Untangling the left’s Nixon debates

August 2, 2018

Jen Roesch writes from New York City on Cynthia Nixon’s outsider primary challenge against Gov. Andrew Cuomo — and the questions it raises for socialist organizations.

CYNTHIA NIXON’S Democratic Party primary campaign against despised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is generating enthusiasm and intense discussion on the left. After weeks of debate, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in New York endorsed her campaign last weekend.

The primary election will take place on September 13. Cuomo is far ahead in opinion polls, but a long-shot upset can’t be ruled out. Nixon is giving progressives and leftists inside the Democrats a positive alternative to Cuomo, a committed servant of corporate and establishment interests and a ruthless opponent of any genuine left challenge.

If Cuomo does win, this raises the question of whether Nixon would run against him in the November election as an independent, using the ballot line of the Working Families Party (WFP) — which is nominally independent and dedicated to progressive politics, but has typically backed Democratic candidates in general elections, including Cuomo’s two previous campaigns for governor.

New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon
New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon

The WFP’s support for Nixon against Cuomo this time — at the cost of incurring the wrath of the governor and the unions who support him — is another important aspect of the situation to assess.

But both Nixon and the WFP have said they won’t run against Cuomo in November if he wins the primary vote to be the Democratic candidate. So where will the WFP, the DSA and other left forces be left on September 14 if Nixon loses?

The question is especially important since there will be an independent, socialist challenge against Cuomo in November — from Green Party veteran Howie Hawkins, who won 4.9 percent of the vote against Cuomo four years ago, and whose running mate this time is Jia Lee, a teacher activist and member of DSA herself.

The Nixon campaign and the left’s response to it brings a new dimension to the discussions about socialists and electoral strategy following the surprise win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a congressional primary against powerful Democrat Joe Crowley.

Nixon is trying to position herself as part of the wave of insurgent left campaigns like Ocasio-Cortez’s. But Nixon and the WFP are firmly rooted in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, not DSA.

What does all this mean for the debate about elections, the Democratic Party and the left? This article will follow some of the different strands of the discussion.

What Does Cynthia Nixon’s Campaign Represent?

The Nixon campaign is benefiting from the enthusiasm and national media attention generated by Ocasio-Cortez’s victory.

Hours before a campaign forum held by New York City DSA in July, Nixon said that she sees herself as a democratic socialist. Her request for DSA’s endorsement prompted an extensive debate in DSA chapters across the city — one covered by the mainstream media.

While half the chapters voted against, an online poll of members showed stronger support for an endorsement, and the group’s citywide leadership body has now voted to officially endorse Nixon and her running mate Jumaane Williams.

Nixon says she identifies with democratic socialist ideas if that means believing basic needs like housing, health care and education should be a right, rather than a privilege. But her organizational ties are to the Democratic Party’s liberal wing.

As a letter opposing endorsement signed by more than 100 DSA members pointed out: “She has filled her campaign with personnel associated with Mayor Bill de Blasio, including her campaign manager, who helped write the mayor’s “affordable” housing plan  —  a Trojan horse for gentrification and mass displacement of poor, predominantly Black families.”

Nixon’s running mate, Jumaane Williams, has a long history as a progressive City Council member, particularly on issues of racial justice. But he is no outsider when it comes to Democratic Party politics as usual. Under pressure, he has agreed to refuse corporate campaign contributions in this election cycle, but he has long accepted donations from the real estate industry and police unions before this.

Moreover, Williams has a history of trying to appease conservatives on social questions like abortion, gay marriage and freedom of speech for BDS activists.

None of this changes the fact that the Nixon-Williams campaign represents a progressive challenge within the Democratic Party against a governor who has pursued an austerity agenda and worked with Republicans to secure the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

The campaign is a breath of fresh air for New Yorkers disgusted by attacks on public education, a deteriorating subway system and years of political corruption.

But their histories do show how Nixon and Williams are different from the DSA candidates whose campaigns are generating a new sense of energy on the left — and, more to the point, how that energy could be diverted, through someone like Nixon, into existing channels within the Democratic Party if socialists don’t put forward a different path.

