The November New York State election was a teachable moment for anticapitalists hoping to make a difference using the electoral arena. Even though the media cycle has moved on, it’s worth taking a look at the lessons learned.
First, a look at some organizing success. Cathy Rojas, the Party for Socialism and Liberation mayoral candidate in New York City, took on Democratic Party candidate Eric Adams. Rojas countered Adams’ pro-corporate and pro-police policies with a socialist platform of clear and appealing demands to resource and empower the working class. Rojas and the PSL made the principled decision to run on their own party line, gaining ballot access as a socialist candidate separate from the Democrats. Despite hurdles thrown their way, like being barred from televised debates, Rojas won nearly 25,000 votes, or 2.5% of the overall tally. This was more than the other third party candidates combined, a remarkable achievement.
While Rojas’ campaign didn’t win the office, it did gain historic support for a socialist mayoral candidate, and went far to educate voters about logical socialist solutions for NYC. Rojas’ efforts also helped kick start resistance to Adams’ conservative agenda, which will no doubt bring more of the same poverty and police violence that we must organize against.
As Rojas’ outsider campaign helped expose the true nature of the corrupt two-party system, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member India Walton’s Buffalo Mayoral campaign inside the Democratic Party was betrayed by the very party she is a member of. Walton’s failure at the polls revealed just how dangerous it can be for working-class advocates to trust the treacherous Democratic Party.
Walton’s mayoral campaign was trounced by incumbent Byron Brown, who lost to her in the primary, but rallied back to beat her by wide margins in the general election. There were major strategic mistakes made by Walton’s campaign that hampered her effort. After winning support from the Buffalo teachers union, she then lost much of it when she spoke in support of charter schools at a campaign event. An experienced socialist would know that charter schools are a capitalist design to defeat the teachers union and privatize public education.
But this and other gaffes weren’t the fundamental reasons Walton lost. She failed to win because her campaign was smashed by the Democratic Party establishment. Brown, who is deeply connected to real estate and other big business interests, aligned with Republicans and Democratic Party leaders to organize a major write-in mobilization against Walton. His efforts were helped by NY State Governor Kathy Hochul and others who refused to endorse Walton, including the state party chair who outrageously compared endorsing her candidacy to endorsing KKK grand wizard David Duke.
If Walton and DSA leadership made one mistake, it was underestimating the lengths the Democratic Party will go to destroy a left challenge to its power. Brown’s counterassault is proof that this political club is no open institution to convert to socialist ideas. It is, in fact, the oldest capitalist party in the US, and incapable of being a vehicle for working class interests.
While the NY State Democrats were fighting Walton’s campaign, they were markedly absent from the fight to pass their own proposed state ballot measures. These measures would have established voting rights reforms had they not been overwhelmingly defeated at the polls.
Two ballot items that would have helped establish same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots were rejected by 60 percent of voters. The credit goes to a successful racist, fear mongering ad campaign by NY State Republicans that summoned the spectre of voter fraud by immigrants that went completely unchallenged by the Democrats.
NY State Democrats did virtually nothing to promote the ballot measures and contest the right wing lies about them. They didn’t have a single television ad in support of the measures, and the Democratic Governor Hochul never once spoke in support of them. Not only did this tepid response lead to the failure of the ballot measures, it also gave the right wing open season for their racist scapegoating, and left out to dry the people of color, poor and disabled folks who need their voting rights protected and expanded.
Like in NY State, the Democratic Party nationally has wholesale conceded the field of battle over basic rights to the right wing. Why do the Democrats fail to even put up a fight? Because they don’t want to build strong movements that could disrupt the status quo. Brown, Hochul and the rest know their main job is to maintain stability for corporate profits, something they’ve been very successful at thus far. It says everything that instead of putting effort behind reforms that they themselves got on the ballot, they chose instead to viciously fight a progressive young Black woman running for office.
The stakes are only getting higher. The right wing is emboldened by their recent victories to continue their racist, sexist and transphobic onslaught. It’s the job of socialists to explain how these attacks are a result of the growing crisis of capitalism. This is a system that doesn’t just use the right wing as an attack dog to defend itself, but also depends on the Democratic Party to keep movements in check and tamp down rebellion. Just as the Democratic establishment snuffed out Walton, we can be sure it will do everything it can to neutralize DSA reformers who managed to win seats.
While this suppression and the rising right wing are certainly motivation for socialists to gear up efforts, those hoping to build a strong left should be encouraged by the positive potential of the moment, too. There’s growing support for an alternative to both capitalist parties, and the time is ripe for truly independent socialist electoral projects that inspire, educate and connect with the working class.
Such efforts have to begin with honesty about the true nature of the Democrats and the rigged two-party setup. When our campaigns are armed with this truth, they not only challenge the corrupt electoral system, but help build a revolutionary movement for the deep and lasting change we so urgently need.