The Left Turn - Are We Entering a New Political Era? (long)
Last June, when most Americans could agree that their country was in crisis but few could agree on what to do about it, staffers from a small organization called Justice Democrats—part of a burgeoning faction of young activists whose goal is to push the Democratic Party, and thus the entire political spectrum, to the left—joined a gathering on the patio of a restaurant in Yonkers, overlooking the Hudson. It was a breezy Tuesday night, and polls in the congressional primary had just closed. Most of the staffers hadn’t seen one another in person since covid lockdowns began, and their hesitant enthusiasm—distant air hugs, cocktails sipped hastily between remaskings—seemed appropriate to the event, which could, at any moment, turn into either a victory party or a defeat vigil. A lectern, framed by string lights and uplit pine trees, stood empty, apart from a sign bearing their candidate’s name: Jamaal Bowman. Bowman was still out campaigning, urging voters at crowded polls to stay in line. At least, that’s what everyone assumed. He had no staff with him, and his phone was dead.
Bowman was running to replace Eliot Engel, who represented southern Westchester and the North Bronx in Congress. Since being elected, in 1988, Engel had breezed through fifteen reëlection campaigns, usually without serious competition. But he was a seventy-three-year-old white man whose constituents were relatively young and racially diverse. He was also a moderate Democrat—militarily and monetarily hawkish, and a recipient of numerous corporate donations—in an increasingly progressive district. Seeing an opportunity, Justice Democrats had encouraged Bowman, a middle-school principal in his forties and an avid supporter of the Black Lives Matter and environmental-justice movements, to run a long-shot primary campaign against Engel. “I identify as an educator and as a Black man in America,” he said in a video interview with the Intercept. “But my policies align with those of a socialist”—grin, shrug—“so I guess that makes me a socialist.”
The mission of Justice Democrats is to push for as much left-populist legislation as Washington will accommodate, with the understanding that what Washington will accommodate is a function, in part, of who gets elected. The group recruits progressives, many of them “extraordinary ordinary people” with no political experience, to run primary campaigns against some of the most powerful people in Congress. In its first effort, in 2018, it ran dozens of candidates on shoestring budgets. All of them lost, except one—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—but she turned out to be a potent validation of the group’s model. Today, the Justice Democrats-aligned faction in Congress includes about ten members, depending on how you count.
In most House elections, more than ninety per cent of incumbents are reëlected. Justice Democrats is betting that the most efficient way to reshape the Democratic Party is to disrupt this pattern, giving moderates an unignorable reason to guard their left flank. “It’s one thing for the progressive movement to tell a politician, ‘It sure would be nice if you did this,’ ” Alexandra Rojas, the group’s executive director, told me. “It’s another to be able to say, ‘Look, you should probably do this if you want to keep your job.’ ” This insurgent approach has caused establishment figures from both parties to refer to Justice Democrats and its ilk as the Tea Party of the left. Max Berger, an early employee, said, “If that’s supposed to mean that we’re equivalent to white-supremacist dipshits who want to blow up the government or move toward authoritarianism, then I would consider that both an insult and a really dumb misreading of what we’re trying to do. But if it means that we come out of nowhere and, within a few years, we have one of the two major parties implementing our agenda—and if our agenda is to promote multiracial democracy and give people union jobs and help avert a climate crisis—then, yeah, I’m down to be the Tea Party of the left.”
Justice Democrats is one of a handful of like-minded organizations—others include a climate-action group called the Sunrise Movement, a polling outfit called Data for Progress, a think tank called New Consensus, an immigrants’-rights group called United We Dream, and an organizer-training institute called Momentum—that make up an ascendant left cohort. Their signature proposal is the Green New Deal, a gargantuan legislative agenda that would decarbonize the American economy in the course of a decade, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, and, almost as an afterthought, provide a national jobs guarantee and universal health care. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the main authors of the Green New Deal, said, “You can put together the perfect policy plan, but if it doesn’t fit within the dominant ideological frame then you’re getting laughed out of the room. So, while we argue for our ideas, we also keep trying to push out the frame.” In 2016, nobody was talking about a Green New Deal. The idea was languishing in the most inauspicious of legislative limbos: not unpopular, not divisive, just invisible. By the 2020 Presidential primaries, twenty out of twenty-six Democratic candidates supported it. “For anyone, and especially for groups this new, you almost never see your ideas get that much traction that quickly,” Brian Fallon, who was Hillary Clinton’s national press secretary in 2016, told me recently. “Lots of very high-up people, including people close to the President, have gone from underestimating them to sitting up and taking notice.”
For the 2020 congressional election, along with Bowman, Justice Democrats supported Cori Bush, a nurse and a Black Lives Matter organizer in St. Louis; Jessica Cisneros, a twenty-six-year-old lawyer in Laredo, Texas; and Alex Morse, a young, openly gay mayor in western Massachusetts. They all ran in deep-blue districts, where the only truly competitive election is the Democratic primary. For months, in New York’s Sixteenth District, Engel had a sizable lead. As primary day approached, though, Bowman appeared to pull ahead, and Engel got last-minute endorsements from Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi. By the time Bowman showed up at the gathering in Yonkers, the returns looked promising. The speech he gave was essentially a victory speech, and not a diffident one. “I cannot wait to get to Congress and cause problems for the people in there who have been maintaining a status quo that is literally killing our children,” he said. He ended up winning by fifteen points. Recently, I asked Bowman how much of his improbable victory could be attributed to the help he’d received—in the form of campaign consulting, volunteer phone-banking, debate prep, and other in-kind assistance—from Justice Democrats and Sunrise. “Out of ten?” he responded. “Twenty-five.”
