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Why Young People Are Fine With Socialism

The next City Council will have at least five democratic socialists. That’s thanks in part to a generation with no bad taste in their mouths from the Cold War.

Supporters at Bernie Sanders’s campaign announcement rally on March 3, 2019, at Navy Pier   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Last year, ahead of the 2019 municipal election, Ald. Pat O’Connor wondered in the Sun-Times, “Who ever thought you’d be able to say, ‘I’m a democratic socialist,’ and people would say, ‘That’s a good thing’?”

That was just one of the ways the 64-year-old showed himself to be out of touch with young voters in his ward. On April 2, O’Connor was defeated by 39-year-old Andre Vasquez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The next City Council will have at least five democratic socialists, all of them younger than 45. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa of the 35th Ward is 30. Daniel LaSpata of the 1st Ward is 38. Byron Sigcho-Lopez of the 35th Ward is 35. Jeannette Taylor of the 20th Ward is 43.

A sixth potential member, Rossana Rodriguez, leads Deb Mell by just 12 votes in the too-close-to-call 33rd Ward; she’s 40.

If O’Connor’s bewilderment is any indication, Americans’ attitudes towards socialism signify a generation gap. Baby Boomers don’t like it. They grew up in an era of robust wages and employment, when capitalism delivered job security and prosperity.

If you graduated from high school in the 1960s, you often didn’t have to look for a job, because a job came looking for you. In the early ’70s, U.S. Steel’s Gary Works plant employed 30,000 people. At one point, the company was so desperate for young bodies that it bought billboards in the Indiana Dunes, listing the number of its personnel office.

Today, the same plant employs 4,000 people. And good luck getting one of those union jobs unless you know someone on the inside.

There’s also the matter of Russia. When Boomers were coming of age, the United States was embroiled in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, then a socialist superpower. When you compared Moscow’s bread lines and dreary apartment blocks with America’s supermarkets and suburban bungalows, it seemed obvious: Capitalism had created the worker’s paradise that communism promised.

But the children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers didn’t grow up in such easy times. America celebrated capitalism’s victory in the Cold War by loosening restraints on the free market.

First, Ronald Regan launched an attack on the labor movement by firing striking air traffic controllers; today, only 6 percent of private sector workers are represented by a union.

Later, Bill Clinton eliminated regulations on financial institutions, contributing to the mortgage lending crisis of the mid-2000s and, eventually, the economic collapse of 2008.

The result? Economic inequality in America is at its highest level in nearly a century. Between 1970 and today, the share of the nation’s income that went to the middle class – households earning two-thirds to double the national median – fell from 62 percent to 45 percent. The wealthiest 1 percent now take in 19 percent of America’s income, their highest share since 1928. It’s as though the New Deal and the modern labor movement never happened.

Socialism had quite the following in the first half of the 20th century, through the unequal 1920s and into the Great Depression. Cities like Flint, Michigan (and later, in 1948, Milwaukee) elected socialist mayors. In 1920, socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs earned nearly a million votes for president.

Now that the wealth gap is what it is, socialism is starting to look pretty good again — especially to people who didn’t grow up during the Cold War. Increasingly, they want to see the pendulum swing back toward more government involvement in the economy.

According to a Gallup poll conducted last year, 51 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 have a positive view of socialism, while only 45 percent have a positive view of capitalism. At the other end of the age spectrum, 50 to 64 year olds — Ald. O’Connor’s peers — favor capitalism 60 to 30.

The former group were the most ardent supporters of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, and they recently packed Greenhouse Lofts in Logan Square to hear 2020 candidate Andrew Yang stump for a universal basic income and Medicare for All. (Yang doesn’t call himself a socialist, but how else would you describe that platform?)

Most importantly, young people understand the distinction between democratic socialism and Soviet-style socialism. The former dictates a social safety net like the ones provided by Scandinavian countries. The latter is a centrally planned economy that would be incompatible with Western political traditions.

With regard to Chicago, Ald. Ramirez-Rosa put it this way in the Sun-Times: “Over the last several years, we’ve seen voters demand an alternative to the Democratic status quo, where we’re told that our public dollars need to go to projects like Lincoln Yards and millions in TIF funds to go to private pockets.”

When it comes right down to it, all government is socialism. It’s a means of pooling money to pay for things that benefit everyone: schools, roads, libraries. Politics, on the other hand, is about just how socialist government is going to be. And in Chicago — and nationally — young people are saying, ‘More, please.’

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