a quarter of Americans over 55. 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. A May 2015 YouGov national survey found that 37 percent of millennials reported being “comfortable” (29 percent) or “enthusiastic” (8 percent) with the prospects of a socialist candidate. Among those older than 45, only about half that agree. So why are millennials so much more favorable toward socialism compared to older Americans?
Millennials Don’t Know What Socialism Is
First, millennials don’t seem to know what socialism is, and how it’s different from other styles of government. The definition of socialism is government ownership of the means of production—in other words, true socialism requires that government run the businesses. However, a CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of millennials could accurately define socialism, while 30 percent of Americans over 30 could. (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.
Conservatives often use the word “socialist” like an epithet, but they don’t realize that neither their audience nor even their political opponents really know what the word even means. This may help explain the inability of free-market advocates to communicate with them using phrases like “big government,” “socialism,” and “collectivism.”
So what do millennials think socialism is? A 2014 Reason-Rupe survey asked respondents to use their own words to describe socialism and found millennials who viewed it favorably were more likely to think of it as just people being kind or “being together,” as one millennial put it. Others thought of socialism as just a more generous social safety net where “the government pays for our own needs,” as another explained it.
If socialism is framed the way Sanders does, as just being a generous social safety net, it’s much harder to undermine among millennials. This narrative says government is a benevolent caretaker and pays for everybody’s needs (from everybody’s pockets), along the lines of the Obama administration’s Life of Julia montage.
Millennials Don’t Want Government Running Businesses
However, young people do not like the true definition of socialism—the idea of government running businesses. If socialism is framed as government running Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, etc., it does not go over well. Notice the difference between support for “socialism” versus for a “government-managed economy” in a millennial study Emily conducted:
The margin of support for capitalism over socialism is only +10 points, but the margin for a free-market system over a government-managed economy is +32 points.
It's easy to contrast the difference in convenience, quality, and speed between calling a customer service line at Visa to report a card stolen or fraudulent activity versus calling the state's Department of Motor Vehicles to request a new license card or to report a stolen identity. 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.
Why don't millennials know what socialism is? First, Democratic leaders, whom millennials tend to trust, don't seem to have any idea themselves. Take Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Sander's primary rival. Despite saying she's not a socialist, Clinton found herself unable to explain how Democrats and socialists are different in a recent MSNBC interview:
It's not just Hillary. Last August, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz also couldn't explain the difference between a Democrat and a socialist.
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.
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.