How Republicans Gave Us Millennial Socialists

By Max Gulker

If you’re reading this, you very likely already know that according to multiple polls millennials view socialism more favorably than capitalism. Writing about why this is the case and what it means has become a cottage industry of sorts.

Those of us falling squarely in the socialism-is-catastrophic camp usually organize our thoughts in one of a few ways. We parse the definition of socialism — whether millennials are after a much more activist federal government or something even more radical. We attempt to psychoanalyze a generation en masse, usually focusing on some imagined generational shortcoming. We rightfully look to anxiety about the economic upheaval of the past decade. For good measure, we scold young people for failing to see the line of sight from the Green New Deal to Mao or Maduro.

There are bits of truth in all of this, but let’s not forget the single organization most responsible for paving young Americans’ way to socialism: the Republican Party.

Freedom in the Boardroom, Not the Bedroom

Our two-party system is a strange beast, creating allies with highly divergent interests in a process akin to fitting many square pegs into two round holes. The Republican Party millennials have known their entire lives is the party of capitalism and traditional “family values.” On its face there’s no reason these two agendas should be bundled together — in fact, those favoring free markets from a libertarian perspective often reject conservative authoritarianism on social issues.

This coalition, though perhaps fraying under the current strain of nationalism and protectionism, has until now proven robust in its opposition to the Left. But for young Americans’ entire lives, the same politicians most prominently arguing for capitalism and less government interference in markets have also been pushing social views that each successive generation finds increasingly unacceptable.

No matter one’s own social views, it’s hard to deny the widening gap between younger Americans and the Republican platform of the past generation. Only 15 percent of millennials and the younger Gen Z think same-sex marriage is bad for society, yet only about 15 years ago congressional Republicans were seriously discussing a constitutional amendment to ban such unions.

Fast forward to today, and over 80 percent of millennials support a path to citizenship for immigrants while under 40 percent favor deporting those here illegally. Our neighbors to the south are not the only people the president alienates with talk of a border wall.

What does any of this have to do with capitalism? Suppose you’re a 25-year-old who is neither expert nor ignorant in current events and economics. Those touting the virtues of capitalism are also offering a generally traditionalist worldview, not to mention specific social views you’re likely to find retrograde. Without much understanding of economics, how can you see capitalism as anything but the status quo, the system currently in place where big corporations are run by old men? Some center Left candidates who seem more in step with your social views keep telling you this old order of capitalism needs to be further “checked” by government. And some Far Left politicians, with a little more conviction, tell you that markets are just another part of an old unjust order we need to leave behind.

Of course these party distinctions are more about words than deeds. Republicans who don’t bother financing tax cuts with less spending have more in common with leftists peddling Modern Monetary Theory than either group would like to admit. On the Democratic side, just ask gay-rights groups from whom the Clintons happily accepted campaign checks in the ’90s if their investment paid off.

Democrats further feed the problem by casually spouting anti-market rhetoric as a response to Republican pro-market posturing, but the center Left enjoys perfectly cozy relations with the same business elites. That hypocrisy won’t be lost on our 25-year-old friend, who will be further lured by the cranky but principled rantings of an octogenarian self-described socialist.

Capitalism as Change

The truth is that reform via massive new federal-government programs favored by Bernie Sanders and others is far closer to the status quo than a society truly based around markets, liberty, and other bottom-up principles such as community support. Sanders just wants to take our already-mixed market-and-state economy and turn the dial much further in the direction of the state. And beyond all-too-rare exceptions like Congressman Justin Amash, few Republicans are willing to move the dial the other way if it means angry voters.

To review: a once-effective Republican coalition of business and social (and military) conservatives is increasingly alienating young voters, who incorrectly see capitalism as part of an old order to be overturned. The center Left is happy to grease the wheels with a little anti-market rhetoric, but their obvious hypocrisy sends young Americans straight to the Far Left. And entirely lost in this process is any understanding of economics. Our two-party system, ladies and gentlemen!

Those of us who support markets with deep conviction might reverse this trend toward the Far Left, but it won’t happen by exchanging endless articles on the evils of socialism and high fives among those already on the team. Free markets coupled with local, voluntary institutions can bring about a society widely prosperous and caring beyond the wildest dreams of central planners like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and do so without distorting the economy or appropriating vast amounts of money from anyone.

That’s a bold claim, and it still needs a lot of work. We need vast amounts of brainpower directed at what those decentralized institutions might look like. And we must find a way to communicate beyond our bubbles the ideas of Hayek and others that understand capitalism not as an edifice of control by the mighty businessman but rather as the essential lifeblood through which a modern complex society survives and thrives.

No generation is better poised to understand the power of entrepreneurial dynamism and networked bottom-up cooperation more than millennials. If that doesn’t sound like a description of capitalism to you, you’re not alone. Capitalism is not a hallmark of conservatism, it’s the most surefire way to change the world.

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Max Gulker

Max Gulker is an economist and writer who joined AIER in 2015. His research focuses on two main areas: policy and technology. On the policy side, Gulker looks at how issues like poverty and access to education can be addressed with voluntary, decentralized approaches that don’t interfere with free markets. On technology, Gulker is interested in emerging fields like blockchain and cryptocurrencies, competitive issues raised by tech giants such as Facebook and Google, and the sharing economy. Gulker frequently appears at conferences, on podcasts, and on television. Gulker holds a PhD in economics from Stanford University and a BA in economics from the University of Michigan. Prior to AIER, Max spent time in the private sector, consulting with large technology and financial firms on antitrust and other litigation. Follow @maxgAIER.