Seizing the Moment: Young Socialists Take on the Old Democratic Guard
It should be no surprise that a growing percentage of millennials dislike capitalism.
Having come of age during the Great Recession or in the midst of the dismally slow (and profoundly unequal) recovery, many young Americans know only an economic environment beset by instability and falling opportunity — the burdens imposed by soaring student loan debt, stagnant wages, and ever-climbing rent only compound the already bleak circumstances.
Far from being mere youthful pessimism, the perception among millennials that they are confronting a difficult moment is obviously accurate: They are more likely to live in poverty than the previous generation, they are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed even though they are "the most educated cohort of young people in history," and they "earn $2,000 less than their parents did at a comparable age."
Despite these startling facts, millennials have been a frequent target of disparagement in the press; Time magazine's 2013 cover story, which took aim at "The Me Me Me Generation," is but one example of many. As Laura Marsh has observed, millennials are repeatedly accused of "creative destruction": They are blamed for the decline of various industries, from golf to napkins to diamonds, and the economic context in which they are now struggling is glossed over in favor of more flavorful narratives — like those that frame "frugality" as a rebellious lifestyle choice.
Of course, it's easy to be frugal when you're broke.
But polling data and other measures show that young people have largely remained hopeful in the face of stark material realities and condescension from their elders and peers, alike. And nowhere was this hope for a better future more profoundly on display than during the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders.
A self-described democratic socialist, Sanders brought to the national stage an ambitious agenda, one that called for free public college tuition, universal healthcare, tougher regulation on Wall Street, and significantly higher taxes on the wealthy. He also took the lead in highlighting the nation's gross inequities, particularly in terms of wealth and income.
As Sanders's popularity soared, commentators struggled to pinpoint the precise nature of his appeal. Alexandra Schwartz, a millennial herself, wondered in the pages of the New Yorker why young people so enthusiastically backed a "fist-shaker and haranguer who makes the 'Yakety Yak' dad look chill, the nutty great-uncle at the Seder table who insists on debating the morality of the Ten Plagues while everyone else is dying to just eat already."
"Really?" she scoffed. "That's the guy with the youth vote?"
Schwartz, like many pundits weighing in on the Sanders phenomenon, failed to get beyond the superficial. Instead of ridiculing Sanders's "shambolic presentation" and musing about the "historical fetishism" of America's youth, Schwartz would have done well to consider, just for a moment, the Vermont senator's ideas as the source of his appeal.
Perhaps, though, something else is at play.
"But does she have no friends or relatives who are struggling with student debt, low-paying or nonexistent jobs?" Corey Robin asked in response to Schwartz's narrative. "Is the cognitive divide between the haves and the have-nots that stark, that extreme?"
In her attempts to dig deep into the motivations of the Sanders backer, Schwartz unwittingly highlighted a fact that Sanders has done much to bring to the national stage: Those at the top — political leaders, commentators, and the business class — are insulated from the realities of, well, everyone else.
As income inequality grows, the rich and the poor are increasingly sectioned off: They live in different neighborhoods, attend different schools, end up in different professions, and accumulate different experiences.
If these divides appear uniquely striking to the millennial generation, it's because they are getting worse; inequality has likely reached unprecedented heights, and few seem eager to acknowledge the problem, let alone to address it with the necessary vigor. So business as usual continues: According to a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office, the wealthiest 10 percent of families owned "76 percent of all family wealth" in 2013. Those in the bottom 50 percent, by contrast, owned just 1 percent.
Drawing attention to these disparities throughout his campaign, Sanders earned the support of an overwhelming number of young voters, more than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined.
While Sanders's presidential run ultimately came to what many considered to be a disappointing end, young people are still looking to get involved in progressive politics. Among other objectives, they are eager to cultivate a movement that finally does away with the old Democratic guard, which insists on maintaining its deep ties to corporate America while selling itself, once more, as "the party of the people."
And as poll results indicate, young progressives are not simply tired of capitalism and the feckless political establishment; they are also more open to socialism than previous generations. Such openness has been quite a boon for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in the United States.
"DSA membership has been exploding," Kayla Pace, the co-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDS), DSA's student section, told me in an interview. "DSA is getting 200 new members a month on average, this is up from the year prior with only 50 to 75 recruits a month."
DSA emerged out of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), founded by Michael Harrington and other veteran leftists in 1973 after a rather bitter split with the Socialist Party of America.
By the time DSOC was formed, Harrington — who took to calling himself "America's oldest young socialist" — had long been a household name on the American left. From his early adult years as a Catholic Worker to his surprise bestseller that prompted the New York Herald Tribune to christen him "the man who discovered poverty," his influence within the socialist movement, both as an organizer and a chronicler of the class struggle, was profound.
But as his popularity soared, he also came to straddle two worlds in conflict.
While leading the fight against the capitalist order in the streets, Harrington also took on a role in the Johnson administration's war on poverty, a war Harrington's work did much to spark. Throughout his time as a member of Johnson's so-called anti-poverty task force, Harrington came to appreciate the difficulties of attempting to work within the system while also pushing for change from the outside.
Perhaps as an outlet for his frustrations, Harrington, along with his colleague Paul Jacobs, took to poking fun at administration officials by concluding each of his sober policy memos with a call for revolution.
"Of course," the two would write, "there is no real solution to the problem of poverty until we abolish the capitalist system."
While this goal — the abolition of capitalism — was shared by the left more broadly, there was much arguing and feuding over the ideal path; Harrington was often at the center of these conflicts, which came to a head during the Vietnam War era, when Harrington found himself embroiled in caustic disputes with the burgeoning Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Harrington would later come to regret this period of infighting, and as a kind of official reconciliation, he, in 1982, "presided over the merger between DSOC and a rival left-wing organization called the New American Movement (NAM) to form Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)."
