"If No Other Route Can Be Found": The Defining Moments That Shift People Left
“It was just such an eye opening thing, seeing people so blind to reality, so willing to deny facts, that they just straight up lie about the world”
When the 2020 Democratic primary elections were in full swing, Julio, a 32-year-old man in Texas, was sure of his vote for Elizabeth Warren as the sensible progressive choice.
Nearly two years on, he’s not so sure.
“The pandemic helped shift my perspective completely,” he told me. “I don’t regret my Warren vote since it didn’t matter in the end, but Joe Biden’s reckless political maneuvering of the pandemic and his broken promises, not to mention centrist Democrat attacks on the left, have helped me reach that change.”
The biggest change was seeing what unemployment insurance with the Covid boost did for his quality of life shifted how he looked at the world and politics.
“I was making $11 before and even three months of unemployment allowed me to feed myself and pay for rent while I was in lockdown for medical issues,” Julio said. “I couldn’t work for almost a year.”
Julio’s just one of the many people I talked with about how their politics have moved left in a rapidly changing world.
Some cited big events like Covid and the pandemic. Others pointed to personal moments that made them rethink their politics.
But they all pointed to defining moments of change.
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Big picture, little picture
John is a 41-year-old active-duty military officer in New York. He said his journey leftward began while serving in Iraq when he “realized what a shitshow it all was.”
It’s really been in the last five or six years, though, that he’s moved left because of the need for a “dramatic change” in US politics.
“Big picture was watching the housing crisis decimate people, little picture was my wife getting cancer,” John told me.
The cancer means that he feels he can’t leave the service.
“She would never be able to get health insurance anywhere else without bankrupting our family,” he said.
Occupy and the recession
Writer Colette Shade, a 33-year-old woman in Baltimore, freely admits that she began her journey as a “by American standards extremely cosseted” person who was radicalized when she entered the recession economy after school.
“My political beliefs were probably shaped in part by the fact that my uncle became quite wealthy in the dot com bubble, getting out at just the right time,” Shade told me. “And he gave me money to more than cover college.”
But the dire economic circumstances of the post-recession, plus a ton of theory, moved her over to the left.
“I became a social democrat because of a combination of personal experience, soul searching, and a lot of reading,” she said. “I eventually became very anti capitalist as a maximalist position but have settled back into soc-demism when it comes to a compromised position.”
That time period and the economic upheaval proved to be formative for other people I spoke to. Occupy Wall Street, the post-Obama-election economic and social movement that became a lightning rod for leftists, was at the center of a political shift for Ana Valens, a 27-year-old trans woman in New York City.
Valens told me the aftermath of the Occupy movement in 2012-2013 was a “huge” moment. She turned to online spaces that cultivated her nascent politics and gave her the ability to explore more radical ideology.
“I think the zeitgeist of that moment was a huge challenge to my politics and encouraged me to really think from a marginalized perspective—I had not transitioned at this time and identified as a loosely straight cis man,” she told me. “From there I really continued to question the worldview of my upbringing.”
She came out shortly after and by early 2015 was a strong Bernie Sanders supporter.
“Obviously these days I’m pretty far-left: anarchist, SWer for full decrim, radically queer, extremely pro-abortion, leftist pagan, etc.,” she said. “But I wouldn’t be there without the 2012-2013 shift.”
Ten years ago, Anne Marie was a College Republican. Today, they’re a socialist. It was a slow process—”I couldn't understand what was up with those Occupy kids camping out in the center of the quad, but I was unnerved by how stuffy and male the Republican events were”—that’s gone through its own ups and downs over the years.
Anne Marie told me that one defining experience was “a deep disgust at the college kids hooting and hollering at Osama Bin Laden's death” in 2012. The students were “taking their shirts off and whipping them around,” they told me.
“I was like, WTF are we not supposed to value human life? Guess not,” Anne Marie said.
Radicalized by self-acceptance
Jeff, a non-binary 35-year-old in Austin, said they were radicalized in large part by their own self-acceptance.
“I was a pretty decently moderate centrist in 2011,” they said. “Today, I'm pretty firmly communist.”
They told me that the impetus was coming to terms with their gender and sexuality. It took them from “a mild mannered adult dude that was content with office work” a decade ago to “a non-binary massage therapist/sex worker advocating for decriminalization, liberation, and a equal society for all—through violent means, if no other route can be found.”
One defining moment that pushed that political shift, they said, was the “America Is Already Great” tagline at the 2016 DNC.
“It was just such an eye opening thing, seeing people so blind to reality, so willing to deny facts, that they just straight up lie about the world,” Jeff said.
Not everyone has moved to socialist politics. Some have just moved left from their starting position. Tom Smith, a 59-year-old man in New Jersey, told me he went from being a Clinton-Obama Democrat to an urbanist anti-car, pro-defund the police position.
Smith said there was no specific moment that pulled his politics left, but the George Floyd murder and aftermath made him start to question things.
“A lot of this is due to conversations with our daughters (in their 20s), as well as George Floyd, which ended up getting me very interested in school integration, which led to reading ‘The Color of Law’ and thus confronting the system that I have benefited from all of my life,” Smith told me.
Today, he’s a Warren Democrat. It’s a process of change, he told me, that’s helped along by having his wife learning and unlearning the same things.
“After talking with our daughters, we would reflect and discuss these matters between ourselves over weeks and months,” Smith said. “Very helpful to have a partner navigating the same new waters.”
It took Peggy Kern, a 46-year-old woman in western Massachusetts, 10 years to go from centrist Democrat to prison abolitionist. The shift in thinking began with the killing of Mike Brown in 2014 and has continued as she’s begun working with local organizations.
“I was briefly a volunteer with the Massachusetts Bail Fund and posted bail for a teenager of color who’d been held in an adult prison for weeks on $2500,” Kern said. “His mom came with cash she’d gathered from loved ones. That was a pretty defining moment for me.”
Western Michigan-based Phoenix Calida, 39, told me that their radicalization came in large part from their work with Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA. They sat in on policy calls with lawmakers, prosectors, and other organizations to try to make change in how the system treats sex workers.
“When SESTA/FOSTA passed, I was in Capitol Hill talking to staffers. And nobody knew what they had voted for,” they told me. “I’ve been out of my mind ever since.”
I’ll be going live at 4pm today with people telling their stories about how they moved to the left.
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