If you gauge the climate inside the Democratic Party merely by which candidates won its 2018 primaries, you might think reports of its leftward lurch are exaggerated. Despite the hoopla about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s and Ayanna Pressley’s upset victories in congressional races in New York and Massachusetts, not a single incumbent Democratic governor or senator lost a primary to a left-leaning challenger.

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But who wins an election is often less important than who sets the agenda. And ideologically, the Democratic Party has veered so sharply that “establishment” or “centrist” Democrats now frequently support larger expansions of government, and more vehemently scorn Big Business and Big Finance, than most liberal Democrats did a few years ago. In 2016, Hillary Clinton said a single-payer health-care system “will never, ever come to pass.” In 2017, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, by some measures the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, said the idea “should be explored.” During the 2013–14 election cycle, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey received more money from Wall Street than any other member of Congress. This February, he announced that he would no longer accept donations from corporate political-action committees.

For the first time in more than 40 years, the left is shaping the Democratic Party’s identity. At a time when the terms liberal, progressive, and leftist are often used interchangeably, it’s worth clarifying what these terms mean. In America, what distinguishes leftists from liberals and progressives—as well as conservatives—is their commitment to radical equality. Leftists are more likely than liberals to argue that economic inequality renders America’s constitutional liberties hollow. They’re more likely to look abroad—to the Soviet Union or Cuba in past eras, and to Scandinavia today—for alternatives to America’s political and economic models. They’re more skeptical of credentialed experts who define the limits of acceptable change. And, perhaps most important, they’re more willing to challenge entrenched norms of fair play to forge a more equal country.

By this definition, the left has rarely wielded much influence inside the Democratic Party. Only twice before has it secured enough power to compel Democrats to co-opt its ideas. In both cases—in the mid-1930s and the mid-1960s—the left gained that power through mass movements that threatened public order. To maintain that order, and forestall more radical alternatives, Democrats passed laws that made America markedly more equal. But the very threat of radicalism and chaos that empowered the left eventually provoked a crushing backlash. Today, for the third time in a century, the left is mobilizing, the Democratic Party is responding, and the threat of disorder is growing. How Democrats respond to that threat will help determine whether the coming years prove to be a third great era of leftist change.

In both the ’30s and the ’60s, the left first grew outside the Democratic Party or on its fringes. Franklin D. Roosevelt did not take office promising a radically more equal America. He simply experimented with policies to lift the country out of the Depression. Some of those policies leaned left: The 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, for instance, regulated industry and protected workers’ right to organize. But in his first year in office, Roosevelt also cut government spending by $500 million and fortified, rather than nationalized, America’s financial system.

What transformed Roosevelt’s agenda was pressure from populist movements making leftist economic demands. By the mid-’30s, Father Charles Coughlin hosted what might have been the most popular radio show in the world. His National Union for Social Justice, which the radio priest claimed in 1935 had 8.5 million members, demanded labor rights, easy credit, and the nationalization of banks and industries. When the president tried to balance the budget and stabilize private banks, Coughlin denounced him for having “out-Hoovered Hoover.”

For its part, Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth Society, which claimed 5 million members within a year of its founding, advocated seizing private fortunes and using the money to write every American family a $5,000 check. By cutting government spending, the senator from Louisiana fumed, Roosevelt had sold out to “Mr. Morgan” and “Mr. Rockefeller.”

If that wasn’t enough, 2 million Americans joined Townsend Clubs—named for Francis Everett Townsend, a California doctor spurred to action by the sight of elderly women foraging through the garbage for food—which demanded that the federal government pay $200 a month to every American over the age of 60. Labor unions, invigorated by the protections in the National Industrial Recovery Act and radicalized by communist participation, expanded their power as well. From 1933 to 1935, the United Mine Workers increased its membership by a factor of four and its bank account by a factor of eight. The number of Americans who went on strike doubled from 1932 to 1933, and then rose again in 1934.

By the end of his first term, Roosevelt was scared—both that these movements would threaten his reelection and that they might foment revolution. The president, wrote his confidant Harold Ickes in September 1934, must “move further to the left in order to hold the country … [A] breakdown on the part of the Administration would result in an extreme radical movement.” In 1935, when followers of Coughlin, Long, and Townsend discussed creating a third party, Roosevelt called their collaboration “a dangerous situation.” A secret poll commissioned that year by Democratic Committee Chairman James Farley showed that if Long launched a third-party bid, he could win about 10 percent of the vote and hand the presidency to a Republican.

So Roosevelt embraced a more radical agenda. In April 1935, he signed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which, at almost $5 billion, cost more than all the revenue the federal government had received in 1934. In July, he signed the pro-labor Wagner Act. In August, he hiked taxes on the wealthy and, in a bid to preempt Townsend’s and Long’s more ambitious retirement schemes, he created Social Security for the elderly, along with unemployment insurance and aid for low-income families.

