Modern conveniences, information technology, and a fairly laissez-faire morality and economy, paired with a decent government safety net, make it pretty easy for Americans to get what they need, in most respects. That makes the rising cry for socialism a bit baffling at first.
But there’s a deeper need going unfilled that is driving college students and twentysomethings to their Marx, Engels, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez.
And there obviously is something missing in people’s lives.
Suicides hit an all-time high in 2017. Opioid deaths are skyrocketing. Even with employers desperate for workers, 7.1 million prime-working-age men remained out of the labor force as of 2016.
Families are forming less often. Americans are increasingly saying they feel like strangers in their own land.
We shouldn’t be surprised that people are turning to radical solutions, considering how many are finding modern life in America so wanting. Just because most economic indicators are good doesn’t mean this sense of lack is imagined. It turns out there’s a lot more to the good life than shows up in the reports of the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The real reason American socialists are enjoying a moment today is social and cultural poverty. The root cause is something like loneliness. To borrow a term from Marx himself, you could blame alienation.
When I camped out at Occupy Wall Street in 2011, I was most surprised by how little talk there was of bailouts, bank regulations, or really any policy at all. I had come up to New York from Washington, where the nascent Occupy D.C. crowd was complaining about toothless enforcement of the Volcker Rule and the need for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force in our War on Terror.
There were no such hippie wonks in Zuccotti Park. When I asked what their occupation was a protest against, the typical answer was something like “corporate control of government.” Then the conversation went like this:
What do you dislike that corporations are doing with their control of government?
And what are those bought politicians doing that is bad?
“Silencing the voice of the people.”
Okay, the corporations are in control, the people are silenced, the politicians are bought. They’re all in a smoke-filled room. What policies do they pursue or not pursue that you think harm the country?
“They oppose campaign-finance reform!”
It seemed there was no there there. This was a protest about nothing, I thought.
But it was about something. When I counted the signs at Occupy, the most common themes were disenfranchisement and the erosion of democracy.
They were protesting the “hollowing out of democratic institutions,” as occupier Rob Eletto put it.
“This is a movement for direct democracy rather than corporatocracy,” Sinead Lamel told me during one evening’s “General Assembly.”
Throughout the day, occupiers took in barn-burning leftist speeches, but the General Assembly was something different. It was all logistics and legislating. It was the formation of a sanitation committee and a library committee. It was debating and passing rules about when the drum circle had to go quiet. It was “direct democracy.”
This laborious rule-making was the point of Occupy Wall Street, occupier Julia Shindel told me. Having an actual voice in shaping this little society was “extremely intoxicating.”
The dream of forming a fledgling civilization in a flagstone-covered park in Lower Manhattan drew many of these left-leaning Millennials to the Occupy encampment in 2011. While the crowds at Zuccotti Park gave up the dream a few weeks later, the same spirit (and many of the same faces) resurfaced in 2015 and 2016 as the Bernie Sanders movement.
At the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia, Berniecrats were as likely to talk about disenfranchisement and democratic revitalization as they were to go on about Medicare for All or “free college.” Of course they agreed with Bernie on the policy stuff, but what brought them through the door was the promise that Bernie would give them a voice in politics.
The root cause of both Occupy Wall Street and Bernie 2016 was a prevailing sense of political alienation. Young people felt that they had lost the ability to make a difference in the world, and so they turned to movements that, in addition to peddling a socialist policy agenda, promised political empowerment.
And while both movements placed their hope of reenfranchisement in an impossible dream (believing that, somehow, loud enough protests or restrictive enough campaign-finance regulations would give ordinary people a voice in Washington), the problem they identified was real: Young Americans had lost agency, the ability to make a difference, in modern society.
Man is a political animal. We are meant not only to control our own lives but also to shape the world around us. Traditionally, most of us have flexed our political muscle in and through local, mostly voluntary, institutions such as a town government, a parish council, or a PTA chapter. Community institutions have eroded over the decades, though, leaving people without arenas in which to express their political and social nature.
Without a local “political” institution in reach, many young people reached for something that promised enfranchisement and political power. In so doing, they landed in the camps of Occupy and Sanders. Once there, they began singing hymns to Medicare for All, free college, and wealth taxes.
The desperate desire for a political voice in the 2010s has led young people to the far left.
Put another way, modern American society, in which community is weaker and people are more alienated, has proven a fertile ground for socialism.
People need other people. The American Right sometimes neglects this basic fact and ends up deifying the individual or the nuclear family.
