By Alex Riggs

Can ideas have a mood? If they can, those of American democratic socialists seem to have undergone an important shift over the past couple of years. In contrast to the buoyant optimism of many affiliated with the movement following the success of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the massive growth of institutions like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) from a 6,000-member organization in 2015 to one counting 94,915 this past summer, the Biden presidency appears to have brought on a feeling of intellectual frustration. A recent issue of Jacobin, a tribune for democratic socialist thought, was titled ‘The Left in Purgatory,’ featuring cover art of Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar overshadowed by a TV weatherman forecasting cloudy conditions for the foreseeable future.

Yet, such a shift is not unprecedented for American democratic socialists. In the context of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 and what seemed to be the triumph of his brand of conservatism, similar sentiments were common for much of that period’s American left. With such questions of intellectual mood once again pertinent, it is useful to go beyond identifying the disposition itself to ask what implications this has for their ideas. From this, indications of whether such pessimism is necessarily the harbinger of retreat and moderation, or if they can instead remain creative and innovative in their propositions can be found. I suggest that the case of Reagan-era democratic socialists implies that even in times of intellectual pessimism the potential for intellectual renewal is not extinguished.

As with today’s left, a sense of fatalism was preceded by an optimistic moment. Although the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon’s trouncing of the McGovern campaign in 1972, and the inclusion of new activists from the anti-war, feminist, civil rights movements (often referred to as ‘The New Politics’) into the Democratic Party created some unease, conditions encouraged more optimism for the rest of the decade. This was partly the product  of the anti-Vietnam War faction of the Socialist Party of America (SP) breaking off to found one of DSA’s precursors, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), chaired by the writer and activist Michael Harrington. As a new group, this sense of renewal and possibility engendered a more optimistic outlook by itself. However, its agenda of reorienting the Democratic Party along democratic socialist lines found promise with the political conditions of the 1970s. Following Nixon’s resignation, the onset of an economic crisis following the Oil Crisis in 1973, and a series of Democratic Party reforms that opened up its processes for policy making and presidential candidate selection, the prospects for the DSOC agenda were significantly approved. As a platform that stressed working amongst Democrats to develop a new, more egalitarian and redistributive economic vision combined with progressive social reform, these ideas could appeal to the egalitarian and reformist impulses of New Politics activists. Although the party still contained segregationists like George Wallace, such a platform also spoke to the relative consensus within the party for state intervention in the face of an economic crisis, including from those that had supported Great Society liberals like Hubert Humphrey or even been drawn to more reactionary figures.

Indeed, when the 1978 Democratic midterm convention, one of the innovations of those party reforms, convened in Memphis, around 40% of its delegates were aligned with the Democratic Agenda, a coalition group assembled by DSOC. With these events in mind, the progressive magazine In These Times wrote that the group had “forge[d] a left-wing coalition in the Democratic Party.” Assessing the social and political situation of the U.S. more broadly, Harrington conceded that a socialist solution to the problems of the 1970s was by no means inevitable, but he was confident enough to assert that “capitalism is dying” in one Dissent article and frequently claim that the issue of economic planning versus the market had been settled in favor of the former.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the mood took an important shift. In the run-up to the contest between him and Carter, Harrington was relatively relaxed about its implications, writing that both candidates stood for a ‘supply side’, procorporate approach,” and suggested that whatever the election’s outcome DSOC would be in a strong position to repeat its 1978 success at the next such event in 1982. Yet the assumptions that this rested on were quickly undercut, with the party making the next midterm convention an invite-only affair before discontinuing it altogether thereafter. Although there were clear similarities between the austerity demanded by Carter and Reagan, the depth of cuts he enacted of around $70 billion still revealed the power of an emboldened right to enact its agenda, and the resulting impact they could have on the constituencies that democratic socialists sought to represent. As the 1980s progressed, the support for Reagan amongst significant elements of the white working-class provided particular cause for concern. As Harrington saw it, the economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s had not made people radical or compassionate. [Crises] are frightening, and most people concentrate on saving themselves. Thoughts of ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’, who are moral kin but not one’s blood relatives, are a luxury that many cannot afford,” showing how in contrast to the prior view of economic crisis as a potential springboard for socialist expansion, this process was now far from a given, with such events making their constituents defensive and protective of what they had, as much as solidaristic and expansive towards what they could gain.

Yet this should not be taken as a harbinger of ideological retreat or a decline in the innovation of their ideas. Rather, such a mood shift precipitated an intellectual change, one that pushed it towards a focus on developing the political consciousness of the groups it courted, reflecting the Gramscian mantra of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ As such, this was indicative of both the context of Reagan’s election and the internal institutional context of DSOC. Particularly important for this latter point was its merger with the New American Movement (NAM), a group founded by Students for a Democratic Society veterans to keep New Left groups grounded in political activism with a feminist and localist orientation, to form DSA in 1982. As such, this meant that the ideas of the New Left became even more prominent for the group, especially in terms of its greater focus on addressing the concerns of constituencies like women and minority groups, and a stress on bottom-up politics as the best form of movement building. This process can be seen in the institutional changes occurring between DSOC and DSA, with the feminist writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich joining Harrington as co-chair, and an expansion of its existing ‘commissions’ for under-represented groups, including its ‘Afro-American Commission’ chaired by the intellectuals Cornel West and Manning Marable. But this was also visible in the realm of ideas. By looking at this domain within DSA, evidence for Daniel Rodgers’ proposition in Age of Fracture that the story of the late Twentieth-Century is not one of shift from left to right, but from the universal to the smaller-scale.

