Why do Millennials like both Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders?

On Monday night, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver published a lengthy first installment of a multi-part analysis of why Bernie Sanders is totally crushing Hillary Clinton in the youth vote.

Remember the Millennial love affair with Barack Obama back in 2008? Sanders blows that out of the water.

In the Iowa caucuses, Sanders won by 70 percent among voters 18-29. In 2008, Obama won by a comparably unimpressive 43 percent. Similarly, in New Hampshire, Sanders led Clinton among young voters by 67 percent. In 2008, Obama led her by “just” 38 percent.

As Silver notes, young people’s enthusiasm for Sanders isn’t as easily explained as the excitement Obama generated: It’s clearly not a generational thing—Sanders, at 74, is even older than the 69-year-old Clinton. He’s not smooth, he’s good on social media but not groundbreaking like 2008 Obama, and he won’t be the first black president.

Instead, Silver argues, Sanders’ success—and Ron Paul’s success among the same Millennial generation—is about how “younger Americans view political labels like ‘socialist’ and ‘libertarian’ differently than older ones.”

These views aren’t necessarily straightforward, as Silver explains. For instance, Millennials are much less scared of “socialism” than their elders. In fact, they’re the only age group in America to have a slightly more positive than negative view of it.

But that doesn’t mean millennials actually like socialist economics (emphasis added):

Americans end up pretty much in the middle of the road [on wealth redistribution]. Whereas 50 would represent an exactly centrist position, the average score among all Americans in 2014 (the most recent edition of the survey) was 54. Americans aged 18-29 scored a 60, just slightly further to the left. But these are really modest differences, and they haven’t changed much over time. In 1996, 20 years ago, the average response among all Americans was a 54, and the average among Americans aged 18-29 was a 59, almost exactly the same as now. It’s possible that Sanders will trigger a shift toward more support for economic redistribution in the future, but there hasn’t been one yet.

In other words, young people continue to be a little bit more left-wing than average, but they drift right with age. What else is new?

Also contradicting the “Millennials are socialists” narrative is the fact that we’re friendlier toward libertarianism, too. And in Silver’s understated words, libertarians have a “highly different set of economic policies” from socialists.

Still, he notes, “Americans aged 18-29 are much more likely than older generations to have a favorable view of the term ‘libertarian,’ referring to a philosophy that favors free markets and small government.” Intriguingly, we’re more positive about libertarianism than socialism:

This data means it’s not too surprising that “the demographics of Sanders’s support now and Ron Paul’s support four years ago are not all that different.” Silver argues that this similarity is evidence of an increasingly independent younger generation:

What’s distinctive about both the Sanders and Ron Paul coalitions is that they consist mostly of people who do not feel fully at home in the two-party system but are not part of historically underprivileged groups. On the whole, young voters lack political influence. But a young black voter might feel more comfortable within the Democratic coalition, which black political leaders have embraced, while a young evangelical voter might see herself as part of a wave of religious conservatives who long ago found a place within the GOP.

While I also think there’s something to his more cynical interpretation (“the appeal of both ‘socialism’ and ‘libertarianism’ to younger Americans is more a matter of the labels than the policy substance”), I think he’s basically right.

Millennials like me have grown into adulthood with an awful economy and constant war. Each new newsday seems to bring yet another report of some secret, dastardly way the government is violating our liberties and trampling the rule of law. Ron Paul himself touched on this point in a column published this morning:

The young generation has inherited a mess from the older generations, and the young can see that what they’ve been told isn’t true. It’s not true that you can just go to college, run up a bunch of student debt, and then get a good job. The young can see that the middle class is being destroyed by our current economic system. And they can see that our foreign policy is failing.

Of course, Paul and Sanders aren’t saying all the same stuff, but they are both saying that revolutionary change is long overdue.

That’s incredibly appealing to the most politically independent generation ever.

And the good news is that libertarianism could well win out: Even with favorable feelings toward “socialism,” Millennials are comparatively conservative with our money, ready for a more responsible foreign policy, and disinterested in running other people’s lives.

That said, there’s certainly work to be done to provide Millennials the economic education they need to match their excellent pro-liberty instincts with specific pro-liberty policies. But economic education is hardly an insurmountable hurdle—and honestly, simply growing older and taking on more financial responsibilities can accomplish a lot in that regard.

In short, Millennials’ political independence is no cause for dismay for anyone except the moribund political establishment we’re no longer willing to support.

Sure, there may be some missteps along the way. As Silver comments and I’ve argued at The Week, Sanders is not as revolutionary (or different from Clinton, with whom he voted 93 percent of the time in her Senate years) as he makes himself out to be.

But Millennials’ underlying instincts are right, and perhaps our best hope for unraveling the bipartisan establishment.

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