A protester sits near a placard that says Defund the police as the Black Lives Matter and other activists camp in a park outside the City Hall during the demonstration. The questions of how the political left, which seemed to have unstoppable momentum after George Floyd's murder, failed to produce reform, who is to blame for that failure, is the subject of Fredrik DeBoer’s new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement. (Photo by Ron Adar / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 sparked nationwide protests bigger than anything anyone had seen since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t just Democrats who were upset. Researchers at Stanford found that feelings of anger across the U.S. population increased by about half in the week following Floyd’s death. Most Fortune 500 companies and other large corporations felt obligated to make public pronouncements lamenting racial injustice, often accompanied by vows to increase minority hiring. Some even made showy displays of their newfound corporate social conscience. PepsiCo, for instance, retired its Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake-mix brand. It felt like an important societal shift was happening in real time.

How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement by Fredrik DeBoer Simon & Schuster, 256 pp.

Three years later, the officer who asphyxiated Floyd is in prison. Dubious brand campaigns and racially inflammatory sports mascots are much rarer. A striking mural graces the intersection where Floyd died, now renamed George Floyd Square. But nothing major has changed. A national police reform effort sputtered. Several local reforms that did pass were later rolled back. In Minneapolis and elsewhere, calls to “defund the police” or drastically cut their resources were spurned, including by the city’s mayor. A year after Floyd’s death, Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot measure to overhaul policing. 

The questions of how the political left, which seemed to have unstoppable momentum, failed to produce reform on this and other issues, and who is to blame for that failure, is the subject of Fredrik DeBoer’s new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement.

As his title indicates, he believes he has fingered the culprits.

For those unfamiliar with him, DeBoer is a middle-aged Marxist and veteran blogger—now Substacker—whose life experiences (he was raised by communists) and heterodox views consistently make him a more interesting analyst and commentator to readers outside the far left than “Marxist blogger” might suggest. Although his new book isn’t billed this way, it is essentially his “Letter to a Young Activist.” A grizzled veteran of the anti–Iraq War movement who has spent years working to advance tenants’ rights in New York City, DeBoer is acutely familiar with the many pathologies coursing through the left activist space these days. His aim here is to patiently guide his fellow activists, and anyone else hoping to effect positive change, in a more productive direction than the one he sees unfolding around him.

Defunding the police was purely an elite fixation that ignored the desires of Black community members, most of whom ardently wished for more policing in their neighborhoods, not less. The “defund” movement was destined to fail, and, in doing so, to foreclose other, more promising alternatives.

What troubles DeBoer, and what prompted his book, is that the attention of his allies on the left has turned steadily inward and become detached from the project of delivering material gains for working and poor people—the goal every activist is at least notionally committed to. DeBoer thinks this detachment has a lot to do with the profile of the people who constitute today’s activist class. Their ranks are dominated by white college graduates who, he believes, are more consumed with abstract theories of social justice, policing other people’s language, and broadcasting their own personal virtue than they are in, say, making sure that workers have an affordable place to live. “The progressive conversation,” he has noticed, “is disproportionately made up of people who don’t actually have a lot of experience worrying over how they’ll pay the rent.”

Most readers will be familiar with the many absurdities that modern left-wing thinking has managed to produce. DeBoer ticks through many of them, such as the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work banning the use of the word field to refer to an academic discipline out of a supposed concern that it might cause Black students and staff to think of slavery. More common are well-intended but essentially meaningless “reforms” like making sure Black characters in animated cartoon shows are voiced by Black actors. DeBoer sees the political left “forever wandering from the righteous to the ridiculous.”

What’s more costly is when these misplaced priorities intersect with broader attempts at public policy reform. After Floyd’s death, left-wing activists flooded social media to champion the cause of defunding the police. In Minneapolis, they surrounded and booed the mayor, Jacob Frey, when he wouldn’t get behind it. DeBoer points out that defunding the police was purely an elite fixation that ignored the desires of Black community members, most of whom ardently wished for more—and better—policing in their neighborhoods, not less. (A YouGov poll taken just after Floyd’s death found that only 16 percent of Democrats supported cutting—not even abolishing—police funding.) In other words, the reform that the most vocal element of the activist left chose to pursue in the wake of Floyd’s death was destined to fail, and, in doing so, foreclose other, more promising alternatives.

