In January 1969, Tom Hayden, a founder of the radical Students for a Democratic Society and a leader of the antiwar movement, came to speak at the University of California at Santa Cruz, on behalf of the SDS chapter where I was a member. At the time, many on the new left thought a revolution was imminent. Major cities had been set ablaze by rioters; gun-toting members of the Black Panther Party had confronted legislators in Sacramento; hundreds of thousands were marching against the Vietnam War; and with Richard Nixon in office — and the war showing no signs of abating — the protests were turning violent.
Hayden, too, was confident about what lay ahead. Perched on the edge of the stage in a denim work shirt and blue jeans, he spelled out his vision for a new American revolution. I still recall him saying — in the language of the period — “We already have the blacks, the browns, the women and the students,” and then adding that if we could also get blue-collar workers, we’d have the basis for a revolution. Personally, I was a bit more pessimistic. At Socialist Revolution, the Marxist journal I began working for in June 1969, the economist James O’Connor branded me “the little black cloud” because of my doubts that revolution was just around the corner.
And yet there were, if you wanted to see them, signs that the new left — which had been concentrated on campuses — might be able to attract support from the white working class. Over the next two years, students joined the picket lines of strikers from General Electric, General Motors and the U.S. Post Office Department. In a special issue on “The Seventies,” Business Week warned that corporations faced a challenge from “the blacks, the labor unions, and the young” that could make “the Seventies one of the tumultuous decades in U.S. history.”
Such heady times may sound like the distant past, but there are more than a few parallels with the present. For nearly a decade now, arguably dating to the Occupy movement of 2011, a new generation of left-wing activism has been stirring. A host of organizations (Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, 350.org, People’s Action, the Working Families Party, Black Lives Matter, the Justice Democrats, a revived Democratic Socialists of America) and new publications (Jacobin, the Intercept, Current Affairs) are doing what groups like SDS did in the ’60s: elevating left-wing causes and promising dramatic societal change.
These activists and their worldviews have made significant inroads in mainstream politics in a relatively short time. In 2016, Bernie Sanders — a socialist whose platform was well to the left of George McGovern’s then-regarded-as-radical platform in 1972 — almost won the Democratic nomination. This year, Sanders, advocating a “political revolution,” is once again in the top tier of candidates. So is Elizabeth Warren, who’s running on a platform of “big, structural change.”
But at this moment of left-wing optimism, it bears remembering that the ’60s left never fulfilled the vision of Hayden and others. Indeed, even as our cause appeared ascendant, a powerful right-wing movement was also percolating: Young Americans for Freedom, presidential candidates George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, California Gov. Ronald Reagan. By the time I saw Hayden speak in 1969, Nixon had been elected, in part because of a backlash to the new left. In 1972, he would rout McGovern at the polls. Less than a decade later, Reagan was in the White House. If revolutionary change was on the agenda, it was of an entirely different nature from what we had envisaged in 1969.
Will today’s new left stumble down the path of my generation’s left, growing largely irrelevant and then, eventually, disappearing from sight? Or could it come to dominate American politics over the next few decades? Because of key structural differences between then and now, I actually think their odds of success are better than ours were. But to capitalize on those odds, they will have to learn from the failures of my generation — we activists who succeeded in captivating a noisy subgroup of Americans but never came close to commanding a political majority. And there are already, in my view, worrisome signals that they are repeating some of our biggest mistakes.
There are three defining features of today’s insurgent left. The first is that its adherents are concentrated among the young — high-schoolers through those in their late 30s. In the 2016 primaries, Sanders won more votes among 18-to-29-year-olds than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. In current presidential polling, Sanders’s and Warren’s followings tilt strongly toward the young. In polling on capitalism vs. socialism, the young tend to be much more critical than older Americans of capitalism and more supportive of socialism. In a Pew poll from June, 50 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds had a very or somewhat positive view of socialism. (Socialism in this case appears to be a critique from the left of existing American capitalism — a preference for Scandinavia or even Canada, not for Venezuela or China.)
In 2013, the average age of a DSA member was 68 — the group, in other words, had never moved past its roots in my generation of leftists. By 2017, the average age was 33, and membership was skyrocketing (from about 6,000 in 2015 to 55,000 today). The Sunrise Movement, one of the main organizations battling for action on climate change, declares that it is “building an army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority.” The founders of Black Lives Matter were in their late 20s and early 30s. The founders of Indivisible were young former congressional staffers. The Justice Democrats were young veterans of the Sanders campaign.
