Socialism appears to be ascendant. On June 11, Democratic-Socialist candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled the House’s 4th ranking Democrat in New York’s 14th Congressional District primary. Since then, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has assumed the role of forceful messenger in promoting like-minded candidates nationwide. That she is now drawing increasing fire, suggests a sense of rising panic that her platform may be breaking through.
In part, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is making headway, because she has tapped into her generation’s positive attitude toward Socialism. A 2016 Gallup Survey revealed that 60% of Americans had a positive view of capitalism and 35% had a positive view of socialism. However, among those aged 18-29, 57% had a positive view of capitalism, while 55% also had a positive view of socialism.
Why do more than half of Millennials view Socialism favorably?
The Great Recession of 2007-2009 likely played a major role. That severe recession had a disproportionate impact on younger workers (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Prior to the Great Recession, the national unemployment rate bottomed out at 4.4% in May 2007. At that time, the unemployment rate was 7.4% for those aged 20-24 and 4.5% for those aged 25-34. The national unemployment rate peaked at 10.0% in October 2009. Then, the unemployment rate was 15.6% for those aged 20-24 and 10.7% for those aged 25-34.
Seven years after the end of the Great Recession, younger people still had not fully recovered from its impact. A St. Louis Fed study on wealth published in May 2018 revealed that “only typical families headed by someone born in 1960 or later had failed to get back on track by 2016.” Those headed by someone born in the 1980s were worst off, with wealth 34 percent below the predicted level modeled after the experience of prior generations.
Given these circumstances, it would not be unreasonable for younger people to possess diminished faith in opportunity and socioeconomic mobility in the United States. Subsequent research finds just such a situation.
A June 2017 survey of Millennials (University of Chicago’s GenForward Project) revealed that a plurality of Millennials believed that there is “no or just a little opportunity” for “average people to get ahead.” A majority also felt that it is uncommon for people to “start poor, work hard, and become rich.”
Millennials’ concerns are legitimate. Those concerns deserve serious policy consideration. Democratic-Socialist candidates such as Ms. Ocasio-Cortez are offering relevant policies. In a world where only one side provides policy ideas, it is that side that has the advantage by default.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez merits respect for adding to the diversity of perspective in a largely polarized political setting that has increasingly been defined by dysfunction, inaction, and stagnation. She also deserves credit for seeking office to become a maker of the future rather than passively leaving that role to others.
Is there another course?
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s platform creates a rare opening to re-engage the nation on individual liberty, as well as for political leaders to devise a coherent set of mutually-reinforcing policies crafted from that foundation. Her platform has resonated, because such a message and accompanying policies have been lacking.
The reality is that problems require solutions. Hollow rhetoric, name-calling, appeals to fear, and excuses for a lack of outcomes don’t constitute solutions. They reveal only political impotence, an absence of ideas, a lack of preparedness for leadership, and an unwillingness to assume responsibility. Voters are rightly taking note.
Post-World War II historical experience and an enormous body of empirical data demonstrate that societies that embrace individual liberty expand opportunity, improve well being, and enhance social outcomes more than under any other framework. Therefore, the substance is not lacking. The messengers are lacking.
Nevertheless, examples of historic political leaders who pursued a vision built on individual liberty and constructed substantive policies around that vision abound. Their example shows how such a message can be championed. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one such leader. Here’s how Thatcher advanced her message (Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, 1993):
I have always believed that our western system would ultimately triumph, if we did not throw our advantages away, because it rested on the unique, almost limitless, creativity and vitality of individuals…
[T]he manifesto projected a vision and then arranged the policies in a clear and logical away around it… Those we wanted to empower were not just (or even mainly) those who could afford their own homes or private schools for their children or who had large investments, but those who lacked these advantages.
Four attributes are critical. The message was positive. The message was universal. The message was inclusive. The message was forward-looking.
Thatcher’s message is as relevant today as it was a generation ago. A policy framework that empowers free individuals to tap their imaginations, harness their creativity, and unleash their talents possesses far greater capacity to address the needs and opportunities of today’s dynamic and increasingly diverse society than any other alternative. All that’s needed now is a capable messenger, a clear and positive message, and the development of concrete policies built on a foundation of individual liberty.