‘Welcome to the revolution,” Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for the progressive group Justice Democrats, told the New York Times the day after Senator Bernie Sanders won the Nevada Democratic primary caucus. Whether or not Sanders eventually wins the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 2020, the movement he’s been leading since he declared his intention to be the party’s nominee in 2015 has gained new converts, especially among younger Americans. And it has been increasingly outspoken about its intentions to not merely reform American democracy but replace it with something less democratic and far more socialist.
Writing in Jacobin, a Democratic Socialist publication, about what a blueprint for such a new movement would look like, Seth Ackerman notes, “We need to realize that our situation is more like that facing opposition parties in soft-authoritarian systems, like those of Russia or Singapore. Rather than yet another suicidal frontal assault, we need to mount the electoral equivalent of guerrilla insurgency.” The insurgency he is promoting would put candidates loyal to the socialist movement on the ballot throughout the United States—but not as fringe third-party candidates. As Democrats.
Sanders’s effort to advance the revolution was dealt a setback on Super Tuesday. Even so, what he set into motion five years ago has moved beyond him to some degree. Elaine Godfrey, a reporter for the Atlantic, watched returns on Super Tuesday with some in the Sanders vanguard and summed up the mood as follows: “Although every one of the supporters I spoke with was disappointed—and decidedly less confident than before—they offered the same promise: The revolution would continue, with or without Bernie Sanders.” And there is evidence they are right to be optimistic: An NBC News exit poll of Super Tuesday voters in California, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas all showed more favorable than unfavorable opinions of socialism (53 percent in California had a positive view, for example).
Sanders and his progressive supporters frequently liken their movement’s revolutionary fervor to the socialist upheavals of earlier eras (particularly those in Nicaragua and Cuba) while also peddling a seemingly more reasonable Scandinavian-socialist-style economic transformation that promises free health care and free college (while criticizing the effects of the free market). This socialist origin story is finding purchase with progressive-minded young people not because they have suddenly acquired a sophisticated understanding of revolutionary politics or macroeconomics, or because socialist ideals have suddenly been proven sound elsewhere in the world, but because the “revolution” is being marketed to them as the answer to the challenges their generation faces—including student debt, high housing costs, foreign wars, and Donald Trump.
One of the most potent activist vehicles for this message is a group that formed in January 2017 in the wake of Sanders’s 2016 Democratic-primary loss to Hillary Clinton: the Justice Democrats. It is a PAC (political action committee), although you might not know it given how often media outlets refer to it (as NPR did recently) in more flattering terms as a “progressive organization,” or (as the New York Times did) a “grassroots organization.”
Justice Democrats—founded by Cenk Uygur, Kyle Kulinski, Saikat Chakrabarti, Corbin Trent, and Zack Exley—claims it “encourages” candidates to run. That’s not quite right. In practice, it functions as a socialist American Idol: Justice Democrats actively recruits and stages tryouts to identify possible candidates to run against Democratic incumbents not progressive enough to pass their litmus tests. Those include support for Medicare for All (and the abolition of private health insurance); environmental reforms along the lines of the Green New Deal; a federal jobs guarantee; and the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, among others.
Justice Democrats takes contributions from individual donors, and although it makes a lot of noise about “supporting” the candidates it endorses, in fact it funnels most of its money to other PACs (such as their partner PAC, Brand New Congress, and their dark-money sister PAC, Organize for Justice), who then offer “consulting” services to candidates mounting primary challenges to Democrats. In return, those candidates are expected to adhere to the Justice Democrats platform.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Justice Democrats raised $2.7 million in 2017 and spent almost all of it. But how it was spent reveals an odd definition of “support” for the supposedly ordinary progressive-minded Americans they are encouraging to run for office. Among the U.S. House candidates promoted by Justice Democrats in 2018, most received less than $1,000 from the group, with a few reporting astonishingly small amounts of money (pity John Heenan of Montana, who received only $7—and lost his primary bid). Rashida Tlaib, by contrast, received the most ($6,997), followed closely by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ($5,000).
Justice Democrats spent only $62,844 in total for all House and Senate candidates they supported. So where did the rest of the money they raised go? The Federal Election Commission has been asking the same question and is looking into possible campaign-finance violations (and seriously dodgy ethics) related to Justice Democrats’ work for AOC’s campaign.
AOC is, of course, the group’s biggest star (and the only one of the 12 candidates it recruited in 2018 to win her race); her defeat of Democratic incumbent Representative Joe Crowley in the Bronx in a primary challenge was hailed as the biggest political upset of 2018. Justice Democrats also endorsed (but did not recruit) the other members of the so-called 2018 Squad—Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. All but Pressley are official campaign surrogates for Sanders.
