Millennial Discontent and the Rise of a Democratic Socialist Alternative
IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, U.S. politics has been completely upended. The presidency of Donald Trump, which took politicians and commentators by total surprise, shattered a number of Washington orthodoxies. Very few experts thought that a vicious, loutish reality TV star was capable of rising to the nation’s highest office. But they had misjudged political reality and forgotten the cardinal rule: anything can happen.
Trump’s improbable rise to power was not the only political irregularity to occur over the last several years. While Trump was defeating the most powerful figures in the country’s two major political parties, another unexpected phenomenon was occurring: the rise of a new radicalism on the left.
When Bernie Sanders began his campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, nobody expected him to pose a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton. Clinton was the consensus choice of the party establishment, and influential Democrats openly said that it was “her turn.”1 Sanders was in the race as a protest candidate. Not only was he considered a marginal figure in Washington, lacking both connections and funding, but he did not have any of the characteristics that traditionally made one electable. He was old. He was from a tiny state known for hippies and cheese. He was not particularly photogenic, polished, or popular. And he was an avowed socialist in a country that had had a half-century Cold War between Good American Capitalism and Evil Soviet Socialism.
It was not, however, a year in which the traditional criteria of electability would matter especially much. Sanders, perhaps as much to his own surprise as anybody else’s, quickly attracted a significant following. His radical message, stingingly critical of the existing Democratic Party, resonated strongly with progressives who felt let down by Obama and viewed Clinton as part of an uninspiring and possibly corrupt political dynasty. When the first primary contest came around, February 2016’s Iowa caucuses, Sanders achieved a shockingly strong result, coming close to beating Clinton outright.2 As Sanders began to fill stadiums with crowds, attracting a highly visible and well-organized following, it quickly became clear that the race would not be the “coronation” that Clinton had anticipated.
Clinton ultimately won the Democratic nomination, but it took a bruising fight. Sanders was no mere protest candidate; he was a serious competitor who won 23 contests to Clinton’s 34. While Clinton received over 16 million votes across the various primaries, Sanders achieved a remarkable 13 million.3 It was surprising enough that a socialist candidate could be anything more than a gadfly in a major party nominating contest. It was downright stunning that such a candidate could rack up nearly two dozen primary victories against one of the most experienced and well-connected members of the Democratic Party.
Sanders’ unexpected rise to prominence represented an extraordinary shift in the political landscape. The nearest precedent was Eugene Debs’ 1920 presidential run on the Socialist Party ticket. Debs achieved nearly 1 million votes despite being in prison for defying the World War I draft.4 But even Debs didn’t pose a serious electoral threat to the dominant parties, receiving only 3 percent of the general election vote. Sanders, who once recorded a spoken-word Eugene Debs tribute album and kept a portrait of Debs in his office while mayor of Burlington, Vermont,5 achieved a far greater measure of success. He may not have started the political revolution that he often spoke of, but he came relatively close to poaching the presidential nomination from the party elite’s preselected candidate.
The Sanders campaign was fueled by millennials, whose dissatisfaction with mainstream Democrats made them highly responsive to Sanders’ progressive alternative. Clinton may have had more support than Sanders overall, but young people of all races and genders preferred Sanders over Clinton by large margins.6 With the exception of Lena Dunham, it was hard to find many people under 30 who had much enthusiasm for Clinton, a candidate they associated with Wall Street, cronyism, and the Iraq disaster.
Sanders’ success with millennials, while unanticipated by pollsters, did not occur purely because of Sanders’ political skill. It happened because a revolt had been brewing among young progressives for years, as they had steadily grown more and more alienated from the Democratic Party mainstream. Ever since the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, young people in the United States had been becoming increasingly radicalized. Weighed down with debt, paying through the nose for health insurance, unable to afford to have kids, and frustrated by an undemocratic political system that implements the policy preferences of rich elites, millennials were both frustrated and tired. Sanders came along at just the right moment: they had been waiting for someone to say what was on their minds—that the economic and political systems were unfair at their core and needed a drastic overhaul.
But the Sanders campaign was just the start.
* * *
JOE CROWLEY HAD been in Congress for 20 years and was one of the highest-ranking members of the House Democrats. He was considered a serious contender for the party leadership and known in his New York City district as a well-connected part of the local Democratic machine. He was the sort of backroom deal–making congressman whose influence is disproportionate to his name recognition.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not an important figure in the Democratic Party. Far from it. She was a 28-year-old bartender and activist who had once interned for Ted Kennedy and had worked for Sanders’ campaign.7 A member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), she was considered the longest of long shots in her primary contest against Crowley. Crowley had endorsements from powerful political organizations like the AFL-CIO, the Human Rights Campaign, and Planned Parenthood, along with dozens of prominent elected officials, including New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand.8 The Crowley campaign spent $3.4 million to Ocasio-Cortez’s $194,000.9 Most major media outlets didn’t even cover the race, since Crowley’s victory seemed so certain. Crowley himself did not even bother to attend a debate against Ocasio-Cortez, sending a surrogate in his place.
Yet on June 26, 2018, Ocasio-Cortez received 57.1 percent of the vote to Crowley’s 42.5. The year before, Ocasio-Cortez says, while she was scrubbing restaurant tables, she thought “the train of [her] fulfilled potential had left the station.”10 In January, Ocasio-Cortez would become the youngest woman ever to serve in the U.S. Congress and achieve instant, nationwide fame as a face of the millennial left.