As the night went on, the gathering turned into a party. Sean McElwee, the executive director of Data for Progress, cornered Rojas and Waleed Shahid, the communications director of Justice Democrats. McElwee had been poring over demographic data, and he was convinced that Cori Bush, the candidate in St. Louis, could also pull off an upset. “It’s a two-foot putt,” he said, again and again, his ardor enhanced by gin-and-tonics. “A two-foot putt!” Rojas agreed to pay him a few thousand dollars to run a poll. It had Bush trailing by less than expected, encouraging Justice Democrats to invest heavily in the race; a few weeks later, McElwee ran another poll, which showed a tie. That August, Bush won a come-from-behind victory, insuring her place as the sixth member of the mini caucus popularly known as the Squad. “In any other country—a parliamentary system in Europe or Asia or South America—we’d be called either social democrats or democratic socialists,” Shahid told me. “Our party would win twenty-five per cent of the seats, and we’d have real power.” But, in a two-party system, “the way to get there is to run from within one of the two parties and, ultimately, try to take it over.”
There are many ways to predict the political weather. Some, such as preëlection polling, focus on the near-present—the equivalent of hiring a meteorologist to determine which way the wind is blowing. Other methods, the kind that pass for long-term thinking in D.C., try to project a bit further into the future. In four years, will the electorate be in the mood for novelty or for continuity? Will the party in power be rewarded for governing or punished for not reaching across the aisle? This kind of prognostication can take on an eerily fatalistic quality, as if politics were nothing but an eternal regression to the mean. Scranton soccer moms drift left, Tejano dads drift right; the seasons wax and wane, but nothing really changes.
Alternatively, you could think in terms of ideological eras. On this time scale, the metaphors become geological. The weather patterns seem familiar, but, underfoot, tectonic plates are shifting. You wake up one day and whole continents have cleaved apart. New trade routes have opened up. What once seemed impossible now seems inevitable. Such seismic shifts appear to happen, on average, once a generation. If this pattern holds, then we’re just about due for another one.
Gary Gerstle, an American historian at the University of Cambridge, has argued, in the journal of the Royal Historical Society, that “the last eighty years of American politics can be understood in terms of the rise and fall of two political orders.” The first was the “New Deal order,” which began in the thirties, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt established a social safety net that Americans eventually took for granted. Next came the “neoliberal order,” during which large parts of that safety net were unravelled. The axioms of neoliberalism—for instance, that deficit spending is reckless, free markets are sacrosanct, and the government’s main job is to get out of the way—felt radical when they were proposed, in the forties and fifties, by hard-line libertarian intellectuals like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. In the sixties and seventies, these axioms became central to the New Right. By the late eighties, the ideas that had been thought of as Reaganism were starting to be understood as realism. A new order had taken hold.
A political order is bigger than any party, coalition, or social movement. In one essay, Gerstle and two co-authors describe it as “a combination of ideas, policies, institutions, and electoral dynamics . . . a hegemonic governing regime.” Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican President during the New Deal order, wouldn’t have dreamed of repealing Social Security, because he believed that Americans had come to expect a vigorous welfare state. Bill Clinton slashed welfare, in large part, because he thought that the era of big government was over. Richard Nixon, a conservative by the standards of his time, pushed for a universal basic income; Barack Obama, a liberal by the standards of his time, did not. A truly dominant order doesn’t have to justify itself, Gerstle has argued; its assumptions form the contours of common sense, “making alternative ideologies seem marginal and unworkable.” Obama recently admitted as much in an interview with New York, in a passive, mistakes-were-made sort of way. “Through Clinton and even through how I thought about these issues when I first came into office, I think there was a residual willingness to accept the political constraints that we’d inherited from the post-Reagan era,” he said. “Probably there was an embrace of market solutions to a whole host of problems that wasn’t entirely justified.” As President, Obama could have proposed, say, tuition-free public college or a universal-jobs program—Democrats had large majorities in both the House and the Senate—but he and his advisers considered such ideas marginal and unworkable, because they were negotiating, in a sense, not only with Mitch McConnell but also with the ghost of Milton Friedman.
Reed Hundt, an early Obama donor, worked on the Presidential transition team in 2008. In Hundt’s 2019 book, “A Crisis Wasted,” he argues that Obama and his top aides badly mishandled the 2008 financial crash, largely because they were in thrall to the “neoliberal dogmas” of the time. In December of 2008, Christina Romer, the incoming chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, ran the numbers, Hundt writes, and found that “the economy needed $1.7 trillion of additional spending in order to produce full employment.” But Rahm Emanuel, a veteran of the Clinton Administration and Obama’s designated chief of staff, had already decreed that Congress would be spooked by any price tag “starting with a t.” Larry Summers, a budget hawk who’d served as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, agreed. When Obama met with his economic-policy team later that month, Romer opened her remarks by saying, “Mr. President, this is your ‘holy shit’ moment.” But then, acting on Summers’s instructions, she presented four potential stimulus packages, ranging from $550 billion to $890 billion.