A Predicament of Its Own Making

A lot of the left’s attention to the Nixon campaign has focused on the DSA endorsement, and understandably so.

But Nixon’s campaign is more deeply tied to the Working Families Party and its long-standing strategy of running progressive Democrats on its ballot line. As many new socialists inspired by the Sanders campaign explore the possibility of building a left-wing alternative within the Democratic Party, the experience of the WFP is worth assessing.

When the WFP broke ranks with Cuomo this year to support Nixon, Cuomo made it clear that he would retaliate against any of the unions or community organizations backing the WFP who went with Nixon. They might as well “lose my number,” Cuomo said.

It was a successful threat. On the eve of the party’s endorsement vote, the two unions that remained in the WFP pulled out in protest. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew chided the party: “When asked to behave responsibly, they react like children throwing a tantrum in the classroom.”

The loss of the unions that contributed the bulk of the WFP’s funding is a blow. But it’s clear that the discontent within the party’s ranks, especially among the community organizations that make up its activist base, had reached a breaking point.

Nevertheless, the party faces a looming crisis if Nixon loses to Cuomo — one that arises out of the contradictions at the heart of the WFP’s “inside-outside” strategy.

The WFP was founded in 1998 and was a successor to the short-lived New Party. The New Party had developed the idea of “fusion voting,” in which it would endorse major party candidates on its own ballot line, while also laying the ground for independent campaigns. It hoped to establish itself as a vehicle that could exert pressure on the Democrats to shift left, while building its own base of power.

In New York state, a party has to get 50,000 votes for its candidate for governor to maintain its ballot line in the next election. The WFP earned ballot status by getting 50,000 votes for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Vallone in 1998.

After that, the party fused community and union organizing with an impressive electoral canvassing operation that made it a real contender in local politics — as long as it didn’t challenge the Democratic Party itself.

Ultimately, the party’s successes tied it ever more closely to the inside part of the “inside-outside” strategy — by increasing the perceived cost of going against a known winner in the Democratic Party.

When Cuomo decided to run for governor in 2010, he put forward a neoliberal program of cutting wages for state workers, enacting pension “reform” and capping property taxes. The WFP, needing the 50,000 votes for its ballot line, endorsed him anyway.

Howie Hawkins, a socialist and Teamster UPS driver, ran as an independent on the Green Party ballot line and came in third. He only got 60,000 votes, but he proved that you don’t need to make a deal with Cuomo in order to keep a ballot line for a party outside the Democrats.

Nonetheless, the WFP pursued the same strategy four years later.

In 2014, Zephyr Teachout ran a primary challenge against Cuomo that won more than a third of the vote. For the general election, Cuomo played hardball and threatened to destroy the WFP by not running on its ballot line and depriving it of 50,000 votes. Liberal Mayor de Blasio intervened to engineer a deal in which Cuomo agreed to run simultaneously on the WFP line — and made a number of progressive promises to help the party save face.

Ted Fertik described the stakes at the time in an article for Jacobin:

Union leaders, considering the near-certainty of Cuomo’s re-election, his famous vindictiveness and his powerful influence over many of their members’ contracts, are convinced that there was never a worse time to deploy the “outside” weapon of the inside-outside strategy. The party’s future may well hang in the balance.

This was a moment of truth for the WFP. When push came to shove, its successes made it more, not less, vulnerable to the intense pressure, not just from Cuomo, but the array of forces that ultimately had tied their coattails to the success of the Democratic Party itself.

The Toll of the Road Not Taken

This illustrates in stark terms the reality at the heart of any strategy that tries to build up the left’s forces inside the Democratic Party: There will never be a time that a break doesn’t come at a considerable short-term cost.

But there was an alternative, as there is today. As I wrote for Socialist Worker in 2014:

WFP leaders could have taken the bold step of endorsing Howie Hawkins, and added the WFP’s institutional clout to a real challenge to Cuomo. In the process, they would have opened up possibilities for a genuinely independent political alternative in New York. But this would have meant abandoning the non-negotiable core mission of their party — that to which every other struggle and principle must bow: To be a loyal opposition attempting to pressure the Democratic Party to the left.