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was impressive, even deeply inspiring, but not shocking. The Clinton-Sanders primary showed that the Democratic Party establishment was deeply unpopular and vulnerable, and that many primary voters were perfectly willing to get behind a socialist if they offered an alternative to the uninspiring, centrist politics that had destroyed the Democrats’ popular appeal.
The national media has sometimes downplayed the extent of the Democrats’ leftward drift. Just two days before Ocasio-Cortez won her primary, the New York Times published an article wondering why the candidates Sanders had endorsed had not been winning in larger numbers and suggesting that the socialist left was underperforming.11 The same thing happened in August 2018: after a few left candidates in “purple states” lost primary elections, Politico published an article titled “Down Goes Socialism,” arguing that left politics were only viable in deep-blue districts like Ocasio-Cortez’s Bronx.12 Yet, a few weeks after Politico declared the left moribund, Andrew Gillum won the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Florida, having pushed a “Medicare for All” policy of the kind favored by socialists as one of his key issues.13
In fact, the successes of the Sanders left have been striking. Before the Sanders campaign took off, the word socialist was still a political kiss of death, and advocating for Medicare for All or free college tuition was considered far too radical to be politically viable. In November 2017, however, Washington Monthly noted a startling transformation in what constituted the mainstream, writing that while, “not long ago, politicians advocating for single-payer health care were taken to be on the lefty fringe,” it was now the case that “Democrats of every stripe, including some with plausible presidential aspirations, are using the term to describe what they think America needs now.”14 We even see headlines like “The Democrats Have Become Socialists,”15 and not just from hyperbolic paranoid right-wingers. A few years ago, Bernie Sanders couldn’t get any of his Senate colleagues to sign on to his single-payer plan, and now presidential candidates, from Cory Booker to Gillibrand, all insist they are Medicare for All supporters.16 Single-payer healthcare has gotten so popular that it is now supported not only by a majority of Democrats, but, according to one poll, by a majority of Republicans. That shift can be attributed in large part to the effect of the Sanders campaign (as well as the Medicare for All activists who have been making the case to the public). Candidates who don’t support signature pieces of Sanders’ policy now find themselves on the defensive.
A number of progressive victories have been notched around the country. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have launched numerous socialist candidates into national and local offices. In Virginia, Democratic Socialist Lee Carter was elected to the state House of Delegates. Dozens of members of the DSA have been elected to state and local offices, and the organization itself has grown to well over 50,000 members nationwide. There are even 300 DSA members in Houston. (Houston!) The New York Times reported in April 2018 that “many Democrats have begun to ask socialists for their support and adopt some of the D.S.A.’s platform on health care and pay.”17
Around the country, socialists are starting reading groups, running publications, and knocking on doors for candidates. In Austin, they successfully “pushed to pass what has been called the first mandatory paid sick leave requirement in the South.”18 The Chicago City Council now has five socialists,19 and Somerville, Massachusetts, is “dominated by a left-leaning wave.”20
There are other signs of change beyond the election of socialists. Waves of teachers’ strikes, even in red states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, have shown the rebirth of a kind of labor radicalism that has long been dormant. In Philadelphia, leftist public defender Larry Krasner won the race for district prosecutor by pledging to end mass incarceration and radically rethink the city’s approach to criminal justice.21
The New York Times has tried to understand why socialism is taking off among young people, and the answers are about what you might expect. Young socialists are often struggling to make monthly thousand-dollar student loan payments (in addition to rent, health insurance, and every other damn thing). And they experienced “profound disillusionment with the Democratic Party” after 2016. As Houston union organizer Amy Zachmeyer told the reporter, “We want to see money stop controlling everything. That includes politics … That just resonates with millennials who are making less money than their parents did, are less able to buy a home and [are] drowning in student debt.”22 One defense attorney who is running for a judgeship in Texas said openly, “Yes, I’m running as a socialist … I’m a far-left candidate. What I’m trying to do is be a Democrat who actually stands for something, and tells people, ‘Here’s how we are going to materially improve conditions in your life.’”23
This is not the politics of several years ago. This bears little resemblance to Clinton-era “triangulation” or Tony Blair’s “New Labour.” There is, in the words of the song that plays over every documentary about the ’60s, “something happening here.”24
* * *
MILLENNIAL DISCONTENT HAS its roots in the financial crisis of 2007–2008. It was hard for us to believe that capitalism was the magical, rational prosperity machine that free-market fundamentalists insisted it was when all around us we saw foreclosure and ruin. Even the libertarian magazine Reason admitted that the global economic collapse was a naturally radicalizing force, because many young people now “associate capitalism with crisis, not progress,” and “some of capitalism’s more dogmatic advocates have done it lasting harm.”25 If this is capitalism, many millennials thought to themselves, I’ll take something else, please.
Occupy Wall Street was a natural expression of this rage and disaffection. Its slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” accurately reflected the staggering disparities of wealth in the country, with a tiny fraction of people owning most of the actual wealth. To people saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, the twenty-first-century economy seemed more feudalistic than meritocratic. Faced with a future that would consist of working endless hours to pay back impossibly large sums of money, many felt there was little to do except set up camp on Wall Street itself.
