This year New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) endorsed Cynthia Nixon for Governor and Jumaane Williams for Lieutenant Governor in the Democratic Primary. The decision was not made lightly — it required three of NYC-DSA’s six geographic branches to vote in favor of the endorsements, as well as a super-majority vote by the group’s 35 member Citywide Leadership Committee, of which I am a member. Throughout the long endorsement process, members debated how the organization could hold these candidates accountable to its principles, what its role in the election would be, whether the candidates’ newfound embrace of the ‘democratic socialist’ label was sincere, and how a gubernatorial endorsement might benefit or detract from our other work.
Ultimately, the organization narrowly cleared the level of support necessary for endorsement. Whether they voted for endorsement or not, most members agreed Nixon probably wouldn’t win. The reasons for supporting a “won’t-win” candidate were varied — the opportunity to popularize socialist ideas, the chance to use the campaign to expand the organization’s reach through canvassing, and the chance to be part of a coalition of organizations advancing a major challenge to the Democratic political establishment in New York State.
The endorsement allowed NYC-DSA to accomplish all of these goals and more. Members had substantial influence on her platform, injecting key issues such as the right to strike for all workers into the political debate. NYC-DSA developed a field plan for the gubernatorial election that focused in the district where there was already a socialist State Senate candidate, and delivered a strong showing for Nixon (45%) and an overwhelming victory for Williams, as well as for our local candidate in the targeted area. Not only that, but with Nixon at the top of the ticket, backed by NYC-DSA, the organization was able to be a key part of a state-wide political insurgency that unseated seven Democratic Senators from the left and has the potential to reshape politics in Albany next year.
One lesson from the Nixon campaign is that there can be a lot of value in endorsing a won’t-win candidate. Two years earlier, in 2016, another won’t-win candidate, Bernie Sanders, lost the presidential primary by 4 million votes but sparked a nationwide democratic socialist movement. And occasionally, as in the case NYC-DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a won’t-win candidate actually does win.
Now NYC-DSA members are asking — what about Howie Hawkins?
Even among those who agreed that endorsing Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic Primary was the right move, some believe that with the primary over and Cynthia Nixon removed from the Working Families Party line, the organization has nothing to lose by endorsing the *real* socialist candidate on the Green Party line.
Howie isn’t a millionaire celebrity; he’s a working class teamster from upstate New York. He’s not a newcomer to democratic socialist politics, but a radical activist with decades of experience. With Cuomo seemingly safely on his way to reelection, how could it hurt for NYC-DSA and the rest of the left to coalesce around a Green Party run?
The reason to reject Howie Hawkins is that he is a *can’t-win* candidate, not a won’t-win candidate. While a won’t win candidate may face daunting odds, running with limited funds, minimal name recognition, and no establishment support, a can’t-win candidate is someone who, by virtue of a deeply flawed strategy, has no path to victory at all. Supporting won’t-win candidates can open new political opportunities, supporting can’t-win candidates is a political dead end.
The Green Party differs from DSA in that they reject any use of the Democratic ballot line or Democratic primaries. They view each election on their line as a step towards overturning the “corporate duopoly” and see each vote cast in a Democratic primary, or for a Democrat in the general election as a vote of endorsement for the status quo. The fact that this strategy has so far been a failure is indisputable. Despite boasting over 150 local elected officials and almost 250,000 registered Green Party members across the country, the Green Party has not held a single US congressional seat or won a single statewide election in any of the 50 States since they started campaigning in 1985. Not only do they not win, but if a Green Party candidate were to receive Cynthia Nixon’s 34% of the vote in a Statewide election anywhere, that losing candidate would be by far the party’s most successful, and likely on the short list for a presidential run. Jill Stein, for example, rose to be the party’s presidential candidate by winning 3.4% of the vote (one tenth of Cynthia Nixon’s disappointing primary percentage!) in her first run for Governor of Massachusetts, and then declining to 1.42% in her second.
