Building Power:

A Rebuttal to the Case Against Nixon/Williams

(To sign onto this statement, please go to https://goo.gl/forms/sYYesHvKRxmlSACZ2)

Photo via John Carl D’Annibale, Times Union

Earlier this month, 1533 members of the NYC DSA chapter participated in a non-binding straw poll regarding the question of whether to endorse Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams for governor and lieutenant governor. The overwhelming majority of NYC DSA members voted in favor of endorsing both candidates. It is clear that most DSA members support a chapter endorsement of these candidates in the upcoming statewide Democratic primary. There are many reasons to support this proposed endorsement. Yet our comrades have placed forth a series of somewhat contradictory arguments against the endorsement, which we seek to address.

1) Questions of capacity and strategy: These are tired arguments that echo past discredited talking points during earlier electoral endorsements, including the contentious endorsement process over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What we saw in the AOC campaign is that campaigns themselves build capacity and there is no reason to believe that with such enthusiastic support for Nixon/Williams, a similar dynamic won’t occur.

There is a clear and specific chapter strategy in place. Namely, canvassers will focus on Senate District 18 in which DSA member Julia Salazar is running a competitive primary against incumbent Senator Martin Dilan. Some DSA members have argued that this strategy makes little strategic sense, but the reality is that this district has not gone to a progressive challenger. The previous challenger, Debbie Medina, won about 40% of the vote in 2014 and 2016, for a number of reasons that are not relevant to this discussion. Nonetheless, Julia Salazar’s campaign has a lot of momentum but there is no guarantee of her election. Bringing additional energy to the campaign, including informing voters in the district about the importance of the broader statewide races, will only increase the likelihood that groups supportive of Salazar will turn out in on primary election day. Primary turnout is notoriously low (even during contested gubernatorial 2014 race, during which less than 10% of eligible voters turned out) and Salazar’s campaign will be won or lost by the campaign’s ability to get individuals to turn out to vote on September 13. And the changing “progressive” demographics of North Brooklyn does not guarantee much, as many of the newly arrived transplants do not necessarily change their registration to New York City despite maintaining a residence here.

Finally, the idea that the Nixon/Williams campaign would in any way take away from other NYC DSA campaigns is confusing. We could in fact easily integrate the endorsement into our NYHA and housing campaigns in a way that would actually support them. A Nixon endorsement would make canvassing for these issues easier because it would give canvassers a real “ask.” NYHA canvassers have been struggling to find a good way to engage canvassees other than telling them “call your state senator.” It’s an ineffective way to end a great conversation and feels incredibly unsatisfying. In addition, the lack of a state-wide ask also restricts NYHA canvassing to geographic districts with state senators opposed to the bill. Certain areas of New York do not have state senators who oppose the act so many branches cannot actually run canvasses within their own regions.

As for the resource concern: campaigning would be exactly the same as before, informing folks about the NYHA and universal rent control as we’ve already been doing. The only extra “work” would be taking 10 seconds to tell folks that they should vote for Nixon/Williams if they care about the issue and handing them a flyer. Asking for a vote gives folks a specific action that they can take, and the extended timeline of waiting until Sept 13th will make them keep our canvass in mind for longer. When they vote for Nixon, they won’t necessarily feel like they’re voting for the candidate, but rather for the issue — the issue that WE informed them about. This keeps our strategies still 100% focused on our main campaigns of housing and healthcare. Instead of detracting resources from those campaigns, a Nixon endorsement could contribute to and strengthen them.

In addition, we have to consider the winnability of our demands if Cuomo remains governor. The citywide campaigns are the NY Health Act, or single payer in NY, and the campaign to save rent protections, which are statewide laws that expire in 2019. Without a strong coalition of socialist and progressive allies in Albany to work together with the broader housing and healthcare movement, no amount of ‘mobilization’ will matter. Governor Cuomo will refuse to sign legislation, as he has done with broadly bipartisan bills such as the CUNY/SUNY maintenance of effort bills, and a newly elected senator Salazar will be far less effective in enacting her — and our — political vision.