The second feature of today’s left is geographical: It is concentrated in postindustrial metro areas and also college towns. These include the larger cities on the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards as well as cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, Austin and Denver. These areas specialize in what economist Peter Temin has called FTE — finance, technology and electronics — but also in government, higher education and specialized health care. Political scientist Ruy Teixeira and I estimated that, in 2000, 43.7 percent of Americans lived in these metro areas. It is probably now closer to half, and it’s growing.
The third feature is that today’s left is drawn primarily from members or future members of what French sociologist Serge Mallet once called “the new working class.” In American labor surveys, they mostly fall within the category of professionals or higher-level service occupations that sometimes require certification and that usually, but not always, require a college degree. (One clue to the politics of at least part of this cohort shows up in polling that finds that people with advanced degrees are the most consistently liberal of all the educational groups.) They do not own their businesses but are paid by wage or salary. They work primarily in the postindustrial economy producing knowledge and information and high-level services; some, but by no means all, work in the public or the nonprofit sector. They are teachers, nurses, pilots, editors, writers, doctors, software programmers, graphic designers, social workers, architects and engineers. Unlike other white-collar office workers — such as salespeople or office managers — they don’t judge their work primarily by the money they can pull in or the costs they can hold down, but by the excellence of the product they produce or services they render. Is the software cool? Did the patient get better? Did the kids learn?
There is nothing paradoxical about people on the upper tier of the working class playing a leading role in the left. The labor movements in the United States, Great Britain and Germany were initiated by the better-paid and more-skilled craft workers, not by common laborers. Today, this group has the distinction — first promised in Thorstein Veblen’s early-20th-century book “The Engineers and the Price System” — of possessing the knowledge and skill to run society without a need for expert managerial guidance.
To understand why the young and college-educated have become amenable to radical ideas, it helps to consider certain long-term trends in American life and, especially, American capitalism. Marxists describe a process called “proletarianization,” which occurs when occupations whose workers previously enjoyed some independence, responsibility, status and good income lose their authority and become dependent on layers of officialdom and bureaucracy. They might have their jobs divided into separate tasks or eliminated altogether, and they may suddenly face declining prospects for their livelihood. That happened to many craft workers — for instance, shoemakers, weavers, granite cutters and blacksmiths — at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. In reaction to this proletarianization, workers formed unions.
Something similar has been occurring in the United States over recent decades. Many professionals are becoming subject to layers of bureaucracy — think of registered nurses having above them doctors, hospital administrators and insurance companies. These workers are also becoming subject to severe bottom-line concerns. Software developers may no longer work on their own or for small companies but for huge corporations like Facebook or Microsoft, where their responsibility is a minute task within a larger system. They may be asked to produce services for a country or company they don’t respect. Engineers may be pressured to produce shortcuts; teachers may be forced to teach in crowded classrooms; social workers may not be allowed time to deal with difficult clients.
Those who work within the knowledge industry today can also rarely look forward to the kind of lifetime employment for themselves or their children that many Americans used to enjoy. Millennials are often described as “job hoppers” because of the number of different jobs they hold in their 20s. (I’ve given up counting how many jobs my daughters — now in their mid-30s — have held since they graduated from college.) These jobs require college degrees and in some cases advanced degrees, the cost of which have risen stratospherically, as have the debts that students have had to incur. CNBC has described the situation this way: “Adjusting for inflation, compared to college tuition in 1988, private school tuition in 2018 has increased 213 percent and four-year public school tuition has increased 129 percent. As a result, much of the generation is drowning in student loan debt.” And often, college graduates, who expected to be professionals, end up working in their 20s as bartenders or as part of the gig economy.
The cost of housing in the places where these college graduates want to work has also skyrocketed. In an Atlantic article titled “Why Housing Policy Feels Like Generational Warfare,” Alexis Madrigal cites a study by the real estate firm Unison: “Imagine you’re a 30-year-old in Los Angeles with the median income. By Unison’s math, you can imagine buying a home at 73. For young people in high-opportunity metro areas, the route to home ownership is basically blocked without the help of a wealthy family member or some stock options.”
Facing an uncertain future, college students and graduates are suffering from a rise in anxiety and mental illness. One survey in 2017 by the American Psychiatric Association found millennials to be the most anxious of the current generations. (Baby boomers were the least.) Business Insider, examining surveys of millennials’ mental health, reported that “depression and ‘deaths of despair’ are both on the rise among the generation, linked to issues such as loneliness and money stress. Millennials also feel that their jobs have an outsize role in their overall mental health. Because of longer work hours and stagnant wages, millennials suffer from higher rates of burnout than other generations. Many of them have even quit their jobs for mental-health reasons.”