There was widespread support for this alternative among WFP supporters and rank-and-file union activists who were loathe to get behind Cuomo. Some 40 percent of delegates at the WFP convention voted against his endorsement, and plenty of supporters defected to Hawkins in the general election.

Hawkins and his running mate Brian Jones, a member of the International Socialist Organization, were able to consolidate some of this discontent. They won endorsements from six teachers’ union locals and several progressive Democratic clubs. With 184,000 votes, Hawkins tripled his total from 2010, receiving the most votes of any third-party candidate in decades.

Meanwhile, WFP leaders, along with supporters such as the Nation magazine, were forced to make the tortured argument that voting for everything people hated, but on the WFP ballot line, was the best way to advance a progressive agenda.

The Nation invoked DSA founder Michael Harrington in its editorial endorsement: “Yes, this is practical politics. But it is a practical politics of the left — what author and democratic socialist Michael Harrington used to refer to as ‘the left wing of the possible.’”

The WFP held onto its line, but just barely. As several unions began the stream of defections from the party, the activist base grew increasingly angry — especially when Cuomo failed to deliver on the promises he made as part of de Blasio’s deal.

This set the stage for the situation today. The WFP found itself in an untenable position: Endorse Cuomo for a third time and lose all credibility in a climate in which Bernie Sanders had shown the popularity of a Democratic primary challenge — or risk its funding and institutional clout, not to mention the wrath of a powerful governor, to back Nixon.

That the WFP chose the latter speaks to the desire for change among the party’s base. But unfortunately, it doesn’t signal a fundamental shift away from the inside-outside strategy.

The WFP already had a backup plan in place to move Nixon off the WFP line for governor if she loses the Democratic primary. The party’s political director, Bill Lipton, has stated multiple times that the WFP will not be a “spoiler” — by siphoning off votes from the Democrat that could lead to a Republican victory.

And while the WFP is supporting Nixon at the top of the ticket, it has endorsed a host of Democrats further down the ballot, some of whom could barely be considered progressive. Ironically, and much to the party’s chagrin, Joe Crowley remains the WFP candidate for the House seat where he lost the Democratic primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In endorsing Crowley over Ocasio-Cortez, the WFP was making the same calculated decision it has routinely: to back the candidate they thought would be the winner over the one that agreed with their progressive politics, in order to maintain influence and not alienate the Democratic machine.

The WFP is caught in a predicament that Howie Hawkins described well in an op-ed article: “I feel for rank-and-file WFP progressives. It’s an abusive relationship. They got double-crossed by Cuomo in 2014 when they endorsed him. This year, they got strong-armed by Cuomo when they didn’t.”

The future of the WFP hangs even more in the balance then it did in 2014. But the stakes for socialists trying to develop an electoral strategy are also high.

By endorsing Nixon’s campaign — which squarely accepts the limitations of the WFP’s method by renouncing an independent “spoiler” campaign — the DSA is endorsing a compromised strategy, and at exactly the moment that a real independent alternative could attract people.

DSA and the Endorsement Debate

THE NIXON endorsement debate within DSA has also shed light on the arguments that those committed to the Democratic Party at all costs will use against a left that hopes to use the Democrats’ ballot line for its own ends.

In an op-ed article for DSA’s website, Charles Lechner offered up “ten theses” on Nixon and socialism that downright bait his own organization. He writes:

The fact that so many of our active members are young and white, and so many leaders are young white men, creates the impression that we might be brash, arrogant, untrustworthy, temporary and not worth investing time in. It’s on us to correct such perceptions with our actions (such as endorsing Nixon/Williams), not with statements about our ideology/strategy (which make us look weird).

Lechner, a founder of People for Sanders, seems to lack any awareness that these were the same spurious arguments used by Democratic Party operatives against Bernie Sanders’ campaign two years ago. Equally ironic, they follow the reasoning of union leaders who have cut ties with the WFP and are supporting Cuomo.

