Where We Are and Where We’re Going
A new book provides an exciting and insightful guide to the rise of the new New Left in the USA.
Excerpt from The Rise of a New Left: How Young Radicals Are Shaping the Future of American Politics by Raina Lipsitz, published by Verso Books. Copyright © Raina Lipsitz, 2022.
In 2020, Trump ran against the precise kind of socialism—brutal, authoritarian, repressive—that every major Democratic presidential candidate, including Sanders, repeatedly disavowed. He railed against the “unhinged left-wing mob” trying to “vandalize our history,” “desecrate our monuments,” and “punish, cancel, and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands.” City and state governments have removed some monuments to Confederate generals in recent years, but an all-powerful left capable of smiting its enemies has never existed in the United States; if it did, we’d have a national health service, or at least Medicare for All. Yet the fact that Trump and senior GOP leaders still see Red-baiting as a good way to motivate their base suggests that the left is ascendant or perceived as such. Perhaps it’s both: fear of socialism seems a bit less absurd in an era of real, if modest, growth of socialist organizations, media, and presence in office. Conservative Democrats clearly share Republicans’ fear that the AOC wing of the Democratic Party will continue to gain in power and prominence. Shortly before he was elected mayor of New York City, at a July 2021 fundraiser cohosted by a Republican city council member, Democrat Eric Adams declared that he was running “against a movement,” adding, “All across the country, the DSA socialists are mobilizing to stop Eric Adams.” (NYC-DSA did not endorse a candidate in New York’s 2021 mayoral race, but its members opposed Adams.)
Although DSA and smaller socialist organizations like the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and Socialist Alternative have gained members in recent years—PSL does not release membership numbers; Socialist Alternative claims around 1,000 members nationwide—no organized force in American politics can credibly be described as the “far left.” DSA is not “far left” in an international context, or even in a US one. It is not an extremist organization; unlike certain 1960s and ’70s groups and movements, it does not advocate violence as a means of achieving its political ends. No DSA member has taken a hostage or planted a bomb on behalf of the organization. Nor are DSA members uniformly committed to the project of building a national party; many claim that as an ultimate goal, but most of the organization’s energy since 2016 has gone into running socialist candidates for office at the state and local level. Though the question of if and when to formally break with the Democratic Party is an ongoing subject of debate, most DSA members accept that, in most places in the US, its candidates have a better chance of winning if and when they run as Democrats, for both branding (it’s easier to get people to vote for a member of a party they’ve heard of) and structural reasons (it’s easier for major-party candidates to get their names on the ballot).
When Jabari Brisport ran for City Council on the Green Party line in 2017, he earned more independent votes than any council candidate had since New York Attorney General Letitia James won a 2003 bid for City Council by running only on the WFP line (in her 2018 bid for attorney general, James declined to seek the WFP line at the behest of Cuomo and other anti-WFP Democratic Party officials). Brisport’s 2017 showing, though impressive for a third-party candidate, netted him only about 29 percent of the vote. When he ran for a state senate seat as a Democrat in 2020, he won the primary with nearly 60 percent of the vote and the general with over 99 percent. As distasteful as many DSA members find association with the Democratic Party, the practical advantages are obvious. And although a number of contemporary union leaders are socialists and/or allies of DSA, most are not. If socialists and communists were as well-represented in organized labor as they were for much of the twentieth century, DSA would be coordinating with unions on a far larger scale, not seeking to “infiltrate” and push them left. Even in DSA circles, there is a wide spectrum of opinion about the relative strength of the socialist left compared to the broader left universe: some, especially those who were around in darker days, maintain that socialism is more popular now than it has been in a very long time. Others argue that socialists need to reckon with how little power they have outside of places like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia (it’s no coincidence that DSA has gained the most influence in cities and states with powerful unions; the left is stronger in places with some degree of class consciousness and support for workers’ rights).
For the left to continue growing, it must expand its geographical reach, and there are some small signs that it has. Maria Svart told me that after DSA’s big Fall 2020 recruitment drive, the three chapters with the highest recruitment numbers proportional to their size were in the South. DSA now has members in every single state and the District of Columbia, and YDSA has over 100 chapters nationwide, many of them in the Midwest and South.
Although the new left is still in the process of figuring out how to run successful electoral campaigns in these regions, such campaigns have come closer to succeeding in conservative areas than they have in decades. Pro-Medicare for All progressives like Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Jess King in Pennsylvania, Mike Siegel in Texas, and Cathy Kunkel in West Virginia— most of whom also supported a Green New Deal—have, in recent years, won Democratic congressional primaries in red states or districts (Kunkel didn’t have a primary opponent, and King’s withdrew from the race before the primary). Marquita Bradshaw of Tennessee and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, also proponents of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, won Democratic senatorial primaries in red states. But all of these candidates were defeated in the general election. Some came close: Eastman lost the general election by just 2 percentage points in 2018; in 2020, she gained thousands of votes, but so did her Republican opponent, and she ultimately lost by 4.8 points. Siegel fared similarly; he came within 4.3 points of defeating his Republican opponent in 2018, but ended his 2020 rematch nearly 7 points behind. Jess King lost by around 18 points after redistricting turned her district blood-red. The greatest recent electoral victory for a progressive in a conservative state was arguably Cori Bush’s 2020 triumph in Missouri. Missouri is a red state, but Bush’s district is heavily Democratic. (It was also her second attempt; she lost her 2018 primary by around 28,000 votes.)
