Are Ya Winning Comrade: Organizing for Power

With so many of them occurring as of late, it always gives a warm feeling to think back to the first major electoral win of the New York socialist left. We wept, we laughed, we sang. One of us was heading to government. Open socialists could fight and win. Our time had come. The year was 2001 and Charles Barron was the newest member of the New York City Council.

You’d be easily forgiven if you’d thought that this sea change in New York politics occurred in late June 2018 with the momentous upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — mostly because you’d be right. Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and Brooklyn politics fixture, holds — as many New York politicians do — an idiosyncratic mixture of odd, bad and good policy positions but more often than not has been on the side of renters, people of color, workers. Regardless, the arrival of a self-described black radical and socialist was not the harbinger of a decade of tenant protections, workers claiming the fruit of their labor or the end of an ever-expanding carceral state — in fact, it was quite the opposite.

Why then did the arrival of Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez — and the subsequent election of Julia Salazar to the state senate — serve as the prologue to an unprecedented win for renters with the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 and the defeat of the world’s richest man’s ambitions in Queens through NoAmazon in the following 12 months?

The answer is organization. That organization? The Democratic Socialists of America.

A frequent theme in the 2020 state elections as well as the 2021 council ones has been frequent discussions of the quality of non-DSA candidates — particularly those locked in races against those endorsed by the organization. Someone is a “good person”, “involved in their community” even in some cases “a socialist”. What difference does it make if they sought and won the endorsement of this sometimes electorally oriented, sometimes legislatively oriented, sometimes political education oriented non-party party?

It’s a good question! In one case — the Brandon West and Shahana Hanif race — it has played out in various discussions, arguments, hot takes and posts and I personally at least — when engaged in the *democratic* discussion of endorsements we undertook last year — was open to endorsing both in an RCV strategy or endorsing neither in deference to their relative merits. I’ve never had a bad word to say about Shahana, an open socialist and Bernie delegate. Similarly a few times that I’ve tried to critique folks support of Evie Hantzoupolos strictly on the basis of her aid work I believe there’s been a misunderstanding that I somehow think what she has done is not essential amazing work — my issue is not that work but rather what it lacks -> organization.

Consider the following — DSA is an organization that beyond achieving high profile wins like those of Marcela Mitaynes or Phara Souffrant Forrest or Tiffany Caban has a few core differentiators vis a vis most political actors in this city:

  • DSA wins elections, yes, but it also builds folks that can elect people. Every campaign there is a new amazing canvasser, a brilliant mobilizer, a data guru, an organizer of organizers or an underliner. Some of these folks go back to their day jobs each July (most never leave them!) and some become prominents staffers of socialist electeds. What the grand majority of them hold in common, is that they will be knocking those doors again come January for the next batch of DSA-endorsed candidates.
  • DSA has a platform. Public Power, Housing For All, a New York Health Act. I find the WFP to be an admirable organization but despite being a literal political party its non controversial to say one would find it hard to argue it exercises its party line in the way that DSA does via its elected representatives and endorsements.
  • Those same people who got so good at knocking doors, textbanking, mobilizing act in concert — via a number of NYC-DSA Working Groups such as Immigration Justice, Racial Justice, Ecosocialist — on not just holding the party line on these key issue based fights but organizing outside of the state apparatus to ensure they are enacted.

Look no further than the amazingly gigantic #TaxTheRich campaign last winter and spring where thousands of DSA members or DSA curious people jumped onto phonebanks or hung doorhangers exhorting constituents to call their electeds to sign on to the 6 bills of the Invest In Our New York Act while our Socialists in Office caucus of electeds fought for them in Albany. (It should also be noted how the bills themselves were largely drafted by the maniacally smart people in NYC-DSA’s Debt and Finance Working Group).

Would Evie Hantzopoulos be a champion of these campaigns and work in close coordination with our working groups? Its possible, perhaps even probable! Ultimately though there are 3 core issues standing between New Yorkers who just want good upright people representing them and anything remotely resembling progress:

  • There has yet to really have been a case of an elected who is neither a DSA-endorsed elected, such as Phara or Jabari, or elected who also happens to be a DSA member, such as Ron Kim or Jessica Gonzalez Rojas, who has really worked with the organization at the level of these two cohorts — the first of these two having a level of integration to the point that our electeds policy shops and our working groups are virtually indistinguishable and in constant feedback and reinforcement.
  • Good people getting elected doesn’t scare other electeds, organizations or Capital. An occasional primary upset may scare some other electeds in their immediate proximity or those who represent similar demographic constituencies but ultimately as these members become part of the state and Democratic Party apparatus — and considering their policy platforms exist as web pages not living campaigns of thousand of people working towards say a New York Health Act — they are not seen as a significant carrot or stick to other electeds.