After the financial crisis, it became increasingly clear that the market was not going to self-correct, and that inequality was likely to keep widening. The Tea Party mobilized on the right, and Occupy Wall Street on the left. The Black Lives Matter movement, the mounting salience of the climate emergency, and the covid pandemic have since heightened the dual sense of urgency and possibility. “The Great Recession of 2008 fractured America’s neoliberal order,” Gerstle has written, “creating a space in which different kinds of politics, including the right-wing populism of Donald Trump and the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders, could flourish.” By the end of the current decade, he continues, we will see whether the neoliberal order “can be repaired, or whether it will fall.” He wrote these words three years ago, in a journal article called “The Rise and Fall (?) of America’s Neoliberal Order.” He is now at work on a book with the same title, minus the question mark.
In March, in the East Room of the White House, President Biden met with a handful of writers and scholars, including Eddie Glaude, the chair of the African-American-studies department at Princeton. “It was duly noted that we’re at a conjunctural moment,” Glaude told me. “Reaganism is collapsing. The planet is dying in front of our eyes.” Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian and law professor at Harvard who also attended the meeting, said that, since the Reagan era, many citizens have come to expect “a government that can’t do anything except cut taxes.” But that vision may soon be overtaken by a new one. “We’ve already seen, under Trump, an early version of what a right-wing post-neoliberal order might look like,” Gerstle said. “Ethno-nationalist, anti-democratic, trending toward authoritarianism.” A progressive version of post-neoliberalism is “harder to nail down,” he continued, but “we might be starting to see it unfold under Biden.” He noted the irony that “for all of Obama’s charisma, and Joe Biden’s reputation for political caution and for stumbling over his words, Biden seems likelier to emerge as the larger-than-life figure. This is where personality matters less than circumstance. Obama was stuck within a preëxisting order, but Biden is inheriting a more fluid moment.”
The month after Bowman’s primary victory, Justice Democrats spent a few days conducting what they were calling their annual staff retreat. Previously, the retreat had taken place in suburban Maryland and Knoxville, Tennessee; this year, it took place on Zoom. Still, the staffers did their best to keep things lively, joking around in the chat and cycling through an array of virtual backgrounds: the living room from “The Simpsons”; a still from “Star Wars” in which members of the Rebel Alliance celebrate an improbable victory over the Galactic Empire.
On a Thursday evening, after a day of strategy discussions, the participants took a break to watch a movie together. A few of them didn’t have Netflix accounts. “We can share passwords,” Gabe Tobias, a staffer in Brooklyn, said. “Very socialist of us.” Being good small-“d” democrats, they had tried to pick the movie through an anonymous, ranked-choice vote. Now there were late-breaking allegations of voter fraud. “It looks like there were at least twenty votes, and we definitely don’t have that many people on staff,” Shahid, the communications director, said. “I call bullshit.” He had voted for “Clueless,” which had placed third.
“I admit, I was whipping votes,” Amira Hassan, the political director, said.
“I forgot to vote,” Rojas, the executive director, said. Rigged or not, the election results went unchallenged. The winner was “The Death of Stalin,” a 2017 satire about the lethal symbiosis of corruption and ineptitude.
The following morning, Hassan delivered a presentation about what she expected the situation in D.C. to look like after Trump left office. In the public imagination, political movements are associated with picket lines or with throngs amassing on the National Mall, but a surprising amount of the work takes place via spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks. Hassan displayed a collage of recent articles about Joe Biden that provided her with fodder for either despair (a reference to “Biden’s Retro Inner Circle”) or cautious optimism (“Progressives don’t love Joe Biden, but they’re learning to love his agenda”). Her presentation was about what the group could do to nudge the Biden Administration leftward. “As we know, the Democrats don’t have a history of always fighting to actually pass the stuff they campaigned on,” she said. “Which is why we’ve got to make them.”
If politics is the art of the possible, then there are two kinds of radicals: those who disdain all worldly forms of politics, and those who engage in politics in order to change what’s possible. The former may make a disproportionate amount of noise, especially on the Internet, but the latter tend to notch more tangible victories. Although both Justice Democrats and Sunrise endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primary, their members don’t fit the caricature of the “Bernie bro” that some pundits apply to almost anyone who is young, restless, and far left. If the jaded, bellicose young socialists who post and podcast for a living are sometimes referred to as the dirtbag left—or, even more derisively, as the Patreon left—this nascent cohort might be called the PowerPoint left: anti-incrementalist but not anti-pragmatic, skeptical but not reflexively cynical, willing to speak truth to power but not averse to acquiring some. Its collective outlook is sweetly earnest, sometimes to the point of treating politics as a spiritual practice. More than one person, contrasting the abrasiveness of the Bernie bros to female-led groups such as Justice Democrats and Sunrise, described the cohort as “matriarchal.”