To opponents of the left, this is evidence that policies like Medicare for All, free college, and a Green New Deal are nonstarters outside of deep-blue states. Svart bluntly rejected that conclusion, as well as the contention that Sanders’s losses showed socialism isn’t viable in the United States. “The entire establishment united against Bernie Sanders,” she said. “So it is true that it’s difficult when the establishment is rigging things.” But far from giving up because the system is rigged, Svart said, the left should consider it “a reality that can’t be ignored” when thinking about “how to win a power struggle within the Democratic Party, and [between] the Democratic Party and the left.”
In the 2020 presidential election, a year of record turnout, 80 million people did not vote. This is in part because, as Svart said, the right has “illegally and legally” suppressed the votes of working people, and especially people of color, in every election cycle in our country’s history. But that’s not the only reason people don’t vote. “There are significant parts of the population that feel completely powerless and feel that their vote will not make an impact, and they choose to abstain from the process,” Svart said. I witnessed that phenomenon firsthand in Philadelphia, and FiveThiryEight data collected in 2020 showed that those who rarely vote were the likeliest to say the election didn’t matter. Yet higher turnout does not, on its own, guarantee victory for the left; when turnout increases across the board, it often benefits Republicans. Kara Eastman, Mike Siegel, and Nate McMurray all came significantly closer to unseating Republicans in 2018 than they did in 2020. Even motivating more first-time voters to show up to the polls, versus increasing turnout among those with defined partisan preferences, does not necessarily benefit the left. A surprising number of people who cast their first ballot in 2020 broke for Trump.
“Occupy Wall Street was partly a result of people feeling that government didn’t serve them,” Svart told me, “And it’s true—we had very few major, popular public programs where people saw government solving their problems collectively in the last part of the last century. People just didn’t experience it happening in their lives, and they didn’t experience politicians being responsive to pressure from the people . . . of course [they] feel disenfranchised.” Eighty million is “a huge portion of the electorate”—it’s not that all of those people would vote for a socialist in general, or for Sanders in particular, she added, but a “significant” number would.
Given the scale of the crises the United States is facing, the growth of the left, and the overlap in the missions of organizations like DSA, Justice Democrats, Indivisible, and Sunrise, interest in formal collaboration is growing. As of December 2020, DSA did not maintain formal relationships with other US socialist organizations or with any of the groups mentioned above. Svart attributed that lack partly to DSA’s unique, member-driven structure, and the difficulty and complexity of navigating relationships with differently structured organizations.
As much as its growth has been hailed as a victory, DSA is most often criticized from the left for what some see as an over-focus on winning campaigns and elections at the expense of movement building. It’s true that much of the momentum within DSA, and the press coverage it has garnered, has been related to electoral organizing. Yet of all the newly prominent left groups, DSA arguably offers members the widest range of opportunities to build and exercise power outside of the electoral realm. Justice Democrats, Sunrise, and the Working Families Party focus on mounting primary challenges and pressuring incumbents. Even more radical groups like Dream Defenders have poured a great deal of energy into defeating Trump, attempting to take back the state legislature, and supporting progressive ballot measures. The Movement for Black Lives and affiliated organizations have helped elect progressive DAs throughout the country; their non-electoral gains, while real, are much harder to quantify. Smaller and less visible groups engage in strike support, political education, and various other movement building efforts, but DSA is the only organization that many politically active, non-socialist adults have heard of.
“What we are about is building working-class power,” Svart said, adding that the organization is “most powerful when we have this interplay between [our] electoral and nonelectoral power.” Much of DSA’s non-electoral work involves organizing tenants. That can take several forms, including organizing, building by building, tenants’ unions and organizing for passage of pro-tenant legislation. Svart believes workplace organizing is the most important work that DSA does outside of the formal electoral arena. The organization’s projects include a restaurant organizing project, which is uniting laid-off hospitality workers to push for Covid relief in the short term and “transformed workplaces” in the long term, and an emergency workplace organizing committee (EWOC), which helps organize workers to demand Covid-related improvements in safety and pay. In 2021 DSA helped support various major labor actions, all of which yielded significant gains for workers: the 10,000-worker John Deere strike, the 60,000 International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employee workers and over 30,000 Kaiser Permanente workers who threatened to strike, and the nearly three-month-long Kellogg’s workers strike. In 2019, DSA chapters throughout New York State, led by NYC-DSA and allied tenants’ rights organizations, won a historic suite of housing reforms that made it harder for landlords to raise rents and/or convert rent-stabilized units to more lucrative market-rate apartments.
These victories, while useful to the emerging left, were not DSA’s alone. They were also piecemeal and difficult to replicate in the absence of the specific set of conditions, including pandemic anger and variations across industries, workplaces, and regions, that brought them about in the first place.
