By Charles Lenchner
With Cynthia Nixon’s campaign and DSA’s consideration of endorsing her, the points below are meant to contextualize her fight for governor in the broader battle for socialism.
1.“Democratic Socialism” is a long standing current on the left that has many adherents. Some strong, some weak. Some new, some old. Some in DSA, and mostly not. Any urge to create an identification between the “demsoc universe” and the organization Democratic Socialists of America ought to be resisted, especially by DSA. The community of demsocs is more important and more powerful in its diversity. An effort to narrow that down to what DSA happens to be at any given moment is off-putting to many of our closest allies and future supporters.
The kind of mentality that inserts one’s own organization as ‘the crucial element’ for social change is called sectarianism, even when it might be a little true.
2. Karl Marx made it clear what “politics” is. It is the struggle between classes over allocation of resources and modes of production. DSA represents no distinct class, no particular demographic constituency in the modern political sense. Like many organizations on the left it seeks to represent the working class. That’s an ambition, not a reality. Humility is in order.
3. If DSA was representative of the American working class, we’d be close to a majority of people of color as members. A sizable chunk wouldn’t speak English well enough to follow a chapter meeting. That’s not even on the horizon and probably won’t happen — ever. The implication here is that even if we were 10 times the size — 500k dues paying members — our power would still flow from coalitions, in particular with community-based organizations that represent poc, seniors, ethnic groups and so on at the neighborhood level.
4. A “constituency” in modern political terms is a demographic with defined features that behaves predictably at the ballot box or some other arena. Think of race, gender, geography, marital status, income, education, consumer purchasing habits, religion and so on. It’s arguable that some parts of North Brooklyn have a DSA ‘constituency’ in the form of young leftists, mostly not born there, with college education and paying market rent. But compared with say, Latinos in public housing, Italian seniors, homeowners, or animal lovers, etc. it’s barely a thing.
The lack of defined constituencies that vote and volunteer predictably as either democratic socialists or DSA supporters will take years to address. Decades even. Until it does, quite a bit of humility is in order. Even in places where we feel victorious (Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s district in the Bronx and Queens) there is no ‘democratic socialist voter base.’
5. Organizations and community leaders that do have real constituencies have been in our neighborhoods since before DSA was a thing. They’ve built real power, for years or decades, and earned loyalty from people with a material, personal, cultural and political self interest in those relationships.
We should be cultivating healthy and productive relationships with those forces, who are more ‘representative’ of the working class than we are. That means not openly competing with them for members or prestige, but looking for win-win, transactional and community based relationships that go deeper than this or that campaign.
That kind of mindset doesn’t yet have traction among most of our members and in most of our chapters, which reflects fast growth, younger leaders, the transiency of modern American life, and political inexperience. On those grounds, humility and a dedication to building those relationships is very important for our continued growth and political success.
(A previous version of this article used the term ‘elders’, which I’ve replaced with a clearer description of my argument.)
6. The political field of battle has a front line: those conflicts where power and resources are fought over and won. This does not include chapter infighting. It does including state-wide elections, union/employer conflicts, tenant battles, and civil rights struggles.
In each arena of struggle, DSA must decide who to stand with, if at all. With our growing visibility, decisions to stand aside are as momentous as decisions to take action. We are being watched by the community and political leaders around us, many of whom have seen themselves as democratic socialists for longer than most of our members have been members.
When constellations of these groups and leaders prioritize a particular struggle, and we choose to stand aside, we are making a statement about the kind of relationships we value. The more prominent the struggle, the more consequences for us when we stand aside. But not in the sense that anyone is blackmailing us to fall in line or exerting pressure, more like we are being watched, our measure is being taken, folks are curious, suspicious, hopeful, or irritated. 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.)
7. Cynthia Nixon is a long-time progressive activist who has identified as a socialist in the past. She has agreed to take on the fight against corporate Democrat Andrew Cuomo at great personal cost, as part of an alliance of community organizations who were actively seeking a champion. Those organizations (in part) have political constituencies and deep community relationships that go back decades, which DSA mostly does not. Snub Nixon, and you snub large parts of those organizations, those activists, those constituencies. We lose by doing nothing, and gain even if we do very little.
8. The conversation about ‘holding politicians accountable’ appears frequently in our conversations, and reflects political immaturity. Of course we want accountability – so does everyone else. There are entire industries devoted to that concept – we usually call them ‘lobbyists’ or ‘C4 organizations’. The nature of our political system gives previously elected politicians enormous advantages over the allies who who helped them win the first time, and that imbalance grows over time. The song and dance we might do with interviews, mass meetings, questionnaires, etc. doesn’t actually impact that imbalance.
What does have an impact is long term relationships, community allies, larger coalitions, a track record of disciplining folks at the ballot box, and the ability to recruit primary challengers who can threaten an incumbent.
If we want enough power to successfully pressure elected officials, we need to build power in communities so that entire constituencies identify with our politics. Snubbing Nixon (and similar behavior elsewhere) moves us in the opposite direction. It reduces our effectiveness now and in the future.
9. The background to conversations around the Cynthia Nixon endorsement are in the shadow of important debates. For example: is DSA on the path to being a political party that is an alternative to the Democratic Party? Do we imagine that politicians who are members or activists in a DSA chapter are somehow better than others with similar politics? Are we hoping for a future where DSA chapter leaders can call up elected officials and yank the leash? These might be long terms goals, but at the moment the emphasis on them is a form of imaginary politics divorced from time and place. The antidote is humility, which is a very attractive quality, and will do more to build our power than ideological gate-keeping.
10. Which side we are on will be a recurring question in countless fights, where there are only two meaningful sides. There is a tendency in some quarters of the left to shy away from taking one of those sides, and instead to foment conflict and division within the ‘left’ of those two sides, in an effort to win over the more ‘advanced’ elements, and turn them against the perceived leadership. As a strategy for building left power, it is terrible. Endless internal conflict is the result. There are almost no demographic constituencies with the stomach for this, and pursuing such a strategy is a recipe for irrelevance.
Right now, in New York, the meaningful political battle is between Cuomo and Nixon. We show up and build power, or stand aside and lose respect. An endorsement doesn’t require us to construct a canvassing operation for this campaign or commit to significant work, helpful as that might be. It requires a mindset that we’re doing this work as part of a community that is larger than the subset of members currently attending meetings.
Charles Lenchner was the digital director for Zephyr Teachout’s primary challenge to Gov. Cuomo in 2014 and has been a member of DSA since roughly the same time. He has been involved in left politics since 1985. He grew up in Israel and served time in military prison for being a refusenik. He is a co-founder of People for Bernie. @clenchner.
Photo above: Nixon at the 100th anniversary of New York’s Grand Central Station. (Patrick Cashin, Metropolitan Transit Authority.)