How the Well-Educated and Downwardly Mobile Found Socialism
At Least, According to Charlotte Alter, a Gentle Version of It
Boomers think socialism is a relic, and they’re right that the word can be politically toxic. To millions of older voters, “socialism” smells of a discredited past, which is not good news for self-described socialists trying to win in swing districts. But the Cold War is not the whole story: In fact, the renewed enthusiasm for socialism is entirely consistent with historical patterns of political responses to major economic dislocation. At nearly every moment when huge technological advances have changed the nature of work (check) or created sky-high income inequality (check) or economic downturns that have resulted in mass hardship (check), Americans have turned to socialist ideas to strengthen the social safety net.
The American socialist movement began in the early 20th century, with labor leaders demanding better worker protections, a minimum wage, and the abolition of child labor—all ideas that would eventually be accepted by both major parties. It was a time of vast economic inequality, when a railroad tycoon had a toilet seat covered in 23-karat gold while millions of families worked 80-hour weeks in dangerous factories. “If the people who were making policies were smart,” said Michael Carter, a shaggy-haired DSA member who worked for Bernie Sanders and later served as deputy campaign manager for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “they might realize that taking us to levels of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age might take us to similar politics of the Gilded Age.”
After the stock market crashed in 1929, America was once again at a moment of massive inequality—and again responded with efforts to strengthen the social safety net. Three years into the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt embarked on a series of government interventions in the economy designed to protect Americans from the ravages of the free market: the New Deal.
He reorganized the banks through the Emergency Banking Act, put three million men to work planting an astonishing three billion trees in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and created millions more temporary government jobs through the Works Progress Administration and other new agencies. He regulated Wall Street for the first time by establishing the Securities and Exchange Commission and legalized collective bargaining—the key to union power—through the National Labor Relations Act. He created universal pensions (also known as Social Security) and ensured federal government protections for orphans and the disabled. Even though the New Deal perpetuated racial inequalities (people of color were largely excluded from the newly created jobs and the easy access to homeownership that would come after the war), it was still the largest expansion of the social safety net in American history. FDR called the New Deal “bold, persistent experimentation.” His critics called it “socialist.”
Beginning an 85-year tradition of Republican attacks, one Republican member of Congress called the New Deal “undisguised state socialism,” while another said that Roosevelt was “a socialist, not a Democrat.” These attacks angered the highly pragmatic FDR, who, when asked his political philosophy, answered, “I’m a Christian and a Democrat. That’s all.” Former New York governor Al Smith, a Democrat, gave a speech smearing the New Deal as Communist and un-American. “Get the platform of the Democratic Party, and get the platform of the Socialist Party, and lay them down on your dining room table, side by side, and get a heavy lead pencil and scratch out the word ‘Democratic’ and scratch out the word ‘Socialist,’” he told a crowd at the American Liberty League Dinner in 1936. “There can be only one atmosphere of government, the clear, pure, fresh air of a free America or the foul breath of Communistic Russia.”
Despite the vast expansion of social protections in the New Deal, most actual socialists thought it didn’t go far enough. Like Occupy activists 80 years later, they wanted the president to dismantle the system entirely, not just reform it. And FDR opposed the creation of public sector unions, arguing they would require state governments to essentially negotiate against themselves. But FDR also fought for programs that would be considered radically left even by today’s standards. He wanted cradle-to-grave Social Security for all Americans—essentially a universal basic income—but never proposed it because he thought it was politically impossible.
In 1942, five months after the United States entered World War II, he asked Congress to increase the top marginal tax rate to a level that would virtually eliminate great wealth. “Discrepancies between low personal incomes and very high personal incomes should be lessened,” he said. “I therefore believe that in time of this grave national danger, when all excess income should go to win the war, no American citizen ought to have a net income, after he has paid his taxes, of more than $25,000 a year.” (That’s roughly $400,000 in 2019 dollars.)
