01.22.16 5:01 AM ET

You Damn Millennials Don’t Get Socialism

Bernie Sanders’s preferred descriptor used to mean something substantial. Now it’s more of an emotional appeal.

Once upon a precious old time, socialism actually meant something, distinct from liberalism. A socialist was somebody who wanted the state to own the means of production. The British Labour Party, say, was genuinely socialist. Its socialism had a specific (and since abandoned) source—Clause IV of the 1918 party constitution, which described the new party’s goal thus: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

Back in those days, when by today’s standards most people were poor or close to it, this was actually a pretty popular position. Even the ruling classes tolerated a bit of common ownership. For example, in London between the wars, as in New York, the underground/subway systems were taken public, because what had existed before was a mish-mash of privately owned lines that didn’t coordinate schedules and so on.

After World War II, when Labour swept in with a clear mandate, the party really did set about nationalising-with-an-s all the major public services and industries. Can you imagine?! The coal industry was nationalized, just wrenched right out of the scheming hands of several hundred little (and big) Don Blankenships!

The United States never had a major socialist party. If you don’t believe me, conservative readers, go back and read some of preacher and Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas’s criticisms of Franklin Roosevelt. Aspects of the New Deal were of course quasi-socialistic. But real socialists hated Roosevelt more than they hated the Republicans in a way: Roosevelt saved capitalism. And broadly speaking, socialists also tended to be pacifists (even as they were militant anti-fascists).

Well, to make a long story short, times changed. In America we had deindustrialization, deunionization, Reagan; in Britain, Thatcher won, and a fellow named Arthur Scargill whom you ought to Google if you’re interested did some terrible damage.

Then in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed. Through the 1990s, there were still a number of countries in the world that called themselves socialist. But that began to dwindle, and over these past 25 years, the memory of the distinction between liberalism and socialism has dwindled along with it. The evanescence of this memory has of course been accelerated by the roughly 89 kajillion hours of American talk radio in which any mildly left-of-center politician or proposal was reprehended as socialistic.

I say all this of course by way of talking about the popularity of Bernie Sanders, and especially the generational divide thereof. Some observers appear to be a little surprised that Sanders, the crotchety old guy, leads Clinton among young people. A Rock the Vote poll of millennials that came out this month shows Sanders leading Clinton by 11 points among voters under 35. I’ve seen others where the spread is higher.

It all makes total sense. If you’re my age, you remember a time when the distinction between liberal and socialist mattered. If you were one or the other and lived in a place populated by many of both, you got into lots of beer-spittled arguments about the merits and demerits of each. And incidentally, you also remember a time when Bernie Sanders was this interesting, basically admirable, but only-in-Vermont mayor, and then later, this interesting, basically admirable, but for the most part inconsequential back-benching member of the House of Representatives.

But say you’re 28 and a liberal. All you know about socialists is that these eye-bulging racist vampires you see on TV keep calling Barack Obama a socialist. And you think, “Hey, I like Obama, so socialist is OK by me!” And remember that in his one big speech in which he defined what socialism means to him, Sanders—probably somewhat disingenuously, given that he chose to be a socialist rather than a liberal back when the differences were stark, but also wholly understandably—basically kinda said socialism to him means the stuff that Roosevelt did and free college and so on.

Besides all that, you have no memory of a time when Sanders was a marginal character on the national stage. For all of your adult lifetime, he’s been a United States senator! There are important senators and unimportant ones, smart ones and dumb ones, sober ones and drunk ones, but all that doesn’t really matter. Once people have to call you “Senator,” you’re a respectable figure.

So differences in perspective on Sanders between young and old is Grand Canyon-ic in scale, and it is both ideological and personal. By the way, Clinton wallops Sanders in their own older cohort. In one recent poll, Clinton was leading Sanders among voters 50 and older by 40 points, 64-24.

Now of course young voters are responding to Sanders’s positions and his rhetoric, and they’re responding to his thundering assertions that sweeping change is a matter of political will, which older voters (this one included) tend to disbelieve. My point is just that they aren’t put off from jump street by the S-word in the way that older voters who knew the original meaning of the word are more likely to be.

So we had this Des Moines Register poll last week showing that 43 percent of Iowa Democrats thought of themselves as socialists. No age breakdown was released, but I’d bet the generational divide is clear. Oddly enough, “liberal” wasn’t a listed option on the question; just “socialist” or “capitalist.”

Since no one’s talking about the state seizing the means of production today, what’s the remaining difference, you might ask? Fair question. These days, with socialists having dropped the core thing that made socialism socialism, it’s probably mostly a mindset, an emotional-psychological sense of how confrontational and disruptive and anti-establishment people want their leaders to be. The only distinctly socialist (as opposed to liberal) thing about Sanders’s platform is his call for Medicare-for-all, which directly echoes what the socialist Labour Party did in the U.K. in 1946.

In an ideal world most Democratic voters would prefer that, surely; but how many will see it as preferable to the Clinton position of just slowly, and admittedly much more boringly, building on Obamacare? Art Goldhammer had a terrific column at The American Prospect this week in which he divided us into sausage people and egg people—the sausage people, after Bismarck’s famous quote, know that making change is hard, slow, and messy. The egg people want to break eggs to make omelets, and they want to break them now.

Hillary is the sausage-maker, and Bernie is the eggman. Egg-breaking is a lot more fun, hence its attraction, especially to younger people. But then you have to make the omelet. Sometimes people forget that that part can be really hard.