The “occupying” tactic was a reflection of just how alienated from the political system many members of the movement felt. In 2011, it didn’t feel as if electoral politics held much hope for radical economic and social change. After all, Obama had been elected as a transformative candidate who supposedly came bearing hope and change. But the Obama administration swiftly appointed Wall Street–friendly cabinet officials, such as Larry Summers, and declined to criminally prosecute anyone in the finance industry responsible for the crisis.26 Many prominent participants in Occupy Wall Street were anarchists, so thoroughly dispirited by the failures of the democratic process that they wanted to burn the whole system to the ground. It seemed like the only way to resist was to stand out in public and refuse to leave until they took you away. It wasn’t exactly a political strategy, but it was something, at a time when it felt like something needed to be done. Soon, Occupy encampments had sprung up across the country.
It’s important to understand just what Occupy Wall Street meant to those who participated in it. I was living in Massachusetts when Occupy began, and I spent some time at the Occupy Boston encampment. I still remember coming up from the Red Line subway station in the Financial District and setting eyes on the camp for the first time. It was breathtaking. The occupiers were not hippies or squatters; they were serious, intelligent people who felt it was necessary to make a powerful statement about the unity of the 99 percent and the level of popular dissatisfaction with the economy. They weren’t just protesters, though. They had also created a community.
People who never visited the Occupy encampments missed the chance to see something extraordinary. The best way I can describe it is as an ecosystem. As I walked through the Boston camp for the first time, I realized they had everything: food tents, a medical tent, sleeping accommodations, a library, bathrooms, and meeting spaces. It felt like a genuine, self-sustaining community, built from scratch by people who had been alone and desperate until they had found one another. Occupiers were sometimes caricatured in the press as a bunch of lazy, rich hipsters. That was not what I saw there. Certainly, it was not an idle place. People had literally built a miniature city within the city, from which they planned actions, debated policies, resolved disputes, and organized all aspects of their daily survival.
Most impressively, all of this had occurred spontaneously, without any support from outside institutions. People had come together and built a community from the bottom up, improvising innovative solutions to the problems that face any group trying to take collective action. Occupiers experimented with new kinds of democratic procedures for their meetings, trying to balance their commitment to leaderlessness and equality with the need for results and efficiency. In The Democracy Project, anarchist anthropologist and prominent Occupy supporter David Graeber describes Occupy as offering a radical experiment in a new kind of participatory democracy.27
And yet, when I first stood in Boston’s Dewey Square, looking over the remarkable, improvised tent city, it was also obvious that whatever it was the occupiers had built, it couldn’t last. City authorities were never going to allow protesters to live in their parks indefinitely, and while the participants had built something powerfully symbolic, there was never a clear answer to the question, What happens next? There were contentious internal debates within the movement, but it was never able to achieve consensus on whether it wanted some new kind of economic system, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a package of legislation, or merely the right to remain in city parks indefinitely.
That lack of cohesion can only partly be blamed on Occupy itself. It was inevitable. One reason Occupy took the form it did was because the traditional organizations through which collective economic action could be taken, like unions and community groups, have steadily been disappearing.28 It wasn’t clear what you could do or what you could join if you wanted to change something. You couldn’t change things through the electoral system; Obama’s disappointing presidency had shown that.29 So the occupiers were caught in a bind. The reason they couldn’t come up with a good answer was that there wasn’t one. As the months went by, and the activities of the camps turned more and more toward mundane matters of day-to-day survival (keeping the grounds clean, making sure there was food, maintaining the tents, resisting city attempts to clear the camps), the political energy of Occupy steadily dissipated. One by one, the camps were raided by police and their residents dispersed. When the final tents were taken down in the spring, it seemed as if Occupy hadn’t produced much except a powerful statement and that important rallying cry: “We are the 99 percent.”
Four years later, as Sanders ran for president, the same feelings that had caused people to gather at Zuccotti Park would come bubbling up once again. The movement had been dormant. But the anger hadn’t gone away.
* * *
SOCIALISM HAS BEGUN to set the intellectual agenda, too. Ironically, even though Trump occupies the White House and Republicans dominate the federal and the state governments, ideological conservatism seems to be in retreat. One of the most peculiar features of contemporary politics is how unwilling conservatives are to actually defend many of their core ideas and policies. Take a look at headlines in the leading right-wing publications and you’ll notice something: there’s a lot of talk about Democratic hypocrisy and the crazy campus left, but there isn’t much talk about conservatism. From Breitbart (“NBC Runs Heartwarming NFL Thanksgiving Commercial Featuring … Registered Sex Offender”), to the National Review (“Charles Manson’s Radical Chic”), to the Daily Wire (“SJW Screams at Black Man Dressed as Peacock”), they publish little more than a litany of cultural grievances. Hardly anyone seems to want to be associated with the GOP’s policy plans, and when conservative writers do try to stick up for them publicly, the result is underwhelming. Conservative Ramesh Ponnuru notes that some members of the right seem to be giving up on capitalism altogether.30
Bill Kristol, once one of the main “thinkers” in the conservative movement, doesn’t even know what he believes anymore:
The GOP tax bill’s bringing out my inner socialist. The sex scandals are bringing out my inner feminist. Donald Trump and Roy Moore are bringing out my inner liberal. WHAT IS HAPPENING?31
(Dinesh D’Souza mocked Kristol for his betrayal of the cause. D’Souza’s own recent intellectual output is a book literally arguing that the Democrats are Hitler.32)
One of the problems conservatives are running into is that the policies associated with the American right, if presented honestly, are unpopular with the American public. Most people believe the federal government should guarantee healthcare coverage, with a plurality supporting a single-payer system.33 I suspect the vast majority of people would be horrified by the consequences of pure free-market healthcare, in which people who couldn’t afford to spend huge chunks of their income on insurance would either have to put their faith in GoFundMe or die. Yet, because the right is ideologically wedded to its belief in free markets, it has been incapable of actually proposing any feasible alternative to Obamacare. The party spent so long defining itself by its hatred of Obama, it fell on its face the moment it was given the opportunity to actually implement something. Likewise, twice as many people want to see corporate taxes raised as want to see them lowered,34 but because the GOP has no ideas beyond cutting taxes and deregulation, the only thing it can do is scream about social justice warriors and liberal hypocrisy while trying to ram through an incredibly unpopular set of “reforms.” Conservatives have no plan to deal with the catastrophic consequences of climate change, and no vision for the common good beyond “what the market decides.” They are content to rationalize injustice rather than try to eliminate it.
