Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A friend, who like me straddles the demarcation line between Millennial and Gen-Xer, was being bombarded at her Millennial-filled office with endless pro-Bernie Sanders “memes.” Things had reached a comic nadir (or zenith, depending on your perspective) with the non-ironic electronic dissemination of a doctored image of Sanders—framed by a heavenly rainbow—with a kitten under each arm: “I FIGHT FOR THE 99 ‘PURR-CENT,’” the bold white letters proclaimed. Quipped my friend: “I eat lunch by myself most days now.”

I commiserated. The same stuff was spamming my social media feeds; Bernie-fever sometimes seemed more intense, more omnipresent than the Obama-gasms of seven years ago. “Feel the Bern” jokes abounded, as did links to left-wing philippics on how Bernie was going to right all capitalist and racist wrongs. Most common were pics of the candidate in heroic, Soviet-worker-like pose—made by his campaign for the express purpose of “grassroots” reposting—next to quotations such as, “I have opposed Keystone from day one.”

My friend and I were not imagining things: the millennial love affair with Sanders is real. A recent NBC News-Survey Monkey poll found that “Millennials . . . are more than twice as likely to vote for Sanders than Clinton, leading her 54 percent to 26 percent.” The Guardian notes that “On Facebook 1.8 million people like Sanders’s page, 0.6 million more than the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, and 1.6 million more than Republican Jeb Bush.” The New Yorker concurs: “Today’s Millennials, who will make up thirty-six percent of eligible voters in 2016, have no such candidate to call their own, except for Sanders. If they were to vote at their capacity, they’d be the country’s largest voting bloc.”

None of this is lost on Sanders. Indeed, his whole campaign is about getting college kids frothed up on “revolution.” As he told Bill Maher: “[W]e’re being very aggressive in reaching out to young people . . . what we want to do is tap, Bill, the idealism of the kids. And what the kids are saying, for example, is that this country should lead the world in transforming our energy system and dealing with climate change.” Indeed, in successive debates—including one held 24 hours after the Isis attacks in Paris—Sanders identified climate change as our “greatest national security threat.”

Though he sometimes comes across as a bit of a mad scientist, Sanders is actually just a pol. His main theme is billionaires. There is no societal ill, no social injustice, no flight delay that Sanders can’t blame on billionaires; they are nearly all he talks about. Tax breaks are “given to” billionaires. Wealth is “given to” billionaires. The government currently “work[s] for” billionaires. It was the “billionaire friends” of Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke who caused the 2008 market crash. Sometimes it’s just a “handful of billionaires” who twirl their mustaches as they tie the middle class onto the metaphorical train tracks, but other times it’s the “billionaire class” that has “so much power over our economy and our political life.” And so the Big Plan is to make these greedy bastards pay, then “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden, and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

Conservatives have been having a lot of fun busting the myth of the Scandinavian workers’ paradise. Norway, Kevin Williamson correctly explains, is “an oil emirate.” Sweden and Denmark have hefty local, income, and VAT taxes, but they also have populations roughly the size of New York City, and they do this zany thing where they rarely spend more money than they take in. Their size simply does not allow for the economic can-kicking, accounting gymnastics, and bureaucratic folderol that the U.S. can get away with. For example, where the U.S. has “162 [governmental] areas with fragmented, overlapping or duplicate spending” (including “42 programs run by six different departments to help people get to their doctors’ offices”), costing us billions of dollars per year, Scandinavia is largely streamlined into one bureaucracy per social project. Plus, considering that the U.S.— via NATO and implicit post WWII-agreement—has practically paid for Scandinavia’s defense for decades, those countries have much more money freed up domestically.

Furthermore, both Sweden and Denmark have relative low corporate tax rates (22 and 23 percent, respectively) to entice entrepreneurship, while the U.S. has the world’s third-highest corporate tax rate (35 percent), tying Malawi and edging out places such as Cameroon (33 percent) and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (25 percent).

Sweden in particular has been an impressive free-market case study over the last decade. Former finance minister Anders Borg was famous for his earring, ponytail—and dedicated defense of free-market reforms. He was one of the few Euro chiefs to cut taxes during the fiscal crisis. “It was surprising that Europe, given what we experienced in the 1970s and 80s with structural unemployment, believed that short-term Keynesianism could solve the problem,” he said. Only the economically ignorant “might have a tendency to fall for those kinds of messages.” If that’s socialism, I’ll take it.

The point here is that calling Sweden, Denmark, and Norway socialist countries is, at base, debatable semantics. And if these are “socialist” states, then the U.S. is undoubtedly one, too— its existential domestic threat being that it can no longer afford to be so generous. Even if Sanders confiscated every dollar of income from every U.S. citizen, he still wouldn’t have enough to cover our current $18.6 trillion debt, let alone pay for all his desired Euro-goodies, like “free” college tuition. When pressed on this matter by Maher, who noted that Vermont’s governor had admitted that he couldn’t make the numbers add up to cover a socialized medical program, all Sanders could do was squirm like a fat kid with his hand caught in the vending machine: “Well, that’s . . . I’m not the governor of Vermont, I’m the senator of the state of Vermont.”

Germany can’t explain its “free college” and economic strength simply as a matter of taxing the snot out of Herr Scrooge McDuckendorf and his richie-rich friends any more than Sweden can tout its generous vacation days as the result of swiping all of Benny and Björn’s “Dancing Queen” royalty checks. If politics is downstream of culture—and it is—Scandinavia’s unique culture (see: Sweden’s concept of lagom) is key to its political being. Its existence and longevity are undeniably due to its small, ethnically homogenous nature. The idea that the massive United States—once a “melting pot” but now a purposefully untossed, balkanized salad, thanks to liberalism and the Democratic Party—can duplicate such a culture in 2016 is complete fantasy.

But fantasy is the foundation of Sanders’s appeal among college kids, for fantasy dismisses even the most cursory research, lest the dream of a “free” and “humanist” Shangri-La be destroyed. Sanders and his Millennials have never been about substance. Bernie’s allure is the allure of the surface and the path of least resistance. It’s all about letting everyone know that you care about injustice, real or imagined, truth be damned.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next