Viewing Millennials’ Embrace of Socialism as Locked Mourning

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Author’s note: I am simulposting this post both at LinkedIn Pulse and at Bowlby Less Traveled.

Clearly the most important story coming out of the current presidential campaign has to be the embrace of Donald Trump by large numbers of people who appear to be angry and disenfranchised. Arguably the second most important story has to be the embrace of socialism (as embodied by Bernie Sanders) by large numbers of Millennials. Pundits have offered up a number of explanations as to why Millennials are embracing socialism. Here are but two examples:

Millennials Support Bernie Sanders Because Their Colleges Are A Joke by M.G. Oprea, who holds a Ph.D. in French linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin (March 3, 2016)

Bernie Sanders and the Millennial Mindset by Eddie Zipperer, assistant professor of political science at Georgia Military College (October 19th, 2015)

Dr. Oprea explains the Millennial embrace of socialism by suggesting that they are ignorant. That is to say, the colleges Millennials are going to are not teaching basics like the history of socialist movements. Dr. Oprea points to the liberal education agenda as the main culprit here. Professor Zipperer takes a different tact. He suggests that “Millennial culture is all about big rewards for minimal effort: participation trophies of the mind.” Professor Zipperer puts forth the idea that the Millennial mantra of “big rewards, little effort” gains expression within socialist frames. Professor Zipperer’s article reminded me of another article I read recently:

Opinion: Why Are We Becoming So Narcissistic? Here’s the Science by Olivia Remes, University Of Cambridge (March 15th, 2016)

Ms. Remes traces the rise of narcissism to the advent of the self-esteem movement, which gained its footing in the 1970s. “The past few decades have witnessed a societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the individual or the self,” writes Ms. Remes. She continues, “The self-esteem movement was an important turning point in this. It determined that self-esteem was the key to success in life.” The self-esteem movement ushered in the age of “participation trophies” (using Professor Zipperer’s phrase).

So, the above pundits explain Millennials’ embrace of socialism as the result of

  • colleges hollowed out by the liberal education agenda not able (or willing) to teach the basics like the history of socialist movements
  • Millennials increasingly adopting the mantra of “big rewards, little effort”
  • “a societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the individual” (quoting Ms. Remes)
  • the rise of the self-esteem movement with its focus on rewards for simply showing up

I’d like to add to the above explanations by suggesting that Millennials’ embrace of socialism may be framed as a form of locked mourning. Allow me to explain.

In many ways I consider myself to be a journalist who focuses in on issues surrounding Bowlbian attachment theory. I’m fascinated by, and try to bring to the surface, stories that have huge Bowlbian attachment theory implications but never come right out and use a Bowlbian attachment theory frame. My recent reaction post to the book entitled In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Encounters with Addiction (2008) by Canadian MD Gabor Maté would be an example. Allow me to provide two more examples:

Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes by Mary Eberstadt (2004)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (2012)

Neither Eberstadt nor Turkle uses Bowlbian frames but yet each delivers a powerful Bowlbian attachment theory message. Eberstadt essentially suggests that parents have increasingly turned toward parent substitutes such as food, certain types of music (rap in particular), inappropriate sex (aka hooking up), behavioral drugs (like Ritalin and Adderall), and day care. In essence, kids are attaching to these parent substitutes as substitutes for safe and secure attachment relationships with primary caregivers. Eberstadt wrote her book before the meteoric rise of screen technologies such as smartphones and tablets, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. This is where Turkle picks up the Bowlbian attachment story.

Turkle argues that kids are now using such Internet technologies as smartphones, tablets, Facebook, and Twitter as parent substitutes (adding to Eberstadt’s already long list of parent substitutes). According to Turkle’s research, kids are now more socially isolated than ever even though they are more intimately connected to digital landscapes. Could it be that this isolationism if you will, this being homed alone, is in part driving this need for anything smacking of socialism regardless of its true political or economic implications?

