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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
Copyright © 2019 by Nathan J. Robinson