Job dissatisfaction has contributed to an increase in union organizing, strikes and political activity among this generation of workers. This includes teachers and nurses, but also stirrings within media organizations, universities and high-tech behemoths such as Google and Amazon. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) In recent years, the United Auto Workers has succeeded in more unionization drives among grad students, university staff and media workers than among auto assembly workers.
These economic and psychological factors provided the kindling; a succession of major disasters — a calamitous war in Iraq, the Great Recession, widening inequality of wealth and power, the threat of climate change, the hard-right policies and crude rhetoric of President Trump — provided the sparks that have caused so many young people to turn for answers to the left. The questions, though, are whether the politics of this generation will stay the same as it ages, and whether young leftists can begin to draw significant numbers of other voters to their side.
The ’60s left collapsed for many reasons, but two major ones are especially relevant to the prospects for today’s left — and they pull in opposite directions. One important advantage the contemporary left has over the ’60s left is that it was created by conditions that are not going away. The Vietnam War was the main issue uniting the diverse parts of the ’60s left, and it brought hundreds of thousands of new sympathizers into the movement. And so, when the Nixon administration ended the draft and then signed a peace agreement with North Vietnam, what we called “the movement” rapidly dissipated. The women’s, civil rights and environmental movements — to name three of the biggest groups — continued, but they were no longer part of a larger whole. Meanwhile, those groups that had espoused revolution were displaced by reformist, staff-driven organizations that worked out of Washington or New York offices.
Today’s left is different. Of the factors driving it, only the Trump presidency will expire, and that might not happen for five years. Climate change will continue to menace shorelines, create extreme weather, and imperil agriculture and fishing — and this is, unfortunately, going to happen even if a Democrat wins the presidency this year and rejoins the Paris agreement. As the politics around climate change inevitably become more pressing, the case for a large-scale subordination of private capital to public priorities — a demand that is at the heart of the political left — will only strengthen.
Most important, though, the underlying economic conditions that led to the creation of today’s left are going to continue to shape the labor force of American capitalism. Under the impact of artificial intelligence, many jobs will alter overnight or disappear, creating continuing insecurity among the young, fueling dissatisfaction with capitalism and providing an incentive to organize. The economy itself may not soon endure a recurrence of the Great Recession, but an increasingly fractious world trading order and overcapacity in manufacturing will continue to threaten growth. The predominance of finance and the winner-take-all structure of the high-tech industry mean that disparities of wealth and power will only grow.
During the ’60s, proletarianization was in its early stage. In 1960, only 8 percent of Americans had a college degree or above. Today, the ranks of college-educated people — those most susceptible to the appeal of the contemporary left — appear to be growing. Thirty-nine percent of Americans 25 and older have a bachelor’s or an advanced degree, a figure that is expected to increase over the next 10 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional occupations, which require at least a college degree, made up 20.9 percent of the labor force in 2018 and will make up 21.5 percent by 2028. Allied occupations such health-care support are also expected to grow, from 2.7 to 3 percent. During the same period, the ranks of sales personnel, office and administrative support occupations, and production workers — who do not fit the profile of today’s left — are expected to shrink. By the end of the 2020s, college-educated workers facing persistent insecurity about their future, and concern about the value of their work, should account for somewhere between 22 and 25 percent of the labor force.
Perhaps because these underlying economic trends are continuing, the youngest American voters are no less susceptible than millennials to radical appeals. In fact, they may be more susceptible. A January 2019 Harris Poll found that 61 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds — Generation Z — have a positive reaction to the word “socialism.” By comparison, 51 percent of millennials do. Taken together, these two generations could well pose a formidable challenge not only to conservatives but to establishment liberals.
And yet, there was another key reason for the collapse of the ’60s left, one which may bedevil today’s progressive activists. To win a political majority, contemporary young leftists — who are primarily college educated and work, live and study in high-tech metro areas and college towns — will need to win significant support for their politics from the rest of the working class, many of whom have not graduated from college, live in small or midsize towns, and work in or around manufacturing and mining. The left of the ’60s faced a similar challenge and fell woefully short. It’s worth looking at why.
There were always new-left radicals who tried to build bridges. But by the late ’60s, when Hayden was urging outreach to what was then an overwhelmingly white working class, many revolutionaries had abandoned any attempt to create a popular American majority and instead cast their lot with an imagined world revolution, led by China, Cuba or even, in the case of one Berkeley group, North Korea. They saw America (which they spelled “Amerikkka”) as the enemy and blacks and Latinos as being, along with Vietnamese, victims of U.S. colonialism. They saw white workers as beneficiaries of “white skin privilege” with a “stake in imperialism.” If they were white, they saw themselves as a fifth column within the mother country, fighting on the side of minorities at home and America’s enemies abroad.