By contrast, parts of today’s left are vibrant and intellectually exciting. It’s a great time to be a socialist, social democrat, or progressive, because these are the groups producing serious thoughts on how to solve social problems. This is not as obvious as it should be, partly because many prominent members of the Democratic Party have spent the past three years criticizing Trump rather than putting forward their alternative plans. But that’s strange, because they do actually have positive ideas. Have a look at the 2016 Democratic Party Platform.35 Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t talk about it very much, perhaps because it’s a strongly Sanders-influenced document, but it’s actually impressive. It goes through every area of policy and explains what the problems are, and what the Democrats intend to do about them. It includes plans like: strengthening overtime pay, stabilizing Social Security by taxing high-income earners, allowing the Postal Service to offer banking services, protecting net neutrality, toughening criminal enforcement against Wall Street executives, enforcing antitrust laws to stop corporate concentration, promoting the decriminalization of marijuana, guaranteeing lawyers for asylum-seeking immigrants, and offering debt-free college at public universities. It’s not a list of complaints about Republicans; it’s a set of clear, though simplified, policy priorities for how to fix the financial industry, campaign finance, education, healthcare, and civil rights. I don’t agree with all of it (it contains a totally unnecessary disavowal of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement). But thanks to the left wing of the Democratic Party, and the success of the Sanders campaign in drawing attention to the actual issues that affect people’s lives, it’s the sort of serious statement of priorities that a party ought to have. (If we could only get all Democrats to talk about the platform as much as some of them talk about Russia…)
There’s a very similar contrast in U.K. politics. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn performed unexpectedly well in the 2017 British election in large part because it has adopted a clear set of values, visions, and strategies. The most important moment in the 2017 election was the release of Labour’s policy manifesto, which was widely praised for its specificity: Labour said how many new affordable houses they planned to build, how they planned to allocate new funding for education, what new regulations on employment contracts they would introduce, and how they intended to pay for all of it.36 By contrast, the Conservative manifesto immediately proved so unpopular that parts of it had to be dropped and the party had no real suggestions for how it intended to improve the lives of the young people who began flocking to Corbyn’s Labour.37
It’s an encouraging time to be a socialist in America. The majority of millennials are skeptical of capitalism and have warm feelings toward socialism and social democracy. A pollster from Harvard’s Institute of Politics reported the surprising finding that “the only group that expressed net positive support for capitalism were people over 50 years old … The largest generation of Americans in history—millennials—have lost confidence. They are interested in finding a better way.”38
The stigma of the word socialism is evaporating. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: it’s hard not to laugh at paeans to the Free Market and Our Great American Democracy when the free market siphons every penny millennials earn and our “representative democracy” is neither representative nor democratic. If the right could explain to millennials how their beliefs would improve our lives, how they plan to generate economic growth without the benefits of that growth accruing to the already extremely rich, young people might not feel so sour toward capitalism. But since they can’t offer such a plan, or at least one that isn’t absurd on its face, the left looks more and more attractive.
