Thousands were dancing in the street when Donald Trump lost on November 7th, but momentary jubilation at the fall of an authoritarian, sexist, racist president has turned to the sober reality of what we face next. Trump has refused to concede the election, COVID-19 spread is worse than ever, and the Biden transition is stuffed with fossil fuel defenders, corporate executives, Bill Clinton’s buddies, and deportation machine advocates. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been blocked from the administration. Trump’s plan to harden his core of supporters by drumming up conspiracy theories — and the Democratic Party’s intentions of a neoliberal restoration — have both been revealed.
Socialist Alternative has consistently argued that a Biden/Harris administration will solve none of the key problems facing working people, as they are opposed to both a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, which are overwhelmingly popular with ordinary people. Meanwhile, Biden’s longtime friend, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has similarly refused to support the popular position of taxing New York’s billionaires to prevent tens of thousands of evictions, job losses, and bankruptcies.
But a bright spot shines in the fact that seven Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates for the New York State Senate and Assembly swept to victory in November. When they take office in January, these DSA members in the Democratic Party will comprise the largest self-described socialist contingent in the state legislature since 1920, an election which came in the midst of a worldwide revolutionary socialist wave. Democrats also notched a supermajority in both chambers, gaining the biggest Senate majority conference in the history of New York state.
With the stakes so high, and socialists in New York facing their biggest test of leadership in a century, it is critical to analyze the political terrain for the left and develop the best strategy for a working class recovery from COVID-19.
The War Inside of the Democratic Party
A profound crisis is taking root inside the Democratic Party. After a loss of 11 House seats and hundreds of millions of dollars plowed into losing Senate races, the open blame game has begun.
The Democratic Party’s establishment leaders, labor leaders, and various appendage organizations have gone on the offensive. The establishment is renouncing the ideas, rhetoric, and programmatic demands of its progressive wing and social movements like Black Lives Matter, which articulated the need to defund the police at the height of the George Floyd rebellion, claiming that these demands kept the party from winning several seats.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s interview in the New York Times on November 7th was both telling and alarming. AOC said, “The leadership and elements of the party — frankly, people in some of the most important decision-making positions in the party — are becoming so blinded to this anti-activist sentiment that they are blinding themselves to the very assets that they offer.”
Despite the Democratic leadership’s open hostility, AOC and other members of “The Squad” — Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Presley, and Ilhan Omar — all were reelected, and joined by Justice Democrats candidates Jamaal Bowman of New York, Cori Bush of Missouri, and Marie Newman of Illinois.
The party’s hostility flows from the fact that The Squad are interlopers into an outright pro-capitalist party that defends Wall Street’s interests and the US empire at home and abroad. This is why the popular AOC was primaried by the Democratic Party establishment this past June. For James Clyburn, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Party belongs to them solely to carry out corporate America’s agenda. AOC and The Squad have a naïve political framework that believes they are part of the same team and working for the same goals. If only the party leadership could see their value, so The Squad’s thinking goes, everyone could work together to pass progressive legislation like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All and win more electoral races.
In this struggle against the corporate elite and its institutions, sitting back waiting on the Democratic establishment to see the light of day and the leopard to change its spots is foolhardy. AOC’s victory and the expanded Squad are significant steps forward for progressive ideas and organizing around demands that would improve material conditions of workers, youth, the poor and the oppressed. But as long as AOC and The Squad are dependent on receiving validation from the Democratic Party establishment, their positive step forward for working-class politics will encompass two steps backward, locking working people in the prison of the (un)Democratic Party and its institutions.
The only force in society that can challenge the Democratic Party establishment, right-wing populism, and Wall Street is the working class, poor, and oppressed through popular social movements, constant social struggle, and organizations like labor unions. In this economic crisis and political instability, socialist ideas can find broader appeal. A new generation of activists and organizers born out of the George Floyd rebellion, COVID-19, and the recent great economic crisis are searching for a way forward. What AOC and The Squad do will matter significantly in the coming period.
Democratic Socialists Heading To Albany
In January 2021, the socialist movement will begin a new and vital phase of development as seven DSA members — State Senators Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport, and Assemblymembers Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, Zohran Mamdani, Emily Gallagher, and Jessica González-Rojas — enter the state legislature (despite being members, Gallagher and González-Rojas were not endorsed by DSA). They face an immediate question: how to close a $14 billion budget deficit in time for the State budget due March 31st: either with more austerity for the poor and working class, or new taxes on the rich. The Democrats are predictably split, with Governor Andrew Cuomo defending his billionaire donors while progressive organizations push to tax the rich, who have gained unbelievable wealth during the pandemic.
The DSA members will provide a powerful platform for our social movements in Albany against the corporate interests that dominate state politics. But what is the most effective way to challenge the political and economic establishment in the den of thieves and wolves that is the New York state legislature?
As we identified in July, DSA’s democratic socialist representatives, led by returning State Sen. Salazar, should form a socialist legislative caucus that will discuss, strategize, and organize to defend the interests of workers, poor and the oppressed. The argument of some in DSA against a socialist legislative caucus is that it would be a replay of the hated Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC). The IDC, who were Democratic members of the State Senate, formed their block and caucused with Republicans to block progressive legislation like rent reform. With these progressive groups’ pressure, the IDC was obliterated in the “Blue Wave” of the 2018 election, when Salazar was first elected.
