Are millennials really so naive? Maybe democratic socialists are the real "pragmatists"

Are millennial socialists ignoring history — or are radical reforms necessary if we want to save democracy?

Published June 1, 2018 12:00PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders addresses an audience during a rally. (AP/Steven Senne)
Bernie Sanders addresses an audience during a rally. (AP/Steven Senne)

Anyone who has followed American politics over the past few years has heard that socialism has made something of a comeback. Since Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2016, during which he identified as a democratic socialist (though in fact he ran more as a social democrat), a growing number of Americans — especially millennial Americans — have embraced the once toxic label of socialist.

This growing support for socialism has been most evident in the expansion of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a big-tent socialist organization whose membership surged from 5,000 at the time of the 2016 election to around 37,000 today. With this growth, the median age of DSA members dropped sharply from 68 in 2013 to 33 in 2017, indicating that most of the new members have been relatively young.

Thus an ideology that was once thought no longer relevant in the 21st century has been revived by a septuagenarian senator and a generation of 20-somethings who feel they have been screwed over by capitalism (a similar story presents itself in the UK, where Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, once viewed as a left-wing renegade, has become the favorite politician of British millennials).

This comeback continued earlier this month in the U.S. when four DSA-backed candidates in Pennsylvania — Summer Lee, Sara Innamorato, Elizabeth Fiedler and Kristin Seale (notice they are all women) — won in Democratic primary elections for various legislative seats, which they are almost certain to win in November, as only one has a Republican challenger. The New Yorker called it a “Democratic-Socialist Landslide in Pennsylvania,” and these candidates are among dozens of other self-described socialists and DSA members who are running in the upcoming midterm elections across the country.

Not surprisingly, this resurgence has lead to many different (and largely hostile) reactions from across the political spectrum. On the right, critics have been every bit as McCarthyist as one might expect, as an amusing video from right-wing conspiracy website InfoWars displayed earlier this month. In the clip, which quickly went viral (before it was taken down by the website), InfoWars personality Ashton Whitty ambushed a young women at an event featuring Bernie Sanders, attempting to make the Sanders supporter — later identified as actress Dasha Nekrasova — look like an unwitting supporter of totalitarianism. This backfired as the InfoWars reporter went on a bizarre rant about Venezuela:

“A majority of the country is currently eating rats, while their politicians are drinking champagne on a daily basis,” said the visibly agitated interviewer. “If Bernie Sanders were president, and he wanted to bring the same ideas for socialism into the country, do you think that would be a benefit?”

Besides triggering right-wing snowflakes, the return of socialism has prompted many centrists to argue from an ostensibly pragmatic standpoint that socialist candidates are unelectable, and that “far left” positions are too fringe to gain real traction in American politics. There is some basis for this claim: According to a 2015 Gallup poll, for example, only 47 percent of Americans say they would vote for a socialist presidential candidate (which is even less than would vote for an atheist, at 58 percent), and the historical antipathy towards socialism is still very much alive in American politics.

But a lot has changed since 2015, and while the S-word may still be polarizing, it is hardly the kiss of death that it was just a few years ago. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in the country.

In their critiques of democratic socialism, both centrists and conservatives exude a smug disdain for millennials, whom they portray as naive, entitled and — most of all — ignorant of history. Indeed, the most common explanation for why millennials have turned to socialism is that they are simply unaware of 20th-century history. This was recently displayed by Washington Post columnist Ed Rogers, who declared, in a bitter McCarthyite screed on the Democratic Party and socialism, “I hope at least a few Democrats will have the courage to teach millennials and others the history of socialism’s debilitating, murderous past and the historic human advancement that has been produced by a free market.”

There you have it. Millennials have embraced socialism not because they came of age during the worst economic crisis in nearly a century, which exposed the greed and corruption of Wall Street and corporate America, or because they are saddled with debt thanks to skyrocketing college tuition, or because they are — according to one study — worth roughly half of what baby boomers were at the same age (and are earning about 20 percent less than young adults were in 1989). It's all because they didn’t pay enough attention in history class.

The irony of this assumption is that, when viewed from a purely historical perspective, the “democratic socialism” that so many millennials have come to espouse is more akin to the social democracy of the mid-20th century than the Soviet-style communism (or Venezuelan socialism) that dishonest critics like Rogers endlessly bring up. As Farah Stockman observed in her New York Times report on democratic socialist candidates, many of them “sound less like revolutionaries and more like traditional Democrats who seek a return to policies in the mold of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.”

What conservatives and centrists tend to forget (or ignore) about the New Deal is that it grew out of a pragmatic attempt to stabilize the economy and prevent more radical and revolutionary movements (on both the right and left) from developing. “There is no question in my mind that it is time for the country to become fairly radical for at least one generation,” wrote Roosevelt at the start of the Great Depression. “History shows that where this occurs occasionally, nations are saved from revolutions.” The reforms later passed under his leadership were intended to do just that — save America from revolution or collapse — and in hindsight one can say that they probably did.

In this respect FDR was following a similar strategy to the one Otto von Bismarck, the staunchly conservative (and anti-socialist) chancellor of the German Empire, had followed a half-century earlier. In late 19th-century Germany radical socialist movements were quickly gaining steam, and in order to undercut these movements the right-wing chancellor decided to address some of the issues that were fueling them by creating the first modern welfare state. During his reign, Bismarck introduced old age pensions, employee health insurance, accident insurance, and other reforms that were designed, as the Social Security website puts it, “to stave-off calls for more radical socialist alternatives.” When accused of being a socialist by his critics, Bismarck replied: “Call it socialism or whatever you like. It is the same to me.”

Though contemporary democratic socialists may be coming from a very different position — and are hardly looking to preserve the status quo — there is a good case to be made that the policies advocated by these candidates are as pragmatic as they are progressive. Indeed, the global rise of populism has revealed the profound instability of the political and economic status quo, and the sensible way to stave off more extreme movements would be to address some of the major issues that have driven them.

The 2008 financial crisis happened a decade ago, and out of the ruins of that crisis extremist political movements have emerged (most notably on the right). Many critics have commented on the similarities between our current era and the dark days of the 1930s, when fascism and communism were both on the rise. It can hardly be a coincidence that both eras came during and after great economic hardship and social disorder. A radical reformist agenda that confronts problems like income and wealth inequality, climate change, stagnating wages, skyrocketing levels of debt and so on, would help prevent more extreme and violent movements in the future.

Not only is “democratic socialism” pragmatic in this sense, it's also pragmatic in a purely political sense. Polls have consistently shown that the reformist policies championed by democratic socialists like Sanders are popular with American voters (as in other countries). According to the most recent polling, a majority of Americans favor higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, strong regulations on Wall Streetuniversal health care coverage and free tuition at public universities, just to name a few of the most noteworthy policies.

The current rise of democratic socialism, then, is not a result of historically illiterate millennials who want “free stuff,” but of a broken economic and political system that is no longer working for the majority of Americans.

The opposite of pragmatism was exhibited by Republicans in Congress last week when they rolled back parts of Dodd-Frank, the legislation passed in 2010 so as to prevent another major financial crisis in the future. (To be fair, they had significant support from mainstream Democrats, especially in the Senate.) At times it seems the Republicans are intent on “heightening the contradictions” of capitalism, as Karl Marx might have put it. The great irony here is that the reckless policies pursued by Republicans — whether financial deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy or gutting the welfare state — will ultimately worsen the problems noted above and lead to more radical movements arising in the future.

The real pragmatists are the ones who recognize that without radical reform today, radical revolt will follow tomorrow.

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By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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