Behind that “Bern” feeling

Stanley Kurtz, writing for the Washington Post, takes on three tenets of the conventional wisdom about the flirtation of millennials with socialism. The tenets are: (1) the socialism being advocated is democratic, (2) the millennials don’t have much of an idea what socialism is, and (3) the phenomenon is a passing response to an economic downturn.

The first tenet — that this socialism is democratic — should come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to the nation’s college campuses, where free expression is suppressed by fledgling socialists in the name of political correctness. The authoritarian impulse at our colleges and universities is strongly connected to so-called democratic socialism. As Kurtz explains:

Today’s socialism is a direct descendant of the student radicalism of the 1960s. Sixties radicals were enthusiasts of violent, socialist revolution. Ostensibly democratic in their preference for consensus-based decision-making, the radicals favored authoritarian “self-criticism sessions,” precursors to modern-day political correctness.

Having belonged to SDS — Students for a Democratic Society — in the late 60s, I can tell you that Kurtz is right.

It is no accident, therefore, that the heirs of 1960s radicalism disdain free expression, the lifeblood of democracy. In Kurtz’s words:

Marx’s intellectual descendants in the academy write off individual liberty and the classic American narrative as masks for the power of wealthy white European males. They point to “systemic oppression” to justify group preferences and their attacks on the free speech of the “privileged.”

But do millennials know what socialism is? Kurtz argues that they do in this sense: “they have absorbed its debunking critique of our democratic liberties and are drawn to the hardball tactics of its organizer-activists.”

I think this is right. Whether millennials would enjoy living under a regime of “democratic socialism” is another question.

Finally, Kurtz disputes that the Sanders phenomenon is a passing response to an economic downturn. It is well-accepted that in the 1960s, the socialist impulse among young Americans was a product of affluence and alienation (and the Vietnam War).

Kurtz sees affluence and alienation as driving contemporary American socialism, which he views as “more of a religious than an economic phenomenon.”

Economic stresses are a factor today, yet socialism remains a creature of affluence and alienation. Years of postgraduate education and delayed marriage drive isolation and secularism, and also the yearning for a substitute secular faith. It was only a matter of time before postmodern pessimism gave way to Utopian yearnings once again.

Kurtz concludes:

The upper-middle-class climate-warriors at the heart of Sanders’s movement imagine themselves victims of a world-destroying capitalist conspiracy. Incremental nationalization of the energy industry is their path to global salvation; nor is the silencing of climate dissenters too high a price to pay. Other Sanders socialists aim to shut down Trump rallies. This is not democracy but a return of authoritarian socialism, the most seductive secular religion that history has ever known.

I fear that Kurtz is right.