As one of the 50,000 members of Democratic Socialists of America, I periodically go to the general meetings of my local chapter, Pittsburgh DSA. And one of the most striking things about these meetings is that there is almost no one my age there (I’m 45). I’m not surprised that the majority of people there are millennials — you’d have to have been hiding under a rock for the last two years to not know that millennials are all socialists — but what is somewhat surprising is that the representation of “Baby Boomers” at the meetings, while less than that of millennials, is significantly more than that of my own “Generation X.”
There are logistical reasons for this, of course. Gen-Xers, now in our 40s and early 50s, are much more likely to be mid-career, to have responsibilities for small children or aging parents, or to be lost in the swamps of midlife crisis. But I think there are political reasons for this, too.
I would submit that the relative paucity of Gen-Xers in the ranks of open socialists has to do with something that many on the Left* are loathe to admit, but that we need to grapple with: that the “Third Way” political project of Clinton and Obama (and Tony Blair in Great Britain) was, and in many respects still is, a robust and attractive political program. Although the benefits it delivered to many people were more psychological and cultural than material, they were still real — and it is the political project that was dominant on the center-left when we came of political age in the late 80s and 90s.
Leftists tend to treat Third Way politics in one of two ways, and in fact some will vacillate between these two positions depending on context. Pragmatists view Third Way politics as “the left wing of the possible” — either consciously or unconsciously assuming that it is the only way for politicians who are “really” liberal, progressive or even socialist to win elections in an increasingly conservative electorate. Purists view it as “Republicanism lite” — assuming that it is an attempt by politicians who are “really” conservative to make reactionary politics more palatable. Both of these views miss something important, because they (by default) view politics as a left-right spectrum, rather than the art of putting together social blocs to contest for hegemony.
If we view the Third Way as an autonomous political project, not as a “lite” version of either the Left or the Right, then a lot of things become much more explicable. If your goal, as a Democratic politician, is to weaken, undermine or privatize institutions traditionally associated with the Democratic Party — trade unions, the welfare system, “big government,” etc. — a strong Republican opposition is necessary. The electoral collapse of the Democratic Party is not a bug of Third Way politics, it’s a feature.
The reason the Third Way was successful was not that its practitioners were skilled at triangulating the two-party system, or because of the weakness of the organized Left, although both of those things certainly contributed. The fundamental strength of Third Way politics is that it put forward a genuine moral-political vision of an equitable capitalism. That vision allowed Third Way politicians to weld together a social bloc of the college-educated and the marginalized, under the leadership of a technocratic elite.
A certain flavor of so-called “identity politics” is thus both constitutive of Third Way politics and central to their strategy for building this social bloc. Matt Stoller has detailed the history of how participation in the Civil Rights Movement shaped the ideology of the third-wayist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Although the New Deal regime of strong unions and a welfare state made the U.S. demonstrably more equitable, it certainly did not eliminate inequity. Furthermore, the subjective experience of dealing with the New Deal regime’s agents — government bureaucrats and trade union officials, who were more likely to be white, male, and/or college-educated than the people they dealt with — provided more reason for many working-class people to feel alienated from the regime, and open to an alternative that spoke to their frustrations.
And those frustrations were not just about inequity and discrimination. Take a cursory glance through almost any form of popular culture during the height of the New Deal regime — from On the Road to the Beatles to Stayin’ Alive — and one of the recurring themes is the soul-crushing conformity required in exchange for the material comfort of the welfare state. Sure, to some degree that popular culture was propaganda, designed to weaken working-class collectivity and solidarity, but it wouldn’t have been successful if it hadn’t spoken to the real lived experiences of vast swaths of people.
The New Deal regime provided a more equitable and widespread prosperity than the country had ever experienced, but it didn’t liberate us from capitalist alienation — and to some, the very institutions that provided that prosperity (unionized manufacturing jobs, home ownership, the redistributive state) came to seem like enforcers of alienation and barriers to liberation.
In this context, a political project that combined the liberatory vision of the social movements of the 60s with the American mythos of entrepreneurialism was a heady tonic. A virtuous elite of diverse, well-educated liberals could navigate between the Scylla of atavistic reaction and the Charybdis of bureaucratic collectivism, deftly applying market mechanisms to nurture a just, free, and prosperous future.
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Although most of the architects of the Third Way were Baby Boomers, I would argue that their success was especially destructive to the political imagination of myself and my fellow Gen-Xers.