These are arguments that the Democratic Party machine has always used to shame and isolate those who challenge it. The left should have no part of them.

Lechner’s argument is the stick, but the carrot offered in defense of endorsing Nixon has been the promise that this can be a means for the left to win meaningful victories. A statement signed by more than 90 DSA members in support of a Nixon endorsement argues:

It is not hyperbole to say that both of our citywide priorities [universal rent control and a single-payer health care system] live or die based on the Nixon/Williams bid for statewide office. No other candidates with a realistic ability to win this year have demonstrated anything close to the passionate support of our two priorities that Nixon/Williams have. The basic needs of millions of our fellow New Yorkers are on the line.

Leaving aside the fact that a Nixon victory is unlikely, the idea that our side will “live or die” based on who wins the governor’s office betrays a very narrow vision of socialism.

While there is ample reason to believe that Nixon would be more committed to left-wing causes than Cuomo, she would still face the institutional clout of Corporate America, which maintains a grip on both parties in power.

This transactional, electoral-based understanding of power is what drives left and working-class dependence on the Democratic Party beyond DSA. By the same logic, health care unions are backing Cuomo, despite eight years of attacks, because he has promised a safe-staffing bill that would benefit their members.

The DSA members who argued against an endorsement are right to insist: “We do not share this theory of power. We believe that our fight for socialism lives or dies by the working class fighting for themselves, not by who sits in the governor’s mansion.”

An Independent Socialist Campaign

The irony here is that there is a genuinely independent socialist alternative on offer in New York this year: the campaign of Howie Hawkins and Jia Lee.

Hawkins is a recently retired Teamster driver for UPS who has dedicated his life to building independent politics and working-class organization. He is actively involved in fights against fracking, for climate justice, against mass incarceration and much more.

Lee is a New York City teacher who was a leader in the fight against high-stakes testing — a campaign that forced Cuomo to put a moratorium on an evaluation system that linked teacher scores to student scores.

Both are socialists, and Lee is a member of the DSA. Whereas Nixon’s responses to the DSA candidate questionnaire gave vague lip service to democratic socialist values, Hawkins and Lee offered a bold vision. Hawkins wrote:

To me, socialism means the movement for self-emancipation by working class and oppressed people. Socialism means democracy. Rosa Luxemburg: “There is no democracy without socialism, and no socialism without democracy.”

Hawkins goes on to insist that socialism entails social ownership of the means of production, independent political action by the exploited and oppressed, uprooting racism and all other forms of oppression, and international solidarity by the working class and oppressed across borders.

It’s an inspiring vision that could connect with tens of thousands of people eager to learn more about socialism.

Socialists who are supporting Nixon contend that a third-party challenge like Hawkins-Lee is symbolic. If the definition of symbolic is that it has no real chance of winning, then this is inarguable. Then again, a Nixon victory is a long shot, too.

But if the goal is to deepen the influence of socialist ideas, present a genuine working-class alternative and lay the basis for political independence, then this campaign could represent an important step forward for our side.

More attention is being paid to what socialists have to say than has been true for decades. If ever there was a time for socialists to speak confidently for what they believe in, it is now. And if ever there was a campaign representing a vision that speaks to the desire for a socialist alternative at the ballot box, it is Hawkins-Lee.

Socialists have a choice. We can use the platform we’ve been given to further advance the idea that working class people ourselves have the power to fight for a different future, and build a political alternative at the ballot box reflecting that. Or we can tie our fortunes to candidates of a party that is willing to use us when it seems convenient, but will turn on us the moment we become a real threat.

Nixon has promised to give Cuomo a run for his money this year, but she has shown no commitment to seeing that fight through beyond that. By contrast, we know that Hawkins and Lee will be on the ballot in November — and will be with us in the struggles to come.

We have the opportunity to start now in laying the basis for a real alternative for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who won’t want to choose on Election Day between a Republican and a Democrat they despise.

Further Reading

From the archives