Who are the new socialist wunderkinds of America?

Every time I’ve come home to the US from my home abroad over the past four years, I notice a trend among people of my demographic: they have become increasingly politicised – and increasingly radical.

I met Rachel Rosenfelt on one of the first cold days of this year and it was chilly in her office, a small room crowded with three desks stacked high with books and papers in a converted warehouse space in Brooklyn. Rosenfelt, who kept her leather jacket on and sat on her feet to keep warm, is the editor and publisher of The New Inquiry, an eclectic and exceedingly intelligent online journal and monthly magazine of essays and criticism, much of which engages with radical feminist, Marxist and anarchist thought. I have been reading The New Inquiry for a few years and thought that maybe Rosenfelt could help me to understand something.

Every time I’ve come home to the US from my home abroad over the past four years, I notice a trend among people of my demographic: they have become increasingly politicised – and increasingly radical. The stereotype of the apathetic hipster has given way to a new kind of well-educated, middle-class twentysomething who rails against the prison-industrial complex, who talks about wages for housework, who throws around words like “imperialism” and “exploitation” with a growing sense of comfort. Occupy Wall Street may have something to do with it, but what is happening now in America feels more like a moment than a movement.

What is going on? “When I was first starting the New Inquiry and I had these ideas about this moment,” she told me. “Everyone said, ‘Rachel, write an essay about it!’ And I thought, ‘What if I just did it?’” She launched the magazine in 2009 with two friends, starting it on a Tumblr. Four years later it has only grown.

And Rosenfelt isn’t alone. Something is brewing in Brooklyn, something far more inspiring than another batch of artisanal organic ale. There is a revival of left-wing intellectual thinking on a level unseen since the 1960s. Young people are starting magazines and engaging in serious, substantial critique of the status quo. In addition to The New Inquiry there is Jacobin, “a magazine of culture and polemic” launched in late 2010 with an avowedly socialist perspective. Dissent, a socialist journal founded in 1953 has seen a revival, with a new crop of young staff. The hip literary magazine n+1 has also taken a decidedly political turn in recent years. And while many people launch publishing projects with earnest enthusiasm only to seem them fail quickly, this new crop of journals seems to have enjoyed unprecedented success. At the same time, a new cohort of journalists has emerged, young and enterprising reporters devoted to covering labour, poverty and inequality, and they see interest from the old guard of left-liberal magazines peaking.

“There are a lot of wonderful kids – people in there 20s and early 30s – who are really refreshing,” says Doug Henwood, a veteran leftist journalist and commentatorof a different generation. “There’s an intellectual seriousness without a narcotic earnestness. I find it very encouraging.”

It’s impossible to pin down a single explanation for this revival but a few things make sense: capitalism offering few opportunities to young people, a formal political structure that is paralysed and seems to ignore the concerns of most people, the internet providing new opportunities for intellectuals to find each other. Where it is going, what it means in terms of formal politics, the future of social movements in the US, or the overall intellectual climate are hard to predict.

One very likely effect, though, is a widening of the American political discourse. Earlier on the same day that I met Rosenfelt I sat at a posh pub in rapidly gentrifying neighborhood on the other side of Brooklyn with BhaskarSunkara, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Jacobin, a journal that claims to take the mantle of Marxist thought of Ralph Miliband and a similar vein of democratic socialism. “One of our main goals is to be an openly socialist voice, to be a left wing voice. That in and of itself widens the spectrum. In America you have a few steps to the right but not many steps to the left,” said Sunkara, a speed-talking 24-year-old socialist.

Articles on the website and in the quarterly print journal often delve into serious policy specifics on topics like transport workers’ strikes or the political economy of the Oslo AccordsJacobin has received much attention in the mainstream and liberal media for a bunch of self-declared radicals. Jacobin authors have been cited by columnists in Bloomberg, on the reliably liberal, pro-Democratic Party TV network MSNBC, and elsewhere in the less-than-radical-spectrum. That’s because, Sunkara said, “We intentionally engage with liberals.”

