Through Democratic Dissent, Students Are Modeling Collectivism on the Left

May 9, 2024


In 2020, when police forces across the country brutalized racial justice protesters, many Democratic elected officials and liberal pundits rightfully condemned the police violence. Last week, scenes from campuses across the country—UCLA, Columbia, the City College of New York, UT Austin, Dartmouth, and others—showed police forces violently squashing dissent of pro-Palestinian young people. Now, too many of those same officials and pundits are willing to malign the protesters or support the escalation against them.

In an interview with Mehdi Hasan a few weeks ago, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said, “I think about: What conditions do I want to be organizing under in the next four years? . . . Even in places of stark disagreement, I would rather be organizing under the conditions of Biden as an opponent on an issue than Trump.” That case, a smart and strategic one, is getting harder and harder to make as a narrative builds online—aided by visuals of hundreds of policemen in riot gear invading a building at Columbia and LAPD officers firing rubber bullets onto students at UCLA—that the organizing conditions will be the same regardless of which political party is in power.

You don’t forget the first time a line of police officers charge at you. You don’t forget the leaders who empowered them to do so, the pundits who painted you as deserving of violence, or the politicians who failed to condemn that use of state power. And we cannot afford to lose a generation of young people to nihilism, disengagement, or reactionary movements because leaders have let them down. The stakes are too high.

Whether authoritarianism can be defeated will depend, in part, on whether the response to this generation’s anti-war movement changes course. People across the political spectrum are looking for community, belonging, safety, and empowerment in a world where we often feel isolated, detached, and powerless. Part of MAGA’s rise on the Right can be explained by its ability to capitalize on these desires by building a sense of community in service of authoritarianism—through “the thrill of rallies [that provide] a sense of belonging and agency, and a place to feel good with other like-minded individuals.” The Right has long understood and weaponized that fundamental human need to advance its ideological project; the Left has not done enough to build a countermovement that meets these same needs.

Before the police escalation against the encampments began, a debate had emerged online about whether young people joined the anti-war movement because “it’s cool” or because of expertise that informs an unwavering commitment to ending the horrors in Gaza. In the exchanges, too few people pointed out that finding belonging is an important part of what social movements should be offering as their members unite for a cause they believe in. On campuses, we’ve seen a diverse coalition of students engaging not just on the issue of Palestine but also in sharing cultural and religious practices, engaging in community care, creating art, and redefining what safety and comfort mean to them. Building this kind of fellowship helps motivate people to deepen their commitment to a cause and stay politically involved in the long term.

Some critiques of organizing on the Left are worth considering with this wave of anti-war organizing. For example, how disagreements play out can often feel harsh and alienating; organizing communities all too often embrace a puritanical outlook that strengthens the allegiance of those already committed to the cause while simultaneously making broad coalition building harder. There are many examples of campus protesters trying and succeeding to not fall into these traps, but they’re not getting it right all the time. It’s hard to be strategic when you’ve been accused of invalidating someone’s humanity or feel like yours has been invalidated by someone else. But falling short of perfection has been used to discredit the entire protest effort.

Every single person who cares about the long-term strength of our democracy should be trying to help these young people be better, broader, and more strategic in their approach. People with power—governing power, institutional power, and far-reaching communications platforms—need to reframe their approach to start from a place of everything young people are getting right. Because in the wake of unbearable horror, young people are desperately trying to do the right thing.

Thousands of them have been building entire communities to demand an end to the horrors in Gaza. As they establish encampment norms, set up systems for food and supplies, and negotiate with administrators, these young people are engaging in one of the most successful efforts we have seen recently on the Left to build belonging and agency into political movements. All of these things are democratic practices and students are doing them well in a movement that is multiethnic, multiracial, and inclusive of diverse religious communities. There is not a single one of the young people on the front lines of this movement who will not be forever changed by this experience.

For the first time in decades, the neoliberal world order feels embattled enough to fall. What it falls to—authoritarianism championed by the Right or an economy and democracy that work for the many—is going to depend, in part, on whether elite political leadership can correct their response to this generation’s anti-war movement.

The Right invests in their leadership pipeline, organizes around power, and capitalizes on the “collective effervescence” found by those in their mass movements. In contrast, a Democratic establishment that failed the 1968 protest movements paved the way for the powerful shift to the Right that is still shaping our political reality. We have seen and lived through the consequences of that failure, and we cannot risk it again.

We know that the Democratic coalition has fractured. At the end of April, Biden was 11 percentage points behind Trump among voters ages 18–34. Democratic leaders and liberal pundits have an opportunity to change course: They could condemn the use of state violence against the activated, passionate, mobilized coalition of young people who are fighting for a future they believe in. And they could listen to these young people about the future they are fighting for, sometimes across disagreement, to strengthen the fight against authoritarianism.

 

Katie Kirchner is the national director of the Roosevelt Network at Roosevelt Forward. The Roosevelt Network develops and supports undergraduate college students and early career professionals—in particular, those who hold identities historically denied political power—to be the next generation of leaders in the progressive policy ecosystem.

Author

Katie Kirchner

National Director, Roosevelt Network

As the national director, Katie leads the network with a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and changing who writes the rules within our own organization. She is responsible for network growth, policy work, and alumni engagement through the management of network team members and for short-term and long-term network strategy.