This group’s support for Medicare for All, free college, and student-debt relief is sometimes likened to a “give me free stuff” movement. But every movement wants free stuff, if by free stuff one means “stuff given preferential treatment in the tax code.” By this definition, Medicare is free stuff, and investment income is free stuff, and suburban home values propped up by the mortgage-interest deduction are free stuff. The free stuff in the tax code today benefits Americans with income and wealth—a population that is disproportionately old. Medicare for All might be politically infeasible, but it is, taken literally, a request that the federal government extend to the entire population the insurance benefits now exclusively reserved for the elderly. That’s not hatred or resentment; it sounds more like justice.
Ben Judah: The Millennial left is tired of waiting
Most Americans over 40 support several measures of both social justice and economic justice. But across ethnicities, many Americans have a deep aversion to anything that can be characterized as “political correctness” or “socialism.” And this might be the biggest challenge for the young progressive agenda.
For example, the Democratic presidential candidates who focused most explicitly on sexism and racial injustice have flamed out. In its premortem for Kamala Harris's presidential run, The New York Times quoted one anonymous adviser who blamed the candidate’s struggles on the misguided idealism of her younger staffers, who took their cues from an unrepresentative sample of Twitter activists. Beto O'Rourke’s campaign, too, was widely derided as a shallow attempt to create viral moments for his woke online followers. Notably, these candidates failed to win much support among the very demographic groups for which they were advocating.
Second, the progressive economic agenda might be suffused with the egalitarian ethic, but its landmark policies aren’t that popular. While Medicare for All often polls well, its public support is exquisitely sensitive to framing. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the net favorability of eliminating private insurance or requiring most Americans to pay more in taxes—both part of the Sanders plan—is negative-23 points.
The Medicare for All debate is a microcosm of a larger divide. The young left’s deep skepticism toward capitalism simply isn’t shared by previous generations. According to Gallup polling, Gen X is firmly pro-capitalist and Baby Boomers, who came of age during the Cold War, prefer capitalism over socialism by a two-to-one margin. (You can point out to your parents that Social Security and Medicare are, essentially, socialism for the old, but that’s not the same as converting them into Berniecrats.)
“This is only the halfway point of an epochal change in Western politics following the Great Recession,” Keir Milburn says. The far right has responded with calls for xenophobic nationalism to preserve national identity, while the left has responded with calls for social democracy to restore socioeconomic justice. “I must admit that the far right is ascendant, but they have no answer to the future because they’ve given up on the future. The young left has identified that the future of adulthood no longer feels viable to many people, and it’s putting together a different vision.”
Assuming Milburn’s analysis is correct, the young progressive movement will have to shed its first adjective in order to gain power. In 2016, voters older than 40 accounted for nearly three-fifths of all primary voters. It is impossible to win a national election by running a campaign of generational warfare that runs counter to, or directly indicts, a majority of the electorate. One way or another, America’s third party will have to grow up.