While the idea of a Twitch stream of the popular multiplayer game Among Us being a substantial indicator of American political discourse for the next fifty years may seem ridiculous to some, they would be mistaken to think so.
One such game between Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. along with Twitch streamers Hasan Piker and Pokimane earned nearly half a million live viewers. Clips of the stream have been viewed and shared millions of times. This Twitch stream was not a serious political rally; it did not involve contrived talking points that went through the usual refinement by means of the usual focus groups that policy and rhetoric consultants suggest. It was a casual event that made the Congresswoman appear to be a regular, relatable person – paramount goal for many a national politician.
That said, Representative Ocasio-Cortez was not the only thing being made to seem normal or likable. More importantly, by endearing Ocasio-Cortez to young Americans on a relational level, the popular stream portrayed her avowed socialism as normal and likable. The massive audience that this stream attracted is indicative of a massive shift in American political discourse in the last decade: socialism is a mainstream ideology among young adults in the United States.
Admittedly, this is not a terribly big shock to most Americans. It has become an almost universally accepted fact of life in this country that some young people who go to college — especially those study the liberal arts — will pick up socialism as an interest but usually drop it after entering the workforce.
However, there appears to be something special about this new generation of young socialist Americans. According to recent polling from Axios, 61% of American adults between the ages of 18-24 have a positive reaction to the word “socialism,” while only 58% have a positive response to the word “capitalism.”
This is more than liberal arts majors having a brief flirtation with Marx. These numbers are growing and do not appear to be decreasing as the students age, especially given that millennial socialists are not far off from their Gen Z comrades in terms of numbers. Socialism is overwhelmingly and increasingly popular among young adults in the United States.
This begs a handful of questions: Why is this happening? Where are students getting these ideas? What about them is so appealing to so many people?
Leading up to the 2016 election, Americans were intrigued by the announcement of two candidates above virtually all the rest.
The first, of course, was the announcement of Donald Trump’s candidacy. The other striking candidacy announcement was one that came before Trump’s: that of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. The reason this was striking to so many people was that the initially huge wave of support Sanders garnered showed Americans for the first time the real possibility of a socialist becoming President of the United States.
This announcement was, to many, a long time coming. Sanders had established a national reputation for himself as a bleeding-heart progressive at many points in the Senate, most notably with his famous filibuster of the 2010 Tax Relief Act. This was a bill that would maintain the tax rates that existed under President Bush. The act was broadly unpopular among working-class people because it seemed to protect the financial interests of the wealthy, who were not as negatively impacted by the Great Recession of 2008 as most other people, especially the working-class. In opposition to a bill that he viewed as tone-deaf at best and greedy at worst, Senator Sanders gave a speech that lasted well over eight hours and earned him a reputation among Occupy Wall Street-aligned progressives, who saw the elderly senator as an ideal successor to Obama. With this coalition of support, Sanders was able to launch a campaign that earned him the support of 46% of delegates in the Democratic National Convention and the enthralled attention of tens of millions.
While both of his presidential campaigns were unsuccessful in even winning him the nomination of his party, it is undeniable that that Senator Bernie Sanders accomplished a much more improbable feat: he made a massive swath of the American electorate into vocal supporters of a socialist ideology.
Many of these supporters were young, college-age people who were and continue to be nervous about their ability to support themselves as they take on student-loan debt, must deal with increased prices with stagnant wages. They are even anxious that the jobs they do manage to get will eventually become obsolete due to artificial intelligence — a problem dealt with by Sanders-adjacent candidates like Andrew Yang.
These concerns are certainly understandable and desperate. They encapsulate the anxieties of most Americans. Given the dire feeling that many millennials and Gen Z Americans have, it makes good sense that their frustration with their circumstances could cause them to be led toward radical political movements if they are given the promise of stability, as Sanders does.
However, despite Bernie Sanders’s success in making Americans comfortable with socialism, there is something bigger going on among young people as a specific demographic. It is not that they merely support socialism in large numbers, it’s that they are having a lot of fun doing it to the point of it defining the cultural spaces they inhabit.
This is where figures like Hasan Piker come in.
Hasan Piker is a Twitch streamer and political commentator, an increasingly popular combination on political and gaming circles online. He is a self-described communist whose criticisms of capitalism have captured the imaginations of young people across the country.
Nephew of Cenk Uygur, creator and host of popular YouTube channel for progressive commentary The Young Turks, Piker accrued notoriety through appearances on the YouTube channel where he often expressed views farther to the left than his cohosts. Now, Piker is best known for his own livestreams on Twitch where he goes by the username HasanAbi and has over 1.5 million followers. Piker has also been a guest on a plethora of podcasts where his appearances have attracted millions of views. These appearances include a now famous debate hosted by on Twitch by Trainwreckstv where HasanAbi joined fellow leftist streamer Destiny in debating right-wing streamers Sargon of Akkad and Nick Fuentes, all of whom have large followings of their own that grew as a result of the debate.
Quite the contrary: socialism has broad, mainstream appeal to young Americans who want to blend their political views with their entertainment media consumption.
In a recent development, HasanAbi joined Ethan Klein of H3H3, one of the most popular YouTube channels of all time, in a new podcast called Leftovers. Each podcast episode, nearly all of which are over two hours long, stands either just below or just above one million views. In addition to his popular streams and appearances, Piker sports nearly one million followers on Twitter, where his takes on current events are seen by millions of people on a daily basis. Through all of these shows and appearances, Hasan Piker has grown to be one of the most influential political personalities on the Internet.
What does this convey about the increase in popularity of socialism among young Americans? For one, it demonstrates that socialism and radical leftism are no longer fringe positions that a small group of people hold. Quite the contrary, socialism has broad, mainstream appeal to young Americans who want to blend their political views with their entertainment media consumption, a role that HasanAbi fills, especially in his new podcast venture with Klein.
Another important factor in determining why socialism has garnered so much popularity in recent years can be found in criticisms of capitalism that appear to not have been adequately answered by conservatives who wish to maintain the status quo.
A prime example of this, salient in the minds of many young socialists, was mentioned above: the issue of student loans. According to Forbes, the average student loan debt in the U.S. is nearly $38,000 and the average federal student loan debt is over $36,500, with 45 million Americans owing some amount. The traditional conservative response to this has been to simply say that these graduates must handle these problems all on their own – “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” as it were. Perhaps this would seem like a more manageable task to modern college graduates had wages in the United States not stagnated for decades, according to data from PewResearch.
Young Americans who have been driven to socialism not only have normal financial concerns that lead them to do so, but those who have encouraged them not to turn to socialism seem to be failing in their current persuasion campaigns. Those who seek to mitigate the spread of socialism will likely have to adjust their rhetoric to meet new socialists where they are — that is, fiscally insecure and skeptical both of their ability to make it in the current system and of the system’s willingness to admit them into some form of participation.
All told, the political and even cultural appeal of socialism has become undeniable and will be a major factor American politics for the coming decades. This is because there was a demand for answers to the economic anxieties of post-Recession America that a cohort of charismatic socialist thinkers, entertainers, and public servants have been able to satisfy. It is also evident that the traditional talking points that have been used to dissuade people from adopting a socialist ideology are currently failing to speak to the concerns that this new generation of socialists have.
In an economy where inflation is up, prices of ordinary consumer goods are climbing, and the value of an undergraduate degree is decreasing, many young Americans find themselves desperate for answers. Many are turning their attention to a solution that previous generations would have considered unconscionable but for them is not only feasible, but fun: socialism.