A Third of Millennials Identify as Democratic Socialists: Why I am Not Surprised

John Elliott | October 12, 2018

A Third of Millennials Identify as Democratic Socialists: Why I am Not Surprised

My colleague, Annie Holmquist, recently wrote about a survey showing that a third of millennials identify as Democratic Socialists. She suggested that poor historical knowledge might be one of the causes.

As a baby boomer I can understand that. I grew up during the Cold War. The news was filled with stories about the evils and failures of Communism. Millennials, however, came of age long after the Berlin Wall fell. They grew up with the narrative that liberalism had triumphed and represented the only path to the future.

But millennials are experiencing the fruits of the triumphant “liberal” system. Some of them don’t like those fruits and thus view socialism as a better path. I want to suggest two reasons they might feel this way.

The first reason is student loan debt. Most millennials went off to college having been told that they will earn more than non-college grads. They then graduated with an average of $34,000 in student loan debt. The number of graduates with $50,000 or more in loan debt has tripled in the past ten years.  I know several liberal arts grads with $100K plus in student loans.  

If you want to understand why millennials are starting out with one hand tied behind their backs, then consider these numbers. A recent college graduate in Minnesota with the average debt load of $34,000 will pay around $431 a month to service the loan. ($5,200 annually to pay it off in ten years.) If his salary is $48,000, then he will be paying $11,000 in federal and state taxes. His net take-home pay will be $30,000, or $2,500 a month. That does not go very far if you want to live in Minneapolis. Throw in health insurance and a car payment and this graduate has nothing to spare.  If he wants to pay the principal down faster, then he will either have to live with his parents or share a house with five roommates. It should come as no surprise that 35 percent of millennials live at home and use car sharing services like Uber.

Given these numbers, it’s not surprising that millennials are attracted to “Democratic Socialist” politicians like Bernie Sanders who promise loan forgiveness and free college. 

The second reason why these same millennials don’t react negatively to the term “socialism” is because they have been bathed in a shallow Marxism throughout their college course work. Few have actually read Marx or looked hard at the Soviet Union or Mao’s China. And their professors never exposed them to the withering critiques of socialism by Friedrich Hayek or Ludwig von Mises. Instead, their humanities and social science professors, who overwhelmingly slant Left, teach a general dissatisfaction with the capitalist system which they describe as racist, sexist and oppressive. These students instinctively know that they are getting a raw deal through student loans and quite easily, if not superficially, respond to these critiques.

Are banner years ahead for the Democratic Socialist wing of the Democrat Party? Is the “Socialist Moment” just around the corner?

I think that some caution is in order. Five years ago some Washington DC based libertarian organizations were touting a survey which showed that 25 percent of colleges students lean “libertarian.” A “libertarian moment” was just around the corner. This youth vote would propel Rand Paul to the White House. Yet, we all know what happened in 2016. The “libertarian moment” never materialized.

The reason for the popularity of “Democratic Socialism” among millennials is pretty straight forward.  Self-styled Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders are actually talking about issues which impact millennials.

But student loan debt, medical insurance, and job market worries are certainly not a monopoly of the Left. The Trump administration will likely come with proposals to deal with student loan debt as well. If and when this happens, the Democratic Socialist appeal to millenials will quickly fade.


[Image Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen,CC BY-SA 4.0]


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