On paper, the news out of New York last night for leftists was decidedly mixed. But it still felt good.
Democratic socialist Julia Salazar defeated real-estate industry darling Martin Dilan, winning 59 percent of the vote to represent rapidly gentrifying working-class areas of North Brooklyn. Salazar will run unopposed in the general election, so barring anything unforeseen, she will be the next state senator for New York’s eighteenth district.
Progressive gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon lost in a bid to replace Governor Andrew Cuomo, with the incumbent winning nearly two-thirds of the vote. Long-time social justice activist and current New York city councilor Jumaane Williams narrowly lost to incumbent Kathy Hochul in his bid for lieutenant governor.
A slate of progressive mainstream Democrats known as No IDC achieved several victories over a group of Democrats who had caucused with Republicans in the state senate, with challengers Alessandra Biaggi, Rachel May, Jessica Ramos, John Liu, Robert Jackson, and Zellnor Myrie all defeating the incumbents.
With Salazar’s victory, the Democratic Socialists of America continued its winning streak, overcoming (especially in Salazar’s race) unprecedented smears against the candidate from the press. What lessons do Thursday’s results hold for the Left?
Workers Can’t Be an Afterthought
Nixon made upgrading the subway her signature issue. But less than two weeks after announcing her campaign in March, she went on the attack against union workers building a new train line: “With the deals [building trade unions] have now, you can’t hope to make improvements to the trains in a fiscally responsible way. . . . Everybody’s got to pull together, and everybody’s got to make sacrifices.”
This quote was, in effect, one of Nixon’s first public statements as a candidate. Union leaders quickly struck back.
“What does Cynthia Nixon know about the construction industry? What does she know about the subways and the MTA? She says that she’s a progressive, but this kind of anti-union rhetoric shows that she is no friend of working men and women,” Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trade Council of Greater New York, told Politico. The heads of Transit Workers Union Local 100, TWU international, and the president of the New York AFL-CIO were all quick to denounce Nixon as well.
Well before March, Cuomo had cultivated intense loyalty from high-level union officials, and there was never a serious chance of any major union officially endorsing Nixon. But while Nixon issued a tepid correction to her initial statement, she remained essentially silent on labor issues until August.
Her eventual labor platform was in many ways a model for progressives running at the state level. But by the time it came out, it was too late for her to make serious inroads among rank-and-file union workers.
Nixon left union militants who agreed with her other policies hamstrung when it came to talking to coworkers about her. If the only thing she had to say about workers for four months of the campaign was that they should be paid less, why listen to her on other issues?
Future candidates running as democratic socialists — or merely progressives — must emphasize the concerns of workers, unionized or not. Socialist organizations especially must make a priority of consistently pushing candidates they endorse to advance aggressive, class-wide demands in their labor platforms.
They’re Coming For Us
Right-wing and centrist smears on prominent leftists are nothing new. But after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory this summer in her congressional primary, the notoriously corrupt, insular, and convoluted New York Democratic Party pulled no punches against yesterday’s left candidates.
In the last days of the campaign, the New York State Democratic Committee sent a postcard to Jewish voters suggesting Nixon is “silent on the rise of anti-Semitism.” (There is no evidence Nixon holds antisemitic views, and she has two Jewish children.)
It is unfair and inappropriate for a state party to actively support one candidate over another in a party primary at all, let alone to baselessly accuse a contender of bigotry. Still, with the Democratic Party barely maintaining even a pretext of neutrality and internal democracy, such propaganda was deplorable but not surprising.
More surprising was the intensity of the attacks on democratic socialist state senate candidate Julia Salazar. Salazar likely received more national and local coverage than any state legislative candidate in history. However, late in the race — the time when most voters are paying attention — very little of it focused on her platform to dramatically expand rent stabilization, pass the single-payer New York Health Act, expand labor rights, or reform New York State’s untransparent and undemocratic campaign-finance laws.
The last plank seems especially salient because of the manner in which Salazar was attacked. Given the extensive research done into Salazar’s past, the candidate’s emphasis on stopping gentrification and bolstering rent stabilization, her opponent’s history of shady campaign donations, and his extensive ties to the real estate industry, it seems natural to ask who had an interest in destroying Salazar’s credibility.
Salazar had intimate details of her family history, religious background, education, and false arrest examined and questioned in the press to a degree unprecedented in a down-ballot race. She was also outed, without her consent, as the survivor of sexual assault by an Israeli government official.
The majority of these attacks came not directly from her opponent but from the press. But in-depth reporting spanning multiple states — and continents — is so outside the norm for this type of race, it beggars belief that dozens of state and local beat journalists independently dug up the dirt on their own. One aggressive anti-Salazar journalist publicly acknowledged he was tipped about at least one salacious story.