Most of the groups are run by people in their twenties. (Rojas, of Justice Democrats, is twenty-six; Varshini Prakash, the executive director of Sunrise, is twenty-eight, as is McElwee, who runs Data for Progress.) They describe themselves with words like “nimble” and “scrappy”—a diplomatic way of saying that they tend to be non-hierarchically organized and perennially cash-strapped. Officially, the groups are all independent. In practice, everyone seems to be everyone else’s co-author, drinking buddy, former mentor, or romantic partner. Once, over the phone, I asked Ava Benezra, the campaigns director of Justice Democrats, about Ed Markey, the environmentalist senator from Massachusetts, who was propelled to victory last year by an army of young volunteers. “That’s more of a question for Sara,” she said, referring to Sara Blazevic, the training director at Sunrise. I waited for Benezra to give me Blazevic’s phone number, but instead I heard her shouting down the hall. “We’re roommates,” she explained.
Their third roommate—in Flatbush, Brooklyn—is Guido Girgenti, Blazevic’s boyfriend and Benezra’s co-worker. During the Justice Democrats’ Zoom retreat, Girgenti, the media director, gave a presentation about an in-house podcast that he was then in the process of developing. He asked whether it should be called “Squad Talk” or “Squad Goals,” and endured some constructive ribbing from colleagues. (When the show launched, late last year, it was called “Bloc Party.”)
Just as pragmatic liberals pursue piecemeal reforms and orthodox Marxists hold out for the proletarian revolution, the lodestar of the PowerPoint left is ideological realignment. “For as long as I’ve been old enough to be conscious of politics, all I’ve known is a Democratic Party that has defined itself as ‘We’re less bad than Republicans,’ ” Girgenti told me. “With J.D. and Sunrise, the starting point is more like, ‘If we as a society didn’t accept the busted logic of anti-government austerity, what would that allow us to do?’ ” Evan Weber, Sunrise’s political director, said, “All that matters, in terms of continuing to have a livable planet, is whether we do what is necessary—which, according to science, is a massive, World War II-style mobilization to fully restructure our economy within our lifetimes. If both parties consider that unthinkable under the current paradigm, then we’re gonna need a new paradigm.” Bringing about this kind of fundamental political change is not easy work for anyone, much less a small cadre of near-neophytes. “A realignment is such a huge multi-decade project that it’s almost hard to imagine what it would look like, much less to feel confident that it will happen,” Girgenti said. “On the other hand, if it doesn’t, we’re pretty much fucked.”
In 2015, a dozen young activists formed a group called All of Us—or, in the inevitable orthographic style of the time, #AllofUs. Every month or two, the organizers—including Waleed Shahid, who was working in Philadelphia as a labor organizer; Max Berger, who had co-founded a progressive Jewish organization while living in New York; and Yong Jung Cho, a climate activist in New Hampshire—would gather for a weekend-long retreat, sleeping on pullout couches. Many of them had spent time with Occupy Wall Street, in 2011, and they were still discussing the strengths and weaknesses of that campaign. On one hand, it had turned inequality into a topic of national urgency for the first time in decades. On the other, it had failed to convert energy on the street into representation in the halls of power.
“There are segments within the left that have always been allergic to anything having to do with elections or politics,” Shahid told me. “Our basic feeling was, Sure, we can cede the entire terrain of electoral politics to the center and the right, but how does that help us achieve our goals, exactly?” He liked to refer to a 1998 episode of “South Park” in which “underpants gnomes” steal people’s underpants and hoard them in a subterranean lair. The gnomes claim to be doing this in order to make money, but when asked they can muster only the vaguest of business plans. (“Phase 1: Collect underpants. Phase 2: ? Phase 3: Profit.”) Shahid said, “I was getting pretty tired of going to organizing meetings where the first step was ‘We organize this one protest,’ the last step was ‘The people rise up and take power,’ and the middle steps were all question marks.”
At first, Cho told me, All of Us was “somewhere between a book club and a discussion group.” They read “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy,” by the post-Marxist philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and analyzed the writings of the civil-rights organizer Bayard Rustin, who wrote, in the nineteen-sixties, “If we only protest for concessions from without, then [the Democratic Party] treats us in the same way as any of the other conflicting pressure groups. . . . But if the same amount of pressure is exerted from inside the party using highly sophisticated political tactics, we can change the structure of that party.” The book “When Movements Anchor Parties,” by the Johns Hopkins political scientist Daniel Schlozman, examines why some social movements (labor in the thirties, the Christian right in the seventies) were able to reorient a major party’s priorities, whereas other movements (the Populists in the eighteen-nineties, the anti-Vietnam War movement in the nineteen-sixties) were not. Published by Princeton University Press, in 2015, it was not reviewed in the popular press. “Six months after it comes out, I get an e-mail from Waleed saying he wants to ask me a few questions,” Schlozman said. “Suffice it to say I am not used to getting inquiries like that.”
Both major American parties, despite their entrenched power, are what political scientists call “weak parties.” In other countries, parties decide which policies they favor, then select candidates who will implement them; in the United States, the parties are more like empty vessels whose agendas are continually contested by internal factions. Sometimes factional conflict tears parties apart. All of Us hoped that widening the fissures within the Democratic Party could instead initiate a virtuous cycle. An emboldened progressive bloc of Democrats could persuade the Party to enact a more redistributionist agenda, delivering material benefits, such as universal health care and green jobs, to voters, who would then reward the Democrats at the ballot box. “It wasn’t like we were entirely talking shit,” Berger said. “But we also weren’t, like, ‘Yes, we, a bunch of kids with very little experience doing national politics, can definitely pull this off.’ It was more like, ‘In theory, somebody really should try this.’ And then we would wait, and we wouldn’t see anybody doing it. At least, nobody from the American left.”