2) Questions of accountability: Ultimately, there is no way to hold elected officials accountable except by the threat of replacing them. Social movements can institutionalize meetings and consultations with electeds — such as Larry Kranser in Philadelphia and hopefully with Ocasio-Cortez — but only by building electoral power, influence, and a canvassing operation as we have in the previous Brooklyn city council races, AOC’s race, and Julia Salazar’s race will DSA be effective at accountability. Concerns about holding Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams accountable seem ill placed at the moment. By putting in efforts to support Nixon and Williams, we will be demonstrating to Cuomo and Hochul — who could not be bigger class enemies and enemies of immigrants and grassroots New York movements — that we are political players willing to participate in statewide contests. In a time when most “progressive” organizations such as unions and non-profits like Planned Parenthood take a transactional calculus to endorse Cuomo/Hochul based on incumbency, it is of utmost importance that we refuse to participate in such a strategy. If we remain silent and fail to endorse Nixon and Williams, we are tacitly endorsing the current power structures, and weakening our own priority campaigns, by refusing to take a stance in this important primary.

3) Democratic socialist identity: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not call herself a democratic socialist until she attended many community events and saw the DSA’s presence, did her own research, and realized that the DSA’s values aligned closely but not 100% with her own. Likewise, Khader El-Yateem did not choose to campaign as an open socialist. Nixon and Jumaane call themselves democratic socialists and criticize capitalism. There is no evidence of “equivocation” or backtracking on this statement, as the anti-endorsement supporters have claimed. Many rank and file DSA members do not agree with all of the endorsed positions of DSA, nationally or NYC-based, and as a multi-tendency organization, this is a level of diversity that is fundamental component of our organization.

Relatedly, the idea that candidates’ less robust identification with democratic socialism will hurt the DSA is false. AOC has emphasized the multiple dimensions of her political identity, but our membership and meeting attendance has soared. Furthermore, the media has latched on to the idea of Nixon and Williams as socialist candidates, tying this to a broader national narrative of democratic socialists as an important political force in 2018. Nixon and Williams’ position as democratic socialists has already created further interest in DSA and endorsement will only continue to do so.

4) Electoral work v. building working class power: We reject the false dichotomy between electoral work and building working-class power. In fact, these two tactics can be complementary in pursuing various goals. We also reject any attempt to apply the strategies of the West Virginia teacher strikes and strikes in other areas to New York and the proposed single payer NY Health Act. These teachers’ strikes occurred under specific political and economic conditions, including the cooperation of school district leadership shutting down schools because of the prevailing conditions. Unlike Oklahoma or West Virginia, we have little reason to believe such mass teachers’ or other large-scale strikes would happen here in New York state. However, if there were conditions that created the opportunity for a mass workers mobilization and strike in New York, we have little reason to believe that a sympathetic governor and lieutenant governor would be a impediment to such an event. We note that many of these striking teachers, recently radicalized by their own political organizing, are now pursuing political office themselves, demonstrating their own endorsement of a diversity of tactics to build for political change.

5) Progressive Allies: The idea that we should not work together with progressive organizations like Make the Road and NYCC because they are “progressive” and thus hurt our “power” is a strange one. First of all, NYCC and MtR specifically did NOT engage in transactional politics in its endorsement of Nixon and Williams. Both organization have suffered immensely because of Cuomo’s vengeance. Secondly these organizations have deep ties in communities and areas of expertise of which we do not. (It should be noted NYCC engages in electoral politics because it seeks to build power and challenge entrenched political interests. As result of their effectiveness in challenging politics as usual, ACORN has faced right wing attacks. Following these attacks, ACORN rebranded as NYCC and continued to engage in a range of tactics to advocate for the low income and black urban communities. NYCC faces a similar attack to today from Cuomo for daring to endorse Nixon and Williams).

It is arrogant to assume that DSA is somehow uniquely positioned to build a mass working class movement and has the skills, resources, and community base to do so without working in coalition with progressive organization who have done this work for decades. We have 4000 members, the vast majority of whom are not active and mostly white, male, highly-educated, and tend to work in professional/managerial type jobs with higher than average incomes. We cannot be more effective until we mobilize more members and are able to work in coalition with more diverse and more highly connected organizations. We delude ourselves if we reject participating in electoral campaigns — especially those as publicized and contentious as the current governor and lieutenant governor’s races — as a key way to grow our strengths, both in activating existing members and drawing more diverse members. Ours in an organization that has experienced membership bumps because of successful and visible electoral work above all else. To build power, we must do the difficult work of harnessing this member energy into chapter-wide campaigns, pursued through the diversity of tactics that best fit our members’ abilities. Engaging in magical thinking about how we have some other way of building of mass working class movement by ignoring our strengths is willfully irresponsible at best and embarrassingly arrogant at worst. And approaching other community organizations with deeper ties to communities of color with a sense of superiority is bad optics and bad politics.