In the case of DSA electeds there is unequivocally an “election impact zone” wherein electeds who share constituencies with DSA representatives suddenly become champions of Public Power, a New York Health Act, Abolishing ICE. Now they could be cynical liars, they could be folks whose hearts Grinch-like have suddenly grown or they could be honest great wonderful people who wanted to support these policies all along but never had the political cover to do it. I don’t really like to psychoanalyze them for many reasons but one is that it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to personally know or understand Jimmy Van Bramer’s inner motivations to see that he has become a significantly, materially more “left” figure in positions, endorsements and any other expression of politics since 2018.

  • Lastly — good people sometimes have to do bad things. There are many electeds for whom I have a soft spot in my heart. Some have fought for years on essential fights, others are dues paying DSA members. Ultimately though — if Carl Heastie wants something done he always has a lever he can pull in “defunding” — funny we thought the establishment hated this word — important work, initiatives or organizations in their districts. Corey Johnson did precisely this to Jimmy Van Bramer, Antonio Reynoso and others after their votes to not support a budget without a real defunding of the NYPD.

Now some may say that to a hammer everything looks like a nail but I wouldn’t insult Carl’s intelligence like that. I think he’s a sharp guy — as are most of our leadership in the Democratic Party — and knows what levers work best and when. So while there is nothing stopping him from using the same techniques to pressure Zohran Mamdani out of a vote, a sponsorship, an endorsement Zohran has a great and pretty incontrovertible answer that is totally rational to a shrewd politico like Carl, “Sorry my hands are tied on this due to the vocal, effective, persuasive and numerous activists within my political home: DSA”.

As Marc Maron asks, “Who are your guys?” A very great and committed elected with pristine politics simply doesn’t have this lever to contest leadership with — they don’t have “these guys (& gals & nonbinary comrades)”. In the case of many of the NoIDC electeds, WFP electeds — often very good sincere people this defense does not exist, can not be invoked and will almost certainly be exploited.

So where does this leave us? I would say with a few key conclusions:

  • The election of radicals doesn’t challenge the consensus of capital and the state. The election of radicals — by radicals and for radicals — does. Elections elect people sure but more importantly they scare the shit out of people if and largely only if they are part of a broader and coordinated organized effort.
  • Twitter isn’t real life they say to us, so we should say it to them too. Many folks — even those quite committed to NY Politics, City and State readers, progressives etc. still fail to grasp that there is an almost infinite gap between politicians who support (tweet about, town halls about, perhaps even sponsor) a bill like the New York Health Act (Sponsored by nearly all! Still in the legislative dustbin!) and those that will fight endlessly to see it passed, like Jabari Brisport. Much support for legislation helping working people is kayfabe, many friends in Albany are fake friends.
  • To these ends if you want to see a New York with dignity for all, universal benefits, great vibes and happy families you should join the Democratic Socialists of America (dsausa.org/join). Once you join you should work to enact our democratically decided priorities and in a great many cases this means giving real material support to our candidates and not equivocating by supporting those running against them.

Now discipline is a word often associated with punishment or retribution but for us it means more the discipline it takes to go to the gym daily or practice piano. For us discipline means working together to achieve great things for working people. I hope that going forward we can be disciplined as Lenin, but as kind as Kermit in discussing these sometimes contentious issues but whenever we can — it’s essential to be working from the same shared premise: No bad actor standing between us and progress is scared of any one elected — no matter how progressive no matter how popular — the bad actors are scared of us!

Us is an amorphous group at times, for me it certainly means DSA and in coalition has meant Sunrise, DRUM, WFP, Make the Road, NYCC, the Jewish Vote, Indivisible and a bunch of unaffiliated but amazing volunteer organizers. The task before us is to absorb these lessons of organizational discipline — minimally within DSA but I would hope in the broader left as well — and perhaps in working in unison we’ll get a glimpse of this better world we keep telling ourselves is possible.

Queens DSA