Because he’s a member of the activist left and aims to influence his allies, DeBoer sometimes writes as if he’s defusing a bomb. Even the most reasonable assertions are prefaced with lengthy reassurances that his political views align with those whom he is criticizing, even if his strategic preference differs: 

Of course, white liberals should remain cognizant of the way that their voices can dominate the conversation. Of course, liberal men should remain cognizant of the tendency of men to speak over others and in doing so silence women’s voices. Of course, straight cisgender liberals should be aware of the history of queer erasure in our discourse.

But DeBoer still thinks it’s silly that organizers at many left gatherings determine the order of who should be allowed to speak based on the perceived degree of marginalization of the group they identify with—that is, Black women, transgender, and disabled people should always speak before the able-bodied, white, and male. 

Is this a harmful practice? No, not particularly (and DeBoer says as much). But it does illustrate how so many people on the left have become consumed with litigating issues of identity and social status without ever managing to produce much of tangible value to society, even when tragedies like Floyd’s death provide an opening. Instead, activist energy is spent waging esoteric parochial battles and stifling internal debate, while purging dissidents who believe there are better ways to get results.

DeBoer’s writing is shot through with a world-weariness that occasionally veers into something like post-traumatic stress disorder. I suspect it’s the product of many years of being harangued by his fellow leftists for refusing to conform to their preferred views. He recounts, with dark, possibly unintended humor, how he was once kicked out of an anti–Iraq War group for refusing to go along with the group’s desire to adopt a consensus-only decision-making process—his refusal, on the grounds that the idea was paralyzingly unworkable, only illustrated his point.

On matters of racial politics, the unwillingness to consider anything but the most extreme leftward reforms has failed the very people that activists purport to want to help. It’s also created a climate of paralyzing white guilt. DeBoer’s withering denunciations of these left-wing failures are some of his strongest passages. He writes, 

We have gone from marches on Washington to demand jobs and demonstrations to support striking Black garbage workers to millions of decent white liberals clutching “anti-racist” books on the subway, reading about why they’re wicked and should feel bad, ensuring that their next interaction with a Black coworker will be strained and awkward, and lining the pockets of white editors, white publishers, sometimes white authors in doing so.

DeBoer is so insightful and pushing obviously intelligent prescriptions that it feels a bit unsporting to point out that the failure of the political system to respond to Floyd’s murder with the sweeping reforms that are plainly needed wasn’t chiefly the fault of the left—even the smug, virtue-signaling, censorious left that has him so wrung out. Rather, reform failed because Republicans didn’t want it to pass. Even Mitt Romney, who admirably bucked the Trumpist currents in his own party by joining a protest march after Floyd’s killing, didn’t support the Democratic police reform bill.

That kind of progress will require electing more Democrats. DeBoer is characteristically clear-eyed and sensible about the need for leftists to get behind this important (but ideologically unsexy) effort, even when it entails supporting moderates like Joe Biden. He has good ideas about how to do so.

The left, he says, should quit obsessing over “ephemeral and inconsequential cultural issues.” It should drop the off-putting academic jargon. And it should return to a focus on class and to meeting the material needs of working people. Washington Monthly readers will find most of what he prescribes to be solid advice for advancing a left-of-center political agenda. What makes DeBoer’s book transgressive is that he’s aiming it at a younger generation of activists for whom winning the votes of, say, white working-class Trump supporters isn’t axiomatically a good thing.

But it is, of course, a necessary thing if Democrats are to win back the governing majority they’ll need to pass actual reforms. It’s especially necessary for securing the kind of robust social democratic state that leftists are after. And its prime beneficiaries, DeBoer notes, without projecting a great deal of confidence that his audience will be receptive to the point, would be precisely the oppressed minority groups that activists on the left are forever claiming to speak for. If they’d focus on electing Democrats, they’d finally be in a position to deliver for those groups, rather than just bicker over whose turn it is to talk next.

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Joshua Green is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly and author of the forthcoming book The Rebels: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Struggle for a New American Politics.