What Justice Democrats and AOC market is a socialist feeling, as one of their promotional videos reveals. In it, a few leaders of the group and AOC sit in a sun-dappled diner discussing their mission in vague, emotionally laden bromides more suited to a wellness conference than a revolution. “If everyday people don’t feel comfortable in their own skin at the most powerful levels of government, then what’s the point?” AOC asks, during a discussion of why more progressives need to run for office. Another woman nods and says, “You can just be your whole self” if you join Justice Democrats.
As for revolution: “You can make 10 years’ worth of change in one term,” AOC says.
Well, yes. And an arsonist can do 10 years’ worth of damage with one lit match. That doesn’t make it something to encourage. What’s most striking about the sentiments in the video and in much of Justice Democrats’ and AOC’s rhetoric is how individualistic it sounds considering they are recruiting on behalf of a collectivist political ideology.
This is part of a broader intellectual confusion rampant among Sanders supporters as well: They seem uninterested in exploring the trade-offs that an embrace of Sanders-style socialism would require. They are, for now, satisfied with vague claims that equality will triumph and billionaires will be punished, but they assume that government takeovers of major sectors of the economy will have little impact on individual liberty. And yet the would-be hipster entrepreneur who wants to start a cannabis business under a Sanders-style socialist government will face a very different set of choices (and much more limited options) than under our current system, with all of its flaws.
No matter. As Justice Democrats spokesman Shahid recently told BuzzFeed: “The world completely changed after AOC’s victory.” Of course, “the world” changed only if you live in the world of progressive bubbles. Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected triumph came in an extraordinarily liberal district, far more liberal than just about everywhere else in the nation. According to the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index, which measures how much more conservative or liberal a district is compared with the national average, AOC’s district scores as D+29. Compare those scores to that of the most liberal state in the country, Hawaii, which scores D+18, or Sanders’s home state of Vermont, with a score of D+15.
Thus far, the AOC-effect appears to be nontransferable in 2020. Most of the candidates the Justice Democrats have promoted in the primaries have not performed well. The group’s efforts to plump for “the next AOC”—26-year-old Jessica Cisneros, who challenged Democratic House incumbent Henry Cuellar in Texas—was a failure, albeit a closely run one. Several other Justice Democrats/AOC-endorsed candidates also lost their primary races. Judged solely by their electoral showing, their movement might seem to have lost momentum.
But the message they are selling has obvious appeal, especially among younger Americans, and it is backed by a great deal more “dark money” on the progressive left than the amount Justice Democrats have raised. As Politico reported, a group called the Sixteen Thirty Fund, based in Washington, “spent $141 million on more than 100 left-leaning causes” during the 2018 midterm elections, including funding progressive Democratic candidates who were happy to cash their dark-money checks while railing against the nefarious influence of money in politics. One individual donated $51.7 million to the Fund; so much for denunciations of “late capitalism.” The group funds stunts like one by Demand Justice, which recently “projected a video of Christine Blasey Ford accusing Kavanaugh of assault on the side of a truck outside a Washington gala where Kavanaugh was speaking.”
That movement has gained new support from progressive intellectuals at publications such as Jacobin, which is the closest thing to a Bernie Sanders house organ you can find (Noam Chomsky called it “a bright light in dark times”). The quarterly, which is unabashedly democratic socialist in its politics, began online in 2010 and then expanded into print in 2011. Its founder, Bhaskar Sunkara, told Idiom magazine that it was “largely the product of a younger generation not quite as tied to the Cold War paradigms that sustained the old leftist intellectual milieus.” Jacobin also sponsors socialist reading groups, has a scholarly journal called Catalyst, and a partnership to produce books with Random House. Its motto is taken from a line in “The Internationale”: “Reason in revolt.”
Jacobin was “founded with the understanding that a better world is possible and will come into being by challenging capitalism and those who profit from class society,” according to its website, and editorially it is more honest about its ambitions than Sanders is, frequently noting the hopelessness of the Democratic Party and arguing for its demise in favor of building a new socialist political movement.
The most recent issue, “Political Revolution,” sets the tone with a little violent rhetoric from Eugene Debs (America’s other homegrown socialist and one of Sanders’s heroes): “There are those who deplore war, revolution, and rebellion. Manifestly, war is to be lamented, if it is waged to enthrone or to perpetuate wrong, but it expands to superlative grandeur if it is for the purpose of establishing justice and breaking the fetters of slavery. In such cases every blow struck for the downtrodden sends thrills of joy throughout the world.”
But today’s downtrodden Jacobin readers have different complaints from those expressed by Debs’s late-19th-century railway-worker supporters, and they have an odd view of what socialist “superlative grandeur” should look like. As one contributor, Danny Katch, wrote, “most of us only experience the excitement of capitalism as something happening somewhere else: new gadgets for rich people, wild parties for celebrities, amazing performances to watch from your couch.” Relegated to the role of capitalism’s unwitting voyeurs, they lament “our jobs being replaced by that incredible new robot, our rent becoming too expensive ever since the beautiful luxury tower was built across the street.”
