Neil Shah: The temptation of socialism

Sunday, May 3, 2020 - 8:12pm

On Sunday, March 8, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., held a campaign rally on the Diag at the University of Michigan in advance of the March 10 Michigan primary. 10,000 people were in attendance at the rally, which consisted of speeches from local, state and national-level officials, and finally from Sanders at the very end. The content of the speeches touched on progressive national issues, the Sanders campaign platform and a uniform call to action for widespread national reform. The speech Sanders gave specifically spoke to issues like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, eliminating student debt and making higher education tuition-free, among other topics. Sanders also talked about a metaphysical “arc of justice” from Civil Rights Activist Reverend Jesse Jackson to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., mentioning that many people had been imprisoned or had died in the name of “(seeking) justice.” His speech was revolutionary in tone and the content was rife, as you’d expect, with emotional and political rhetoric that created audible and visible excitement among his supporters. Indeed, the crowd was quick to react with cheers when he proclaimed that he’d enact socialist policies upon his inauguration to the White House. 

I spoke afterward with supporters to gauge their impressions of his delivery, the overall spectacle of this campaign event and of (democratic) socialism itself. One supporter, James, said Sanders’ support for the Green New Deal won him his support; another supporter (and friend), Humza, pointed to Sanders’ advocacy for Medicare for All as the central issue that earned him his support. These two prospective voters and vocal Sanders supporters also noted that climate change was a big motivating issue for them. I also asked them about Sanders’ self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” moniker: James claimed that it shouldn’t be such a scary word, and Humza believed that the word “socialism” has been contorted to such extents that it is now meaningless and means whatever you want it to mean. I also asked another friend and unabashed Trump supporter, with whom I attended the rally, about his thoughts on socialism: “I think socialism is evil because it deprives individuals of the right to own their own labor and property, as well as their freedom from state-control over their lives.” Between this small sample size of Sanders and Trump supporters, there is a clear disparity on the matter of socialism, linguistically and politically. Therefore, it is worth examining why this ideology appeals so much to young people.

A good place to start is the definition of “socialism.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, socialism means “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” To put it more simply, it means giving the government more power. If you ask the most famous young socialist in the country, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, what it means, however, you’ll receive flowery rhetoric in response: “I believe that in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.” Socialism is an ideology that has historically left millions powerless and in poverty to the whims of governmental officials: however, attach the word “democratic” and it is suddenly the mechanism required to solve these problems. This conundrum begs some questions: Why are so many young people — fans of Sanders and AOC — attracted to socialism? Is it the emotional resonance of instituting a top-down effort to alleviate hunger and poverty and other societal problems? Is it the utopian idealism of universal equality that endures despite the historical failures of this ideology? Or does some version of youthful ignorance justify this widespread support for socialism

Certainly, there’s a romantic quality about the concept of institutionalizing a system that is fair and equitable, that levels the playing field in some manner so that the top 1 percent of 1 percent cannot amass obscene amounts of wealth. According to Deidra Nansen McCloskey, professor of Economics, History, English and Communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the “romantic ideals” of socialism make it a “cherished identity” for youth. Young people personally connect to the utopian ethos of socialism because it connotes an improvement upon society, leaving people better off than before. This makes sense for a couple different economic reasons: First, young people are entering a big world upon their graduation from "their families, which are “little socialist communities” as McCloskey puts it," so they cannot directly see the fruits of their labor. As they are situated so distantly from the rewards of their labor, they aren’t able to appreciate as much that labor and, therefore, feel disenfranchised to some extent. A second reason is that it is less apparent in today’s economy that young people, specifically Millenials and Gen Z, can achieve the metaphysical American Dream due to increasing debt burdens and difficulties to sustain livelihood. This makes the concept of socialism an attractive alternative to the current capitalistic system. In the context of personality research, this is in alignment with personality psychologist Robert McCrae’s research that individuals with open personality types tend to lean left politically, i.e., young people. Young people are naturally drawn to the idea of living in a changing society because they are less willing to commit to tradition. These insights are confirmed by work done by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, as well.

Socialism, whether you call it “democratic” or not, is, however, fundamentally inconsistent with the central tenets of this nation. As attractive as it is ideologically to many young activists, for reasons that are mostly out of their control, this ideology is an aberration on history for the calamitous effects it has had on countries and governments around the world.

Neil Shah can be reached at neilsh@umich.edu