These leftists believed they were putting into place a sophisticated neo-Marxist politics — they talked about the proletariat and the cultural revolution and quoted from Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book” — but their activity most clearly resembled that of 17th-century American Protestant sects who imagined themselves as congregations of visible saints in a sinful world. In fact, the new left’s rebellion increasingly took a religious rather than a political form. It consisted of establishing one’s moral credibility and superiority in the face of evil. That religious fervor provided, perhaps, a meaning for the lives of activists, but it was, as social critic Paul Goodman wrote in “The New Reformation,” “a poor basis for politics, including revolutionary politics.”
What also doomed the new left was that, beginning with the decision in 1967 by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to expel its white members, the movement began to splinter into identity groups; indeed, this was the beginning of what has come to be known as “identity politics.” Black nationalist and later Latino, Native American and feminist groups pursued their own demands with some success, but the larger movement lost a sense of cooperation and coherence.
Much of what these separate groups fought for was entirely justifiable and contributed to racial and sexual equality. Yet some of their stances pressed their causes to the extreme: radical feminists casting doubt on the moral legitimacy of the family; black nationalists advocating armed struggle and calling for African American communities to be subject to the United Nations rather than the U.S. government. These positions put them at odds with much of America. And, alongside the activities of revolutionary groups like the Weather Underground, they fed the backlash that led to Nixon’s landslide in 1972 and Reagan’s victory in 1980.
Today’s left has not embraced the separatism or the revolutionary fantasies of the last days of the ’60s left, but, as someone who was there, I find disturbing echoes in the present. I’ll list three. First, many on the left — and many more-moderate liberals as well — attribute Trump’s victory in 2016 and white working-class reluctance to support Democrats entirely or primarily to “white supremacy” or “white privilege.” They dismiss flyover Americans who voted for Trump as irredeemable — even though there is evidence that many supporters of Barack Obama backed Trump in 2016, and that many Trump voters cast ballots for Democrats in 2018. It is an echo of the ’60s left’s Manichaean view of Americans.
As a result, today’s left has become fond of a political strategy that discounts the importance altogether of winning over the white working class. Such a strategy assumes Democrats can gain majorities simply by winning over people of color (a term that groups people of wildly varying backgrounds, incomes and worldviews), single women and the young. One recent article in the left-wing Nation declared: “Since the 1980s, Democratic candidates have proven that they can win elections while losing whites without a college degree by a significant margin.” It’s a questionable strategy for Democrats — in a presidential election, it could cede many of the Midwestern swing states to a Republican — but it is even more questionable as a strategy for the left, which has historically been committed to achieving equality by building a movement of the bottom and middle of society against the very wealthy and powerful at the top.
Second, the left is again dividing into identity groups, each of which feels justified in elevating its concerns above others. In Philadelphia this summer at Netroots Nation — a gathering of left and liberal groups — Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) told aspiring officeholders, “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice. If you’re worried about being marginalized and stereotyped, please don’t even show up because we need you to represent that voice.”
While activists focused on identity politics have, like their predecessors from the ’60s, made perfectly reasonable demands — for instance, an end to police brutality, or equal wages for men and women — they have also made extreme demands that display an indifference to building a political majority. Some have backed reparations for slavery — an idea rejected by broad majorities of the electorate, most of whom are descended from immigrants who came to America after the Civil War. Other groups have demanded “open borders,” defying a majority of Americans who think the country should be able to decide who to admit as citizens and who will be able to enjoy the rights and benefits of being an American.
Third, many of these demands and strategies are accompanied by a quasi-religious adherence to special language and gestures that echo the experience of the ’60s. Again, at the level of morality, these aspects of the left may be persuasive, but at the level of political-majority-building, they are problematic. For instance, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lists “LGBTQIA+ Rights” among her priorities, but how many Americans outside the bluest Zip codes know what “LBGTQIA+” stands for? According to a recent poll, 98 percent of Latinos are uncomfortable with the left-wing term “Latinx.” At the Democratic Socialists of America convention I attended over the summer in Atlanta, delegates identified themselves on their name tags, and when they spoke, by their preferred pronoun (“he,” “she” or “they”) and signaled their approval by twirling their hands. Someone who used the colloquial “guys” to refer to the audience was sternly rebuked. There were charges of “ableism” and of “triggering” due to loud talking. These kinds of moral stances are fine for a church congregation, but not for a political organization that wants to win a majority of voters. The reality is that 80 percent or more of Americans who wandered into such a gathering would think they were on another planet.
