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Left Behind

As progressive movements move toward radical positions, will liberal youth stay away?

Charles Dunst
September 27, 2018
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine

Born in 1996 in Queens to a Haitian immigrant mother, raised in Harlem, and educated by an elite Upper East Side progressive high school and a private college, Shahn Savino, at least identitywise, would fit nicely within the contemporary progressive political movement. In fact, the 22-year-old did at one point embrace the progressive revolution once championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and increasingly now so by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“I thought Bernie was great for the black community,” Savino, who is currently working as a legal assistant while securing his master’s degree from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told me, adding jokingly: “I got lost in the sauce for a minute.” Savino voted for the Vermont senator in the 2016 Democratic primary.

Fervently pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-choice, anti-racist, and generally supportive of both gun control and health-care regulation, Savino checks a number of the progressive movement’s favored identity and ideological boxes, but has now found a political home elsewhere.

“I used to be a typical liberal but I have moved to the center on a lot of issues,” Savino told me. “Progressive politics has gone extreme [and] has taken a turn toward ideological purity and worshipping saints rather than solving problems.”

Young Americans like Savino comprise the United States’ most socially progressive generation, with its members, beyond their predecessors, embracing interracial relationships and both LGBTQ and abortion rights. Some pundits, citing this progressivism, have declared young people to be largely left-wing voters, and, therefore, the harbingers of an inevitable progressive electoral future. And yet, a faction of Savino-like voters have, after flirting with the left, estranged themselves from the movement, retreating toward the center. Other members of this generation hold social progressivism close with otherwise politically centrist views and, even in the Trump era, continue to remain estranged from the left.

Young American Jews, who come from a deeply progressive religious community, are similarly reckoning with and responding perhaps surprisingly to the increasing political power of the progressive left. This collective disdain from socially progressive young people seems to cast doubt on pundits’ perhaps prematurely painted inevitable American leftist revolution.

Amanda Becker is 22 years old and was born to Jewish parents in Chappaqua, New York. Currently a master’s candidate in biomedical science at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, she is fiercely pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ rights, and defines herself as a social progressive. A one-time liberal, Barack Obama supporter and a 2016 Hillary Clinton voter, Becker increasingly defines herself as an independent—and one who may perhaps vote for what she calls the right kind of Republican in 2020.

“I think most people would get my politics completely wrong if they guessed,” she told me, sitting at an outdoor table of a Fifth Avenue coffee shop.

“I leaned more liberal in high school just because my teachers were very like ‘Obama, Obama, Obama’ and kind of led me in the progressive direction,” she added. “Then I got to college and kind of just got fed up with that side of politics.”

She points to the emergence of a national media-covered far-left protest movement at her college alma mater as a moment when she began to notice a shift in her views. “They have a right to protest and do what they want to do, but [to see them] kind of bitch and moan … made me switch in my thinking a bit,” she said. “It kind of made me feel resentful in a way.”

She later added: “I hate people that try and shove their ideas down your throat.”

Robert Berk, a 20-year-old from a religiously split household (his father is Jewish) who identifies as Jewish and Zionist, reflected many of Becker’s concerns. Raised in Manhattan, Berk defines himself as a “social liberal” and says he is pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ, and anti-hate.

“There’s no doubt that I feel more that I am closer to the center than I did before college,” Berk told me. “I attend a liberal-arts school and many of the students are very liberal. … I think there are many ways that they are too far to the left. This often makes me feel like an outsider.”

Pointing out specific flaws with the left, Berk argued that “some of the social issues (sometimes) are taken too far. I think that there are more important issues—the economy and national defense—that should be prioritized.”

Berk, citing problems with “woke-ness” and anti-Israel attitudes, said that “without a doubt the progressive movement has pushed me to the center and the right.”

“I often feel like I can’t express myself politically at college,” Berk told me, recounting a classroom conversation in which he found his opinion marginalized.

In a government-course discussion on the impact of big business, “One of my classmates pointed out that the government sometimes hurts businesses, as the Second Avenue subway hurt businesses in New York City, [and] a fellow classmate said that we vote our elected officials into office,” Berk told me. “I then commented that we vote with our dollar every time we shop, at which point that student cut me off and said that I was privileged to say that.”

