2 decades of left turns
Leftists are stronger than they have been since the 1940s. But it might not last.
This article is part of The Week's 20th anniversary section, looking back at how the world has changed since our first issue was published in April 2001.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) took one of the bravest stands in the history of American politics when she was the only person in Congress to vote against the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force passed after 9/11. She argued that it gave the Bush administration dangerously sweeping authority to wage indefinite war basically anywhere they felt like. Despite the fact that it was a mere protest vote, Lee was deluged with death threats for months afterward. Not even Bernie Sanders, then a member of the House, joined her.
Today, Lee looks not only courageous but sensible and realistic. The war in Afghanistan has been lost — after 20 years of pointless slaughter and trillions of dollars wasted, the Taliban rule the country once more. Lee's prediction about endless war turned out to be completely true as well. Today the U.S. is involved in multiple brushfire conflicts, most of which have nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11, that use the 2001 AUMF as a legal fig leaf.
Back in 2001, Lee was one of a tiny handful of members of Congress that could be said to be on the left. Today, things are different. There is quite a large caucus of progressives within the Democratic Party with similar politics to hers, and even a handful of self-identified socialists to her left. Despite his previous record as a sellout centrist, President Biden has turned out to be the most left-wing president since Lyndon Johnson at least (though that isn't saying much).
It's been a rough 20 years for America, but the best 20 years for the left since it was brutally crushed by the McCarthyite anti-communist frenzy in the late 1940s and early '50s. As a millennial approaching middle age, I watched this all happen in real-time. It's a good moment to check in on how a small but significant leftist movement has been built centered around younger people, and examine its prospects for the future.
The first great builder of the left was George W. Bush. His presidency was such an appalling, disastrous failure that it permanently soured most of the millennial generation on conservative politics and the Republican Party. I entered high school in 2000, and watched in bafflement as the Supreme Court handed the presidency to Bush in a decision even a 14-year-old could see was cynical politics dressed up with legalese. (Later I would learn it was even worse than that — Al Gore almost certainly would have won a fair recount.)
As I came of age politically, I watched in increasing horror as Bush failed to prevent the worst terrorist attack in American history, somehow became insanely popular as a result, and then leveraged that popularity to invade a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with the attack. I then entered college in 2004, when Bush defeated John Kerry — the only time a Republican has won the popular vote in a presidential election since I was 2 years old, by the way — running on war and homophobic panic.
However, this only alienated young people even further from the right. By 2005, the war was going very, very badly, and even the worst predictions of anti-war critics turned out to be far too optimistic. My half-baked suspicion at 17 years old that "invading Iraq for no reason seems like a really bad idea" turned out to give me more wisdom on war than three-quarters of Congress and the entire D.C. foreign policy establishment. Meanwhile, while my lefty classmates and I despaired on election night in 2004 as gay marriage bans passed easily in all 11 states where they were on the ballot, including liberal Oregon, that was only a temporary setback. A decade later, a large majority of Americans would support gay marriage, after which federal marriage equality was only a matter of time.
Bush capped off his abysmal presidency by gawping like a sheep at the worst financial crisis since 1929 — the second great builder of the left. I happened to graduate in 2008, right into the teeth of it. Again, like millions of other millennials, I was bewildered to learn that Wall Street had somehow built a grenade under itself that blew up and took the global economy down with it. That led to a crash course in finance and Keynesian economics. It turned out that while foreign policy had riveted the attention of political media for the last decade, there were serious problems under the hood of American society — extreme income and wealth inequality, the worst health care system in the rich world, and on and on.
That prompted me to volunteer for the Obama presidential campaign that year. I had read his excellent 1995 memoir, and he seemed to have the combination of foreign policy realism, lefty views, and inspiring leadership that I had been looking for. When he cruised to a crushing victory in 2008, cementing gigantic Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, it seemed like the disasters of the Bush administration were about to be set right.
Alas, Obama's "yes we can" slogan turned out to be a cheap gimmick, and his golden opportunity was almost totally squandered. (I should have read his second memoir, which is a bunch of cynical pablum.) What the moment called for was a reckoning with neoliberalism — deregulation, inequality, deindustrialization, corruption, the destruction of the labor movement, Wall Street's criminality, etc. — along with the bloody catastrophe of the war on terror. Instead, Obama and his party burned up their congressional majority desperately attempting to resurrect the pre-crisis status quo, and largely embraced Bush's security state apparatus.
Influenced by neoliberal economists the president hired (most of whom were deeply implicated in the crisis itself), the party passed an obviously inadequate stimulus package that stopped the recession but led to the weakest economic recovery since the 1930s. Despite the reeling economy, by early 2010 Obama was pivoting to austerity and cutting the budget deficit, in line with neoliberal dogma. As a result, unemployment was 10 percent on election day 2010, and the Democrats got obliterated.
Their one major social policy achievement before that loss was a heavily compromised health care reform that, while better than nothing, failed to truly solve any of the real problems — like the endless cost bloat that continues to devour the economy from the inside. Meanwhile, Obama entrenched or extended most of the war on terror apparatus, from dragnet surveillance to drone assassination, and pointlessly escalated troop deployments in Afghanistan. He even publicly excused Bush administration war criminals in direct violation of the Convention Against Torture.
