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Why can't the pundit class understand the electoral outrage of young people?


At Pacific Standard magazine, Malcolm Harris argues that the pundit class wildly misunderstands the politics of young people in the US and UK, as reflected in their voting patterns in the US presidential primary and the Brexit referendum. While commentators engage in superficial generational analysis and petty psychologizing, Harris suggests that the data couldn’t be clearer: young people in the US and UK are decidedly socialist. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s difficult to explain either situation with generational psychologizing. Young people in both countries seem to want fundamental social change, and they want it now. Sanders and Corbyn are both veteran protesters and open socialists; David Brooks was way off the mark when he imagined (fantasized?) a generation of hard-core moderates. At the same time, Millennials in both countries have been relatively impervious to the “Burn it down to keep the immigrants out!” libidinal craze that has captured the imaginations of so many of their grandparents.

Still, for some observers, these two kinds of demographically distinct anger (xenophobic old-timers vs. the socialist youth) remain hard to tell apart. At Fusion — a site that’s supposed to know about young people — Felix Salmon opens his piece “​Brexit, Hamilton, and the Limits of Democracy” in this way: “All over the world, the voice of the people is rising up and being heard. Sick of being condescended to, voters are kicking out formerly entrenched elite technocrats in acts of anger and frustration. That kind of desire for revolutionary change powered both the Sanders and Trump campaigns; it also resulted in Britain’s seismic vote to leave the EU.” From where Salmon is sitting, all desire for fundamental social change is similarly clueless and unpragmatic…

Young people in the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t voting for socialists to make a point to their parents, and neither Sanders nor Corbyn can be plausibly cast as a rock-star messiah or a Trumpish demagogue leading the kids astray. Sanders isn’t charismatic enough to convince his immediate family what to order for takeout. The simplest explanation for this ideological turn is that the generation raised under neoliberalism doesn’t think it’s a very good way to run a country or a planet. There’s no shortage of evidence to support such a position — global warming, pointless war, vicious social inequality, etc. — and voting for a grouchy old socialist is an incredibly moderate, measured response. Characterizing it otherwise is rank hackery.

Image via Pacific Standard.