In these final days of the 2010s, things are looking rather sunny for the right. Donald Trump’s white nationalist crusade and plutocratic cash grab are chugging along steadily—and there’s a decent chance it’ll continue for another half-decade. The Democratic presidential primary is a toxic mess, recently muddied further by the entry of clueless billionaires trying to buy themselves a ticket to the White House. And if a Dem even makes it to the Oval Office, odds are their legislative ambitions will be filibustered into oblivion by a GOP-controlled Senate.
So it might seem odd to argue that one of the defining political stories of the decade has been the rise of robust left-wing politics. But indeed, it has been. And a good way to understand that is to remember what happened in a small park in Manhattan in the early 2010s.
In September 2011, hundreds of radical leftists, inspired in part by the Arab Spring, decided to set up a small encampment in New York City’s financial district with the intention of building a new hyper-democratic society from scratch. Within weeks, Occupy Wall Street encampments sprung up across the nation and inspired protests in hundreds of cities around the world. Occupy sparked a debate about the ways that capitalism undermines and sabotages democracy, and forced elites to think of economic inequity as a moral predicament—all at a time when Barack Obama had won plaudits from economists for shepherding the U.S. out of a dire recession.
But after only a few months, the promise of Occupy’s voice faded. The leaderless movement lacked a clear purpose and structure, making higher-level organizing difficult. And most major encampments were swept away by winter cold and a coordinated crackdown by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, local police — and even some banks. As the camps vanished, so did Occupy’s power as anything more than a vague objection to the status quo.
Yet today, as we enter the 2020s, many of the ideas that underpinned Occupy’s call for re-envisioning our political-economic system are taken far more seriously than they were at the beginning of this decade. And that’s in no small part because the far left has succeeded by trying a different tack. Serious left-wing players who punch above their weight have emerged in presidential politics, Congress, social movement advocacy, the think tank world, and media offer an increasingly persuasive alternative to neoliberal and center-left thinking, while pulling off electoral upsets and building institutional power.
As the far left has moved from the streets into office buildings, so have its ambitions. The focus has shifted from disruption and “changing the conversation” from the outside toward an agenda to reshape the world through strategic organizing and an insider approach.
The best starting point for thinking about how left-wing politics have changed over the course of this decade is in fact through an event that took place almost exactly two decades ago — when protesters shut down a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization on November 30, 1999. The secretive WTO was a natural target for protest: it had become the most notorious symbol of corporate power run amok among quarters of the left who were skeptical of the belief that there was no alternative to an increasingly merciless model of global capitalism.
The massive protests and civil disobedience, deemed the Battle of Seattle, were organized by people from many quarters of the left, including anarchist activists, NGOs, labor unions, student groups, teachers, and countless other movements. When the disruptions caused the WTO talks to collapse entirely, it was widely hailed as a defining victory for the emerging ”global justice movement.” At a time when socialism was considered profane and many Democrats were effectively compassionate conservatives, the Battle of Seattle represented the potential clout of the far left.
What made the event iconic was the style of protest, which was heavily influenced by anarchist philosophy and tactics. While plans to mobilize in Seattle had happened for months in advance, there was no central coordinator, the disruptions unfolded in an ad hoc manner, groups and individuals maneuvered spontaneously, and communication on the ground was handled democratically. For years afterward, left-wing activists attempted to replicate Seattle’s organizational model—which in many ways mimicked the way people talk and gather on the Internet—at meetings of groups like the World Bank, NATO, and the G7.
Occupy’s brief and brilliant explosion of energy in 2011 was the most powerful iteration of this model of protest—and also demonstrated its limits. Occupy teemed with compelling ideas, but its anarchist principles dictated that the movement remain “leaderless” and take shape through free-forming local assemblies and direct action. Its resistance to institutionalization and ideological clarity made it astonishingly fragile—especially since it required holding public space in the face of attacks from the state.
But many of Occupy’s ideas about political economy resurfaced in 2015 when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders decided to run in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton. His campaign, which included staff and supporters who had collaborated during Occupy, was a shocking success: despite unabashedly identifying as a democratic socialist, he gave Clinton, the most dominant non-incumbent candidate in modern history, a serious run for her money during the nomination battle, besting her in 23 states. Bob Master, a founder of the New York Working Families Party, said in 2016 that the Sanders campaign was “Occupy Wall Street translated into electoral politics. This is the revolt of the 99 percent.”
The success of Sanders’ campaign proved that a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed not only possible to talk about socialism again—but that it could be pursued within the two-party system.
Sanders’s run pushed the party platform to the left on issues like minimum wage, the war on drugs, and environmental regulation. And his run inspired a host of new left-wing institutions like the Justice Democrats, a political action committee founded by former Sanders staffers whose platform includes Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. In 2018 they helped coordinate democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning defeat of 10-term incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley, who was the no. 4 Democrat in the House. Ocasio-Cortez’s super-progressive “squad” in the House (representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley) are also all Justice Democrats.
The rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a left-wing institution interested in both working as an outside agitator and engaging with the electoral and legislative process, may end up being one of the most consequential developments of the decade. DSA has been around since the 1980s, but only after Sanders’ run and Trump’s victory has it become more than a completely fringe player—since November 2016, DSA’s membership has gone from 5,000 to at least 50,000 members and has seen an explosion in chapters across the nation. It does lots of different things, from lobbying for more progressive housing laws to organizing protests to canvassing democratic socialist candidates; in 2018, more than a dozen DSA-backed candidates won their Democratic primaries. DSA is still small, but it shows promise in how deeply organized it is its commitment to democratic decision-making and its devotion to thinking strategically and pragmatically about how to bring to life a utopian society.
On top of all this, there’s been a notable rise of the savvy left-wing press and think tanks that have helped mainstream ideas that would’ve seemed outlandish to anyone outside of radical politics until recently. While there’s always been an alternative, ultra-progressive press, what’s notable about these outfits is how they deliberately seek wide readership and aim to shift the parameters of popular debate. For example, socialist magazines like Jacobin and Current Affairs have garnered a bigger readership during this socialist resurgence in part because they have an interest in making Marxist thinking as accessible as possible to a mass audience through stylish design, jargon-light analysis, and direct engagement with the daily news cycle. Think tanks like Data for Progress and the People’s Policy Project have quickly established reputations as respectable and rigorous operations for data analysis, polling, and policy papers in a space typically dominated by right-wing or center-left researchers.
Socialists still have very, very minor power in the scheme of national politics, and there are huge limitations to a socialist movement without a strong organized labor movement backing it. But as we enter 2020, the American left has some tangible answers to the perennial question of what is to be done to achieve their worldview.
This is not to say that protest movements, direct action, and civil disobedience are not valuable or that they’ve become outdated in some sense—far from it: today’s left would be further strengthened by more militant street mobilizations. But they aren’t sufficient for building a bid for power that can last.