In 2014, activists from an Occupy-like movement in Spain founded a new left-wing party called Podemos. The following year, when Spain held a general election, Podemos won twenty-one per cent of the vote. Íñigo Errejón, a co-founder of the Party, was elected to parliament, and he became a nationally prominent figure. “This was a guy I knew from post-Occupy circles,” Berger said. “I remember reading the newspaper one day and thinking, Huh, this young radical guy I text with sometimes is now wielding a significant amount of power in his country’s legislature. That’s interesting.”
In the U.S., the only successful insurgency was happening on the right. In 2014, in Virginia, an archconservative economics professor and Tea Party candidate named Dave Brat ran a Republican primary campaign against Eric Cantor, then the House Majority Leader, portraying him as soft on immigration. Cantor spent more than five million dollars on the race; Brat spent less than two hundred thousand. In a shocking upset, Brat won. It was just one congressional seat, but it sent a clear national signal. A bipartisan immigration-reform bill had already passed the Senate and had gathered momentum in the House; after Brat’s victory, though, it was obvious that the bill was dead. Shahid, who was then working for an immigrants’-rights group, was crushed by the news, but he also saw it as a proof of concept. “My first reaction was, Looks like a small faction really can change the direction of an entire party,” he recalled. “My second reaction was, I bet I could raise two hundred thousand dollars.”
When All of Us started, more than a year before the 2016 election, the organizers assumed that the candidates would be Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Then each party held a primary in which an outsider ran openly against the establishment, trying to overturn long-held assumptions about what was politically feasible. On the Democratic side, it came shockingly close to happening; on the Republican side, it happened. “We were getting ready to make the case that, even if it looks like the establishment is still in control, the American people are going to be ready for populism soon,” Cho said. “Then we looked around and went, Oh, it looks like people are ready for populism right now.”
Shortly after Trump was elected President, the members of All of Us condensed their main arguments into a PowerPoint. Over the next year, they delivered the presentation to any progressive organization that would have them, including MoveOn, Demos, and the Working Families Party. One casual version began with a meme (the pop star DJ Khaled saying, “Don’t ever play yourself”); other versions started more ontologically (“What are political parties?”). Presentations of this kind generally focus on a topic of immediate utility—how to persuade female voters, say, or how to write effective fund-raising e-mails. This one made a more sweeping argument: that neoliberalism had run its course, and that a vast shift in “the terms of political debate” was both necessary and possible. In one version of the PowerPoint, the final slide contained a single sentence: “A movement-aligned faction can take control of the party.”
Usually, when the presentation ended and the lights came back up, the response was polite but noncommittal. “We got a lot of ‘You’ve given us a lot to think about,’ which basically translated to ‘Sure, great, you kids are cute, whatevskis,’ ” Berger said. Public-advocacy groups tend to measure their success in terms of how many signatures they’ve added to a petition; the daily calendar doesn’t generally leave room for broader discussions about ideological eras. Shahid recalled the director of a large nonprofit saying, “I’m so glad you guys are taking the time to wrestle with this stuff, because the rest of us are too busy on conference calls all day,” before rushing out to join another conference call.
In June of 2017, Cho and Shahid travelled to Chicago for the People’s Summit, a kind of South by Southwest for the pro-Bernie set. They roamed through a convention center filled with booths for groups such as Free Speech TV and the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. One booth, tucked away in a corner, was devoted to a tiny new organization called Justice Democrats. Cho and Shahid struck up a conversation with Rojas, one of the group’s founders. “They explained this theory they had about realignment,” Rojas recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s kind of how we see it, too, we just haven’t had time to write it down.’ ” She was too busy recruiting candidates. The three met for lunch, and Cho and Shahid pressed Rojas for logistical details. At one point, Rojas choked up with gratitude. Finally, someone was taking her seriously.
Rojas had co-founded Justice Democrats with three friends—Corbin Trent, Saikat Chakrabarti, and Zack Exley—all of whom had been organizers on Sanders’s 2016 Presidential campaign. A few weeks later, Shahid and Berger met with some of the Justice Democrats co-founders on Zoom and delivered their PowerPoint. Shahid recalled, “They weren’t really interested in chewing on the ideas. They were more concerned about implementation.” Trent put it this way: “I didn’t fucking like those guys at first. I didn’t like their college jargon and big words and all that shit. But the others wanted to bring them on, and I only had one vote.” At the time, Justice Democrats was based in Knoxville, near where Trent had grown up. In August of 2017, Shahid and Berger flew to Tennessee, and they worked out a merger: Justice Democrats would acquire All of Us’s e-mail list, and Berger and Shahid would join the staff. (By then, the other All of Us organizers had moved on to other projects.)
Before the Sanders campaign, Chakrabarti was a software engineer in Silicon Valley, and Trent owned two food trucks. Both scorned electoral politics, sometimes declining to vote. The first iteration of their group had been called Brand New Congress. The goal was to elect four hundred working people to the House, in Democratic and Republican districts—a “post-partisan” attempt to throw all the bums out. Trent, for one, was so focussed on class as the main driver of political polarization that he sometimes insisted that a candidate with a bold enough platform should, in theory, be viable anywhere. (Shahid, who was more willing to accept the worldly constraints of partisanship, would later argue, “Dude, I’m Muslim! There are a lot of districts in this country that I could not even run in.”) They hoped that the novelty of their plan would attract national media attention and a wave of small donations. It didn’t work. “It was a nice dream, but we ended up realizing that the partisan divides were just too strong,” Exley said.