To put it crudely, we grew up in an era when liberals were winning the culture wars, but conservatives were winning the economic wars. The popular culture we consumed promoted individual rebellion against authority, but not collective struggle. It promoted social responsibility towards those “less fortunate” (or, in more modern parlance, the “marginalized”), but not solidarity. Bill Clinton had more than a little Ferris Bueller about him. For those of us who are white (or susceptible to anti-Black racism), watching The Cosby Show as kids in the 80s primed us to congratulate ourselves for electing Obama as adults in 2008. And while pretty much every Gen-X socialist I do know only made it through the 80s because of hip-hop or punk rock (or both), by the 90s both of those genres had become depoliticized and mainstreamed.
On the other hand, the rear-guard economic battles of the New Deal regime against Reaganomics and neoliberalism were hardly inspiring. Growing up without a family connection to the labor movement, my first impressions of trade unions were watching the Teamsters endorse Reagan in 1984 and hearing about Greyhound strikers shooting at scab buses. When, as an idealistic young DSA member, I tried to organize opposition to NAFTA at my liberal-arts college, I discovered that the campus environmentalist group supported NAFTA, in part out of a mistaken belief that it would raise environmental standards in Mexico, and in part out of revulsion against the racist protectionism of the AFL-CIO.
Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and the subsequent global demoralization of the Left, certainly played a role in the way that we were politicized, but even more damaging was the fact that we were old enough to witness its last days and degeneration. It wasn’t just the absence of “actually existing socialism” in our adult world that led us to be skeptical of socialism (or cautious about admitting that we were socialists), it was also the fact that part of our coming-of-age was witnessing the joy of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the tragedy of Tiananmen Square.
Those of us in the middle class, either by luck of birth or dint of education, were also born at the right time to both reap the limited benefits of the Clinton economy, and to be glad to have it. We’d had our expectations lowered by deindustrialization and union-busting and budget cuts, but we’d gone to college, maybe gotten an advanced degree, and for the most part gotten reasonably comfortable jobs. When the stock market was good, our 401(k)s even looked preferable to our parents’ defined-benefit pension plans.
And the benefits weren’t just economic. If we worked in sectors like education or non-profits, our workplaces were increasingly adopting the rhetoric of social justice and inclusion. Those of us who are straight congratulated ourselves on exorcising our casual homophobia and watching our gay and lesbian friends and relatives come out of the closet and eventually get married (something most of us couldn’t have imagined in the 80s). We elected a Black president. Those of us who had college educations and a reasonable amount of economic security and liberal social views were appalled by Trump, and were inclined to agree with Hillary Clinton that “America is already great,” in part because it was noticeably better in most respects that the 80s America we had grown up in.
This is not to say that there was (or is) no Left among my generation. I probably know hundreds of other Gen-Xers who have dedicated their lives to building the labor, women’s, racial justice, immigrants rights, environmental and international solidarity movements. In fact, the Left that we did our best to build, while small relative to the Left of the 60s and 70s or the current size of DSA, accomplished some good things — not least among them insisting that the Left address its own history of racism, sexism, and undemocratic behavior.
But … for the most part, although we’ll throw around Marxist jargon in staff meetings or at the bar, and will cop to it when pressed in private, very few of us have been willing to publicly identify ourselves as socialists (at least until very recently, when Bernie and the millennials made it acceptable to do so).
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I didn’t set out to write this in order to explain “my generation” to the millennials in DSA or anything like that. I think that there is, in fact, an increasing material basis for Gen-Xers to embrace socialism as we increasingly face the pressures of being the current “sandwich generation,” having to care for both our children and our parents with constantly diminishing social support.
I do, however, think that it is important for socialists to come to grips with the Third Way political program. On the one hand, we need to be clear that, however much a social-democratic (or even socialist) political program would help the Democrats win elections, the Third Way-ers in the party will never, ever embrace it. They are committed to a political program that is fundamentally opposed to collectivity and socialization far more than they are committed to the electoral fortunes of the party. As the Third Way-ers in the Democratic Party are incredibly well-organized and well-funded, this has implications (too complex to go into in this essay) for debates over our orientation to the Democratic Party.
On the other hand, we need to take the appeal of the Third Way (and not just to Gen-Xers) seriously. We need to keep in mind that the importance of representation, the appeal of entrepreneurialism, and the fear of bureaucracy are all very real, and shape our political program and organizations accordingly. Our socialism needs to be not only small-d democratic, but also heavily committed to the full development of rich human beings, who can build a just, free and prosperous society collectively.
*I use “the Left” (capitalized) to refer to individuals and organizations that are consciously trying to build a social bloc to overthrow or transform capitalism, and to distinguish that conscious political project from the common but less helpful meaning of “left” and “right” as a spectrum of how liberatory/reactionary one’s politics are.