Roosevelt didn’t co-opt only the left’s agenda; he also co-opted its language. Whereas he had once depicted himself as an impartial arbiter between business and labor, he ran for reelection as a proud antagonist of the oppressive rich. “We have earned,” he boasted in his 1936 State of the Union address, “the hatred of entrenched greed.”

But even after winning reelection in a landslide, Roosevelt faced another obstacle: the Supreme Court, which struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act and laid the foundation for striking down Social Security. Pressured and emboldened by the militant left, the president responded by proposing that he add justices to the Supreme Court, to give it a pro–New Deal majority. The move violated long-established norms about the relationship between the executive and the judiciary. Roosevelt’s opponents warned of tyranny and defeated his gambit in Congress. But the president carried the day. In 1937 the Supreme Court reversed itself. The New Deal survived, and America became—for white men at least—a far more equal country.

The second American left—the left of the 1960s—also began outside the Democratic Party. And it, too, used the threat of disorder to force initially cautious presidents to propose fundamental change.

As Julian E. Zelizer details in his book The Fierce Urgency of Now, John F. Kennedy didn’t come to the presidency intending to champion racial equality. He didn’t meet with Martin Luther King Jr. in the White House until nine months into his term, and then only in secret. When King asked him to push civil-rights legislation, Kennedy—who had made tax cuts his top legislative priority—told him that such legislation didn’t have congressional support.

But civil-rights activists kept provoking showdowns that exposed segregation’s brutality and raised the specter of ever-greater chaos if Kennedy did not act. In May 1963, Bull Connor and the Birmingham, Alabama, police responded to King’s Project C—for “confrontation”—by turning dogs and fire hoses on black children in full view of the national press. Racists firebombed King’s brother’s home; riots broke out in Birmingham’s black neighborhoods. Further delay in Washington, King insisted, would mean deadlier confrontations. In June, when Kennedy finally went on television to demand laws banning segregation in public accommodations, he warned, “The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests, which create tensions and threaten violence.”

After Kennedy’s death, the promise of further disorder prodded Lyndon B. Johnson to pressure a recalcitrant Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. To overcome a filibuster, he needed the support of the Senate minority leader, the Republican Everett Dirksen. He got it not long after the Congress of Racial Equality threatened to picket Dirksen’s house. After the passage of the civil-rights bill, King pressured Johnson on voting rights, warning him that if he stalled, “you’ll see demonstrations on a level you have never seen before.” Fear of unrest also influenced Johnson’s decision to launch the Great Society, which included federal aid for education, food stamps, job training, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, and a domestic analogue to the Peace Corps. As Johnson said after riots in Harlem in 1964, “They’ve got no jobs. They can’t do anything. They’re just raising hell.”

Civil-rights activism wasn’t the only reason for the blizzard of left-leaning policies in the mid-1960s. Johnson—who as a young man had worked as a New Deal administrator—was a master legislator obsessed with matching Roosevelt’s accomplishments. Still, as Eli Zaretsky argues in his book Why America Needs a Left, neither of Washington’s two great 20th-century efforts to legislate equality would have been possible had the American left not mobilized to demand them. Which makes it so significant that it is mobilizing again today.

Cornel West has called the four decades after the end of the civil-rights and anti–Vietnam War movements a leftist “ice age.” The left produced episodic activist surges: the nuclear-freeze and anti-apartheid movements of the ’80s, as well as demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in the late ’90s, against the Iraq War in 2003, and for immigration reform in 2006. But none compared with the variety and scale of protest that started in 2011.

It began with Occupy, which was fueled by young people devastated by the financial crisis. Then, in 2012, undocumented immigrants launched hunger strikes at Barack Obama’s reelection-campaign offices and fast-food workers went on strike for a $15 minimum wage. The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013 launched Black Lives Matter. In 2016, America saw the largest American Indian protests in a century and one of the largest prison strikes ever.

The movements were too distant from the political process to pressure Obama the way their predecessors had pressured Roosevelt and Johnson. But they revealed the energy to his left. And in Obama’s shadow, a new Democratic Party—reminiscent of Roosevelt in its willingness to embrace class conflict and reminiscent of Johnson in the scope of its Big Government ambition—began taking shape.

In 2015, lacking a large staff or much institutional support from the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders leaned on the organizing networks Occupy had built. “Our fingers are all over this,” declared one Occupy veteran turned Sanders organizer. After an initially rocky relationship with Black Lives Matter activists, Sanders embraced much of the group’s agenda and language. His campaign became a funnel through which the activist left entered the Democratic Party’s mainstream. And the process has only accelerated since the election of Donald Trump.