None of this had anything to do with the issues Salazar ran on. There was no gotcha, no smoking gun. But that wasn’t the point. Whoever was ultimately responsible for digging up Salazar’s background, the message to leftists seeking elected office was clear: challenge us, and nothing is out of bounds. We will try to publicly strip you of every bit of your dignity. But in Salazar’s case, it didn’t work.
This election cycle, New York saw at least a half dozen relatively progressive mainstream Democrats on the No IDC slate pose serious challenges to entrenched incumbents. None experienced anything close to the level of scrutiny and innuendo the avowed socialist Salazar faced. As the Left continues to gain traction in elections and the public eye, it should be ready to again become a unique target, because it presents a unique danger to powerful interests.
The Left Must Take the Fight Directly to Democratic Party Heads
Since Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, much leftist ink has been spilled on the “ballot line” question — i.e., whether it is acceptable for socialists to legally run as Democrats or whether it is incumbent for them to run as independents or on small non-capitalist party ballot lines.
Even left proponents of running on the Democratic ballot line largely acknowledge that doing so is an unfortunate compromise. The party is ultimately controlled by capital, which circumscribes the boundaries of acceptable policies for its members and blatantly advantages candidates it prefers in primary elections — hardly a terrain on which one would choose to fight. But there is also a sense in which running in the Democratic Party and taking the fight directly to those who control it is a positive good, as it accelerates the alienation of the Democratic Party’s base from its leadership.
Since 2016, the views of Democratic voters and Democratic elected officials and party leaders have continued to diverge. A recent poll shows that more Democratic voters view socialism favorably than those who do capitalism. Meanwhile, leading members of the party’s liberal wing like Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi have doubled down explicitly on capitalism.
Progressive efforts to fundamentally remake the Democratic Party are likely doomed to fail, given the party is under the control of capitalists. However, any prospects of forming a working-class party in the future will also fail if that party cannot gain the support of a large number of people who currently identify as Democrats. By running in Democratic primaries now, socialists can sharpen the contradictions between voters and party heads and help accelerate the process by which founding an independent party will become feasible.
The Left Must Cohere a Distinct Voter Self-Identity
It’s clear that capitalists view even a small socialist movement that can speak directly to the material needs of average people as a unique threat. Soon, democratic socialists winning elections will stop being a novelty and become simply a fact of life. But it is not clear if voters yet see “democratic socialist” as a coherent and distinct political identity — another key factor for eventually founding an independent party.
For example, many mainstream Democrats have now signed on, at least rhetorically, to socialist-backed reforms like Medicare for All. Bernie Sanders, the country’s most famous democratic socialist, has dedicated himself to working to elect progressives in general — socialist or not. What differentiates democratic socialists?
Facing a powerful enemy that takes it more seriously than many of its potential supporters do, there is still a danger that the growing democratic socialist movement will become irrelevant by absorbing itself into one of two paths of lesser resistance: the toothless, built-to-fail progressivism of the Democrats, or a broader feel-good activist subculture.
To avoid these two potential pitfalls, the Left must follow Salazar’s lead and work to cohere a distinct and consistent collective political identity based on a material analysis of society, the centrality of working-class solidarity and struggle against the capitalist class, and simple-to-understand, class-wide reforms that bring concrete benefits to voters at the expense of capitalists.
For the democratic socialist movement to grow into a major force in American politics, a critical mass of voters and workers must identify themselves as democratic socialists and have a clear, relatively consistent idea of what that identity means. Without such a collective self-conception, the movement will struggle to root itself in the working class, the vast majority of whom are currently unable or unwilling to spend large amounts of time actively organizing. Such a united self-identity among large segments of the working class is also a prerequisite step to building an independent working-class party in the future.
Bernie Sanders has already begun this process with his constant attacks on capitalists (“the millionaires and the billionaires”) and his platform of redistributive policies like Medicare for All, free college, raising the minimum wage, and making it easier to form a union. However, while a potential Bernie 2020 campaign is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Left, the socialist movement cannot rely on just one man to carry it.
Instead, in the short term, it must be centered on policies rooted in class struggle (like universal rent stabilization, a universal right to strike, and free universal health care) and on how voters think about themselves (as a unified bloc being constantly attacked by the rich) when they support those policies.
That is one reason Salazar’s victory is especially important. While running as a Democrat, she has articulated a platform both highly popular with working people and beyond the scope of what the Democratic Party, as it is currently constituted — under the control of capitalists — can deliver.
Salazar has established the policy base that a new voter self-identity can be anchored in. But she can’t cohere a collective self-identity nor push forward a movement on her own. It’s up to all of us to do that.