Like many other Jacobin contributors, Klatch cherry-picks from the revolutionary socialist past to find examples of flourishing; he notes that just after the Russian revolution, socialist disruption prompted a great deal of creativity (just look at the great posters) and implies that it could do the same today. He fails to carry through his historical analogy, however, perhaps since it ended with quite a few of those artistically creative Russian souls in the Gulag.
Klatch distinguishes between good socialists (like Sanders) and “elitist socialists, whose faith rests more on five-year development plans, utopian blueprints, or winning future elections than on the wonders that hundreds of millions can achieve when they are inspired and liberated.” But what is Bernie Sanders-style socialism, with its Green New Deals and Medicare for All and attacks on the oil and financial industries, as well as its generally negative view of private property and private wealth, if not a call for elite planning for government seizure of large sectors of private enterprise and industry?
Sanders and his supporters (such as AOC and the Democratic Socialists of America) have also called for policies such as the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and policies that effectively would create open borders. Even with a “good socialist” at the helm, the transfer of decision-making to the federal government on such a scale (and at great expense to American taxpayers) represents a sharp break with previous eras’ understanding of the role of government. This isn’t the New Deal. It’s a new way of governance, one the majority of Americans over the age of 35 are rightfully suspicious about supporting.
Today’s defenders of socialism in publications like Jacobin appeal not to the policies of authoritarian rulers likes Stalin or Castro, but to vague menaces supposedly threatening everyday Americans: “The despots of the 21st century that stand in the way include precarity, poverty, plutocracy, structural racism, and mass incarceration,” writes law professor Jedediah Britton-Purdy. And they look to the state to fix them.
Which is why the claim that “real” socialism has never really been tried before (a favorite canard of the new progressive left) is so often invoked to paper over the movement’s intellectual inconsistencies and ahistorical claims. It also allows for a cafeteria-like approach to socialism, as demonstrated by Britton-Purdy—who, annoyed that New York Times columnist David Brooks declared that Bernie Sanders is “what replaces liberal Democrats,” defended Sanders not by invoking Marx but. . . John Stuart Mill.
“Sanders is the genuine candidate of the liberal tradition Brooks invokes,” Britton-Purdy argues, “John Stuart Mill, John Locke, the Social Gospel movement and the New Deal.” Indeed, in Britton-Purdy’s rendering, Sanders is truly a socialist man for all seasons. “If there is such a thing as an honest conservatism in these parts, Sanders might even be its candidate,” writes Britton-Purdy. This view is echoed by Brooks’s Times colleague Charles Blow, who argued vigorously that Build-a-Bear-style socialism was a good thing because “the absolute definition isn’t quite fixed.”
But such arguments are not the inoculation against criticism that eager socialists seem to think they are. If your most persuasive talking point is that no one has been able to implement the salvific revolution you’re promoting (at least without murdering millions of innocent people), and your leader (Sanders) is impatient when asked to spell out the details of how his plan will do it right this time, you’re left with only two options: blind faith in the dear leader, or ideological zeal. Sanders, like Trump, has cultivated both loyalties among his base, but at the expense of persuasion and compromise and other democratic ideals.
“We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism,” Sanders said in a 2019 speech. He sounds like he’s reading from a United Nations pamphlet at these moments, but the policies he has in mind are all far more radical than such banalities suggest. Medicare for All would end private health insurance and cost $34 trillion according to the center-left Urban Institute. The Green New Deal would require massively intrusive regulation of free markets. As James Pogue, a Sanders supporter who covered the primary race in New Hampshire for The Baffler, noted, “everyone I spoke to seemed clear about what the Sanders campaign now represented—not a delighted fuck-you vote for a truth-teller, not a part of a huge upswell of new primary voters, but a deliberate, informed vote for a specific set of policies and a reimagining of the market’s central role in all of our lives.”
The larger cohort of Sanders supporters isn’t that sophisticated. Writing in the Atlantic, Annie Lowrey described young people who have “warmed up to redistributive politics” because they look at single-payer health systems in Canada and elsewhere and think, “We’re rich! We could have that!” This is how younger Americans understand socialism—and Sanders’s soothsaying about “human rights” plays into that.
Even the taint of the murderous regimes of socialisms past has faded: A poll conducted by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation about American attitudes to socialism found that “70 percent of millennials say they are likely to vote socialist,” and the percentage who say they are “extremely likely” to vote socialist has doubled from 2018 to 2019. As well, 15 percent of millennials “think the world would be better off if the Soviet Union still existed” and 57 percent “think the Declaration of Independence better guarantees freedom and equality over the Communist Manifesto.”
In 2017, Justice Democrats co-founder Cenk Uygur told the Washington Post that 2020 would be the year his movement’s ideas would “more significantly take over the Democratic Party.” That may have been premature, but as Sanders himself tweeted recently, “I’ve got news for the Republican establishment. I’ve got news for the Democratic establishment. They can’t stop us.” He didn’t put a date to it.
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