The activist left has remade the Democratic Party in several ways. First, it has pushed Democrats, who in the Bill Clinton and Obama eras sought the approval and support of corporate and Wall Street titans, to treat monied interests as adversaries. In 2008, Obama raised more cash from the financial, insurance, and real-estate industries than his Republican opponent, John McCain, did. Once in office, he named former investment bankers to serve as three of his first four chiefs of staff. For today’s Democrats, by contrast, Wall Street and corporate are generally terms of abuse. Sanders is fond of quoting Roosevelt’s description of the ultrarich as “economic royalists.” In 2016, according to Adam Bozzi of the group End Citizens United, only three of the 41 Democratic challengers in the nation’s most competitive House races rejected money from corporate pacs. This year, 45 of the 73 most competitive challengers did. Most of the Democratic senators likely to seek the presidency in 2020 have pledged to do the same.

Joan Wong

The Democrats aren’t just changing their rhetoric and campaign-finance model. They are embracing Big Government policies dismissed as utopian or irresponsible only a year or two ago. During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton criticized Sanders’s plan for making tuition free at public colleges. By January 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—long known as an ally of Wall Street and a critic of excessive government spending—was onstage with Sanders announcing that New York would institute its own free-college plan. In the spring of 2018, Booker—once considered so centrist that in 2013 The Atlantic published an article titled “Why Do Liberals Hate Cory Booker?”—introduced legislation to help localities with high unemployment rates offer guaranteed federal jobs, an expansion of government so dramatic that even Sanders had not proposed it during his campaign.

One reason for this shift is the growing influence that activists now enjoy within the party. Veterans of the 2017 Women’s March helped start many of the grassroots groups that supported Democratic candidates in this year’s midterm elections. Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have responded to the February massacre at their school not just by rallying for gun control. They have fanned out across the country trying to defeat politicians backed by the National Rifle Association.

In ways that would have been hard to imagine in the Clinton and Obama eras, Democratic politicians are themselves crossing back and forth between participation in the political system and agitation outside it. Ocasio-Cortez, a veteran of the Sanders campaign, decided to run for office after participating in protests against an oil pipeline at the Standing Rock reservation in the Dakotas, then left the campaign trail the weekend before the primary election to protest family separation at the Mexican border. In 2016, the Detroit Economic Club expelled Rashida Tlaib for heckling a speech by Trump. This year she won the Democratic primary to represent parts of Detroit and its suburbs in Congress. Democrats are even protesting inside Congress itself. During Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Booker publicly released documents about Kavanaugh that Republicans on the Judiciary Committee had deemed confidential—a move that could have led to his expulsion from the Senate—in what he called an act of “civil disobedience.”

What will all this mean when Democrats take power? That moment may come soon: As of this writing, in 2020 Republicans will defend 20 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 11, a highly unfavorable map for the GOP. If Democrats win the presidency in 2020—obviously a big if—they’ll likely win both houses of Congress as well.

If that happens, and Democrats pursue their newly ambitious agenda, an unstoppable force will confront an immovable object. Unless the Republican Party radically and unexpectedly changes, its thinned ranks in Congress will consist of deeply conservative legislators—the kind who saw even Obama’s agenda as a socialist hijacking of the United States. Aiding those members will be the filibuster, which will force Democrats to find 60 Senate votes to pass significant legislation. And if Democrats do somehow enact laws, the most conservative Supreme Court since the 1930s may strike them down.

A lesson of the ’30s and ’60s is that only pressure from outside Washington can overcome these obstacles. Because the left is more mobilized than it was during the Clinton and Obama years, such pressure is easier to imagine under the next Democratic president.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle shows how mass movements can throw into doubt seemingly inevitable political realities. In early September, Kavanaugh’s confirmation looked unstoppable. But Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of attempted rape—in the midst of the #MeToo movement, which has raised the political cost of overlooking a man’s sexual misdeeds—almost derailed it.

Still, Republicans (and Joe Manchin) confirmed him. Given the nature of today’s Republican Party, leftist mobilization may not be enough. In 1964, Dirksen feared the political consequences of African American activists’ picketing his home. Today’s GOP leaders might turn such an event into a fund-raising appeal.

This is where things get dangerous. Facing militant GOP opposition, Obama abided by a series of restraints—based upon custom, not law—that circumscribed his agenda. The next Democratic president is less likely to do so. That’s partly because Trump is plowing through so many procedural guardrails. And it’s partly because the next Democratic president will likely face much more pressure than Obama did from the activist left.