“This,” he continued, “is an example of when I think ‘progressive woke-ness’ goes too far and ultimately ruins political discourse.”

Flowing from this discomfort with the left, Berk said that he could potentially see himself walking away from the Democratic Party.

“I could very easily see myself voting for Republican candidates, especially as I get older,” he told me.

Like Berk, Becker emphasized the fact that she has no particular affinity with the left. Like 54 percent of young people, she identifies as a political free agent. When prompted with a potential Trump versus Sanders matchup, Becker reluctantly admits that she feels herself leaning toward the incumbent president.

“I hate saying it [and] I’m not even going to say his [Trump’s] name but I’d lean more in that direction right now,” the pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ, anti-racist Becker told me, seemingly slightly disappointed in herself.

“I just don’t agree with someone like Bernie,” she added. “I’m nauseous, I’m not kidding.”

In my time with her, Becker referenced her Trump and Republican-induced nausea more than a few times, seemingly almost apologizing for her divorce from the left. Reflecting Becker’s apologetic tone, numerous Jews who fit this profile—socially progressive, political centrists—refused to speak with me on the record.

“It’s hard for college students to want to go on the record, especially [for] progressive students who have dissenting opinions and are scared that the progressive juggernaut will come for them next,” one 20-year-old, firmly socially progressive but fiercely Zionist student told me.

“Most of us aren’t big on commenting in public,” echoed a member of an Ivy League Jewish fraternity, telling me that most of his fraternity brothers are socially progressive center-leftists who remain critical of the far left.

Seth Warshaw, a government-affairs assistant at the Greater New York Hospital Association, broke this Jewish-centrist silence. Warshaw, who is 23 years old, is a slightly right-leaning social progressive who opposes Trump. He favors LGBTQ and abortion rights but opposes single-payer health care, calling himself a “classical liberal or pro-market moderate.”

Telling me that he fears “the success of Bernie Sanders’ movement and his ideas winning out,” he noted that he would vote for most Democrats—but not Sanders—over Trump in 2020.

“I would support any Democrat who was serious about governing and not extremely progressive, rather than vote for Trump or cast a protest vote,” he added, saying that this includes about 85 to 90 percent of the party. He named Deval Patrick, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O’Rourke as the Democrats he would be most likely to support in addition to “some progressives” who are “serious people.” He named Brian Schatz as an example of the latter. If faced with the choice between Sanders and Trump, however, Warshaw said he would cast a third-party protest vote.

Becker, Berk, and Warshaw are members of America’s most socially progressive generation and come from a national Jewish community that leans to the political and social left of the American zeitgeist. They all support LGBTQ and abortion rights and define themselves as social progressives; they disdain homophobia, racism, and misogyny. And yet, they continue to find themselves at odds with the progressive left and, increasingly so for some, with the Democratic Party.

This divergence of social from political progressivism is, according to professor Jean Twenge, because young Americans were raised “in a highly individualistic culture favoring the self over the group.” Young people, as follows, simultaneously support the individualism of the left—favoring same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and marijuana legalization—while refuting the movement’s collectivism, as Americans born after 1995 are less likely than previous generations to support national health care, gun control, and, government environmental regulation.

“Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life,” writes Noah Rothman in Commentary, noting that in 2017, “Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.”

In the 2016 iteration of this poll, American Jews found themselves more approving on these issues than their non-Jewish peers. With Rothman’s boilerplate liberalism clearly already a part of not only the American soundtrack but its progressive Jewish-American song, some of its listeners, including some young Jews, have become increasingly comfortable placing personal electoral primacy elsewhere, voting on issues besides social progressivism. Some, despite their social tolerance, plan to pull the lever for the political center or even the right.

“I have a life I’m trying to live and I’m trying to do something for myself. That’s why I grapple so much with my political decisions,” Becker told me. “There’s nothing that’s perfect.”

Charles Dunst’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, The American Prospect, Haaretz, and The Jerusalem Post, among other publications. His Twitter feed is @cddunst.

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