For the American left, 2016 proved to be a year with a cruel twist ending. In the first few months, a self- described democratic socialist by the name of Bernie Sanders mounted a surprisingly successful primary challenge to the Democratic Party’s presumed and eventual presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. By the end of 2016, however, not only had Sanders lost the primary race, but Clinton had been defeated in the general election by a billionaire who dressed his xenophobic and plutocratic ambitions in the garb of class resentment.
But the apparent strength of the left wasn’t entirely an illusion. Even as late as November, the Sanders campaign had racked up a set of important victories. The Cold War had helped to entrench the idea of socialism as antithetical to the American political tradition, and Sanders had gone a long way toward smashing that ideological consensus. By identifying himself explicitly as a democratic socialist from the outset of his campaign, he helped give renewed meaning and salience to it as a political identity firmly rooted in the American tradition.
In addition to helping end the stigma around socialism, the Sanders campaign provided a blueprint for a new generation of leftists and progressives. By running in the Democratic primary and showing that he could draw large crowds, Sanders revealed an emerging left-leaning constituency. It seemed in those early autumn months that even in defeat, Sanders had opened up the path for a more progressive Democratic Party: “Sanders Democrats” could continue to work within the party and not only protest outside it. The way forward seemed clear: After Clinton won the general election, a strengthened social-democratic left could work toward the universal provision of various social services and push for criminal-justice reforms and other key priorities.
But now, instead of holding a strengthened position within a troubled but relatively secure Democratic Party, the left appears to be simultaneously invigorated and institutionally irrelevant. The ambitious ideas and goals that have blossomed in recent years—single-payer health care, debt-free higher education, a $15-dollar-an-hour national minimum wage, paid leave, criminal-justice reform—seem to belong to a political world that no longer exists. The left is now primarily on the defensive: Rather than seeking to push the welfare state toward completion, it must defend against its dissolution. Rather than ensuring fair access to public goods like health care, education, and housing, the task of the left is now to prevent the wholesale pillage of the commons. And rather than merely restraining the hawks in the Democratic Party, the left must worry about global devastation, whether through nuclear action or climate inaction.
So what remains of 2016’s hoped-for “political revolution”? Two books by Sanders, Outsider in the White House and Our Revolution, and two volumes of essays by some of this new left’s leading voices, The ABCs of Socialism and The Future We Want, offer us some clues. While written with different conditions in mind, these books still serve as important references for thinking through how to move forward.