It’s tempting to assume that this is all the province of a privileged cast of the educated, urban and young. That assumption may carry some truth. (For what it’s worth, Rosenfelt and Sunkara both went to elite private universities, as did most of the people I now hear talking socialism.) But there is evidence that something bigger is at play: A 2011 poll found that 49 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have a positive reaction to the word “socialism,” while 47 per cent have a negative reaction to the word “capitalism.” Among the population as a whole 50 per cent view capitalism positively and 60 per cent view socialism negatively. The sample, needless to say, are not all living in Brooklyn and working in the creative industries. Moreover, both Jacobin and The New Inquiry say that their readers come from all over the US (and other countries), suggesting that the enthusiasm for this is not limited to New York. And although Occupy (now three years ago) began in New York, it quickly spread across the country, if that is any indicator.

What accounts for this? An answer that sounds straight from Marx’s mouth might be the most obvious one: capitalism is in crisis. People in their late 20s and early 30s graduated university and entered the workforce in the worst economy since the Great Depression. GDP growth has stagnated since the financial crisis began in 2008 even under the “recovery”. Long-term prospects don’t look great, either, with some economists even suggesting that the era of growth might be ending in the US. Young people have been especially hard-hit by the downturn. Unemployment rates for people aged 18 to 29 are around 11.8 per cent compared to 7.3 per cent for the economy overall. And many economists warn that the prolonged unemployment will have lasting effects, permanently reducing incomes for thiscohort.Seventy percent of students in the US graduate with debt, and the averagedebt load is more than $35,000. 

If that’s not enough to convince you of a turning tide, then consider that inequality in the United States has reached astounding levels. In the current recovery, 95 per cent of the gains have gone to 1 per cent of the people. It isn’t surprising that people are asking more systemic questions and attempting to imagine alternate futures, even futures that don’t include capitalism.

The current political situation in the United States doesn’t give cause for much optimism in the status quo. Even before the debacle of the government shutdown last month, American politics has been less than inspiring. The millennial generation voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008. Young people led many of the campaign activities, hoping for a more equitable and more peaceful world, repudiating the war-mongering and free-market fundamentalism of George W. Bush. Obama ran on slogans of hope and change but the end result wasn’t quite the level of change many may have hoped for: Deportations of undocumented immigrants has skyrocketed, spying on citizens continues, inequality grows worse as the Democratic Party pushes an austerity-light agenda to counter the radical austerity of the Republicans.

Peter Beinart, a prominent liberal commentator, recently predicted that because of the harsh economic conditions and liberal social values of younger generations, this generationwill push American politics in a left-ward direction. Beinart points to the election of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a fierce advocate of the working class, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a man who once described himself as a democratic socialist, as evidence. If Warren emerges as a national figure in the Democratic Party, perhaps running against Hillary Clinton in next year’s primary, that would further Beinart’s thesis.

That may only be part of the story, though. “Liberals can’t get anywhere unless they’re the real reasonable alternative to some more threatening force,” said Henwood.That’s precisely what Sunkara is hoping for with the openly socialist platform at Jacobin. A resurgent socialist movement, even a small one that finds its strength in the realm of ideas rather than action of party politics, may be one step toward transforming the US political and intellectual landscape.

At the moment there is intellectual ferment but only vague flickering of action. And there remains tremendous ideological and intellectual diversity, even if the publishing and thinking world is the most visible manifestation of the current moment. But it was the anti-Stalinist left, much of it based in New York, much of it centered around magazines, that helped to lay the groundwork for the New Left of the 1960s. What happens next remains entirely unclear.

 “We’re also trying to figure out the moment,” Rosenfelt said of The New Inquiry and its cohort. She was certainly not referring to elections. “And the limits of what we’re doing aren’t determined by the limits of our imagination.”

Occupy Wall Street protesters picket during a May Day rally in front of the Bank of America buidling on May 1, 2012 in New York City. Image: Getty
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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”