Dissent has been many things over its long history, but it has never exactly been cool. That hasn’t been a problem because, during most of this magazine’s sixty-odd years on this earth, the cause that gives us a reason to exist—democratic socialism—hasn’t been cool either.
At some point over the last decade, things changed. You know the story: first came Occupy Wall Street, then a broader reawakening of the left stretching from Black Lives Matter to the Fight for $15, followed by the thrill of Bernie Sanders and the shock of Donald Trump. With guardrails tumbling, the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America soared, driven by young people convinced that Bernie would have won. The tide brought in a new generation of activists, including a former bartender who proved to be one of the most effective communicators in American politics. After toppling Joe Crowley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found herself at the head of the Squad, backed up by a small-scale but authentically left-wing media infrastructure filled with journalists, little magazines, and more than our fair share of podcasters. Entering 2020, the left had a thriving grassroots base, a small but growing foothold in elected office, a presidential candidate with a realistic path to the White House, and a plausible strategy for turning all of this into a mass political movement that just might change the country. Also, the memes were great.
You could think of this period as the good old days: the time before the second Sanders campaign ran aground, before the protests of summer 2020 dead-ended, before a disappointing semi-victory over Trumpism led to the piecemeal legislation of the Biden years, before journalists started using “vibe shift” as a euphemism for backlash driven by simmering frustrations with inflation, COVID-19, crime, and a general sense that a big and important piece of our lives is still broken.
Socialism hasn’t shrunk back into the purely marginal status it held before the Great Recession, but we don’t have anything like the influence that seemed within our grasp just two years ago. At best, we are stalled out. It’s possible this is just a brief pause before resuming our advance. But it could also mark the beginning of a prolonged deadlock—or the early phase of a precipitous decline.
That ambiguity is the starting point for this special issue of Dissent, our effort to take stock of an uncertain moment in the history of democratic socialism. It’s a study of a movement that is no longer stuck on the fringes but doesn’t know where it’s going next.
This is the kind of analysis that Dissent was made for. Being cool was never in the cards for us, but we have something better to offer: honesty.
Honesty means reckoning with some ugly possibilities for what lies ahead. Spend enough time online and it’s easy to paint the picture of a movement that’s become an excuse to complain about pretty much everything pretty much all the time. That’s a storied tradition on a left committed to ruthless criticism of all that exists. But without a compelling alternative, the critical impulse destroys itself, becoming the main ingredient in a recipe for political impotence, institutional dysfunction, and personal unhappiness—all of which have a lengthy genealogy on the left as well.
Honesty also requires avoiding the grim pleasures of wallowing in worst-case scenarios. No self-respecting leftist should be too despairing when organized labor is showing more signs of life than at any time in the last half century. The advances are stunning, from Amazon workers on Staten Island to Starbucks baristas across the country. On the ground, DSA activists have shown a remarkable talent for avoiding Twitter controversies and focusing their attention on electing socialists.
The problem is that without institutional backing, all of this energy will burn itself out, and the left’s institutional gains have been decidedly uneven. Radical voices are more likely to get a hearing in elite cultural circles, but that success comes at a price. Leftists have long adjusted themselves to fit the demands of the groups that will take them—the media, academia, nonprofits—but those same groups are struggling with a decline hastened by the perception that they’ve been captured by the left. Meanwhile, twenty-first-century socialism has been shaped by the preferences of the downwardly mobile college grads who form the core of the movement.
This demographic reality provides an essential piece of context for understanding our strengths, including the revitalization of institutions that not too long ago were given up for dead. It’s also a clue to our weaknesses, the most important being a failure to reverse the decades-long migration of blue-collar voters away from parties of the left.
What to do next is by no means obvious, as the conflicting diagnoses and prescriptions in this section illustrate. This kind of diversity has been a hallmark of Dissent’s history, a way of recognizing that difficult problems with high stakes and no perfect answers deserve to be argued over.
But Dissent has never been a neutral observer of the American left. And despite the range of viewpoints that have found expression in the magazine, there are a handful of guiding principles that we have returned to time and again.
We begin from the premise that if there’s a chance to make a better world—which, full disclosure, there might not be—our best shot comes from building a working-class majority committed to shifting the balance of power in this country while strengthening institutions that give ordinary people a voice in how they are governed. Without the numbers that only a fearsome electoral coalition can provide, democratic socialism will become just another part of the great American grift—a hobby for many, a lucrative profession for a few. Putting aside the exigencies of politics, a cause that claims to speak on behalf of working people against the elite has an obligation to take seriously the concerns driving (and dividing) the 99 percent.
The odds are against us, but that’s nothing new. What’s distinctive about our moment is the still fresh memory that we could move from the margins to the center, that our socialism really could be democratic, not just in theory but in practice and at scale. It’s a harder argument to make today. The cohesive left-wing movement of the Trump years has split into competing factions—some committed to working within the Democratic Party, others pushing for change from the outside, still others trading anti-liberalism for straight up reaction, and more than a few embracing a black-pilled nihilism.
It’s a confusing moment. And if you don’t feel anxious about the present, you haven’t been paying attention. But if you’re still looking to make the best out of what history has given us, this is the place to start.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.