But part of Roosevelt’s genius was realizing that ideology was irrelevant for most mainstream American voters. He didn’t care about the semantics, as long as the New Deal worked. When asked about the political philosophy behind the Tennessee Valley Authority, he said, “It’s neither fish nor fowl, but whatever it is, it will taste awfully good to the people of the Tennessee Valley.” Almost nine decades later, Pete Buttigieg would have a similar answer when asked about whether the Democrats should embrace socialist ideas. “For years, socialism has been used as a kill switch to just stop an idea from being talked about, but if you’re from my generation, the real interest is: Is an idea good or not?” he said on Morning Joe in February 2019. “We don’t care whether it reads to some conservatives as more socialist or not—we care about whether it works.”
The New Deal exacerbated the racial wealth gap by enshrining redlining as federal policy, which barred people of color from accessing the homes (and opportunities to build generational wealth) that were newly available to white families. But the government programs and the subsequent government-funded mobilization for World War II created a stable middle class of white parents who raised boomers in an era of relative income equality and unprecedented prosperity. FDR’s allegedly “socialist” tax policies sustained American growth for a generation. The top marginal tax rate topped 90 percent throughout the 1950s, then was cut to 70 percent in the 1960s and 1970s. While most wealthy Americans found loopholes to shrink their effective tax rates, the basic structure worked well: it paid for social welfare programs and ambitious infrastructure projects, such as the interstate highway system, while lessening income inequality in what was then the greatest economic expansion in world history. The top marginal tax rate didn’t fall below 50 percent until the late 1980s, when Ronald Reagan slashed it to 28 percent.
But thanks to deregulation and privatization in the 1980s and 1990s, income inequality today is back where it was before the Great Depression. According to historian Jill Lepore, in 1928 the top 1 percent of American families earned 24 percent of all income, but income inequality shrank significantly in the 1940s—by 1944, the middle class had grown and the top 1 percent earned only about 11 percent of the total. But by 2011, Gilded Age income gaps had returned: the top 1 percent were again earning 24 percent of all income, giving the United States the highest inequality of any Western democracy.
At the same time, the economy changed faster than the people who worked in it. The nature of work was morphing so quickly in the early 21st century that many people felt the benefits and protections of stable employment being ripped out from under them. Just as workers in the late 19th century had to navigate the new factory exploitations of the industrial economy, workers in the early 21st century had to adjust to unpredictable gig work in a digital economy.
“Moments of great change, the industrial or the digital revolution, are times when you see an interest in socialism rise,” says John Nichols, author of The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition. “If you don’t get your health benefits from your work because your work has been so redefined that you’re a freelancer, then you’re really going to be saying: Where does my health care come from?”
That was exactly what many young people were wondering. How would they get health insurance when so many of the jobs they could get didn’t offer employer-sponsored plans? How would they afford college when the government no longer subsidized higher education the way it once did? Those were exactly the questions Bernie Sanders wanted to answer.
Millennials had been socialist-curious for a while, but Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign was an ideological turning point for many left-leaning young people. Sanders offered universal solutions that seemed to match the scope of the problems young people faced. Health care is too expensive? Medicare for All. Student debt weighing you down? Free college. Can’t make ends meet? Raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. As Obama’s vision of a unified America was increasingly seeming like fantasy, Bernie seemed to be speaking truth to power when he drew battle lines and pointed at a real enemy: the “millionaires and billionaires” who benefited from a “rigged system” that allowed dark money to flow into political coffers. (Never mind that by the time Sanders was delivering this message again in his 2020 campaign, he had become a millionaire himself thanks to his bestselling book.) Obama had talked about “us”; Bernie pointed at “them.” He called BS on the system that young people knew was broken, and he told them who to blame for it.
It was an argument that appealed to well-educated, downwardly mobile millennials who felt they had done everything right but were still getting left behind. “There are a lot of people who are deeply invested in telling us that there’s nothing we can do, that we have no way to change the economy to better reflect human needs, that all we can do is tinker around the edges with tax rates and this and that instead of actually imagining a future that is up to the challenges that we face,” says Michael Carter, the democratic socialist who organized for progressive candidates like Sanders and Alexandria. “A lot of the attraction is the imagination. We’re a generation that was told we can be anything we want to be, that we’re able to change the world. Meanwhile, all the baby boomers are like, ‘We’re not gonna change anything and we want all the money still, and just chill out.’”
