Millennials were the chosen generation. It was said that they would destroy the old social order, not join it. They were to bring equality to the world, not leave it in darkness. This is Part One of one Millennial’s cynical take of the Leftist potential of his generation.
It’s 2016 and the importance of the Millennial vote in this election cycle has been the subject of many discussion, especially as it relates to the rise of Bernie Sanders. Pundits have pointed to Sanders’s strong support among Millennials to explain how a self-identified democratic socialist from a state of little consequence could emerge as a legitimate threat to Hillary Clinton’s coronation as the Democratic presidential candidate. Prior to last year, most Americans knew Sanders as the crazy socialist who sometimes appeared on the Sunday morning political shows to decry the Democratic party’s failure to take legislation far enough to the left. How could this pinko, they think to themselves, challenge THE MOST POWERFUL POLITICAL MACHINE IN AMERICA for the presidency?
Their answer? Those dang moon-bat lefty Millennials are embracing socialism as their preferred alternative to the excesses of modern American capitalism. To many, our generation is seen as either refreshing upstarts who are injecting much needed energy into a tired political process, or ungrateful usurpers who do not appreciate the meaning of fortitude and hard work. I’m here to tell you that Millennials are neither the spiritual saviors of the American left, nor are they fully opposed to capitalism or social inequality. As a result, Democrats should not take their support for granted, and Republicans should not discount the appeal of conservatism among Millennials.
Millennials and Capitalism
“I wear black diamonds instead of regular ones because I’m not flashy, just flosssy.”
-Justin Bieber, Millennial of Note
Many observers argue that Millennials support Sanders because they are rejecting capitalism in favor of socialism. I don’t completely disagree, but it’s also important to note this theory’s limits.
For all their talk about equality, social justice, and economic fairness, the majority of Millennials are loyal capitalists at heart. Yes, they reject the excesses of the free market, and much of this has to do with the fact that they came in adulthood during a period of corporate bailouts, widespread home foreclosures, dizzying tuition increases, expanding wealth disparity, low wages, and gentrification. For our generation, the capitalism did not fail, but capitalists did.
If you listen to Sanders’s speeches, he targets his critiques at banks, Wall Street, financiers, speculators, and corrupt politicians—all institutions and individuals that most voters hold some animosity towards. What he doesn’t do as often (especially during nationally televised speeches) is condemn the entire notion of free-market capitalism.
What Sanders knows is that many of his supporters still rely on the forces of capital—not socialism—to attain their American Dream. While Leftists like you and me point out that popular programs like Social Security, public education, and Medicare are indeed socialist, we also know deep in our hearts that ol’ Bernie is tacking towards the center to increase his viability. And what’s pulling Sanders towards the center isn’t just fuddy-duddy Baby Boomers, it’s also Millennials who seek to embrace yet reform capitalism.
I’m not alone to make this argument. Shaun Scott, a columnist at the left-wing magazine Jacobine, argued that “Thinkers who assume that Millennials are poised to overthrow capitalism have to contend with the fact that capitalism itself factors centrally in Millennial identity.” He goes on to point out that the very notion of a Millennial generation is in part a creation of advertisers seeking to sell consumer items. Millennials themselves “are not a bloc that is inherently radical, conservative, or disengaged,” instead we are an incredibly diverse population of people who are nominally socialist at best.
Statistical evidence also supports this idea. Numerous Pew Research studies show that Millennials are just as likely to as their elders to have a favorable view of business. They also show that while Millennial notions of “socialism” are not burdened with connotations regarding the Soviet Union, the Cold War, or autocratic governments, they are more likely to call themselves “economically conservative” than “economically liberal.”
As of today, Millennials remain fully invested in capitalism. They still define success largely through material means and pursue a version of the American Dream that is built upon the backs of the market’s losers. They don’t join unions, and many support rolling back or “reforming” the welfare state. In many ways, Millennials are “Third Wayers” wrapped in the rhetoric of a revolutionary vanguard—a trait that belies the continuity of American political ideology.
To borrow a phrase once again from Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Dream is alive and well among Millennials, and this is unlikely to change as they grow older. Even the things we point to as our greatest achievements—social media, technological advances, the sharing economy—enhance the power of capitalism and disrupt the aspirations of the proletariat.
Despite anecdotal evidence that our generation is rejecting capitalism, consumerism, and superficiality, revolutionary thinking remains embattled and counter-cultural. Millennials will grind up the bodies of the working poor within the cogs of the machine just as enthusiastically as their bemoaned predecessors. If a revolution is going to happen within our lifetime, it will likely be a counterrevolution from the Right, not a Millennial-fueled revolution from the Left.