During the remainder of Harrington's life — he would die of cancer in 1989 — DSA struggled to escape the margins of American society. While Harrington was optimistic, and while membership indeed grew after the DSOC-NAM merger, the likelihood that a small socialist organization would blossom into a mass movement, one that could measurably affect American electoral politics and achieve crucial legislative aims, remained low.
DSA, principally an activist organization dedicated to "establishing an openly democratic socialist presence in American communities and politics," has also suffered somewhat of a public relations problem: Writing in 2012, Harrington biographer Maurice Isserman noted that since the icon's death, "no obvious successor to the post of socialist tribune in the Debs-Thomas-Harrington tradition has emerged."
But circumstances have changed drastically since 2012. The surprisingly successful presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders — himself a great admirer of Eugene Debs and his vision — brought socialism to the national stage in a way that even Harrington at his peak could not. And his candidacy has provided a rare opportunity for socialists to shed the tired image with which they have been tarred by both reactionaries and ostensibly liberal Democrats.
"You cannot be concerned about issues like poverty, war or the exploitation of minorities without beginning to put them together, seeing them not as separate problems, but a system," Sanders said in 1986. In 2016, Sanders brought this notion to presidential politics, changing rapidly the substance of political discourse, particularly among his younger supporters.
For millennials, YDS co-chair Spencer Brown told me, "socialism is a term that designates a rejection of a status quo that is undemocratic, militarist, and racist. They, like myself, clearly see that some sort of a left alternative to liberalism is needed, and needed fast. The success of the Sanders campaign has shown that young people are beginning to turn that general feeling into actual political action, hopefully transforming that vague notion of socialism into a real mass movement."
The appetite for such a movement is ravenous and widespread — and, contrary to the mythical narratives invoked by socialism's liberal detractors, the coalition to which Sanders appealed (and to which progressive politics continues to appeal) was diverse, enthusiastic, and quite a bit to the left of the Democratic establishment.
"Apparently," notes the Washington Post's Max Ehrenfreund in a moment of clarity that so often eludes the liberal commentariat, "Sanders's popularity with young voters isn't just some shallow fad or a cult of personality with little connection to substantive questions of politics. Young people, it seems, are taking Sanders's ideas to heart."
Of course, many young people, particularly young people of color, didn't need the Sanders campaign to push them to the left — they were already there. They merely needed the infrastructure to help transport this worldview into the political realm.
It is no surprise, then, that "black millennials favored Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton 53 to 39 percent," according to a poll conducted by the Black Youth Project at the University Chicago in partnership with the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
"Minorities are more liberal on economic issues," observes the Post's Jeff Guo. "They are more likely than whites to support increases in the minimum wage and free tuition at colleges. They are more likely to agree with the idea that wealth in America should be more evenly distributed."
Considering these facts, DSA's leaders and organizers are not dismayed by Sanders's defeat; they see tremendous opportunity in his campaign's ability to raise expectations and to reach a mass audience with a radically egalitarian agenda.
"The Sanders campaign showed that the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party has effectively lost the support of the entire youth vote," says Spencer Brown, "and YDS plans on continuing to transform this fissure into a mass movement against income inequality, against the TPP, against drone killings, against mass incarceration."
Such efforts are sure to face powerful opposition — and as Adolph Reed has made clear, the left is beginning from a position of weakness, if not powerlessness.
"Right now, we have a weak, but growing left," writes DSA national director Maria Svart in the organization's lively publication, the Democratic Left. "Some 13 million people voted for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries. There is a hunger for an alternative to capitalism, and he moved us several steps forward in the war of position."
The next steps are the usual ones: Organize, organize, organize. Working in conjunction with labor, peace activists, and racial and environmental justice movements, America's socialists are looking to take this unique moment in history — a moment in which an explicit class critique has matured from its resurgence within Occupy and other crucial struggles, like the Fight for $15 — in stride and to expand the left's influence, both within the limited confines of the Democratic Party (by backing progressive candidates like Pramila Jayapal) and on the outside.
It is a difficult balance to strike, given the Democratic Party's continuing transformation into "the preferred party of the very wealthy."
But for America's democratic socialists, Hillary Clinton's emergence as the Democratic Party's standard-bearer represents, in Spencer Brown's words, "a massive opportunity to take the socialist critique mainstream." It is a chance to clearly delineate who's who in the fight for economic, racial, and environmental justice.
The left's job now, as Corey Robin has put it, "is to make politics into a struggle between a multicultural neoliberal center and a multicultural, multiracial socialist left."
Struggle is certainly the right word; the power, the institutional clout, and the money are overwhelmingly on the side of economic and political elites, making change, particularly revolutionary change, a daunting task.
But while they may not be seizing the means of production any time soon, the nation's young progressives are doing all they can to seize this moment — to, for lack of a better word, capitalize on shifting attitudes, political disaffection, and a desire among young Americans to fundamentally alter the structures of authority and to reorganize the economy in such a way that benefits everyone, not just, in Sanders's signature phrase, "a handful of billionaires."
The numbers are not yet there, but the momentum is: DSA chapters are sprouting up in areas hardly known for their socialistic flair. "We get a new one every few weeks," Maria Svart told Dissent's Jesse Myerson. "A lot of our growth is in the South, which is very exciting." Democratic socialism has also reached several high schools, as Myerson notes — an unexpected development, but one that speaks to the hard work of long-time organizers and to the passion of those new to the movement.
Given the obstacles, blind optimism is hardly warranted. But, again given the obstacles, victories and progress, even of the smallest kind, are worth appreciating.
"That is how revolutions go forward sometimes," Michael Harrington wrote in his memoir, "in such ridiculous settings, sometimes among just a few people."