As they have for other leftist groups, sudden expansion and the overall left-wing shift in our politics have spurred an identity crisis both within and vis-à-vis DSA. The organization’s emphasis on electoral politics is controversial because some leftists believe it saps energy from more urgent priorities. Others see electoral victories not only as crucial to the growth of the left, but a useful way to gauge its power and scare its opponents. With time, money, and volunteer energy in short supply, what should an organization’s main priorities be? And given the existence of so many new and newly expanded groups with overlapping and complementary aims, why hasn’t DSA prioritized organizing, or been able to organize, a more formal “popular front”?
Nearly two years into the Biden administration, it’s obvious how little progress many of the people and groups who helped put Biden in office have made on their top priorities, even with Sanders as chair of the Senate Budget Committee. From immigrants’ rights, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and comprehensive police reform to the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, cancellation of student and medical debt, free college, and large-scale social spending bills, the left has built significant support for and attracted mainstream coverage of an ambitious agenda. Yet it hasn’t won any of them. Part of the problem is the perception, fueled by the right, that the left is winning, at least in terms of the culture wars. Yet no one on the left believes that, for example, diversity in ad campaigns is as crucial as voting rights or Medicare for All. As Jezebel.com editor Laura Bassett sarcastically tweeted in early 2022, referring to the candy company’s much-mocked efforts to make its marketing campaigns more inclusive, “Losing the voting rights bill and getting woke M&Ms instead feels about right.”
Rebuilding the left is a comprehensive, long-term project that requires more than organizing protests and launching PACs. Maria Svart sees one of DSA’s most fundamental tasks as helping to restore the “collective working-class culture” the United States has largely lost. “Most people in the United States experience a completely atomized existence,” she told me, “and to the degree that there are ‘collective’ [formations] like organizations, they are very isolated, very top-down, or feel apolitical.” This is a vast and potentially transformative project that goes far beyond voting or volunteering for candidates. In Svart’s words, it’s about building a “culture of solidarity” and “collective life.” When you look at how we live today—our work, family, and spiritual lives, and even our entertainment, especially during the pandemic—many Americans are missing a meaningful sense of community. Jonathan Smucker made a similar observation in his book, Hegemony How-To. “The explicit purpose of coming together with like-minded people is to effect change,” he wrote, adding that a “less explicit purpose” is to “surround ourselves with community and also with reflections of the values that we hold dear.”56 Smucker went on to argue that fostering community among like-minded individuals, while natural and in many ways desirable, is not, on its own, enough to transform society.
That many people feel disconnected became apparent to me one pre-pandemic winter day as I was knocking on doors to encourage my neighbors to support Sanders for president and a DSA-backed candidate for state legislative office. At a small unit in a run-down apartment building, a red-faced, thirty-ish guy reluctantly cracked his door. There was an open beer on the side table next to the couch behind him, where he’d been watching pro wrestling on a giant TV with the volume cranked all the way up. “Look, I just got home from work and I’m trying to unwind,” he said, impatiently but not unkindly. “Can you just, like, say what you gotta say? I’m not gonna vote anyway.” He seemed to think I was a poorly paid canvasser, not a volunteer. I was touched by his generosity— he clearly didn’t want to talk but was willing to hear me out because he thought I had to be there—and I felt sorry for him. I also knew how he felt. Anyone who has spent any part of their life in a crappy job understands the appeal of numb solitude. To him, my insistence that voting mattered was abstract and unconvincing: where was the proof?
DSA chapters host arts and crafts activities, choirs, game nights, movie screenings, and reading groups. In December 2020, I attended an outdoor sing-along of Christmas carols rewritten as socialist anthems. Svart believes such activities are often overlooked, despite how crucial they are to bringing people into the organization. (Indeed, a number of families stopped to listen to the carols, and some even took brochures for the DSA-backed city council candidate we were promoting.) Learning how to make decisions and acquire basic leadership skills can be a real challenge, Svart said, “when most decisions have been taken out of our hands.” It sounded funny, and maybe a bit “neoliberal,” she added, but the individual transformation of people is a “key goal of the socialist movement.” What DSA is really trying to do, according to Svart, is teach “ordinary people” the skills to “actually govern.”
This is not a universally appealing project. There is a deep strain in American political culture of expert worship. Many people would rather support candidates they perceive as the smartest, with the best plans and the most effective combination of skills and traits, than learn new skills and do political work themselves. Truly democratic processes can be frustrating and tedious. For those who are used to having a great deal of control over their own and other people’s lives, a political system where everyone gets a voice, and everyone’s voice has equal weight, sounds more irritating than inspiring. Upper-income Americans tend to want to outsource political labor the same way they outsource other kinds of labor: by writing a check. Not everybody is thrilled by the idea of knocking on strangers’ doors, getting to know their neighbors, and building something together from scratch.
After decades of disempowerment, the left in general and the socialist left in particular is “re-learning” how to organize, expand its power, and use that power effectively—not to win Twitter fights or diversify M&Ms, and not even solely to alleviate suffering, but to reshape society in ways as transformative and enduring as Social Security, the 40-hour work week, and universal suffrage.