From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject The Left Turn - Are We Entering a New Political Era? (long)
Date May 28, 2021 12:10 AM
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[ The neoliberal order seems to be collapsing. A generation of
young activists is trying to insure that it’s replaced by
progressive populism, not by the fascist right.]
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THE LEFT TURN - ARE WE ENTERING A NEW POLITICAL ERA? (LONG)  
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Andrew Marantz
May 24, 2021
The New Yorker
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_ The neoliberal order seems to be collapsing. A generation of young
activists is trying to insure that it’s replaced by progressive
populism, not by the fascist right. _

Justice Democrats is reshaping the Democratic Party by giving
moderates an unignorable reason to guard their left flank.,
Illustration by Alex Merto / Photographs: Alamy (Jamaal Bowman,
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez); Getty (Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, Ronald
Reagan, Alexandra Rojas); Redux (Rhiana Gunn-Wright) // The New Yorker


 

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
[[link removed]] is a staff
writer at The New Yorker and the author of “Antisocial: Online
Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American
Conversation
[[link removed]].”]_

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