“If you’re not a liberal when you’re twenty-five, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re thirty-five, you have no brain.” Winston Churchill never actually said these words. But, if they continue to live on as a popular slogan, it’s probably because they capture a common attitude about the correlation between political idealism and age. The young, or so this story goes, are invariably drawn to the novelty and transgression of progressive or even radical ideas — a disposition that usually dissipates with age. There’s a decidedly unsubtle, patronizing implication here, the idea being that conservatism is arrived at through experience and is thus synonymous with maturity.
Anecdotally, at least, there are real reasons for people to assume politicization works this way — among them the trajectory of the generation that began to come of age in the 1960s. The actual empirical evidence, however, suggests a lot more variation in the political values (and voting habits) of the young, old, and middle-aged alike. In 1980, Ronald Reagan basically drew even with Jimmy Carter when it came to voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine — winning the same demographic in a landslide upon reflection four years later. Margaret Thatcher actually got more support in her 1983 electoral rout from those between thirty-five and forty-four than from people over sixty-five and also won more than 40 percent of first-time voters.
The formation of political identity is ultimately a lot more complicated than what’s implied by the oft-assumed trajectory from youthful idealism to hardheaded maturity. The collective experiences of particular generations and groups of people can make them more or less radical or conservative depending on the circumstances. In this respect, the findings of a new Axios/Momentive survey are striking but in many ways unsurprising.
Conducted in mid-June among more than two thousand adults over the age of eighteen, the poll’s topline finding is that just half of Americans (49 percent) ages eighteen to thirty-four now hold a positive view of capitalism — a precipitous drop from only two years ago, when the figure was some 20 points higher. Among those eighteen to twenty-four, only 42 percent now have a positive view of capitalism, while 54 percent hold a negative view. Even Republicans in the same age bracket exhibited a similar trend: the share who currently view capitalism in a favorable light is now 66 percent (down from 81 percent in January 2019).
Overall, there has been a small uptick in the percentage of Americans with a favorable view of socialism — one powered, according to Axios’s survey, primarily by black Americans and women. Here, the picture is a bit more textured and ambiguous:
While perceptions of capitalism have changed rapidly among young adults, perceptions of socialism have changed more incrementally among all age groups. Slightly fewer young adults now than in 2019 say they have a positive view of socialism (51% now vs. 55% in 2019). But that dip is offset by slight increases in the number of adults ages 35-64 and 65+ who say they have a favorable view of socialism.
Despite an overall increase, favorable perceptions of socialism remain in the minority (41 percent positive versus 52 percent negative). However, the picture again gets more complicated when broken down into specific questions. This should come as no surprise, given the stigma successfully attached to the word during the Cold War. For example, 66 percent of Americans agree that the federal government should legislate policies that aim to reduce the gap between the poor and the wealthy (once again, there’s been a startling shift among younger Republicans here: two years ago, only 40 percent favored such policies. Today, the figure is 56 percent.) This is consistent with other polls showing majority levels of support for policies like Medicare for All and various new taxes on the rich — even those not inclined toward “socialism” as a broad signifier are perfectly amenable to many of the things socialists these days advocate.
Across every age group, but especially among the young, it’s easy to see why Americans’ general views of capitalism have been deteriorating amid a renewed interest in both social democratic policies and socialism as a broad alternative. The coronavirus pandemic, much like the 2008–9 financial crisis, has underscored yet again how hierarchical, unfair, and often brutal the current political and economic consensus really is. Millions are drowning in student debt while facing bleak job prospects. Rents are soaring. As millions more face a brutal and precarious job market, billionaire wealth has spiked dramatically.
When the system around them is so obviously dysfunctional, people intuitively look for alternatives. The bottom line, according to Axios’s Felix Salmon: “Politicians looking to attack opponents to their left can no longer use the word ‘socialist’ as an all-purpose pejorative. Increasingly, it’s worn as a badge of pride.”