According to the most recent results of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, less than half of Millennials—only 42 percent—support the idea of capitalism, while even fewer—just 19 percent—identify as capitalists themselves. It seems the basis of the American economy, and the cornerstone of American society, is now in doubt.
If not capitalism, what, then, do Millennials prefer? Unfortunately the survey itself gives us few answers to this question. Socialism, which most would consider the polar opposite of capitalism, receives even less support than its laissez-faire counterpart—only 33 percent support the idea of socialism and 16 percent identify as socialists.
These findings provide some insight into the rise of Bernie Sanders during the 2016 election cycle. It is fallacious to assume that, if Millennials refuse to back either socialism or capitalism, they are pining for extremist ideologies like communism or fascism. It is much more likely that they prefer something more akin to the European-style welfare state. Bernie Sanders, with his democratic-socialist platform and populist appeal, seems to meet the demands of the younger population.
Millennials rejected other terms as well. Not even a third of Millennials would refer to themselves as patriots, progressives, feminists, or social justice activists. The only “ism” that received support from over half of the sample was patriotism. But with 57 percent, it is difficult to categorize this as an overwhelming level of support.
Millennials are not only critical of capitalism and socialism. It seems that they are generally apathetic toward politics.
Other data collected by HPOP underscores this indifferent mentality. Over 70 percent of Millennials do not consider themselves politically engaged or active. A similar percentage responded the same of their friends. Only seven percent have participated in a political- or government-related organization (including campaigning at any level). Just slightly more—10 percent—have attended a political rally or demonstration or have written an email or letter advocating for a political opinion. Nine percent have donated money to a political campaign. Around 30 percent have supported a political candidate on Facebook or signed an online petition. Twenty-two percent and 15 percent have used Facebook and Twitter, respectively, to advocate for a political position.
Why the apathy? The success of the Sanders campaign is a useful indicator. The senator’s on the financial establishment appear to have resonated with young people—86 percent do not trust Wall Street to consistently do the right thing.
But Millennial distrust in institutions is not limited to Wall Street. The media received even less support, with only 88 percent expressing trust or confidence in major news firms.
Seventy-nine percent of millennials do not trust Congress to do the right thing in most situations; 73 percent distrust the Federal Government; 67 percent distrust the Supreme Court. Perhaps most interestingly, 58 percent of millennials distrust the presidency. The US military is the most trusted institution, with a majority—albeit a slight one—of 51 percent showing consistent trust.
Millennial apathy is certainly a problem in a nation that depends on participation to govern. But it is not entirely fair to blame young people themselves. Their lack of interest stems from serious disillusionment with political institutions. If Millennials are to become engaged in politics, real institutional change—or at least change in institutional PR—likely needs to occur.