Is Peter Beinart Right About a ‘New New Left’?

Rick Perlstein

Peter Beinart (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Peter Beinart is out with a major new argument in The Daily Beast about what the political future might hold in store for us. The headline writer calls it “The Rise of the New New Left,” and it begins by citing the recent victory of liberal populist Bill de Blasio in New York’s mayoral primary. “The deeper you look,” Beinart writes, “the stronger the evidence that de Blasio’s victory is an omen of what may be the defining story of America’s next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left.”

The argument is generational: that the class of politicians who govern us now take for granted that our ideological debates take place between the goalposts of Reaganism and Clintonism—as manifested not least in the case of Barack Hussein Obama. He notes how Obama established himself in The Audacity of Hope as a child of Reaganism (“In arguments with some of my friends on the left, I would find myself in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan’s worldview”) with a distaste for Reaganism’s left-wing opponents—who enforced a tyranny of “either/or thinking” that only leads to “ideological deadlock.” Obama emerged as a true avatar of Third Way politics. But the Third Way was at its heart about embracing the dynamism of the market and denying the necessity of activist government to protect people from its ravages—and for kids today, the experience of being ravaged by the free market is their dominant impression of the world. Ravaged by usurious student debt. Ravaged by subprime mortgage scams. Ravaged by structural unemployment. Ravaged by the arrogance of unaccountable plutocrats. And on and on. So much for today’s kids embracing the Third Way.

They are also, he continues, less susceptible” to “right-wing populist appeals”: they are less white and less religious than the populations these appeals are designed for, and also “more dovish on foreign policy.” And above all, they are far to the left of their parents economically: “In 2010, Pew found that two-thirds of Millennials favored bigger government with more services over a cheaper one with fewer services, a margin of 25 points above the rest of the population. While large majorities of older and middle-aged Americans favored repealing Obamacare in late 2012, Millennials favored expanding it, by 17 points.” And “unlike older Americans, who favor capitalism over socialism by roughly 25 points, Millennials, narrowly favor socialism.”

Most fascinatingly, he finds evidence that young Republicans consider the GOP’s Generation X superstars creeps: “According to a 2012 Harvard survey, young Americans were more than twice as likely to say Mitt Romney’s selection of Ryan made them feel more negative about the ticket than more positive. In his 2010 Senate race, Rubio fared worse among young voters than any other age group. The same goes for Rand Paul in his Senate race that year in Kentucky, and Scott Walker in his 2010 race for governor of Wisconsin and his recall battle in 2012,” as well as Ted Cruz’s 2012 Texas Senate race.

Occupy, he says, is an omen—and its children, members of what Chris Hayes has called the “newly radicalized upper-middle class,” are now making their long march through the institutions, with de Blasio’s victory against an (admittedly divided) field of Clintonian Democrats as the harbinger of things to come. He concludes that “Hillary”—a Clintonite Democrat if there ever was one—“is vulnerable to a candidate who can inspire passion and embody fundamental change, especially on the subject of economic inequality and corporate power, a subject with deep resonances among Millennial Democrats. And the candidate who best fits that description is Elizabeth Warren.”

What do I think of the argument?

Well, I’m a historian. The act of predicting the future discomfits me, in any event—and the bigger the prediction, the more distrusting I am. (I sketched out my objections to the demographic arguments for Democratic inevitability here, here and here.) I also have never much dug “generational” arguments, finding them rigidly deterministic and reductionist, betraying a style of thinking more appropriate to ad industry hustlers than serious political analysts.

But Beinart’s arguments are smarter than those. For one, he explicitly rejects what is most offensively schematic about generational arguments: that “generations” are identities that emerge automatically, like clockwork, every twenty or thirty years or whatever—Depression/World War II, Baby Boom, Generation X, Millennial—like the unfolding of the seasons. He deploys instead the conception of the early-twentieth-century German social thinker Karl Mannheim, for whom, he notes, “generations were born from historical disruption.” He argued that people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties,” and that, as such, “a generation has no set length. A new one could emerge ‘every year, every thirty, every hundred.’ What mattered was whether the events people experienced while at their most malleable were sufficiently different from those experienced by people older or younger than themselves.” That is correct: this is how a generational identity is stamped—by a sense of everyday difference from the elders who do not understand them.