One factor that curtailed Obama’s ambitions was concern about the budget deficit. The year before his election, Democratic leaders in the House instituted a rule called “paygo,” which required that any bill that increased entitlement spending or decreased revenues be offset by corresponding tax hikes or spending cuts. Obama himself insisted that his effort at expanding health-care coverage be “at least deficit-neutral.”

But in the years since, as Democrats have moved left, attitudes inside the party have changed. In 2015, Sanders hired as chief economist for the Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee an academic who believes that federal deficits generally don’t matter. Progressive commentators now routinely publish articles with headlines like “Stop Trying to Be ‘Responsible’ on the Budget, Democrats” (The Washington Post) and “Yes, Democrats Are the Party of Fiscal Responsibility. But That Will (and Should) Change” (Vox). Earlier this year, left-leaning politicians and journalists slammed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for pledging to reinstitute paygo (which House Republican leaders have disregarded) if Democrats retook the House.

“After what Trump has done,” predicts Austan Goolsbee, a former head of the Council of Economic Advisers under Obama, “now when Democrats return and want to do things and the policy people say, ‘We need to add up how much these cost and to make sure the details work,’ they will say, ‘Wait, Republicans didn’t follow rules. Why should we?’ ”

The deficit is only one of the constraints Democrats might breach. Another is the filibuster. To pass legislation through the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans have used a maneuver known as “reconciliation,” which requires only a simple majority. But Senate rules, as interpreted by the body’s nonpartisan parliamentarian, make it difficult to use reconciliation for most major legislation.

That will leave future Democrats with a choice. They can limit their ambitions to whatever Republicans won’t block. They can dramatically expand the use of reconciliation, which might require replacing the Senate parliamentarian. Or they can make it harder—or even impossible—to filibuster legislation. These latter steps would not violate the law. But they would enrage Republicans and fuel the sense that, post-Trump, anything goes.

Finally, and most radically, Democrats could follow Roosevelt’s example and try to pack a recalcitrant Supreme Court. The idea, which Democrats barely discussed before Trump’s election, is gaining steam. In recent months, writers for The Washington Post, Vox, The Intercept, the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and The American Prospect have either endorsed it or declared it worthy of serious debate.

Advocates for overturning the filibuster and packing the Supreme Court argue that both institutions flout the popular will. Republican senators disproportionately hail from less populous states. Four of the five conservative justices were appointed by Republican presidents who’d lost the popular vote. As an article in the influential socialist journal Jacobin recently argued, “Sometimes you have to break the rules to create a more democratic system.”

In the short term, this strategy could work. Legal historians debate how much Roosevelt’s court-packing plan contributed to the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse itself and uphold the New Deal. But Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes clearly worried that “increasing outside criticism” threatened the Court’s legitimacy. If the left can mount sufficient pressure in the future, the current chief justice, John Roberts, whose fears for the Court’s reputation may already have contributed to his refusal to strike down the Affordable Care Act, might bend too.

But another lesson of the 1930s and the 1960s is that threatening entrenched norms and disrupting public order—although effective for a while—can eventually provoke a fierce backlash. After the Supreme Court reversed course in 1937, the wave of strikes that had begun late in Roosevelt’s first term didn’t ease. It grew. That summer, clashes between strikers and the police became so violent in some cities that the governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio imposed martial law. Alarmed that the president’s victories were emboldening rather than placating the militant left, conservatives—including in Roosevelt’s own party—counterattacked. The House Un-American Activities Committee launched hearings on communist influence in the labor movement and the New Deal. In 1938, conservatives rode an economic downturn and a backlash against labor radicalism and the court-packing scheme to huge midterm victories—effectively ending the era of leftist change.

Disorder fueled a backlash in the mid-’60s, too. Five days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, riots broke out in Los Angeles. In the following three years, riots led to 225 deaths and more than $100 billion in property damage. From 1964 to 1966, the percentage of Americans who told pollsters that the move toward racial equality was happening “too fast” jumped from 34 to 85 percent. In 1966, Republicans—stressing law and order—won 47 seats in the House.

The GOP is already pursuing a similar strategy today. A recent Republican National Committee ad intersperses footage of protesters and rioters with Cory Booker calling on activists to “get up in the face of some congresspeople” and Representative Maxine Waters urging people to confront Trump Cabinet members in restaurants, department stores, and gas stations. Since protesters interrupted Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, Republicans have begun calling Democrats a “mob” (without acknowledging that it is Trump, not Democrats, who has encouraged his crowds to commit violence). Like their predecessors, today’s conservatives will probably spend the coming era accusing the left of fomenting radicalism and lawlessness. Like its predecessors, the third left will rise and fall on its ability to convince Americans that the true cause of radicalism is injustice, and the best guarantee of social peace is a more equal country.


This article appears in the December 2018 print edition with the headline “How Far Will the Left Go?”