The Rise of American Socialism: Why Young People Back Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy

Over the last five years, the issues of socialism and its rise of popularity among young people has become one of the political talking points on the news and social media. This has become especially true in light of the campaigns launched by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 with attracted massive support by younger voters, as well as the rise of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other young socialist politicians in the United States. The rise of this ideology has led to the significant political debate over the virtues of socialism, as well as questions as to why young people support it. Accusations are flung towards universities, claiming that they are indoctrinating our young people before they enter the real world. These accusations against academia are baseless and ignore the very real reasons as to why young people are attracted to these ideas. According to a November 2019 Gallup poll, some 49% of Millennials and Generation Z find socialism to be a viable alternative to capitalism, a number that has gone up from 28% to 39% among Generation X, and 25% to 32% among Baby Boomers. These numbers are not on the rise because of indoctrination or entitlement, but instead, the profoundly serious issues young people and others face in an economy that has not worked for them in between two recessions, a slow recovery, and a national lockdown.

The reality as to why conservatives are losing the battle of socialism versus capitalism is their failed outreach to young people across the United States of America and the issues that concern them in 2020. Calls for the student loan crisis to be addressed are met with silence by the Republican Party at best, or derision at worst. Efforts to create more affordable and low-income housing, meanwhile, are seen by conservatives, not as an attempt to encourage young people to be homeowners, but instead an attempt to bring crime to suburban neighborhoods. Attempts to tackle systematic racism are met with denial of that very issue, or worst, a denial of the very history that provides context for racism. This dismissal of concerns Millennials and Generation Z face is an unmitigated disaster not just for the young people in question, but also for the political movements that reject addressing these issues. Rather than offering the success stories of a capitalist and free-market system or providing policies that address the issues young people face but from a more conservative or liberal point of view, the political right has been absent in its attempts to attract young people to their ideas. Instead, solving issues such as systematic racism and economic inequality have now become dominated by the left-wing of American politics.

Addressing this issue are politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In their campaigns over the last five years, they have addressed the issues young people face and more. Rather than dismissing young people as misguided or entitled, they recognize the hardships faced by an economy that does not work for them as it did for their parents and grandparents and offer solutions. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez both have promised to forgive student debt, build affordable housing, and establish a single-payer healthcare system called Medicare-for-All to establish affordable medical care. Finally, they address the climate crisis, which the Republican Party has so far completely ignored. In addressing these issues, democratic socialist and social democratic candidates and politicians have earned the support of young people, regardless if these policies would succeed.

To effectively understand what it is that young people believe in, the differences between democratic socialism and social democracy must also be fleshed out. The first, democratic socialism, advocates for a marriage of a socialist economy with a democratic system of government. In this system, workplace democracy rules the day, while basic needs for people are cared for. Politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez generally subscribe to this belief system. The second, social democracy, retains a free-market system linked with regulations and a welfare state similar to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Politicians supporting social democracy or whose views fall in line with those beliefs include Elizabeth Warren and Robert Reich, as well as a growing segment of the Democratic Party. Although both democratic socialism and social democracy advocate for a similar endgame, their ultimate means of reaching their goals are different, and the two should not be confused.

Social democracy, and especially democratic socialism, should not be confused for state socialism or communism as we often see in countries such as the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba, which all take the socialist model and combine it with authoritarianism and central planning. Those models also depend on a revolution to overthrow the previous regime and purge all of its vestigial elements. Social democracy and democratic socialism, meanwhile, both advocate for peaceful changes to society, and not a total overthrow of the previous system, but instead altering its priorities to seek economic and social justice. One system calls for a revolution to overhaul society and install a totalitarian form of government, while the other advocates for peaceful and democratic changes to society through measures already done in the United States’ past.

Although the conflict between socialism and the free-market will likely continue into the next decade, it is impossible to deny the attraction of social democracy and democratic socialism has for young people. With the promise of the American Dream out of reach for Millennials and Generation Z as wages remain stagnant, homeownership at a historic low, and young people increasingly in greater amounts of debt, the attraction towards these ideologies are one part desperation and another part a lack of better options. The advocates for a free-market capitalist economy and conservatives on the right-wing offer no viable solutions to the issues young people face, and rather than offering options, many on the right simply dismiss young people as entitled or inexperienced. When someone lacks an alternative for an issue, they are more likely to turn to the one side offering a solution, not in agreement with that ideology, but merely because they address it. Without a viable alternative and the present government failing in its response to these issues, support for social democracy and democratic socialism will likely continue to rise in the coming years.

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