They decided to regroup. Instead of replacing nearly everyone in Congress, their new, post-post-partisan goal was to replace as many establishment Democrats as possible. Justice Democrats put a nomination form on its Web site. Self-nominations were prohibited—“If you can’t find one person who would nominate you for office, you probably don’t have a future in politics ;)”—but, other than that, “selfless leaders from all walks of life” were invited to apply. By the time Shahid and Berger joined the staff, Justice Democrats had received some ten thousand nominations—an organic-cotton farmer in Wyoming, a pastor in South Carolina. Employees interviewed applicants by phone, taking notes in a Google spreadsheet. Ocasio-Cortez, nominated by her brother Gabriel, was rated a four out of four in several categories (strength as a nominee, good fit for district). Under “Would this applicant do well on TV?” the interviewer wrote, “Absolutely.”
Justice Democrats still hoped to bring a new faction to Congress—if not hundreds of members, then maybe dozens. By the end of 2017, though, it was having trouble paying its own staff, much less supporting dozens of campaigns. The organizers wrote an internal document listing their top goals for 2018, which included “Get (at least one) incumbent establishment scalp to become a credible threat” and “Lead (at least one) national policy/ideological fight in the Democratic Party.” Instead of dividing their resources equally, they went all-in on three candidates: Anthony Clark, a teacher in Chicago; Cori Bush, the Black Lives Matter activist in St. Louis; and Ocasio-Cortez. Shahid, Chakrabarti, and Trent spent the next few months in New York, devoting most of their time to the Ocasio-Cortez campaign. Clark and Bush lost by wide margins; Ocasio-Cortez won.
Ocasio-Cortez’s ascent had many causes, from quirks in New York election law to her raw political skill. On cable news, her election was often framed in personal terms. At every opportunity, though, she talked about herself as part of a burgeoning faction. Last year, when a reporter from New York asked her how she might legislate under a Biden Presidency, she said, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” This, too, was interpreted through an interpersonal lens. She later clarified that she hadn’t meant it as an insult; it was simply a fact. It was also the kind of thing you might say if you’d been subjected to one too many PowerPoints about factional realignment.
Shortly before Ocasio-Cortez took office, Chakrabarti and Trent moved to Washington to join her staff. Exley, an excitable idealist in his fifties, decided to start a think tank instead. His co-founder was Demond Drummer, a former Justice Democrats recruit. They hired Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a twenty-nine-year-old Rhodes Scholar, to flesh out the proposals Ocasio-Cortez had run on, including the Green New Deal. These proposals were surprisingly popular with voters, but they were anathema to many media outlets and academics, owing in part to the widespread notion that ambitious public-sector investments might be desirable, or even necessary—if only we could afford them. As long as this consensus remained dominant, Exley believed, the faction’s ideas would continue to seem marginal and unworkable. So he embarked on a kind of freelance diplomacy campaign, hoping to create some ideological headroom. He called his think tank New Consensus.
Through the Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar, Exley befriended Anya Schiffrin and Joseph Stiglitz, married scholars at Columbia who are known for their dinner-party salons. Schiffrin studies media and technology, and Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate and one of the most prominent progressive economists in the country. “If I meet or hear about someone interesting, I invite them over for a meal, almost as a reflex,” Schiffrin said. (Foroohar, who once spent a few nights sleeping in Schiffrin and Stiglitz’s guest room while going through a divorce, described their apartment—Upper West Side, double river view—as “a crash pad for the American left.”) “Rana mentioned this guy Zack, who was connected with A.O.C. and had these provocative ideas,” Schiffrin recalled. “I cut her off and said, ‘Let me e-mail some people.’ ”
In 2019, during a January snowstorm, Schiffrin and Stiglitz hosted a dinner for Exley and some of his young comrades from Justice Democrats, Sunrise, and New Consensus. “I think they wanted to feel out these kids, to see that they were normal and smart, and not bomb-throwing anarchists,” Exley said. The activists wanted validation for their proposals in the form of number crunching. “I tried to be nuanced—just because we have underutilized capacity doesn’t mean that the laws of economics have been suspended, or that we have no resource constraints,” Stiglitz said. “But the bottom line was ‘Yes, what you’re proposing won’t break the bank.’ ”
A month later, Schiffrin and Stiglitz hosted a brunch for Exley, Foroohar, and a Who’s Who of left-leaning economists, including Paul Krugman, the cuny professor and Times columnist. Schiffrin said, “I served Jewish stuff for the out-of-towners”—bagels, lox, whitefish—“and salad for anyone who was trying to slim down, a.k.a. myself.” The economists agreed that a multi-trillion-dollar Green New Deal wouldn’t blow a hole in the economy—that, as Stiglitz put it, “we can’t afford not to do it.” He told me, “The foundations of classical neoliberalism, in my view, showed themselves to be intellectually deficient a long time ago. But sometimes you have to wait a couple of decades before the backlash shows up.”