On the ground, things are encouraging, too. Radical candidates are doing unexpectedly well in ways that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. It’s no longer considered fantastical to think that Corbyn might one day be the U.K. prime minister, or that Sanders would have beaten Trump. Membership in the DSA has taken off, and independent left media outlets are growing their audiences. (Although, in order to remain viable, they depend on your subscription dollars.39)
Of course, radical free-market conservatives still hold national political power, and for all Trump’s bluster and ineptitude, he is doing an excellent job gutting the regulatory state and installing right-wing federal judges. But battles of ideas matter a lot: persuading people to believe in your politics is a prerequisite to getting them to actually support you, and far more left-wing beliefs are suddenly becoming mainstream. More and more doctors are supporting single-payer healthcare, and the “Green New Deal” has gone from a fringe concept to the preeminent proposal for how to take the next major step on climate change.40
I don’t believe anyone who says that conservative power is in its death throes, or that Trump and the Republicans are floundering and 2020 will be an easy victory for Democrats. Overly optimistic predictions had devastating consequences in 2016, and how the left does electorally will depend on what the left does to convince people to vote for its candidates. But one thing does seem clear: there is something strange going on among conservatives. While they are more radical than ever in certain ways, many conservative intellectuals appear half-hearted about their own policies. Before the financial crisis, it would have seemed inconceivable that libertarian-leaning federal judge Richard Posner would write a book on the failures of capitalism.41 Before Sanders, it was inconceivable that an open socialist would come reasonably close to winning a major-party primary, and that even some Republican voters would find themselves rooting for him. When Kristol is talking about his inner socialist and the National Review is conceding that hardly any conservatives truly endorse free-market economics, the intellectual landscape is shifting. Conservative counterarguments to the left’s critiques seem increasingly flimsy and superficial, to the extent that they bother to offer arguments at all anymore. Recently, the conservatives’ sole tactic consists of invoking the specter of the Soviet Union, which persuades hardly anybody, since most people are capable of realizing the difference between guaranteed healthcare and Stalinism.42
Socialists are having what Ross Douthat called in 2014 a “miniature intellectual renaissance.”43 Douthat thought intellectual popularity wouldn’t translate into political popularity because ordinary people weren’t as upset and frustrated as socialism presumed them to be. Events of 2016 blew a great big hole in that theory. The left is doing well because millennials are tired of life in the gig economy. Young women preferred Sanders to Clinton by a stunning 37 percentage points.44 Our ideas are doing well, and with the right incapable of offering alternatives, we’ll only grow further.
If there is one certainty in politics, it is that nothing is certain and nobody actually knows anything. Political reality changes quickly. Pundits and experts can be absolutely certain that a particular event won’t happen, only to be dramatically proven wrong overnight. The received wisdom of one moment can look like laughable delusion the next. Nothing is harder to predict than the future, and that holds especially true in politics.
This uncertainty is both encouraging and terrifying. On the one hand, it means that seemingly impossible goals may be more reachable than we think. Hardly anybody thought there could be a black president. Hardly anybody thought there would be same-sex marriage in every state in the union. On the other hand, it means that the world is less stable than we may imagine it to be. People in the 1920s saw Adolf Hitler as a fringe figure, with little chance of ever attaining power. (“Hitler Virtually Eliminated” ran a New York Times headline from 1923.45) In just over ten years, he would amass almost total control over Western Europe. Likewise, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” but by 1992 it had disintegrated. The world changes very fast, and because human beings also get used to new situations very fast, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate just how dramatic the shifts have been. Detroit was one of America’s most populous and industrious cities in the 1950s, and today huge swaths of it are overgrown and abandoned.
All of this uncertainty should leave us both apprehensive and hopeful: hopeful because we never know what might be around the corner, and apprehensive because, well, we never know what might be around the corner, and the progress we take for granted is less stable than we might assume.
* * *
IN THIS BOOK, I want to convince you that everyone should join the political left and identify themselves as a democratic socialist. I want to show you, as thoroughly and persuasively as I can, that leftist politics are not just consistent and reasonable, but that elementary moral principles compel us all to be leftists and socialists. I intend to define, as clearly as possible, what I mean by words like leftism, socialism, and principles, and show you how left ideas work, why they’re practical, and why the usual criticisms of them are false and/or frivolous. I also want to explain to you why democratic socialism has been gaining currency in recent years, and look at the changes in U.S. and global politics that are driving more and more people to embrace leftism.
I’m going to assume that you don’t consider yourself a socialist. In fact, I’m going to assume that you’re extremely dubious about socialism, and that when you hear the word you think something along the following lines:
Socialism is a discredited and naive ideology that was tried over and over again and failed. However pleasant it may sound in theory, in practice it is a nightmare. It means government control of resources, but sooner or later you run out of other people’s money. It destroys innovation and produces dependency. People who self-identify as socialists do not understand economic reality, and their ignorance is dangerous. If socialists had their way, freedom would be destroyed and we would live in a dystopia.
Here, for example, are a few representative contributions from the comments section of a YouTube video explaining socialism:
Socialism works great … if your goal is genocide.
If you Marxist idiots love socialism so much move to Venezuela.
Socialism is economic snake oil and you are fools to believe that it has ever worked or ever will work.
Socialism is cancer!
Socialism, in all its forms and names, always leads to Authoritarianism. This happened in Cambodia, North Korea, the Soviet Union, Venezuela, Cuba, and China.
Socialism is really evil shrouded in the veil of something good.
Socialism is evil! End of story. Snowflakes.
Socialism always leads to mass starvation and genocide. Always.
It would seem I have quite a task ahead of me.
If you’ve opened this book, however, it means that you’re at least willing to give me a chance to make the case. And I appreciate that, especially because political discussions are unimaginably tedious and we’d probably all rather be doing other things. I will do my best not to waste your time. I know that every moment you spend reading my words is a moment that you could be spending trying to pay off your debts, learning to be a pastry chef, or looking at pictures of baby sloths. (Wait! Please don’t go!)
I’m going to try to answer a few simple questions here: What is the political left? What is socialism? How do they relate? Oh, and why should anybody care? What should compel us to adopt these ideas? What does it mean to adopt these ideas? Why do criticisms of the ideas fail? And how do we put the ideas into practice? (If we have time, we may get into the question, What is an idea? Let’s hope we don’t have time.)