But Beinart downplays, even while he acknowledges, another crucial argument of Mannheim’s classic The Problem of Generations: that political generations are not defined by a common ideology but a common ideological argument. For example, the German political generation of the Weimar era was defined by an argument over the meaning of Germany’s loss in World War I and the traumas of the punitive Peace of Versailles. For that era’s left, the solution was proletarian revolution; for the right, the revanchism of Nazism—“socialism or barbarism,” as the left laid out the alternatives. For the Baby Boomers in America, the political argument, in an age when prosperity seemed self-evident and scarcity no longer seemed an issue, was over “freedom.” Theodore White sketched out a Mannheimian observation in a memorable footnote in Making of the President 1964:

I have attended as many civil-rights rallies as Goldwater rallies. The dominant word of these two groups, which loathe each other, is “freedom.” Both demand either Freedom Now or Freedom for All. The word has such emotional power behind it in argument, either with civil rights extremists or Goldwater extremists, a reporter is instantly denounced for questioning what they mean by the word “freedom.” It is quite possible that these two groups may kill each other in cold blood, both waving banners bearing the same word.

But Beinart’s generational argument is deterministic. It’s not about what the defining argument of the future will be. Young people’s ideological outlook seems to him already settled—leftward. That’s far too simple and optimistic.

For one thing it assumes that political dynamics are linear—since the trends tend this way now, they will only tend that way more so in the future. It thus leaves out an awful set of variables that complicates any narrative of progress.

For one thing, he assumes that America has a democracy.

But consider the counter-evidence against that, of which many of you are aware. Thanks to partisan gerrymandering by power-hungry Republicans (remember the counsel to a Texas representative who bragged in a 2003 e-mail to colleagues that they’d fixed it for Republicans to “assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood”), our House of Representatives is, in fact, far from representative. You can’t repeat it often enough: when Barack Obama wins the state of Pennsylvania by five points but the delegation Pennsylvania returns to the House of Representatives contains thirteen Republicans and only five Democrats—well, poll numbers aren’t counting for very much, are they?

Then there’s the “dark money” problem: for instance, the recent news that “a single nonprofit group with ties to Charles G. and David H. Koch provided grants of $236 million to conservative organizations before the 2012 election, according to tax returns the group is expected to file Monday…. Freedom Partners established itself in November 2011 as a 501(c)6 ‘business league,’ typically a trade association of corporations, like the Chamber of Commerce, organized to promote a common business interest. Instead of donors, it has more than 200 ‘members,’ each making a minimum $100,000 contribution, which Freedom Partners classifies as member dues. The approach gives it many of the same advantages social welfare groups have, with one significant addition: Some contributions to the group may be tax deductible as a business expense.”

So let’s assume Beinart is right in his generational diagnosis: kids who came to their maturity during the “Age of Fail,” whose formative experience of American exceptionalism is that America is exceptionally crappy, are pissed, and are willing to work hard for politicians who are willing to do something about it.

If that is so, another scenario looks like this: young citizens motivated by left-leaning passions run into a brick wall again and again and again trying to turn their convictions into power. The defining story of our next political era becomes not a New New Left but a corrosive disillusionment that drives the country into ever deeper sloughs of apathy.

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What if, in other words, the harbinger election didn’t take place in New York but in Colorado—where a hyper-ideological, insurrectionist, corporate-money-soaked minority, as I pointed out the other day, recalled two progressive legislatures for daring to favor background checks for gun purchases even though Coloradans want background checks by a margin of 68 to 27 percent.

Beinart wants to think big. So let’s think big. Given a precedent like that, the result of our current trends might not be more socialism, but once more a stark showdown between socialism and barbarism. Apathy and social misery might make fertile ground for some charismatic demagogue, preaching scapegoating and a narrative of violent redemption…

But that’s a big, big prediction—and again, as a historian, I don’t like big predictions. Let’s stay close to the ground, and the near-term, instead. Beinart has amassed some very convincing poll numbers about the mood of young voters. He has written, “If Hillary Clinton is shrewd, she will embrace it, and thus narrow the path for a populist challenger.” Hillary Clinton surely reads Peter Beinart. Let’s hope she reads and heeds this. That would be a very nice start. What will come next, frankly, nobody knows.

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