More Young People Are Embracing Socialism — Here’s What That Means

Spoiler alert: It doesn't mean the U.S. is bound to become a socialist state.

Aaron Grossman has a guillotine in his living room.

It’s a picture on a framed magazine cover, issue 10 of Jacobin, a democratic socialist quarterly magazine.

It’s a meme, he explains. A morbid joke.

The guillotine became famous during the French Revolution, the democratic uprising that ended with the execution of a king. The meme is just a play on that.

 

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Grossman, 26, has always been progressive. But he’s been a socialist since the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, he said.

Around that time, democratic socialist candidates started to bubble up on the American political scene. Bernie Sanders had a growing following.

“It seemed to me that there was an opportunity for politics in this country that wasn’t there beforehand,” Grossman said.

Grossman voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary, and became a paying member of his local Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, chapter.

He goes to the meetings. He door-knocks. He attends protests.

He’s far from alone in this. DSA, nationwide, had about 5,000 members in November 2016. Now it has 56,000.

Polls suggest it’s young Americans behind the surge. According to a Harris poll, 61 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have a positive view of socialism.

That’s higher than any other age group, though 25- to 34-year-olds are not far behind at 51 percent.

Socialism: No longer a dirty word?

Wider acceptance of socialism is partially a response to today’s economic situation, said August Nimtz, a professor of political science and African studies and distinguished teaching professor at the University of Minnesota.

“Anybody who was born after 1980 has a less than half chance of having the same standard of living as their parents,” he said.

“In other words, there’s economic evidence that explains why people would be increasingly discontented with capitalism and would find socialism more attractive.”

Protesters hold up sights. PBS Rewire Our Future SocialismCredit: Adobe
According to a Harris poll, 61 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have a positive view of socialism.

Socialism, as a political philosophy, argues for public ownership of the means of production. In other words, socialists believe the government should be in charge of moving, making and trading wealth.

The political issues most important to Grossman are health care, racial justice and the student debt crisis. He believes “Bernie’s health care plan is easily the best,” he said.

Since Bernie Sanders first ran for president in 2016, other high-profile democratic socialists have been elected to political office. There’s Julia Salazar in the New York State Senate. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib in Congress.

For many voters, socialism isn’t the dirty word it used to be.

But these democratic socialists have something else in common: they’re Democrats — that is, they’re running for office as part of the Democratic party, not as part of any socialist party.

The difference between democrats

The Democratic party has never been monolithic. You might describe the candidates based on how liberal they are.

But that wouldn’t be accurate.

That’s because when you look at the 19 Democrats running for president in 2020, you can clearly see candidates guided by two distinct political philosophies: leftism and liberalism.

For example, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are usually described as leftist, while Joe Biden is considered liberal.

What does that mean?

According to Nathan Connolly, director of the Racism, Immigration and Citizenship program at Johns Hopkins University, socialist or leftist candidates usually highlight income inequality.

“They might be talking about pooling of resources for government programs, but the one thing they say that gives them the socialist badge is pointing out the income inequality,” he said.

“What defines a liberal is the solutions that they offer to that inequality.”

Liberals often focus on getting people equal access to the economic market. That’s things like job training programs or more access to credit.

But leftists believe that the whole system is flawed. That under capitalism, the more money you have, the more power, point-blank. They believe the state can be the solution here.

This isn’t a new idea. The American leftism you see in some of these candidates has roots in the early 1900s, with politicians like Eugene Debs.

You can see it in the mainstream policies of the day. Connolly says the New Deal, the government-run solution to the Great Depression, was inherently leftist. The national parks system, put in place by Teddy Roosevelt, was also leftist.

It was also extremely popular (part of why politicians behind the Green New Deal are using the phrase).

“The old French theorists, they describe socialism as, ‘to each according to their need, and from each according to their skill,’” Connolly said. “Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, ‘to each according to their need’ included public education, it included green spaces and public parks.”

Even though Grossman sees himself as a socialist, he says there are a number of younger, more diverse politicians he’s happy with that don’t fit the socialist label, like Illhan Omar and Ayanna Presley.

“I don’t know how many of those people would say they’re socialists, but I think those politicians are certainly promising even if not from a label standpoint,” he said.

Liberalism as philosophy

Around World War I, many socialists who opposed the war began to identify as communists. At the same time, communism became politicized in countries like the Soviet Union.

Then came the Red Scare, a time of anticommunist hysteria that put a bad cast on socialism and leftism.

Liberalism, on the other hand, had better PR. We often associate it with the civil rights movement, or the fair housing laws of the 1960s.

That’s because, as a philosophy, it’s about freedom, consent and autonomy. And you actually see that on both the right and left.

As Zack Beauchamp wrote for Vox, “Bush-era American conservatism was a right-wing species of liberalism; what Americans call ‘liberalism’ is a relatively modest form of left-liberalism.”

Margaret Thatcher? Liberal. Ronald Reagan? Liberal.

Even the civil rights movement was somewhat about the right to buy — the right to buy a hamburger, the right to buy a house. It’s about contracts between people, at its core.

“Anytime you have someone who has more capital, they can basically set the terms of the contract,” Connolly said. “The socialist tradition points out that people are entering contracts from vastly asymmetrical positions.”

Changing definitions

That said, Nimtz points out that many of the democratic socialist politicians that are gaining popularity today, like Sanders, aren’t true socialists, by the classic definition of the word.

“Sanders, the Democratic Socialists of America, all of them want to reform capitalism,” Nimtz said. “They’re not interested in getting rid of capitalism.”

Sanders is more critical of capitalism than other mainstream Democratic candidates. He might be considered a social democrat, not a socialist.

If that’s the case, why isn’t true socialism more popular?

Nimtz said that while some aren’t content with the way the U.S.’s current system works, they haven’t seen any positive examples of societies that have gotten rid of capitalism. That might be part of the reason they’re so wary.

Cuba is one of the only truly socialist countries that exists today. Depending on your ideology, Cuba’s either doing great, or it’s not.

“It will probably have to take worse economic conditions in the United States for people to be willing to take a much more left, much more communist perspective,” he said.

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.