Maybe we’re looking at the Millennial embrace of socialism too literally. There may well be deeper psychological explanations. Again, I’m talking about the possibility of huge Bowlbian attachment theory implications. Sadly (in my opinion) discussions of Bowlby’s work are conspicuous in their absence. Let me end with what I think is going on. For that I must turn to a story contained in Lt. Col. David Grossman’s 1995 book entitled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

Grossman tells a story that has huge Bowlbian attachment theory implications, but, again, never brings in Bowlby’s theory of attachment. Grossman talks about the rise of systems engineering (aka human engineering) during the period between WWII and the Vietnam War. According to Grossman’s research, [1] during the Vietnam War, largely as a result of systems engineering, soldiers were shuttled in and out of combat zones largely as individual entities. Grossman writes the following under the subtitle The Lonely War, referring to the Vietnam War:

Prior to Vietnam the American soldier’s first experience with the battlefield was usually as a member of a unit that had been trained and bonded [attached] together prior to combat. … Vietnam was distinctly different from any war we have fought before or since, in that it was a war of individuals. With very few exceptions, every combatant arrived in Vietnam as an individual replacement on a twelve-month tour—thirteen months for the U.S. Marines. … In this [shuttle in, shuttle out] environment it was far more possible, even natural, that many soldiers would remain aloof, and their bonding would never develop into full, mature, lifelong [attachment] relationships of previous wars.

According to Grossman’s research, systems engineers thought that by inhibiting the formation of attachment relationships and bonds, the trauma of war could be delayed or put off until after soldiers returned home thus making them more battle capable for their twelve or thirteen months. As Grossman puts it, “Military psychiatrists and leaders believed that they had found a solution for the age-old problem of battlefield psychiatric casualties, a problem that, at one point in World War II, was creating casualties faster than we could replace them.” [2]

Because soldiers were being shuttled in and out as individuals during the Vietnam War, they were denied the ability to mourn loss as a group. “The traditional cooldown period while marching or sailing home in intact units,” writes Grossman, “forms a kind of group therapy that was not available to the Vietnam veteran.” Quoting Arthur Hadley—author of Straw Giant, a book that deals with the psychological toll of war—Grossman writes that throughout history “[ceremonial cleansing] rituals provided soldiers with a way of ridding themselves of stress and the terrible guilt that always accompanies the sane after war.” I would suggest that these cleansing rituals could also be looked at as mourning rituals. Continuing to quote Hadley, Grossman reveals that

modern armies have similar mechanisms of purification. In WWII soldiers en route home often spent days together on troopships. Among themselves, the warriors could relive their feelings, express their grief for lost comrades [my emphasis], tell each other about their fears, and, above all, receive the support of their fellow soldiers. They were provided with a sounding board for their own sanity.

Again, the Vietnam War soldiers were denied these cleansing or mourning rituals. They were denied the ability to mourn loss. “When soldiers are denied these rituals they often tend to become emotionally disturbed,” quoting Hadley from Grossman’s text. Fortunately other countries learned this important lesson from the Vietnam War concerning the mourning of loss. “Since Vietnam, several different returning armies have applied this vital lesson,” writes Grossman. He continues, “The British troops returning from the Falklands could have been airlifted home, but instead they made the long, dreary, and therapeutic South Atlantic crossing with their navy.”

So, I am here suggesting that we should view kids who were raised on a steady diet of “participation trophies,” who adopted the mantra of “big rewards, little effort,” who are now committed to self over the collective, and who are insecurely attached to all manner of parent substitutes, as kids who have been shuttled in and out of our society and ultimately denied access to any and all mourning or cleansing rituals. Furthermore, I would suggest that Millennials’ embrace of socialism is an attempt to find a “troopship” that will allow them to go through the “long, dreary, and therapeutic … crossing with their navy” of choice (quoting Grossman). And who knows, maybe Millennials imagine Bernie Sanders as a leader capable of leading them through their cleansing ritual, their mourning ritual. They could be right.


[1] For an in-depth academic look at the rise of systems engineering, I’d point the reader to Debora Hammond’s 2003 book entitled The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory.

[2] According to Grossman, this systems engineering approach to troop deployment during the Vietnam War did work and kept troop preparedness levels up in the short term. However, as Grossman talks about in a chapter entitled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Cost of Killing in Vietnam, these atomistic deployment practices resulted in high levels of PTSD in the long term. What this lesson teaches us is that when societies devalue or demean or engineer out mourning practices, there’s a high price to pay.