Around this time, the activists were invited to an off-the-record meeting with the Times editorial board. Stiglitz agreed to join them. “We gave a little spiel about the Green New Deal, and then we sat back and faced, to be honest, some very skeptical questions,” Gunn-Wright said. “I had done the research, so I was able to talk in depth about how, say, a lot of secondary and tertiary segments of the auto industry would have to adapt to building electric vehicles. You could see them slightly relaxing and going, O.K., maybe these kids know what they’re talking about.” It helped to have a Nobel-winning economist on their side. “Whenever we got a version of the ‘How are you gonna pay for it?’ question, we would just turn it over to Joe,” Gunn-Wright continued. This meeting, and others like it, were not made public, but Exley considered them time well spent. “I feel confident that the Times, and the rest of the center-left media, would have come out swinging against us much harder if we hadn’t invested all that time in demonstrating that we were legit,” he said.
Joe Biden ran for President as a moderate, but moderation is relative. Last spring, after it became clear that he would win the nomination, his campaign and the defunct Sanders campaign put together “unity task forces” to come up with plans for the economy, the climate, and four other issues. Anita Dunn, a top adviser to the President, told me, “Biden’s feeling always has been that when people can discuss these ideas with each other, even when they don’t agree, it’s a better process than if they’re having the discussions in Twitter wars, or on cable TV.”
Each task force consisted of a handful of experts. Most of Biden’s selections were Party stalwarts. Sanders’s were not. For the task force on climate, Sanders picked Ocasio-Cortez and Varshini Prakash, of Sunrise. For the task force on the economy, he chose Darrick Hamilton, a post-Keynesian economist who has called for “a dramatic reparations program tied to compensation for the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow,” and Stephanie Kelton, arguably the leading proponent of Modern Monetary Theory, which posits that huge budget deficits would not necessarily cause inflation. M.M.T. is far from a majority view, but it is migrating from the margins toward the mainstream. Krugman recently wrote in the Times that, despite their considerable differences, he and the M.M.T. economists “agree on basic policy issues.”
Some of the pledges that Biden ended up making in his 2020 Presidential campaign put him not only to the left of his previous positions but also to the left of the positions Bernie Sanders ran on in 2016. Sanders’s climate plan had proposed an eighty-per-cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, to be achieved mostly through tax cuts and other market-based incentives. Biden’s plan called for net-zero emissions by 2050, to be achieved largely through government investment. Heather Boushey, who attended one of the dinner parties at Stiglitz and Schiffrin’s apartment, now serves on Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers. When Exley embarked on his diplomacy campaign, in 2019, this was just the sort of outcome he was hoping for.
Afew days after the 2020 election, the Times ran an interview with Conor Lamb, a young moderate Democrat who’d just been narrowly reëlected to Congress from a conservative district in western Pennsylvania. Asked why the Democrats had fallen short of national expectations, retaining a slim majority in the House but losing seats they were projected to win, Lamb blamed the left wing of his party, decrying “the message of defunding the police and banning fracking . . . policies that are unworkable and extremely unpopular.” His implication was that moderate Democrats were the adults in the room, sensible enough to advocate a platform “rooted in common sense, in reality, and yes, politics. Because we need districts like mine to stay in the majority.”
Lamb was responding to Ocasio-Cortez, who had given an interview to the Times the previous day. For now, she argued, Democrats in purple districts might think it’s safer to avoid taking bold positions on racial justice or universal health care, but, in the long run, centrist Democrats were “setting up their own obsolescence.” Her argument seemed to be predicated on the vision of a looming realignment—the assumption that, in a post-neoliberal world, Democrats will have to assemble a coalition around new ideas.
Given the extant political map, the moderates have a point. “You’re not just dealing with New York and California—you’re dealing with America,” Leon Panetta, who served as chief of staff under Bill Clinton and as Secretary of Defense under Barack Obama, told me. “When people hear the extremes, whether it’s on the right or the left, it scares the hell out of them.” For now, Justice Democrats focusses on safe Democratic districts, where the risk of losing a seat is low: no matter who wins the Democratic primary in Minnesota’s Fifth, for example, there’s effectively no chance of the nominee losing to a Republican. The risk-benefit calculus is different in, say, West Virginia, the home state of Joe Manchin. Challenging Manchin from the left could mean ousting one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate; it could also mean flipping the seat, and perhaps the whole Senate, to Republican control. Electoral math aside, though, arguably the most notable thing about the debate between Lamb and Ocasio-Cortez was the fact that it happened at all. An uncontested ideology doesn’t have to justify itself. An ideology in crisis does.
If some historians now see Jimmy Carter as the last President of the New Deal era, then it’s reasonable to wonder whether Biden will be the last President of the neoliberal era, or the first President of whatever comes next. In April, Bernie Sanders told me, “The last time I was in the Oval Office with Biden, there was a very big painting of F.D.R.—largest painting in the room.” Biden clearly invites the comparison. His critics have argued that likening the two men is premature at best. That being said, Biden’s first stimulus bill very much started with a “t,” and his proposed infrastructure plan is even bigger. “He has said this publicly, and he has said it to me privately, that he wants to be the most progressive President since F.D.R.,” Sanders told me. Is he on track to achieve that goal? “As of now,” Sanders said. “Today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow.”