The oft cited “spoiler effect” is the most obvious reason that this strategy is doomed to fail — votes that go to the Green Party rather than the Democratic Party have the potential to allow a Republican to take office with only a plurality, rather than a majority of the votes. A rational voter who prefers the Green Party to the Democrats but doesn’t want to see a Republican in power will feel compelled to vote for their second choice. This issue is raised enough that the Green Party addresses it on the Frequently Asked Questions section of their website:
Crying “spoiler” … conceals the failures of the larger political parties’ candidates. In 2000, about 308,000 Florida Democrats voted for George W. Bush, while only 24,000 voted for Ralph Nader and nearly 3 million voters didn’t bother to vote. Nevertheless, Mr. Nader was blamed for Al Gore’s loss by Democrats who also ignored possible GOP election theft in Florida (more than 173,000 voters were purged), a biased Supreme Court ruling that handed Mr. Bush the White House, and Mr. Gore’s own weak campaign.
This answer is striking. According to the Party, it’s unfair to accuse their most successful presidential candidate ever of spoiling the election he ran in because *he got so few votes* he shouldn’t even be included on the list of things that tipped an extremely close race.
Of course, for socialists in NYC-DSA who are engaged in a serious project to build independent political power, this answer can’t be satisfactory. We’d have to ask: what if Howie Hawkins got 34% of the vote like Cynthia Nixon did, or 29% like Green city council candidate Jabari Brisport did with NYC-DSA’s endorsement and support? What if he got five hundred thousand votes, or two million? Even if we accept the Green Party’s view that their candidates have essentially no impact on US politics at the moment (a position for which there is substantial evidence), the more successful they are, the more likely they are to empower the far right. This simple dynamic, which seems endlessly difficult for the socialist left to grapple with, is understood instinctively by millions of voters. For our political project to succeed we will need to win over most of the Democratic Party’s base — tens of millions of union members, Black and Latinx voters, and young people. Left of center voters understand the danger of anti-union, anti-worker, racist and sexist policies being put forward by the far right, and vote accordingly. Whatever the benefits of building an independent third party, if we want to win these voters over to an ambitious, socialist political project, we need a strategy that invites them to join a mass movement without laying the groundwork for catastrophe. Any strategy that doesn’t take that dilemma seriously is one that the potential socialist base will reject outright, which is by and large the experience of the Green Party, who continue to get single digit percentages in election after election.
The fact that their strategy itself is ill-suited to the most key contests in the US electoral system means that Green Party candidates, with rare exceptions, are not just won’t-win candidates, but can’t-win candidates.
Even if socialists do restrict our focus to candidates with a path to victory, though, we still need to determine how to proceed in the general election in instances when our candidate loses the primary. In France’s last presidential election, the winners of their presidential runoff were Marine Le Pen, a neo-fascist, and Emmanuel Macron, a new face for an all too familiar neoliberal politics. Narrowly losing the first round election to these two was the radical socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who campaigned on holding a constitutional convention and the implementation of maximum income and maximum wealth caps. Having lost the election in the first round, Mélenchon first refused to concede or make any endorsement. After a few days, facing the specter of a neo-fascist presidency, he announced that he would be voting, and not for Le Pen, but still came short of full-throated support for Macron.
In the United States we don’t have a runoff system, but arguably we have something rather unique that should be understood as a dual runoff. The Republican and Democratic Parties have little to no control over their government-regulated primary elections, nor to they have the power to regulate their own membership, as European parties do. They cannot enforce party discipline through a binding platform, by expelling members, or by denying their party line to disfavored candidates. The primaries are more or less open to anyone who wishes to contend, and effectively represent two first-round elections, one for the right of center and one for the left of center.
Having supported Cynthia Nixon in the first round and lost to Andrew Cuomo, NYC-DSA should pick between two choices — offer an endorsement to Cuomo, or simply sit out the election. For the French left, facing the possibility of a Le Pen presidency, there was substantial pressure to endorse Macron, and many leading figures did. For NYC-DSA, as Andrew Cuomo cruises (or perhaps more accurately steamrolls) his way to reelection, continuing to criticize his austerity politics, making no endorsement, and living to fight another day seems the better option.
What we shouldn’t do is endorse Howie Hawkins. We competed in this election, running a candidate who wasn’t going to win, and it gave us the opportunity to popularize our ideas, compete for the votes of millions of Democrats who we’ll eventually need to win over, and explore what it means for our grass-roots electoral operation to engage in politics on the statewide level. We lost, but we lost well. Endorsing a candidate who can’t win doesn’t further any of these goals, and doesn’t offer any path out of the current morass. It would be nothing more than a giant step backwards on the long road out of marginality for the US left.