Before rejecting the NYCC and MtR as liberal allies, we should consider what these organizations have done — and how they distinguish themselves from a range of progressive advocacy groups that do not engage in electoral politics at all. NYCC is salting and rent striking. They are breaking up hedge fund board meetings and marching 1000 people on Cuomo’s fundraisers. They are taking arrests to fight gentrification and canvassing businesses against ICE in Sunset Park, while running free English classes in 8 neighborhoods — mutual aid, direct action, organizing, and electoral! Basically, their members are doing the same work as DSA. You can say whatever pros and cons about endorsement that you want. But misrepresenting the organization that’s out here doing the work alongside DSA all the time — on the Armory, on Jabari — is unfair and incorrect. NYCC is not sufficiently building working class power, but neither is DSA nor any other single organization. Building working class power in New York City, New York state, and beyond will require strategic alliances and the slow and often thankless work of movement building, through a range of complementary tactics.

6) Donations: Jumaane Williams’ campaign donations is a legitimate concerns for many members. However, the concept that electeds, who must run extremely expensive races, should limit their contributions is a relatively new standard that we should push our endorsed candidates to accept. Williams has taken our criticisms seriously and has worked with DSA members to create a new policy about campaign donations that will become public on Thursday.

7) Electoral Strategy: We reject the idea that NYC-DSA’s existing electoral strategy is a foundational and sacred text that cannot be democratically amended to fit changing political conditions. The strategy document was written during a time when our electoral campaigns were city council seats and since the AOC victory and the explosion of interest in DSA’s political process, we can reasonably say that the conditions have changed. The benefit of a democratically run organization is that we are free to adopt our internal policies as best needed. The overwhelming straw poll vote demonstrates that most members support a Nixon/Williams endorsement, suggesting that our existing strategy document may need revisiting.

8) Building Collective Power: Endorsing Nixon and Williams will help DSA to “build collective power.” First, it will help bring DSA to the forefront of class struggle in NY state, and thereby bring many unorganized voters who share our values into a socialist organization. Second, Nixon and Williams’ campaign will help raise voters’ standards by persuading them that they need not settle for the dull neoliberal politics of moderation pushed by the likes of Cuomo. When Nixon and Williams tell voters that they support such minimalist socialist policies as universal rent controls, single payer health care, free college tuition, and radical criminal justice reform, they are communicating to working people that we deserve more than what the market has unjustly distributed. By challenging the dominant political and social ideology, Nixon’s and Williams’ campaigns provide a unique opportunity to publicize one of DSA’s key ideas: that another world is possible. Finally, we must reject the sentiment implied in the statement that we seek only to create a movement that can pressure “the state regardless of who is in office.” The fact of the matter is that many politicians are simply immune to the degree of grassroots pressure that DSA will be able to muster in the near future. This was different during the post-war era when pressure from a strong domestic labor movement combined with pressure from the USSR and the third-world movement to force US conservatives to the left. The total absence of a strong international left means that it is especially pressing that we take advantage of opportunities to replace politicians who have little reason to fear us. Even if our most cynical fears are worries prove correct, and Nixon proves to be an unreliable ally, she will surely be far easier to pressure than Cuomo precisely because she has built her political reputation on being a grassroots progressive, not a moderate.

9) Fred Block and Marxist State Theory: While our comrades are wise to invoke the structural constraints laid out by Fred Block in his insightful essay on state theory, it’s puzzling as to why this counts as a strike against an endorsement. The point Block is making is that the state in capitalism is structurally dependent on private investment for its very reproduction because the production of goods and services is in the hands of those who own the means of production: the capitalist class. State actors have a structural incentive to choose to appease capitalist interests because any politician that oversees an economic crash will most likely pay the price in the next election. And this is the case even if they don’t pursue progressive legislation. These rules apply to both liberals and socialists. Acknowledging this fact, and the conclusion that the way to combat this bias is through organized workers disrupting profit margins, doesn’t add up to a substantial reason to oppose a Nixon endorsement. Quite the contrary; regardless of whether Nixon is a marxist deep down in her heart — and it’s not strategically that important — she’s traveling the state popularizing and activating people around our major campaigns, universal healthcare and universal rent stabilization. Win or lose, she’s increasing consciousness (whether it be class consciousness or merely policy consciousness) at a moment when both the ideology and material conditions of socialist transformation are in ascendance, and an endorsement of her campaign is a signal to the working class that we’re fighting for massive redistribution and against establishment hegemony. Similarly, Jumaane Williams’ positions on tenants rights, criminal justice reform, health care, and education further our broader goals of building strong working class consciousness. Nixon and Williams’ ultimate ability to succeed will largely benefit from our ability to provide organizational support for working people, many of whom will see someone in the governor’s mansion who ran on redistributive policies as a reason to believe the risks of organizing are worth taking. The historic parallel can be seen in the boost FDR’s election had to the labor movement in 1936. No doubt labor organizers had spent decades struggling against capitalists to give the New Deal any legs to stand on, but the institutional support provided by progressive politicians played a role in the strike waves and mass mobilizations from 1936 and afterwards.