The disappointments of Obama led directly to the first major leftist grassroots movement of the century: Occupy Wall Street. As Doug Henwood writes at Jacobin, the Occupy movement was somewhat incoherent, inflected with a lot of dippy anarchism, and had no realistic strategy to accomplish much of anything, but it nevertheless captured the spirit of a disappointed generation and inspired similar occupations around the world. (One of the first reporting excursions in my career was a short piece on the encampment in Washington, D.C.) Though the original settlement in Zuccotti Park was unceremoniously crushed by the NYPD after just a few months, it permanently injected the topics of financial parasitism and income inequality into politics — it was Occupy, for instance, that brought the dichotomy of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent into wide circulation.
The disappointments of Obama and the example of Occupy no doubt helped inspire the second leftist mass movement of the last two decades: Black Lives Matter. Early in his presidency, Obama did little to address the disaster of mass incarceration and police brutality that had been simmering for decades. That discontent exploded into protest after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, which provided a template for protest after protest as police kept killing people virtually every day. Eventually, after the George Floyd murder, this would explode into the largest single instance of mass protest in American history.
BLM and Occupy in turn helped lay the groundwork for the Bernie Sanders campaigns, which proved beyond any doubt the American left was a genuine political force. Political observers (including myself) were astonished at how his 2016 campaign caught fire among American youth — but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. The party elite had betrayed its own voters over and over again. It was time for actual change instead of just saying so. Sanders had credibility almost every other Democrat lacked, with a record of voting against almost all the neoliberal atrocities and wars of aggression in the preceding decades, and the stubbornness to challenge the party elite. Though Sanders was an awkward fit with BLM, given his roots in largely-white Vermont and focus on economic issues, the respectful hearing he granted them, and his subsequent attention to racial justice issues, lent the movement further prominence.
The liberal mainstream has moved considerably to the left compared to 2009, but Sanders' two presidential campaigns are probably more responsible than anything else for reviving an openly socialist movement in the United States. Though he is quite moderate by the standards of even Sweden's aggressive former Prime Minister Olof Palme, he has insisted on retaining the socialist label and has proposed some inarguably socialist ideas in addition to typical welfare-state liberalism.
The final builder of the left was the 2016 matchup between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In particular, Clinton's bumbling failure against literally the least popular candidate in the history of presidential polling dealt a heavy blow to the credibility of the Democratic establishment. Here the party had cleared the decks for yet another Iraq War supporter, who was personally implicated in mass incarceration and financial deregulation, and she couldn't even win against a reality TV host who had been caught on tape openly admitting to sexual assault. Meanwhile, Trump's sinister, racist, reactionary politics stoked alarm, even among regular liberals — the Democratic Party plainly was not up to the challenge of the moment.
When Clinton lost, membership in the Democratic Socialists of America exploded, turning it from a semi-moribund organization for theorists and aging activists into a serious political force practically overnight. While still small in total numbers, DSA has made significant political inroads, especially in New York state, where it was a key force breaking Andrew Cuomo's stranglehold on power.
Sanders, of course, lost his primary fight against Joe Biden in 2020, though for a couple of weeks he was within a whisker of clinching the nomination. It took a major behind-the-scenes effort — above all one more cynical move from Obama to convince the delegate frontrunner to drop out and endorse Biden — to stave Sanders off.
That brings us to the present day: The American left has a serious national presence for the first time since the 1940s, a toehold in Congress, and a significant presence in many state governments. One byproduct is a truly enormous partisan age gap — probably the largest in American history, and one that was important for Biden's victory in 2020. What's more, the reason his presidency has been a relative success compared to Obama's, especially when accounting for his tiny margins in Congress, is because leftist academics and scholars have successfully argued that Obama's turn to austerity was a colossal error, and because today the Democrats have a committed core of genuine leftists who bolster the party by trying to force it live up to its promises. The real disloyal Democrats are on the party's right in the form of senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who demand that instead it betray its own constituents again on behalf of their big donors.
Alas, future progress is not assured. It's been 20 years of grinding effort to build up a left that is still objectively small and fairly disorganized. As is common in leftist movements, there have been chronic problems of internecine feuding, factionalism, zealotry, and organizational splintering. Unlike in the 1930s and '40s, there has not yet been a major resurgence of new union membership, which has usually been a precondition for any broadly successful leftist movement throughout the world, though there are some bright spots here and there.
Moreover, no matter how many young people call themselves socialist, demographics are not destiny. Biden's approval rating among under-30s has dropped by 50 points, likely thanks to the party's constant dithering on passing its own agenda, and disgruntled leftists have been known to turn to the right on occasion. More importantly, what traditionally happens in American history when there is any serious leftist political movement is it is smashed through a combination of state repression and racist vigilante violence. That's what happened to the multi-racial labor coalition in the South after the Civil War. It's what happened to a budding socialist movement during the First Red Scare between 1918 and 1920. And it's what happened in the McCarthy era.
Today, Republicans are openly announcing that they intend to replicate the McCarthy formula by whipping up a shrieking moral panic over "woke" phrases and "critical race theory," by which they mean anything that discusses racism whatsoever. Party apparatchiks are drawing up long lists of crimethink to be banned from the classroom, and laws that legalize running down protesters with your car.
Donald Trump, emboldened by Biden's complete failure to prosecute him for attempting to overturn the election in 2020, is plotting to do the same thing again in 2024. Should Republicans reclaim national power, I would expect a further crackdown on leftism of any sort — particularly antifa (one of whom was executed in public by what amounted to a death squad) and Black Lives Matter. It will be open season on any leftist protest for police and right-wing terrorist groups, who are increasingly hard to distinguish.
The future isn't set in stone, but unless the Biden administration and congressional Democrats do something to protect democracy and America's civil rights, the relative toleration the left has enjoyed since 2000 will come to an end. But there's still time to recognize that American democracy needs the left as much as the left needs democratic freedoms.