The old guideposts matter on new terrain

July 16, 2018

Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset in a congressional primary election against one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. House has inspired discussion and debate about how this campaign fits into the project of advancing the socialist left. SocialistWorker.org is hosting a dialogue in our Readers’ Views column. This installment has a contribution from Lucy Herschel.

The View from the 14th District

Lucy Herschel | My next U.S. Congress representative is most likely going to be a 28-year-old Bronx-born, Puerto Rican activist and proud socialist. I can truly say I did not see that coming.

This has been an interesting and exciting debate for interesting and exciting times. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning primary win is a sign that the political ground is shifting underneath our feet, and has sparked a timely debate on how socialists of all stripes need to orient to relate to the opportunities and challenges ahead.

As earlier letters have stated, the terms of debate that have unfolded here in Socialist Worker all start with the premise that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party that cannot, in the end, deliver socialism (or any real measure of working-class justice), and that an independent working-class party needs to be built.

However, the question has been raised about whether socialists can use the Democratic Party ballot line to break out of the isolation that the left has been in for decades, organize much wider layers of people behind a socialist platform, and build the basis for such an independent party at a future date.

Further, the question has been raised whether, if we as socialists “abstain” from these campaigns, we are isolating ourselves from influencing, learning from and growing with these exciting new developments.

In considering these questions, it’s important understand the Ocasio-Cortez campaign in context.

On the one hand, she is as part of a wave of insurgent and anti-establishment primary challenges within the Democratic Party, with our part of Queens being one epicenter of that rebellion. At the same time, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign has had more dynamism and energy than some of these other campaigns up to this point, precisely because she was a socialist and is seen as most oppositional to the Democratic Party status quo.

As such, I see Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, like Bernie Sanders’ before it, as having two different and overlapping, but distinct, drivers: 1) the mass appeal of socialist ideas and socialist politics to a working class that has suffered decades of neoliberalism; and 2) fury at the apparatus of the Democratic Party that people see as hollow, unrepresentative and unaccountable to the people who elect them.

This fury first came to a boil in this part of Queens a year and a half ago against one of our state senators, José Peralta.

At the end of 2016, right after the Trump election, Peralta announced that he was going to join the Independent Democrat Caucus (IDC), a group of Democrats in the state Senate who caucus with Republican and thus block a Democratic majority from acting. The IDC arrangement is widely understood to be supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo—and at least tolerated by the rest of the party machine—as a break on any pressure to pass progressive legislation.

Thus Peralta’s move was not just seen as treason on his part, but epitomizing everything that was rotten, hollow and unaccountable about the Democratic Party machine. Community forums were held and marches organized to take Peralta to task.

A layer of people involved in these protests against Peralta then moved on to the Ocasio-Cortez campaign, but others are working for two other local challengers, Jessica Ramos, who is running for Peralta’s seat in the state Senate, and Catalina Cruz, who’s running for the seat vacated by State Assembly member Francisco Moya.

In fact, three out of the four government representatives that people in my area could vote for this year (Cuomo, Crowley and Peralta, not counting Moya, who isn’t running) face or faced primary challenges from the left. The only one spared so far is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is frantically working to recast herself in the insurgent Bernie mold—she even announced her support for the call to “abolish ICE.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign has stood out from the others for the amount of energy and excitement it generated.

No doubt this is because she was the most left-wing and posed the most open challenge to mainstream Democratic Party politics. Her campaign energized a base of old and new members of the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA), some of whom are long-term socialists we in the ISO have worked with on various causes over the years and who recently joined DSA.

But the campaign also drew in a much broader layer of people. As one DSA member involved posted on Facebook, the campaign estimates that about one-fifth of the door-knocking and canvassing was done by DSA members, and the rest was done by a coalition of left and progressive activists, many of whom participated independently of any organized political group.

That certainly fits with my impression. Everyone from the director of the pre-school my kids attended, to other parents I know, to teachers I happened to run into, to local business owners and other neighborhood figures were involved. All sorts of people dedicated untold hours to knocking on doors, phone banking and stuffing envelopes.

At the same time, with the state primaries not being until September, much of that energy and dynamism has now fed back into the other campaigns. While most of the socialists in the campaign have moved on to work on DSA member Julia Salazar’s fight for a state senate seat in Brooklyn, many others have now turned to the other local primaries, and some are even making active plans to run for office themselves.

All these challenger campaigns have gotten a major boost from Ocasio-Cortez’s win and her ongoing support and appearances for those campaigns.

I think all of this is a sign of a growing radicalization and politicization of broader layers of people, but it comes with contradictions.

It seems inevitable that many people would first look to the electoral realm as the main arena to express their politics in any kind of ongoing, organized way. It’s also inevitable that this would begin within the confines of the two-party system and people wanting to “retake” the Democratic Party.

But this raises all sorts of questions that still need to be answered: Can the Democratic Party be taken over and be a force for a more just and humane society? How are we going to win things like universal health care and abolishing ICE?

These and many others are questions that are being raised on a mass scale. For me, this is all the more reason why we need to maintain and articulate an understanding of the history of the Democratic Party as the “graveyard of social movements”—as a party that, since the 1930s, has excelled at absorbing social movements and containing them within a capitalist framework.

This is why we need to continue to argue for independent politics and a movement that doesn’t rely on the ballot box, but our power in the streets and workplaces to fight for socialism.

In fact, these arguments are more important, not less so, as people begin to navigate this terrain. They need to be posed in a non-sectarian and honest way that seeks to unite with people in struggle and convince them over time.

But they need to be made openly and confidently in a way that I think precludes endorsing and campaigning for candidates on Democratic Party ballot lines.

To me, that is not “abstaining” from struggle, but figuring out how to engage politically. It’s challenging to figure out how to relate to the movement around a political campaign that we don’t endorse, but we have to figure it out.

I think the nature of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign potentially gives space for that engagement.

One of the most important things that distinguishes her campaign and election from other, non-socialist progressive challengers is the centering of movements and struggle in the fight for a better world. The only way to advance the positions on her platform is for movements in the street to grow and continue to shift the debate to the left.

This is the ground on which I think revolutionary socialists can most effectively engage. The reality is that the movements on the ground are still way too underdeveloped and episodic, but there is an opportunity now to push them forward in a qualitative way.

Imagine if Ocasio-Cortez called huge town hall meetings to develop a people’s platform that she brought to Congress. We’d want to be involved with that. If she is able to use her platform to promote specific movements and demands, whether that’s returning all the refugee kids being house in New York to their parents, or it’s against a particular deportation, or it’s against the targeting of BDS activists, we would want to be involved in that.

When she gets attacked from the right and/or red-baited in the general election, we have to figure out how to be part of defending her.

I’ll end by saying that my impression is that these debates on the utility of running on Democratic Party ballots lines are not unwelcome or alien to the socialists who have been involved in this campaign. And in all these debates and discussions, we should continue to keep our sights on the day that we have an independent, working-class movement based in class struggle with its own mass organizations and political parties.

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