Here’s an important point I’m going to beg you to keep in mind as we proceed: don’t get too hung up on the words themselves. Discussions about socialism usually quickly descend into debates over whether some particular thing is or is not socialism. (Is Norway socialist? Is Venezuela? Is the U.S. Postal Service?) We’re going to have to go through that a bit, since it’s part of figuring out what we’re actually talking about. But ultimately, I’m more concerned with figuring out what to do, and I would much rather people say, “I think the ideas are right and we should adopt them, but they’re not Socialism,” than, “I agree that this is Socialism and I hate it.”
In some ways, I’ve set myself up for a frustrating terminological debate by framing this book the way I have. I could have called it Here Are Some Simple Things That I Think Are Very Obviously True and That We Should Believe Regardless of What We Call Them and just tried to convince you that certain features of society are dysfunctional and can be fixed. Then, since you’d instantly see that none of the fixes I propose sound anything like the failed policies of the government of Venezuela, you could sign on to them without us ever having to relitigate an impossible, interminable, centuries-old debate about what socialism “is.” (I put “is” in quotes because, if people disagree about a conceptual term, there’s not actually a factual answer to the question of what it is, in the way that there may be an answer to what a book is or what a glass of water is.46)
I’ve mulled it over extensively (if there is one thing I am good at, it is extensive mulling), and I’ve come to the conclusion that the words socialism and leftism are indispensable. Their meanings may be hotly debated, but so are the meanings of other words like democracy, freedom, virtue, and organic. And I think if we lose the s and l words, we lose convenient shorthands for the set of principles I’m defending and the common thread that binds ideas together as part of one tendency. I’ve talked to many people who have said something along the lines of “Well, I agree with what you’re saying, but do I have to call myself a socialist if I think that?” To which I answer: “No, you don’t have to do anything. But I think you ought to call yourself a socialist, because if you agree with the ideas, then that’s what you are.” Likewise, if someone said, “I believe in the right of the people to govern themselves and participate in the important decisions that affect their lives,” we would say, “Well, you believe in democracy, then.” And if they replied, “No, my system is called ‘potatoes’; I loathe democracy and this is totally different,” we might humor them and indulge their terminology, but we’d know inside that they had endorsed democracy whether they chose to acknowledge it or not.
I’m going to proceed as follows: In Part I, we will discuss how examining the world honestly and humanely produces a “socialistic instinct,” one that is frustrated by unnecessary injustices and unsatisfied with popular rationalizations of those injustices. We’ll use that instinct to examine the world and try to understand precisely what features of contemporary political and economic systems are so revolting to the left sensibility. We’ll also clear away some of the tempting myths advanced by defenders of free markets and social hierarchies.
Next, in Part II, I will talk about how that basic moral instinct can help us formulate a particular set of socialist principles—valuing solidarity, equality, and freedom. Then I will look at the long and honorable tradition of socialist thinking, paying particular attention to libertarian socialism and the great socialists of the United States. After that, I’ll talk explicitly about the kind of vision and ambition that these principles produce, laying out some of the utopian ideals that are worth thinking about. Then, we’ll get into some of the frustrating terminological discussions about socialism, democratic socialism, libertarian socialism, social democracy, liberalism, etcetera. (We will try to get this sorted out as quickly as possible, so that everyone can go home early.) Then, we’ll see how conventional political ideas failed, and why the world needs a socialist political response. I’ll explain what a strong left agenda would look like and give some suggestions for strategies to move it forward.
In Part III, I will deal with alternatives and criticisms. I’ll explain why conservatism is cruel and liberalism is oblivious. I’ll respond to common critiques of the left, examining why they all fail and everyone should reject them. I will conclude with a rousing call to arms for the new generation of democratic socialists who will make life better for billions of people around the world.
* * *
BEFORE I DO any of that, though, I’m going to tell you a bit about my own involvement with the democratic socialist tendency, and how I came to be running a modest, left-wing magazine called Current Affairs.
I’m one of many millions of people who have, over the course of the last decade, come to identify as an anti-capitalist. I had the same coming-of-age experience that many others did: watching my peers’ parents lose their houses in the mortgage crisis, friends give up on any prospect of ever owning a house themselves, and people who wanted to be parents forgoing parenthood because raising a child seemed hopelessly unaffordable. I saw some disturbing things: people I had gone to school with, whose personalities had sparkled with creativity and curiosity, went into the workforce and became depressed, dulled, and directionless. They were so tired and jaded that all they felt capable of doing at the end of a workday was flopping onto the sofa and watching Netflix. Democracy itself had become something of a joke, as everyone knew that business and political elites, not the mass public, determined the contours of government policy. There was a widespread sense of fear, anxiety, and helplessness. People joked that they didn’t know how long the human species had left, what with climate change and nuclear weapons and the steady piling up of mountains and mountains of garbage. The future seemed to hold, at best, something like the dystopia depicted in Pixar’s WALL-E: a grim, desiccated planet strewn with flaming rubbish, nary a plant in sight, and the remaining human population reduced to passive, internet-addicted lumps.