And the trouble spots I’ve identified here are only being exacerbated by the importance of social media to contemporary politics. During the ’60s, the left’s cultural insularity was reinforced by its geography. Today, the insularity of the left is magnified by the Internet, which tends to draw us toward people who think alike while screening out unfriendly opinions.
As some of the stances of today’s left have seeped into Democratic presidential politics, it’s become clear that there could be real electoral consequences to these missteps. Warren and Sanders have both promised to offer free Medicare for undocumented immigrants — something that even Canada does not provide — and to decriminalize border crossings. Warren promised a 9-year-old transgender boy that he could have veto rights over her appointment of a secretary of education. Sanders has promised voting rights for imprisoned felons. As sophisticated politicians, Warren and Sanders must know that if they win the nomination, these kind of stands will make it difficult for them to gain votes outside of heavily blue metro areas — and therefore difficult to put together an electoral college majority.
Clearly, there’s a lot to worry about if you want to see the left triumph — at least in the short and medium terms. But there are also reasons to think the left can, in the ensuing decades, eventually overcome its cultural insularity. The first reason is demographic. However separate it is from small-town America, today’s left is geographically much broader than its predecessor, which was based on elite campuses like Berkeley and Columbia. The left is now part of a large class of Americans attempting to come to terms with their place in the economy and society — and while that class isn’t, of course, represented in every city or town, it’s well represented in some locations in just about every state.
As Ruy Teixeira and I argued two decades ago in “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” the trend in America has been toward more towns becoming “ideopolises” — metro areas devoted to the production of ideas, in which the members of this new proletarianizing class play key roles. The past 40 years have seen a transformation of cities like Omaha; Louisville; Columbus, Ohio; and Kansas City, Kan. It stands to reason that the people in them — including those on the lower rungs of the working class — have become more receptive to the politics and the culture of the left.
Moreover, what seem like radical cultural causes often become accepted after several decades of agitation and exposure. In 2004, George W. Bush was able to use opposition to same-sex marriage to curry votes. Today, it is no longer an issue. In a decade or two, few Americans may be confused by pronouns or unisex bathrooms.
There is also a process of political maturation that movements can undergo as they elect people to office who are then forced to respond to citizens with different social views. I saw this with the Democratic Socialists of America, which now has over a hundred elected officials among its members. As it turns out, my own Maryland state representative, Vaughn Stewart, is a member of DSA and was elected with the help of DSA activists who knocked on doors. But Stewart didn’t run on a promise — in the words of a DSA placard at a demonstration in New York — to “abolish profit, abolish prisons, abolish cash bail, abolish borders”; he ran on a platform of “Putting Neighbors First” and has recently introduced “housing for all” legislation to expand renters’ rights and options for home buyers.
Many of the left’s most extreme stands have been driven by the excesses of Trump’s presidency. For instance, in response to Trump’s brazen bigotry toward Hispanics and his plan to build a border wall, his foes on the left have gone well beyond advocating comprehensive immigration reform and instead denounced the very idea of borders. If Trump does win a second term, I fear that the left and right could both go to extremes, as happened during Nixon’s first term. The times could be tumultuous and also dangerous. But when Trump is gone from the scene, the left may be able to better distinguish those issues that could potentially unite a majority from those that will only divide and inflame.
Finally, there is a larger tectonic shift taking place in North American and European politics away from the assumptions of market fundamentalism, which helped precipitate the Great Recession of 2008. There is a growing argument on the left and the right — witness Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley in the United States — for an enlarged role for government and the public sector in economic life. Criticism of the practices of high finance and corporate CEOs are coming not just from the AFL-CIO, but from the Business Roundtable and Financial Times as well. The left will undoubtedly find it easier to navigate in these waters than in those of Cold War anti-communism or Reaganite market fundamentalism. Progressives will be able to advance their economic arguments without being accused of encouraging “big government”; candidates outside of New York City and Vermont may be able to campaign as “democratic socialists” without being associated with communism.
For the foreseeable future, though, if the left wants to create the political majority that Tom Hayden dreamed of in 1969, it will have to frame its positions in a vernacular that most Americans can understand. It will also have to draw a sharp distinction between the positions it deems essential for “big, structural change” and those that can be delegated to communities to calibrate and debate. The new left of the ’60s failed in this mission. We didn’t just dream big; we ascended into the realm of fantasy and visible sainthood. Today’s left will need to learn from our mistakes.
Correction: This article originally mentioned a strike by workers from the U.S. Postal Service. However, at the time of the strike, post offices were run by the U.S. Post Office Department, which was later replaced by the U.S. Postal Service.
John B. Judis is the author of “The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization.”