The left is back — and millennials are leading the way. “Socialism” was the most searched word on the Merriam-Webster website in 2015, and a 2016 poll showed that 43 percent of Iowa Democrats described themselves as “socialists.” Despite the setback of President Trump’s electoral victory, the left continues to grow. Publications like the magazine Jacobin, launched by millennial Bhaskar Sunkara, now reach more than 1 million website visitors each month.
But the millennial left is not a return to the New Left of the 1960s — the student radicals, hippies and Yippies who raised hell in their efforts to end the Vietnam War and change American culture to make it less racist and sexist and more authentic. Rather it invokes the ideas of the Old Left of the 1930s — the militant labor unions, socialists and even communists who, in the context of the worst economic depression in American history, sought a genuine alternative to capitalism.
The Old Left of the 1930s grew out of a 19th-century socialist movement and focused its political energy on the problems of capitalism. It was also deeply critical of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brand of liberalism. Although Roosevelt championed the “common man” and pushed through New Deal reforms that became the bedrock of 20th-century American social democracy, the 1930s left criticized FDR and liberals for the compromises they made with capitalism.
The gulf between liberalism and Old Left ideas — socialist ideas — has only grown since the 1930s. Unlike liberals, who emerged from the 1960s prioritizing the political freedoms associated with individual rights, the socialist left has posited that most people — the working class — remain effectively powerless if capitalists control work, wages and welfare. In their view, the left’s mission — the reason for its existence — ought to be expanding the idea of political freedom to include economic freedom. This historical distinction between liberalism and socialism has resurfaced with the millennial left.
One of the better representations of the millennial left is Chapo Trap House, a wildly popular podcast that boasts the most paid subscribers on Patreon. Around 15,000 people pay $5 per month for weekly subscriber-only episodes, in addition to the tens of thousands of listeners who tune in to the episodes Chapo makes public. Founded in March 2016, the podcast is a sometimes hilarious, often angry, mostly smart and always irreverent conversation about politics and culture.
Sincere in its democratic socialist leanings, Chapo is best known for its mocking and sarcastic tone, made clear by its very title, which combines a reference to Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán with the hip-hop slang term for a drug house (“trap house”). While it often takes on Trump and the alt-right with a sense of comedic genius, Chapo saves its most derisive material for the “libs.”
At first blush, the most obvious model for this iteration of the millennial left is the New Left of the 1960s — young activists who attacked the hypocrisy of liberals with similar tactics. And indeed, Chapo could easily be mistaken for the Internet Age version of the Yippies — the Youth International Party, led by 1960s left-wingers Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, famous for theatrical political high-jinks. In 1968, the Yippies playfully advanced a pig for president, “Pigasus the Immortal,” and advocated group joint-rolling and nude “grope-ins” for peace.
But actually, the Chapo left advocates for Old Left socialism.
In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of workers joined the mass labor unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Even the Communist Party, always suspect in American political life, enjoyed a surge in its American ranks thanks to the relatively common view that the Great Depression sounded the death knell of capitalism.
The 1930s left critiqued the limits of New Deal reforms. Some Old Leftists wanted workers to have complete autonomy in their workplaces. Still others, inspired by Soviet Russia, wanted the working class to control the state and command the economy. Many leftists did not go that far, yet at the very least wanted what they called “industrial democracy” — a political and economic system accountable to the needs and desires of the industrial working class. New Deal liberals, who seemed to prefer technocratic tinkering, were considered barriers to such a left-wing vision of America.
Chapo’s commentary during the 2016 presidential campaign exposed just how much millennial left ideology resembles 1930s left ideology. Chapo attacked Hillary Clinton and the centrists who have dominated the Democratic Party since Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992. To the Chapo left, Clinton represents the neoliberal takeover of the Democratic Party. Neoliberalism, from their perspective, is a term of derision for a political philosophy that combines support for things leftists like, such as racial diversity, alongside ideas that run counter to everything they believe, such as the notion that the market is the best mechanism for sorting social goods like education.
In this view, the role of Clinton Democrats is to administer the decline of the New Deal, not fight for its expansion through different means. For example, instead of advocating for single-payer health care, Democrats passed Obamacare, a largely ineffective market-based solution. Instead of helping unions build a mass movement that might reshape American society to the benefit of millions, they see the Democratic ethos as technocratic and meritocratic.
Which is why Chapo has dedicated entire episodes to lambasting “The West Wing,” Aaron Sorkin’s popular television show that fetishizes the liberal view that a smart, dedicated, well-meaning elite will save us from right-wing Neanderthals. As Chapo often makes clear, this is a naive understanding of politics that ignores power, thus helping facilitate Republican domination.
Chapo reflects the broader generational divide on the left side of the American political spectrum between millennials and their neoliberal predecessors. Like their Depression-era forerunners, Chapo-listening millennials have moved closer to socialism in response to an economic crisis. Millennials are likely to be worse off economically than their parents or grandparents, especially those who have become job-seeking adults in the years since the Great Recession of 2008. A left-wing political response to such conditions makes sense.
A podcast does not make the left, any more than little magazines made the Old Left. But in the same way that historians now think about The Masses, Max Eastman’s experimental little magazine that gave voice to the hopes and dreams of the socialist left in the years proceeding World War I, we might come to think about Chapo as the voice of a new left, the millennial left, coming into being.