Yet the comparison between a potential socialist caucus and the IDC is mistaken. A socialist legislative caucus would advance a working-class socialist program to push back against austerity. And it would be accountable to the working class, social movements, the program of DSA, and the broader socialist movement — completely unlike the villainous IDC, which relied on corporate donors and Republican support.
In addition to forming a formal caucus, the seven DSA members should work as a team with a message and approach that puts the working class’s needs front and center, and link their legislative activity to consistent grassroots organizing. As we also pointed out in July, DSA elected officials should build organizations in their districts — people’s assemblies — that would conduct monthly town hall meetings, including discussion, debate, and decision-making. These assemblies should organize working people, labor, socialists, and youth to win their legislative agenda and program. The people’s assemblies would also be a space to hold our elected officials accountable to the movement.
As we have witnessed in Chicago, with DSA’s elected alderman Andre Vasquez, and other progressive Chicago aldermen who voted in favor of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s austerity budget, we can expect DSA representatives to commit mighty betrayals if they, like Vasquez, accept capitalism’s logic and its two-party system. We should expect state and local Democratic parties to balance their budgets on the backs of workers and youth through cutbacks in social and public spending, because that is the history and nature of the Democratic Party.
Building an organization and the working class’s capacity to fight back through crucial campaigns like Tax the Rich, Stop the Layoffs, Defund the Police, and Cancel Rent will be paramount. Albany’s socialists must use their voices like a bullhorn, and their offices as an organizing center, to mobilize working people and the poor to challenge Cuomo, the Democrats’ centrist leadership, and the economic elite that dominate the political cesspool of Albany.
As SA also encouraged in July, the best way to challenge the failed leadership of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie would be for the socialists to propose Julia Salazar as Senate Leader and Marcela Mitaynes as Assembly Speaker. Both have a track record of leading fights on housing, a key issue as evictions ramp up statewide. Doing so would exhibit a serious approach to organizing and not just being happy to be in Albany. It would provoke a deeper discussion and debate about what type of leadership and vision is needed for New York’s working class and poor in this period of crisis and uncertainty. It would further assist in organizing the socialist legislative caucus, advancing a working-class socialist agenda, and serving as a North Star for other democratic socialist and progressive candidates and campaigns across the country.
The Time for Bold Socialist Politics Is Now
The movements for racial, economic, social, and environmental justice must use the effective tools of struggle of the working class, such as class politics, grassroots organizing, marches and strikes, if we are to succeed in the face of united Republican opposition and a dismissive Democratic establishment in New York, headed by Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie. The above strategies would set DSA elected officials, and the broader socialist movement, off on the right foot.
Unfortunately, we are already seeing important mistakes from New York’s democratic socialists. On November 30th, DSA failed to challenge Heastie for the Speakership. In September, State Sen. Julia Salazar endorsed Manhattan liberal Scott Stringer for New York City mayor, in what will be the most important citywide race of 2021. Yet Stringer has no interest in fighting Wall Street, and has continued to invest the city’s pension funds in private equity firms like Blackstone — a company rightly protested by DSA’s own Housing Justice Working Group for displacing low-income renters of color. As activists marched and occupied City Hall Park in June, Stringer’s NYPD budget reduction proposal didn’t fire a single cop, and only achieved about a quarter ($265 million) of the reasonable $1 billion cut demand of protesters — including DSA’s own Racial Justice Working Group. Despite these contradictions, there was no debate among DSA members about whether Salazar, DSA’s leading state elected official, should offer this early endorsement to Stringer.
These are unfortunately the signs of an organization whose electoral politics are not traveling in a socialist direction, but towards becoming the left face of the corporate Democratic Party. A healthy socialist organization carries a workers’ program that tells the truth about our class enemies, stands independent of the two parties of the bosses, and holds its public officials accountable. Socialist Alternative is proud to struggle in that tradition, as is marvellously expressed in the case of our organization’s three-term Seattle City Council Member, Kshama Sawant. For her success leading socialist struggle, Kshama is now facing a right-wing, anti-BLM recall campaign, and we ask our readers to please donate to and support that movement.
We are at a critical juncture as a state and city, with COVID-19, the economic and budgetary fallout, and worsening racial injustice. The last of these has been epitomized by the NYPD, which has gone off the leash at recent protests to arrest innocent BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ activists, and even assaulted the Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams, who is Black.
Our neighbor New Jersey has legalized marijuana and implemented new taxes on millionaires without any DSA representatives; DSA must push the envelope on the critical questions facing working people who are desperate for real solutions.
Albany will pass a budget in March and take its summer recess by June. In a tight timeframe, DSA must pose sharper working class, anti-oppressive politics from their elected officials’ high positions. Socialist elected positions, as reflected in the effort to recall Kshama Sawant, are not stable under the capitalist system of democracy. The capitalists parties want us defanged or removed from office — which is exactly what happened a hundred years ago, when both Republicans and Democrats in the New York State Assembly voted to expel the five elected socialists. But our politics have fertile soil to grow and make an impact, because working people see that capitalism is crumbling. Even the clock in Union Square now counts down until the globe’s carbon budget is exhausted, and we have only seven years to go.
For its part, DSA has no time to waste on developing a socialist program, establishing a socialist caucus, running their own candidate for State Senate leader, and organizing their districts and beyond to support the socialist program in Albany come January. SA stands ready to assist the socialist movement and debate the perspectives, program and strategy necessary to defeat the ruling class.