Young People Don’t Care About the U.S.S.R.

Older people still see socialism and communism as dangerous, authoritarian political systems, whereas younger people are more likely to see them as economic systems, and to care far less one way or another.

Bernie Sanders
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In a grainy video, a shirtless Bernie Sanders sings “This Land Is Your Land” at a crowded table during a honeymoon visit to the Soviet Union in 1988. In a press conference held afterwards, he praises the Moscow metro system and Soviet arts programs. In a recording from the early 1970s, Sanders says, “I don’t mind people coming up and calling me a Communist.”

The candidate’s affinity for Big Red has been on more recent display, too, such as when he praised certain Cuban social achievements. “It’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” he told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes last month. “When Fidel Castro came to office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

Until recently, these comments wouldn’t have been divisive: They would have led to near-universal condemnation, and might even have torpedoed his presidential candidacy. The American public was solidly, ardently anti-communist, informed by the realities of the Cold War. Not so much today, as Sanders tries to solidify his position as the Democratic front-runner in part by dominating the youth vote. (In South Carolina, where he finished second on Saturday, he still won a comfortable majority of voters under 30.) A striking generational divide has emerged. Older people still see socialism and communism as dangerous, authoritarian political systems, whereas younger people are more likely to see them as economic systems, and to care far less one way or another. For millions of potential voters, the Red Scare is no longer so scary.

“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.

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.

In contrast, Baby Boomers and members of the Greatest Generation have deeply unfavorable views of all these ideologies or ideas—again, associating communism and socialism with horrific atrocities and autocratic states. “The historical amnesia about the dangers of communism and socialism is on full display,” Marion Smith, the executive director of the foundation, said upon releasing the results of the poll. “When we don’t educate our youngest generations about the historical truth of 100 million victims murdered at the hands of communist regimes over the past century, we shouldn’t be surprised at their willingness to embrace Marxist ideas.”

Red-baiting might not work with Millennials. But it might work with Boomers. And, unfortunately for Sanders, it is Boomers who usually show up and vote.