Vermont senator and self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders vanquished Hillary Clinton in West Virginia last week with more than 51 percent of the vote, to Mrs. Clinton’s 36 percent. The average Appalachian coal miner is not a socialist. Mr. Sanders won because Mrs. Clinton foolishly pledged to destroy the coal industry. Hence, according to a CBS News poll, 44 percent of those who supported Mr. Sanders in West Virginia plan to vote for Donald Trump in the general election.
But after Mr. Sanders drops out of the race and returns to the Burlington Ben & Jerry’s to share his latest theory about global finance, there will still be millions of millennials who supported him not in spite of his socialism, but because of it.
According to a recent Harvard IOP poll, about 1 in 6 young voters identify as socialist, and 1 in 3 say they support socialism. Bernie Sanders did not cause this. His popularity is a symptom of the fact that millennials have warmed to socialism over the last several years.
You might think the death and despair that is the story of socialism — more than 100 million lives lost and a billion more tormented — would be enough to dissuade these young voters. But even millennials who studied the 20th century have no memory of the Cold War. No memory of the Berlin Wall. No memory of the despair of the Poles and the Czechs and the Hungarians. These young voters did not experience the joy when these countries finally threw off their Soviet oppressors with nary a shot fired. They know nothing of the global sigh of relief when the Soviet Union withered away.
If you are over 40, you may remember those balmy days in the early 1990s, when everyone, even Democratic President Bill Clinton, accepted the virtues of free markets. So what happened to turn 20-somethings back toward an economic idea that many hoped had been left in the dustbin of history?
First, the overwhelmingly left-wing professoriate didn’t change its collective mind. These college professors might have grown quiet for a few years, but they weren’t catching up on their F.A. Hayek and Thomas Sowell. They were biding their time.
Second, when the 2008 financial crisis struck, they found the perfect opportunity to blame “unfettered capitalism.” The Republican secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulson, provided ammunition to this campaign by nationalizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and bailing out big banks, actions he defended by saying, “I’ve abandoned free-market principles in order to save the free-market system.”
As careful analysts later showed, the real culprit of the crisis was well-meaning but misguided government housing policy, aided and abetted by Federal Reserve policy. But it was far easier to blame greedy bankers and plutocrats than to follow the chain of cause and effect by which housing policy destroyed underwriting standards in the mortgage market. By the time Barack Obama took office in January 2012, it was conventional wisdom that capitalism was the cause of the crisis. And it’s been downhill ever since.
Is it any wonder that students who have passed through college since 2008 are warming to socialism?
The good news is that few millennials actually know what socialism is. If you ask one of them to define the word, you’re likely to hear a lot of about equality and helping the poor and maybe free health care and a college education. You’ll never hear the textbook definition of the word.
Socialism, strictly speaking, is an economic system in which the state owns the “means of production.” In its strongest form — as in the early years of the Soviet Union under Vladimir Lenin — it means the abolition of private property.
I’ve never met a millennial who longed to put Washington, D.C. in charge of everything. On the contrary, they tend to be a libertarian lot. They’re suspicious of big business and big government, support the legalization of pot and oppose bureaucracy. Many of them will even prattle on about the glories of unregulated and locally grown produce — hardly the sort of thing you’d find in “Das Kapital” or “The Communist Manifesto.”
In other words, most of the millennials plumping for socialism aren’t thinking clearly. They endorse a socialism they don’t know and would almost surely oppose if they did. Hence the charm of “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders. That sounds to low-information voters like the best of both worlds — equality and the brotherhood of man without the Gulags and gray uniforms.
So what to do? First, champions of economic freedom should drop the word “capitalism.” The word has outlived its usefulness, and it never was very useful. Second, we must unapologetically defend the virtues of free enterprise, not just for the wealthy, not just for Americans, but for the poor, the young and the scrappy who are willing to work hard to create value for others.
Last but not least, we have to do the hard work of persuading millennials with short memories that socialism in all its sundry forms has already been tried, and found deadly.
• Jay Richards is executive editor of The Stream and assistant research professor at the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America.