But I didn’t just see people who hated their jobs and dreaded the apocalypse. The financial crisis and its aftermath did not just lead to despair. They led to revolt, and many people began to question why their lives should be determined by vast, uncaring institutions over which they have no control. I saw the rebirth of a kind of humanistic, utopian worldview, one that bubbled up in Occupy and again in the Sanders campaign and is now a major force within the Democratic Party. I saw Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed demonstrate resilience and a constructive alternative to the neoliberal consensus that had dominated for so long.47 And I saw people who realized that they didn’t have to live in a world where everything was privatized, everyone worked all the time, and if you couldn’t pay your debts, you were shit out of luck. They envisaged a better world, in which people had more control over their lives; basic needs like healthcare, shelter, and food were guaranteed for all; and retirement and pension did not seem like forgotten, mysterious words from some long-dead civilization. All around the country, there were organizations, podcasts, blogs, and publications springing up to promote discussion of left politics.
I was particularly inspired by one project: Jacobin, a socialist magazine started in 2009 by 21-year-old George Washington University student Bhaskar Sunkara. Sunkara had watched the steady collapse and merger of local newspapers and the mass layoffs of journalists, and he had put together a glossy newsstand periodical that combined radical politics with quality design. In a few years, it had reached tens of thousands of print subscribers, and by 2013, the New York Times was writing about its influence. In “A Young Publisher Takes Marx into the Mainstream,” the Times said that Jacobin “has certainly been an improbable hit, buoyed by the radical stirrings of the Occupy movement and a bitingly satirical but serious-minded style.”48 What Jacobin brought to left publishing was professionalism. The magazine looked and felt good, and it could sit alongside centrist periodicals like The Atlantic or the New Republic. Previously, the left had always lacked a certain slickness. Socialist publishing meant little zines on cheap paper and garish Geocities-like websites. Their aesthetics reinforced the perception that left ideas were fringe. Jacobin changed that. By hiring good designers and producing an object that would look stylish on people’s coffee tables, Sunkara gave socialist politics an aura of legitimacy. I was stunned by what could be done just by putting in a little effort and copying the techniques of mainstream outlets.
If you wanted to start a nationwide print magazine in 1990, the first thing you needed was $500,000. Possibly more like $1 million. Before the internet, it was all but impossible to get the word out about your new venture without spending a large amount of money on advertising. And you certainly couldn’t design the whole thing on a single PC. You would need a staff, advertisers, a distributor. If you were, say, a 26-year-old sociology PhD student with $150,000 in student debt, your prospects for getting a quality magazine off the ground without outside investment would be approximately nil.
In 2015, I was a 26-year-old sociology PhD student with $150,000 in student debt. I was not doing very well in my studies. I generally felt rather useless and spent a good deal of my time making self-published parodic children’s books with socialist messages (e.g., The Day the Crayons Organized an Autonomous Workers’ Collective).49 Seeing what Jacobin had done caused me to think about the possibilities for independent left media. It hadn’t had much funding or any real institutional support, and yet there it was, competing against national magazines and drawing the attention of the mainstream press. I wondered if I could do something similar.
One day in early September, I went down to the newsstand at a local Massachusetts bookshop. I picked up a stack of magazines, somewhat at random, and hauled them into the café. I started flicking through them, trying to figure out how magazines were made. I had written for a couple of magazines before, but I’d never actually tried to make one. Other than paper and printing quality, what was it that separated major periodicals from hand-stapled zines? What techniques did they use to make themselves look reputable?
I quickly realized that good magazine design actually boiled down to a few simple tricks: You needed to typeset and choose your typefaces well. You needed to have stylistic consistency. You needed to combine images and text in accordance with some basic design rules and use color elegantly. And you needed fancy drop caps, which are those giant letters that begin special paragraphs. Examining a copy of TIME magazine, I realized that none of this was hard to do. TIME’s visual and editorial content wasn’t especially sophisticated, and yet it was one of the leading magazines in the country. I could make TIME magazine in my living room, I thought. (Arrogant, but correct.)
So I tried. I decided to take the next 30 days and see if I could replicate a newsstand-quality magazine on my home computer. I resolved to neglect my schoolwork, eat badly, sleep little, and see what I could churn out over a four-week frenzy. If I could make something that looked decent, I’d see where it led. If I couldn’t, I’d forget the whole thing and get on with my schoolwork. I wasn’t quite sure what I was trying to do, and had no particular ambition beyond trying this little experiment. But it somehow felt like what I ought to be doing.
I opened up Adobe InDesign and tried to replicate a few pages from Wired and the New Yorker. After half a day, I had some layouts that looked moderately similar to the originals. Then I tried a few more complicated designs. When those looked semirespectable, I began writing some articles to fill the pages. Mostly opinion pieces, with a film or book review here and there. In my academic life, I was used to quickly churning out large volumes of needless words, so it was not difficult to fill seventy pages or so. I scanned some photos from old postcards to sprinkle in and liven up the visuals.
At the end of thirty days, I had something that looked remarkably like a magazine. Granted, many of its “articles” were long-winded, pompous, and boring (“The Philosophy of Buckminster Fuller as Applied to the Present Day”). But when I had a copy of the thing printed, it looked a lot like something you might see for sale in a shop. I called it The Navel Observatory, an attempted pun about academic navel-gazing.
I still wasn’t quite sure what to think about what I had done. Was I going to try to sell it? Was I going to make more of them? What was it, exactly? I showed it to friends and asked them what they thought. They liked it, they said, though they also seemed to wonder what I was doing with my life. I started to wonder how I could improve it, how it could attract subscribers, and how I could build a website. Soon, without realizing what I was doing, I was planning to publish an actual magazine.
