During CNN’s townhall event Tuesday night, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi took this question from a college student named Trevor Hill:
Fifty-one percent of people between 18 and 29 no longer support the system of capitalism, and that’s not me asking you to make a radical statement about capitalism. But I am just telling you that my experience is that the younger generation is moving left on economic issues, and I have been so excited to see how Democrats have moved left on social issues.
As a gay man I have been very proud to see you fighting for our rights…but I wonder if there’s anywhere you feel that Democrats could move farther left to a more populist message the way the alt-right has sort of captured this populist strain on the right-wing, if you think we can make a more stark contrast to right-wing economics?
Pelosi abruptly replied, “Well, I thank you for your question but I have to say we’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is.” Then she went into a convoluted answer about economic inequality, which included:
- How capitalism devolved from stakeholder capitalism to shareholder capitalism.
- How capitalism has been well-served by a safety net, which not only protects the worker, but capitalism itself—by allowing people to consume more.
- The positive side of Adam Smith—his lesser known book addressed collective responsibility (she’s referring to The Theory of Moral Sentiments).
- How we need to change the thinking of people instead of the system, so we can have more enlightened capitalists.
Pelosi didn’t explain how to change the thinking of CEOs. Maybe she thinks that if there’s enough progressive business forums then every CEO will become as woke as David Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.
It was essentially a status quo, technocratic answer. This is how the ‘progressive’ neoliberal establishment pretends to be wise King Solomon over their more naive leftist counterparts. They split the difference between dysfunctional late capitalism and the hunger for bold systemic reform. The results are as messy as you’d expect.
A Generational Disconnect
Trevor Hill is right when he says that polls consistently show that young people no longer support capitalism. A YouGov survey from last year showed that respondents under 30 rated socialism more favorably than capitalism (43% to 32%). Gallup found that almost 70% of young Americans are ready to vote for a socialist president. So it’s no surprise that self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders dominated among young voters. More young people voted for Sanders than Trump and Clinton combined!
The hackneyed response to this is that these young voters will snap out of it once they get full-time jobs and pay taxes. But evidence is growing that this may not come to pass. Studies show that voters under 30 are the most pro-government generation since the one that experienced the Great Depression. This means their views are more than just youthful idealism—they’re informed by the financial crisis of 2008, and the fact that that many will earn less than their parents.
The next generation of voters is shaped by a crisis of capitalism and its aftermath. They will need stronger answers to these questions. https://t.co/Q6W24JqBJk
— sean. (@SeanMcElwee) February 1, 2017
It may be true that many millennials will moderate their views as they grow older, but they’re starting much further left than many previous generations. They’re also immune to the cold war paranoia that made terms like ‘socialism’ and ‘wealth redistribution’ scary to their parents and grandparents.
There’s also the myth—perpetuated by some on the right—that young people tend to be libertarian. It’s true that young voters are civil libertarians—they’re permissive on issues like gay rights and drug legalization. This explains why they occasionally gravitate towards libertarian candidates like Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. But overall they support government-funded education and healthcare.
So baby boomers can calm down—young peoples’ commitment to civil liberties means their leftism is non-totalitarian—less Soviet Russia and more Scandinavian social democracy.
But this does show a clear disconnect between how older liberals view capitalism compared to younger people. With much justification, young people are skeptical of a system which reduces human beings to figures of consumption and productivity, where progress is measured in GDP growth, and where the richest 1% own more than the rest of us combined.
And if Democrats don’t learn how to talk to these voters, they will continue to lose them to third parties and apathy. As blue-collar workers become disillusioned by the Trump administration, they may come to embrace more leftist economic views as well.
Does this mean that establishmentarians like Pelosi and Schumer need to become card-carrying socialists? No, but it does mean they need to offer a more forceful critique of capitalism, as well as more tangible solutions. And if they cannot, then other voices will take their place.