Two particularly lucid examples of this can be drawn from the group’s intellectual discussions. One such case was in its discussion of policy related to ‘the family.’ As historians including Robert Self have noted, ‘the family’ provided an important rhetorical device for activists on the right in the 1970s and 1980s, something it framed as a traditional institution under attack from the social liberalism of the left. Yet, instead of this pushing DSA away from engaging with the concept, it encouraged these activists to interpret it through a democratic socialist lens. As an article by National Executive Committee member Guy Molyneux in the DSA journal put it,

“While the left has learned well that the “personal is political”, it has too rarely understood that the political must also be personal. I have no quarrel with reforming the federal reserve or fighting intervention in Central America, but these are not exactly issues that ‘get you where you live’. The family agenda addresses immediate felt needs of millions of people- a prerequisite for building a majoritarian movement.”

Such a rationalization shows how the 1980s context guided the left towards a politics that prioritized putting small-scale personal experiences at the heart of its policy. The policies advocated by such a formulation still maintained the key tenets of democratic socialist thinking, calling for wealth redistribution and a strengthening of the welfare state to include elements like childcare provision and paid parental leave, suggesting that even as the metaphors and devices used to propose them were relatively new, the measures themselves remained coherent with democratic socialist thought.

This sense of injecting the personal into democratic socialist politics was also present in its economic ideas. A 1987 manifesto on this topic posited that the central feature of a socialist economy would be its ability to “take control of our own lives,” positing that the Reagan economy’s deindustrialization, low wages, and lack of infrastructure like childcare meant that American workers were unable to enjoy the limited reforms of capitalism that previous generations had won. In countering this, it instead suggested the need for ‘empowerment’ to be the central theme of a democratic socialist economy, one that would include democratization of the workplace and the planning process for federal economic policy. All these arguments were premised on the pessimistic idea of the right as in the political ascendency in a way that had undermined much of the progress made over previous decades. Yet as these efforts show, they still maintained a distinctively socialist politics, recasting their political frameworks in ways that responded to the political concerns with ‘top-down’ forms of politics and desires for ‘bottom-up’ participation in its place.

Beyond their specific application to the case of American democratic socialists, these examples can provide useful pointers for historians of ideas. Firstly, they reveal more precisely the impact of contextual factors upon ideas and the intellectual environment that produces them. Although American democratic socialists faced an atmosphere that was hostile to their ideology in the 1980s, something that helped to create a pessimistic tone to their ideas, this did not make them retreat from applying their ideas to the context they faced. But neither were they immune from their surroundings, with their concern with avoiding bureaucratic forms of politics and instead rooting itself in the more ‘authentic’ surroundings of concepts like ‘the family’ and ‘the everyday.’ By implication, this serves as an important reminder for intellectual historians to consider that ideas and their adherents do not disappear in times when they are not in the political ascendancy. These years can often serve instead as years of intellectual renewal, with actors refocusing their concepts and focuses in ways that kept it vital for the future even if this did not translate into immediate success, in a similar way to the longer history of late Twentieth-Century conservative success originating in the New Deal era and before suggested by Kim Phillips-Fein and Julian Zelizer. It might also encourage intellectual historians to consider emotions more in their work. Just how feelings like optimism, pessimism, betrayal, fear, shape the ways in which figures thought about their own times could shape ideas and how they were formulated represents a further layer of understanding for this realm of history. As I have suggested, feelings of pessimism can have more complicated effects than encouraging decline or retreat. An exploration of how far feelings of confidence impact ideas would provide an interesting contrast- were these emotions encouraging of more creativity, or did they foster a more complacent intellectual outlook?  

Therefore, this case study has important implications for historians of ideas and democratic socialism, evidencing how actors could still be creative in this area during times of political difficulty, and the complex impact of mood on this. Instead of fitting the history of democratic socialism in this period into a conventional narrative of rightward drift, a more precise telling would see these emotions as stimulating an already ongoing process of movement towards bottom-up, small-scale focused politics. It is of course too soon to tell how far such a narrative will be applicable to democratic socialists in the 2020s, but it should be taken as an indicator that pessimism need not be a precursor to intellectual decline. 

Alex Riggs is a second-year PhD student in History at the University of Nottingham, funded by the AHRC and Midlands4Cities. His research focuses on the politics and ideas of the American left, c. 1973-1988, using the case studies of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Harold Washington administration in Chicago, and the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns. He also co-organises the Contemporary Political History Seminars at the University of Nottingham.

Edited by Emily Hull

Featured Image: Michael Harrington, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.