It had been thrilling to put together a prototype. I realized that with printing costs lower than ever and social media allowing easy access to potential readers, it would be fairly inexpensive to put out a competitive publication. What’s more, I thought I could put one together that was very different from anything else.
So, with the help of my longtime friend and flatmate Oren Nimni, I filmed an introductory video for a crowdfunding campaign. We promised a magazine that was fresh, fun, and thoughtful. We were both staunch leftists (Oren is something of an anarchist), but we thought we could write in ways that would appeal to people who were, well, extremely skeptical of leftism. Too many political publications seemed to be talking mostly to those who already agreed with their editorial positions. We wanted to appeal to those outside our little bubble, to help make the radical libertarian socialism we subscribed to seem friendly, feasible, and reasonable. As part of our plan to seem “respectable,” I came up with a new name: Current Affairs. At first, I couldn’t believe that no other magazine had ever been called Current Affairs. It seemed like it ought to have been taken. Evidently, though, it was so generic and boring that nobody had even thought to use it. For our purposes, that was fine. Generic and boring meant nonthreatening. We wanted a name that would imply we were a venerable, century-old media institution, one whose opinions could be trusted. (The name has had the desired effect. Because Current Affairs sounds like the sort of magazine that has been around forever, and that people ought to have heard of, many people actually pretend to be familiar with our work even if they aren’t. “Oh, yes, Current Affairs. I’ve had a Current Affairs subscription for decades.”)
Our Kickstarter campaign netted $16,000. This was enough to build a website and a subscription system and print the first issue. In the early days, I still wrote a number of the articles under implausible noms de plume (e.g., Tex Wonder, A. Q. Smith, Darcy McEwan), and we spent many hours on our living room floor bagging up magazines and shipping them out to subscribers. At first, these numbered only a few hundred. But with each additional issue, our numbers grew, until they were in the thousands and we were sending magazines to all 50 states and 20 different countries. Slowly but steadily, we are building a powerful independent competitor to other national political magazines. We have built a real editorial team, opened a physical office in New Orleans, and been quoted in bourgeois media like the New York Times and the New Yorker.
We did not rise out of nowhere, though, and it would be a mistake to think of our magazine as some kind of fluke. We exist in large part because there has been a ready audience for our kind of work. People have been losing trust in major media institutions and are desperately hungry for an alternative to the blaring mindlessness of cable news. This does not necessarily mean that they want nonpartisan media. They want something trustworthy, thoughtful, and enjoyable to consume.
The election of Trump was also, I have to admit, a turning point for the fortunes of left media. I feel somewhat like a disaster profiteer because Trump’s election caused large numbers of progressively inclined people to wake up and realize just how important it is to have a vibrant, critical press. People horrified by day-to-day life in Trump’s America sought outlets that could give them a bit of comfort, hope, and truth during difficult times. Here’s how The Ringer explained some of the consequences for us and others:
Current Affairs is part of a wave of print and digital independent leftist media organizations gaining steam after the November presidential election. Not only are heritage brands like The New York Times and Vanity Fair adding tens of thousands of subscribers; business is also booming for Jacobin, the colorful Marxist journal founded in 2010; Chapo Trap House, a darkly funny roundtable podcast made up of mostly Brooklynite, mostly male 20- and 30-somethings; and The Baffler, a magazine of cultural critique first established in 1988 … that’s the closest predecessor to Robinson’s project. All are helping fill a political vacuum that Hillary Clinton’s loss created, or perhaps revealed to a wider public.50
Over the last three years, Current Affairs has published hundreds of articles by some of the left’s most thoughtful and imaginative writers. We’ve written about elections, economics, architecture, Star Trek, nuclear weapons, Silicon Valley, the rise of Hitler, automation, financial scams, murder mysteries, Mardi Gras, loneliness, Palestine, and dozens of other topics that may not all seem political. To each subject, we bring a fair but opinionated perspective: we don’t pretend to be neutral or objective, but we try to be scrupulous about not distorting the truth and always sourcing our factual claims. We also try to hear out the other side’s argument, even as we mercilessly criticize it. We attracted a good deal of attention in February 2016 when I wrote an article warning that Trump would probably become president if the Democratic Party nominated Clinton instead of Sanders. (And, lo and behold…) We have also become known for our withering essays on popular conservative figures like Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter. The difference between Current Affairs’ approach and that of other liberal or left publications is that we try to prove our case so thoroughly that even the strongest fans of these figures may come away a little unsure of themselves.
That approach is the one I intend to bring to this book. I have a strong viewpoint, but I understand that it is the writer’s job to convince the reader—and to be interesting enough that the reader wants to stick around. I am not going to attempt to indoctrinate you, but to explain my own thinking and show you why so many millennials now call themselves democratic socialists. Perhaps you are already one of those millennials, and this book will mostly help to clarify what you already instinctively believe to be true. Perhaps you are among those skeptics who think we who embrace the term socialism are naive at best and outright dangerous at worst. I will endeavor to keep both types of readers in mind.
Alright, enough harrumphing and dithering! Let’s get ready to become socialists together!
Copyright © 2019 by Nathan J. Robinson