Cynthia Nixon triggers a reckoning in the Democratic Socialists of America

Cynthia Nixon and New York City Councilman Jumaane Willims at a rally in Union Square.
Cynthia Nixon and New York City Councilman Jumaane Willims at a rally in Union Square.
lev radin/Shutterstock
Cynthia Nixon and New York City Councilman Jumaane Willims at a rally in Union Square.

Cynthia Nixon triggers a reckoning in the Democratic Socialists of America

The New York DSA’s debate over endorsements tests the limits of its electoral involvement.
July 26, 2018

Since gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon proclaimed herself a democratic socialist and began courting the support of the Democratic Socialists of America, the members of DSA’s New York City branches have remained split on endorsing her. The issue came to a head this week as various members of the organization published a series of back-and-forth arguments on Medium about why they do or do not support devoting significant resources to her campaign.

The articles raise a number of points of contention that range from practical to ideological, such as New York City Councilman and lieutenant government candidate Jumaane Williams’ acceptance of campaign donations from real estate and police unions, the DSA’s capacity to provide support in a statewide race, how the effort would impact the other candidates that it’s backing, and even Marxist state theory. One issue, though, stands out as a fundamental question for the organization: the limits of its involvement in electoral politics.

In the post arguing against endorsing Nixon written by members of the North Brooklyn chapter, the authors argued that they disagree that the DSA’s political objectives are dependent on the Nixon and Williams campaigns. “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,” they wrote.

This argument puts into focus the degree to which DSA members are opposed to achieving change through the current political process. Do they focus on organizing workers through strikes, protests and other activities that put pressure on elected officials, or do they devote their energy to electoral campaigns?

Neither side is suggesting entirely giving up electoral politics, and even Julia Salazar, one of the two candidates the DSA is backing, acknowledged that running as Democrat is a concession in a recent interview with Jacobin. Salazar said that she sees a concrete difference between empowering the working class to win its own fights and making changes within the two-party system as an elected official.

While the limits of electoral work has neither stopped the DSA from endorsing candidates in the past, nor its members from running for office, it’s important to note that the organization is not a political party who run its own candidates. The DSA is a 501(c)4 nonprofit, with the stated goal of building a broad-based coalition of working class people. The New York branch’s stated electoral strategy is to build a network capable of supporting candidates “independent of the Democratic Party and corporate money.”

So far, at least three arguments have been published by DSA members on the potential endorsement. The first arrived arguing in favor of the endorsement of Nixon and Williams was published July 11, the day after Nixon held a forum with members of the NYC-DSA at Thoughtworks in Manhattan. A day after the counter-argument by members of the North Brooklyn chapter was published July 23 opposing the endorsement, DSA member Susan Kang posted a third article. This third article, which countered the piece by the North Brooklyn chapter, directly addresses the issue of electoral politics, claiming that separating electoral work and working class power is a false distinction.

“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,” wrote Kang, who supports endorsing Nixon and Williams.

Sanford Schram, a political science professor at Hunter College who has written about the intersection of protest politics and electoral work, agreed with Kang’s argument. “Protest politics provides some ingredients for change and electoral politics provides others, and we can’t expect either one to do everything,” he said. “It’s not an either or. That framing is a false dichotomy that I think at times disables the left.”

Grappling with the benefits of exposure is an inevitable part of the growing pains of organization that needs to keep on expanding in order to accomplish its goal of getting through to the working class. As Kang’s post mentions, of the 4,000 members in the New York City branch, the vast majority are “white, male, highly-educated, and tend to work in professional/managerial type jobs with higher than average incomes.”

While the DSA’s national membership jumped from 5,000 in November 2016 to 46,000 as of July 20, the current governor and lieutenant governor’s races have the potential to raise the organization’s profile even higher and attract more members. As the organization’s efforts continue to spill over to the national political stage, division over how the DSA chooses to engage with heavily publicized races, or not, is not likely to go away.

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Max Parrott
is an editorial intern at City & State.