When Hillary Clinton wrote, “It takes a village to raise a child,” conservatives replied, “It takes a family.” Being pro-family is one thing. Denying that child-rearing is in part a community undertaking is another.
Anyone who has raised children knows how that undertaking requires assistance from people outside the nuclear family — in-laws, teachers, coaches, neighbors, religious leaders, and sometimes the neighborhood cops. What connects parents to these figures are institutions. Without these support structures, raising a family is far more difficult.
In wealthy, highly educated neighborhoods, support structures still exist: private schools, strong public schools with involved parents, country clubs, a higher proportion of stay-at-home moms or mothers working part-time, Boy Scout troops, Little Leagues, and so on. In some tight-knit religious communities, such as the Mormons of Utah, or the Dutch Reformed of western Michigan, families can rely on plenty of church-based institutions.
For most of the working class and the poor, though, these institutions are disappearing. People left isolated and alienated find marriage and child-rearing more difficult. The result is more out-of-wedlock births, fewer marriages, fewer children, more divorce.
The political reaction is a demand for a bigger federal safety net.
For instance, the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think tank, recently released its “Family Fun Pack,” a proposal for a raft of federal programs designed to help poor and working-class people raise families.
The policy paper explains that the capitalist system is not oriented to helping families. “Because income is paid out to the factors of production without any regard for its final family-level distribution,” it states, “families with children wind up in dramatically worse financial circumstances than families without children.”
The paper then calls for 36 weeks of federally funded paid parental leave, federally funded child care, a federal benefit for stay-at-home mothers, federally funded (and even federally operated) pre-K, and plenty more expansions of the state into the lives of parents and kids.
More and more Democratic politicians will presumably endorse these proposals between now and the 2020 primaries, since many have already proposed socialist policies in other issue areas. And these big-government proposals will have a real constituency.
Two of the ideas undergirding these efforts are correct: The market itself doesn’t account for the costs and difficulties of being a parent; and raising a child without help is very difficult, even for married parents with income.
If you read “Family Fun Pack,” you come away asking, “How does anyone manage to raise a family without already being rich?” Then you remember: community. Extended family, neighbors, parishes, shuls, civic associations, dinner clubs, swim clubs, and so on. These institutions help families keep their stuff together, help mothers and fathers stay sane, help new parents navigate the daunting path of parenthood.
The erosion of these little platoons has left people seeking a replacement. Socialism is increasingly perceived to be the answer.
Family is just one area where socialism rushes in to fill the void left by the erosion of community. Experience and social science suggest that community erosion increases the demand for regulation.
That is, laissez-faire never worked if it actually meant “anything goes.” Instead, strong norms, a sense of duty to one’s neighbors, social pressure, and shame have always played a regulatory role.
When communities are weaker, these social “regulations” become toothless. That’s when government regulations come in.
“In a cross section of countries,” four economists wrote in The Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2010, “government regulation is strongly negatively correlated with measures of trust.”
The causality goes both ways, the study suggests. “Distrust creates public demand for regulation, whereas regulation in turn discourages formation of trust.” Put another way, “individuals in low-trust countries want more government intervention even though they know the government is corrupt.”
In western Michigan, I saw the flipside of this dynamic firsthand.
When you think of Michigan, you may think of union workers in Detroit and Flint. But western Michigan traditionally has had far lower rates of unionization, while still being dominated by manufacturing and connected to the auto industry. At a McDonald’s in Holland, Mich., in April, I asked a couple of retirees why that was.
“A lot of these businesses are started by local people,” explained Gary Gunnich over his breakfast, pointing toward the many small manufacturing plants in the small city. Holland is defined by the Dutch ancestry of its residents and the Reformed churches rooted in Dutch Calvinism. The business owners and their workers typically worshiped together on Sundays, Gunnich and his breakfast companion Bill Stehouwer explained. That obviated the need for unionization, he argued.
“A community like this,” Gunnich said, “you’re not going to screw people over and then survive. It’s gonna get out in a hurry.”
But fewer and fewer Americans live in a community like that today. More and more live in an alienated landscape where it’s more likely that someone will try to “screw people over.” When the choice appears to be between getting screwed and getting socialism, it’s not a hard call.
The less we’re connected to one another via community institutions, and the more isolated we are, the more we grasp for something big to protect us. For young Americans, that’s often the state.
This article appears as “Community Of All, Community Of None” in the June 3, 2019, print edition of National Review.