“It’s playing all the old hits and seeing if any of them will strike up that old feeling,” Micah Uetricht, the managing editor at Jacobin magazine and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, told me. But “these attacks just don’t land the way they used to,” he said, summing up how many younger Americans feel about communism as a political cudgel.
The simple passage of time explains a lot. Millions of Millennials and Gen Zers were never exposed to the threats of the Soviet Union; they did not live through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev; they do not remember the Mariel boatlift or the SALT treaties or the Cuban missile crisis. They grew up with the threat of terrorism predominant, with both Republican and Democratic administrations focusing on nonstate actors such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and violent dictatorships in the Middle East.
The right has also, inadvertently perhaps, softened the sting of the communist label by spending decades associating progressivism with socialism and socialism with communism, and arguing that free-market capitalism in a democratic framework is the only way to deliver prosperity. A “binary framing” dominated 20th-century politics, Lawrence Glickman, a historian at Cornell, told me, in which redistributive policies “might through the slippery slope lead to something dangerous, even totalitarianism.” The New Deal was often described in the 1930s and ’40s as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” or a “Trojan horse,” he said.
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Now that kind of argument sounds more like crying wolf. Facing yawning inequality, heavy debt burdens, obscene costs of living, and stagnant wages, young people have warmed up to redistributive politics. “People understand that countries like the United Kingdom and Canada have free public-health systems,” Uetricht told me. “They think, ‘We’re rich! We could have that!’ If you respond, ‘Authoritarianism is scary!’ it sounds like you’re using the threat of authoritarianism to tell me why we can’t have a nice public-health system.”
That division between socialism and authoritarianism is one that Sanders, unlike many of his peers, has always made: He has been consistent in his support for redistributive, worker-centered social-welfare states, and consistent in his opposition to totalitarianism and autocracy and state violence. The guy has always been clear that he wants the United States to become more like Denmark, not Cuba.
Millions of young people have joined him in thinking that sounds like a good idea. A recent poll conducted by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation showed that 36 percent of Millennials have a favorable opinion of communism, as do a quarter of Gen Zers. Roughly half of the members of those two generations have a favorable view of socialism and thinks the government should act as an employer of last resort. One in five Millennials thinks the Communist Manifesto better “guarantees freedom and equality” than the Declaration of Independence and thinks society would be better off if the government abolished private property; one in six thinks the world would be better off if the Soviet Union were still around.