There are still many states left to vote in the 2020 Democratic primary election, but the outcome now looks all but certain. Following a series of catastrophic losses in states such as Michigan and Missouri, and facing big deficits in the polls in coming states, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has very little chance of victory. Sanders’ so-called political revolution, centered on far-reaching plans for single-payer health care, free college, bans on fossil fuels and nuclear power, and a revamp of the U.S. economic system, looks as if it has been put on hold. This result mirrors those in a number of European countries, including the crushing defeats suffered by the U.K.’s Jeremy Corbyn and French left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Sanders’ followers, however, have much with which to console themselves. Sanders managed to move the Democratic field well to the left on policy, with even moderate front-runner Joe Biden promising a Green New Deal, supporting a so-called public option for health insurance and calling for a $15 federal minimum wage. And Sanders garnered overwhelming support among young Democrats, suggesting that his brand of progressivism is the future of the party, even if some of his supporters age into more moderate views.
But the young Americans who were energized and inspired by Sanders’ movement shouldn’t simply sit around and hope for better electoral chances four or eight years down the road. There is much they can do now to direct their energy toward the revitalization of U.S. society and institutions.
U.S. society isn’t suffering from a lack of political rallies, bold policy proposals or Twitter campaigns. It’s suffering from declining civic involvement. As sociologist Robert Putnam has documented, Americans used to be much more likely to volunteer in civic organizations. This trend of isolation could be due to the internet, suburbanization, a backlash against diversity or a variety of other changes. But whatever the cause, it seems reasonable to assume that social isolation and declining civic involvement are reasons interpersonal trust has fallen:
If they’re willing to do the nitty-gritty work of making a difference in the places they live and work, young progressives could turn this trend around. Sanders’ campaign slogan — “Not me, us” — illustrates a deep longing for a renewal of communalism and cooperation and a rejection of the relentless individualism that has increasingly come to define American life. They’re more comfortable with diversity than their predecessors. And as digital natives, they may be able to use the internet to counter social isolation instead of exacerbating it.
A tweet from March 5 by a member of the Democratic Socialists of America gives some hope that this is already happening. User “irockgnomes” recounts how his San Francisco DSA chapter is bringing tents to the homeless. Respondents reveal that they’re planting chestnut trees, running roundtables to help workers solve workplace problems, organizing tenant groups, creating skill-sharing programs, fixing brake lights for bicycles and doing many other communal projects. One group was even holding a Bowl-a-Thon fundraiser. Putnam would be proud.
A second thing young progressives could do is to revitalize the civil service. The stunning and pervasive failures by the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration in the face of the coronavirus epidemic point to the degradation of the country’s essential government services. Years of hiring and pay freezes have left the civil service hollowed out, while soaring private-sector salaries have drawn talented graduates away from careers in government.
But young progressives don’t necessarily see getting rich as the purpose of life. This lack of financial ambition, coupled with belief in government and a desire to fix their broken society, might drive many talented young people to seek careers in the civil service. There, they can get to work fixing what years of complacency have broken.
One thing that young progressives should discard, however, is the idea of a socialist revolution. Sanders described his movement in the antiquated language of the mid-20th century, when — as Mao Zedong once memorably put it — power flowed from the barrel of a gun. But the age of left-wing violence ended badly, both for countries where communism triumphed and those where it simply bombed a lot of bathrooms. More recently, Venezuela has shown that revolutionary socialism retains its power to wreck a country even after the end of the Cold War.
Instead of seeking to tear down democratic institutions as their leftist predecessors did, today’s young progressives should work on building them up. American society has done a fine job of running itself into the ground through neglect, complacency, selfishness and lack of caring. Sanders’ movement — the closest thing American politics has seen to a true mass movement in a long time — offers hope that members of the young generation are ready to rebuild their society.