Gerstle, the Cambridge historian, is skeptical that “Biden, in his heart, wants to move left.” But he pointed out that F.D.R. and L.B.J. were also moderates who initially resisted sweeping change. “Whenever progressives have won in America,” he said, they’ve done so by “pulling the center to the left.” The Civil War historian Eric Foner compared contemporary progressives like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez to the Radical Republicans who goaded Abraham Lincoln, a moderate in his party, to abolish slavery. “In times of crisis,” Foner told me, “people with a clear ideological analysis come to the fore.”
From the moment Biden was elected, the PowerPoint left started lobbying him to staff his Administration with progressives. Justice Democrats launched a petition demanding that Bruce Reed, a centrist Democrat with a history of fiscal conservatism, not be given a job. Some Washington insiders found such public confrontation unseemly. A Politico article headlined “Is the Left Wing Overplaying Its Hand?” quoted a Democratic operative making an undiplomatic plea for intra-party diplomacy. “If all you do is escalate,” she said, “then people eventually think that you’re enemies and not friends and they’re, like, ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists.’ ”
Guido Girgenti, the media director of Justice Democrats, records the podcast “Bloc Party” from a spare bedroom in his apartment, in Brooklyn, softening the acoustics by sticking his head inside a cardboard box from Home Depot. On one episode of the show, Shahid, who was co-hosting, compared him to Oscar the Grouch, before turning to the factional fracas of the moment. “People frame these as interpersonal disputes, rather than as disputes about ideas and governance and vision,” he said, with a rueful chuckle. He quoted Lincoln, who once said, of his Radical Republican critics, “They are utterly lawless—the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with—but after all their faces are set Zionwards.” Shahid’s moderate interlocutors sounded less than Lincolnesque. “Can you guys come up with better material?” he said. “Don’t call me a fucking terrorist. You can say my face is set Zionwards.”
For now, the Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress. This will not be the case forever; it might not even be the case in two years. Almost always, the party that controls the Presidency loses congressional seats in midterm elections. This is fairly dire news, considering that the current iteration of the G.O.P. seems to be organizing not against the Democrats but against the very concept of democracy. “While Biden’s diverse center-left coalition is a source of hope,” Shahid recently tweeted, “permanent Republican minority rule continues to be a ticking time bomb and no one really knows what Democrats plan to do about it.” What Justice Democrats plans to do about it, of course, is to run more populist progressives: Nina Turner, a former state senator, in Ohio; Odessa Kelly, an organizer and a former parks-department employee, in Nashville; and Rana Abdelhamid, a Google employee and a self-defense instructor, in New York City.
Obama, ever the conciliator, said in his interview with New York, “There is this tendency to play up this divide between the moderate center left and the Bernie-AOC wing of the party. And the truth of the matter is that aspirationally, you know, the Democratic Party is pretty unified.” Whether or not this is true, it is inarguable that the Bernie Sanders-A.O.C. wing of the Party, which barely existed a few years ago, is now contesting for power in ways that were recently unimaginable. John Kerry is Biden’s climate czar—a job that was created only because Sunrise and other activist groups demanded it. Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, actively courts leftist support, liking tweets from Shahid and McElwee along with the usual fare from Axios and the Center for American Progress. He is in frequent touch with several prominent progressives, including Faiz Shakir, Bernie Sanders’s former campaign manager. In February, when a union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama was becoming a national story, Shakir and other labor advocates told Klain that a pro-union message from the President could galvanize the movement. On February 28th, Biden released a video on Twitter. “Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union,” he said. “No employer can take that right away.” The union drive failed, but Jane McAlevey, a labor organizer who has been critical of Biden, told me that his support was “unprecedented, and incredibly important.”
When I talked to White House officials about their outreach to leftist groups, their tone was phlegmatic. “We listen to everybody,” Cedric Richmond, the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, told me. Sunrise had protested Richmond’s appointment to the job, noting his history of receiving donations from fossil-fuel companies, but Richmond sounded unfazed. “Their job is to push,” he said. Emmy Ruiz, the White House director of political strategy and outreach, said, “Every organizer I talk to is trying to move our country forward. We may have different paths to getting there, but we have very similar destinations.” Not quite as poetic as “Zionwards,” but in the ballpark.
Moderation may be relative, but moderates still run the Democratic Party. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is so proud of his ability to steer toward the middle of the road that he apparently affords it a kind of numerological significance. According to a 2018 article in the Washington Post, if you apply for a job in Schumer’s office, “he will quiz you about where various senators fall on an ideological spectrum from zero (most conservative) to 100 (most liberal). It’s important to know that there is a correct answer for Schumer; it’s 75.” Now that the left wing of the Democratic Party has been revivified, however, Schumer is revising his priorities. The last three times he was reëlected to the Senate, he did not face a primary opponent. Next year, when he runs again, he may not be so lucky; perhaps he’ll even face an opponent endorsed by Justice Democrats. “I remember when he had nothing nice to say about anyone to his left,” Rebecca Katz, who runs a progressive political-consulting firm called New Deal Strategies, told me. “Now every five minutes you turn on the TV and he’s doing another press conference with someone on the left.” This is what it means to be a 75 in 2021. The equation stays the same, but the variables are subject to change.
[Andrew Marantz is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation.”]