Bernie Sanders lost the primary, but his campaign served as a crash course in democratic socialism for an entire generation of young voters. Just as Hillary’s loss spurred a defiant horde of liberal women to avenge her defeat, Bernie’s loss (and Trump’s subsequent win) drove many young leftists to preach the gospel of socialism. After Trump won, the DSA more than quadrupled its membership to thirty-five thousand—less than the capacity of Fenway Park, but still a sign of vitality on the progressive left.By 2019, democratic socialism had so deeply pervaded millennial attitudes that even young Republicans acknowledged its appeal.
The socialist craze was a cultural movement as well as a political one. In hipster Brooklyn, the moral clarity of socialism seemed fresh and electric, while Obama-style technocratic moderation began to seem dumpy and outdated. Trump’s election had made mainstream Democrats seem not only ineffective, but deeply uncool. When boomers tried to lecture millennials about Chairman Mao or the dysfunction of Eastern European postwar economies, it only reinforced how much they were stuck in the politics of the past. The more the establishment denigrated socialism, the more young progressives embraced it. In leftist online circles, “neoliberal” was thrown around with the force of a sick burn. Usernames flanked by red rose emojis—the signifier of socialist sympathies—became more and more common on social media and dating apps. New York magazine even ran a cover story called “When Did Everyone Become a Socialist?”
According to John Della Volpe of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, by 2018 only 43 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they supported capitalism, while 39 percent said they supported democratic socialism. And even if they didn’t quite embrace the label, many young people were embracing socialist ideas: the poll found strong majority support for Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, and tuition-free public college. Gallup found that young people’s approval of capitalism had dropped 23 points between 2010 and 2018. By 2019, democratic socialism had so deeply pervaded millennial attitudes that even young Republicans acknowledged its appeal. In one 2019 poll, roughly 30 percent of Republicans under 35 (and 75 percent of young Democrats) said they thought the word “socialism” had a positive connotation, and that there was an unfairness in the economic system that favored the wealthy. These were young people who were still calling themselves Republicans in 2019.
Establishment liberals were appalled by the youthful lurch to the left, while Republicans were thrilled. Experienced Democrats worried—with good reason—that embracing socialism would alienate moderate and conservative boomers in swing districts who bristled at the idea of a socialist revolution that might take away more of their money. Medicare for All sounded good, those Democrats noted, but 150,000,000 Americans got employer-based health insurance and many millions of them wanted to keep it. (Those Democrats preferred a public option, which Pete would eventually refer to as “Medicare for All Who Want It.”) When an NYU student asked Nancy Pelosi in 2017 whether there was room for Democrats to move left on economic issues, she replied curtly, “We’re capitalists.” Two years later, she sharpened her criticism. “I do reject socialism,” she told 60 Minutes. “That is not the view of the Democratic Party.”
Republicans, of course, had a field day. Socialism quickly became the de facto attack line on Fox News, with Sean Hannity airing monologues about the “radical far-left Democratic Party and the dangers of socialism” and Tucker Carlson devoting whole segments to ridiculing democratic socialists. As his 2020 reelection bid approached, Trump painted the Democrats as the party of socialists. In his 2019 State of the Union, he vowed that “America will never be a socialist country.” Speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2019, Trump said, “We believe in the American dream, not the socialist nightmare.”
But for a generation who hadn’t grown up with the Soviet threat, that attack line had lost its bite. The GOP had been crying wolf about socialism for so long—most recently calling Obama a socialist for trying to expand health care access, even though his plan was based off one from a conservative think tank—that they inadvertently linked the term with policies that were overwhelmingly popular with young people. “I think the right did us a service calling Obama a socialist for eight years,” Saikat Chakrabarti, one of Alexandria’s earliest allies, told The New Yorker. “It inoculated us. But people focus on the labels when they are not sure what they mean. What people call socialism these days is Eisenhower Republicanism!”
From The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For by Charlotte Alter. Used with the permission of Viking. Copyright © 2020 by Charlotte Alter.