The Alcove

The Power of a New Old Idea

Are Millennials poised to fight back against neoliberalism? Not yet, but their curiosity about socialism might shape politics in the years to come.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged grassroots activismjacobinmillenialsprogressivism

Millennials…. We’re going to hear about them a lot this election cycle. We already have. Exit polls from the New Hampshire Democratic primary showed that 83 percent of Millennials—those generally born from the late 1980s to the 2000s—rejected Hillary Clinton and voted for Bernie Sanders. That percentage earns, in today’s political culture, the call-out “yooooge.” Huge enough that Hillary Clinton admitted she has a problem among young voters, although she’s done better overall since that early defeat.

So what’s up with the politics of the Millennial generation? A good place to check out is Jacobin, a publication founded by Bhaskar Sunkara (b. 1989, hence a Millennial himself) and intended to revitalize democratic socialism for a new generation. Recently, the publication ran a long (for this age of Internet journalism) story by Shaun Scott entitled “Millennials Are Not Here to Save Us.” It’s a telling article that helps us think about why young voters are connecting to a candidate in his mid-70s who advocates socialism.

Scott—a Millennial himself (he uses the term “we” when talking about this generation)—actually winds up dismissing the whole premise of generational generalizations. He points out that “many writers paint Millennials as the generation that will fight back against neoliberalism.” These writers often “pit” millennials against the “Baby Boomers,” who are characterized as “reactionaries who happily allowed Ronald Reagan to dismantle the unions and social protections that sustained the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism,’” and “Generation Xers,” who are “written-off as self-interested slackers.”

But such grand pronouncements—sweeping in their generality—miss the divisions that exist among members of each reviled generation. As Scott notes, “Cornell West and David Duke,” after all, are “both Baby Boomers” and “Ta-Nehisi Coates and Quentin Tarantino would likely find little common ground in a discussion about racial appropriation, but both are members of Generation X.” Scott reminds readers that generational thinking grew out of the world of (quoting journalist Jeff Chang) “demographers and marketers” and argues that generations are little more than “fictions.” And he concludes, rightfully I think, that “Millennials are not a bloc that is inherently radical, conservative, or disengaged.” Millennials lack— and here Scott’s prose turns near-metaphysical—an “ontic revolutionary essence.”

OK, I thought, but how do we explain that 83 percent? For sure, no generation is unified. Nonetheless, I think there’s something to this generation thing that needs a bit more development, a bit more historical situating at the least. Here I speak not as a demographer or a public opinion polling expert, but as a Generation X professor who happens to be teaching Millennial students in upper-division courses at a state-based institution of higher learning. My courses focus on American political and intellectual history during the twentieth century, what I was trained to teach.

Please excuse the anecdotal nature of my evidence: But now when I teach the early twentieth century—what is often labeled the Progressive Era—and I point out that the Socialist Party of the United States was growing in membership during this time and electing congressmen and mayors and that The Jungle—a bestselling book that prompted Teddy Roosevelt to take on the meatpacking industry—was written by a self-professed socialist, I see more hands shooting up than I saw back in the early 2000s. I get a “wait, can you explain to me what you mean by socialism?” My students appear hungry to learn about the s-word.

That has something to do with Bernie Sanders’s campaign, I think, but it also might have something to do with the fact that this is a generation, in Scott’s words, that has witnessed “three decades of wealth stratification, shrinking social entitlements, and the devastating effects of neoliberal austerity measures.” Without having experienced it firsthand, the magic market talk of a Ronald Reagan would sound rather stale to some of these students who are watching their debt for college loans ratcheting up and facing precarious employment prospects.

On the other hand, I cannot help but recall the last time I heard the word “socialism” reverberating in the media and coming out of the mouth of my students in discussions about history and contemporary politics. Just a few years ago, a number of students would ask me, and I paraphrase of course, “Professor, don’t we still have this socialism stuff?” And I would query back, “What do you mean?” And they would say, “You know, things like Obamacare.” To which I would say, “But Obamacare isn’t socialist.”

That labeling, I would explain, was part of a political scare tactic and untrue (and I’d say quickly, look, I’m not a partisan of this legislation). I would point out that private health insurance providers helped drive the legislation, that Obama never considered the kind of direct takeover of health insurance (nor did the Clintons way back in the 1990s) that we would rightfully understand to be nationalized health insurance. I would sometimes explain what Upton Sinclair wanted to do to meat-packing plants—take them over by the government and have them produce not for profit but for the common good. That’s socialism, I’d say.

That I have had both of these conversations happening so closely together in time suggests to me that Millennials are not—here I agree with Scott—ready to “fight back against neoliberalism.” They are not a socialist generation. They are a generation that has witnessed not just all the problems Scott outlines but a large moving of the goalposts in American politics, reflected in those Obamacare-socialism equivalency arguments. The American right has been amazingly successful at smudging up working definitions of key political ideas; the American left and liberals have been remarkably bad at arguing back (I am reminded, painfully now, of how Obama never really gave a good speech that explained Obamacare on his and its own terms to the American public).

The last time I had a student ask me about the historical meaning of socialism and I trotted out my answer, she said to me, “That sounds kinda cool, but why does my dad hate it?” I realize that’s one student’s statement, but I think it tells us something about the historical perspective of many members of the Millennial generation. They are confused but searching.

Bernie Sanders has realized that and is trying to explain to a hungry audience of young voters what’s meant by democratic socialism. I think this is why he calls his run for the White House a revolution, not a traditional presidential campaign (a campaign isn’t the same thing as a movement, but that’s a topic for later). I also think this is why he’s inspired a lot of Millennial activism at the grassroots.

But still there’s the confusion out there, the difficulty of divorcing political debate and terminology from the highly charged, ideological arguments made by the right, many of whose members see any governmental activism—regulatory or otherwise—as socialist. Millennials are not unified, but if my students are any example, they are open to listening to new (old) ideas and are recognizing that they live in troubled financial times, that they deserve social policies that can make their lives better and more secure. Let us hope that their engagement in the presidential election of 2016 will clarify what they want and hope to achieve in American politics.

Read more about grassroots activismjacobinmillenialsprogressivism

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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