10) Cynthia’s class position: There have been concerns that Cynthia Nixon is a “capitalist” because of her wealth and her ownership of real estate. While Nixon is far wealthier than the average New Yorker, we disagree that this represents a hard disqualifying event. Nixon’s wealth originates from a career in television, not as the result of benefitting over home foreclosures or other forms of anti-social financial investments. As Nixon explained during her endorsement meeting, she comes from a working-class New York City single-mother household, and thus her class origins are more closely aligned with those we seek to mobilize than many of NYC DSA’s membership. In fact, Nixon became an actor, beginning at age 12, because her mother explained that she would not be able to pay for Nixon’s college education. Claims that Nixon is a “landlord” are patently unfair, as the “rental property” is actually a home purchased for the fathers of her youngest child, who like many of us found living in NYC extremely expensive.

Although many have labeled her as a “capitalist” because of her ownership of stock, it is important to differentiate here between ownership of capital and control of capital. She has the former, but not the latter. The latter is much more important for us when we’re considering what our definition of a “capitalist” is and identifying our primary class enemy. 99% of what Marx said about “capitalists” would not apply to someone like Nixon who only owns stock. If she actually had any control over capital by being a corporate executive, on a board of directors, or by possessing enough shareholder value to significantly determine a company’s decisions, then she would legally be required to wage class war against workers. This is not the case and making such an argument is demonstrates a crude understanding about the means of production.

It is clear from Nixon’s long history of public education activism that Nixon’s class origins and fundamental sense of class solidarity has remained a key part of her identity. Very few in the entertainment industry advocate for redistributive politics like Nixon’s. The significance of her educational plans represents a revolutionary interjection in our current neoliberal, privatized approach to education. Nixon’s choice to send all three of her children to public school, and to use her free time to fight for improving the education for not her own children, but all 2.6 million children attending New York State public schools, demonstrates Nixon’s tangible investment in class and racial solidarity.

Signed:

In NYC DSA

Susan Kang, Queens
Cale Brooks, Lower Manhattan
Danya Lagos, Central Brooklyn
Michael Cavadias, Lower Manhattan
Justine Medina, Queens
Daniel Cheng, Lower Manhattan
Kayla Santosuosso, South Brooklyn
Kara Nowakowski, Queens
Rosa Squillacote, Bronx/Upper Manhattan
Sarah Mills, Bronx/Upper Manhattan
Jennifer Gaboury, South Brooklyn
Bader AlAwadhi, Bronx/Upper Manhattan
Courtney Lee Adams, Lower Manhattan
Miriam Bensman, Queens
Abdullah Younus, South Brooklyn
Alex Leitch, South Brooklyn
Osman Chaudhary, North Brooklyn
Jay Schaffner, Lower Manhattan
Alexis Kaloyanides, Queens
Michael R. Jackson, Bronx/Upper Manhattan
Rafael Noboa y Rivera, Queens
Duncan Bryer, North Brooklyn
José C. Sanchez, Central Brooklyn
Scarlett Ahmed, Queens
Luke Elliott-Negri, Central Brooklyn
Sam Schachter, Queens
Chris Stevenson, North Brooklyn
Renee Greene Levitt, Bronx/Upper Manhattan
Zachary T. Rouse, Queens
Casey L., Queens
Maia Rosenberg, North Brooklyn
Peter Hogness, Central Brooklyn
Dana Steer, NYC-DSA “Sing in Solidarity” Chorus
Moumita Ahmed, Queens
Natalie James, Central Brooklyn
Jenny Dubnau, Queens
Shaniyat Chowdhury, Queens
Noah Abraham Weston, South Brooklyn
Katie Halper, Bronx/Upper Manhattan
Winnie Wong, Lower Manhattan
Linda Sarsour, South Brooklyn
Dan DiMaggio, Labor

Virginia Bechtold, Central Brooklyn

Josh Youngerman, North Brooklyn

DSA members outside of NYC
Michael Bakshi
Maddie H.
Adam Leeds
Nicholas Kiersey
Ben Poremski
Adam Bojak
Brian Escobar, Syracuse DSA
Shana East, Chicago DSA
Greg Laynor
Amanda Klein
Matt Huber