What Nixon’s Left Turn Means

That Cynthia Nixon is proclaiming herself a socialist shows the ascendance and popularity of left politics, in New York and across the country.

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Pride Media

On June 25, the day before ten-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley was unexpectedly defeated, Cynthia Nixon endorsed his challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, saying, “We are both insurgent progressives.” Late last week, Nixon, who is challenging Andrew Cuomo from the left to become governor of New York — made an even more dramatic announcement: she is a democratic socialist.

There are plenty of reasons for leftists to be skeptical of Nixon’s sudden embrace of socialism, which came mere hours before a presentation to members of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) seeking their endorsement. While this is Nixon’s first time running for political office, she has been in public life for over a decade and has until now steered clear of criticizing capitalism.

In May 2015, during the early stages of the Democratic presidential primary, she told Bloomberg, “I’m definitely a Hillary person.” And just this past March, Nixon came under fire from many in the labor movement and the Left for criticizing the New York transit workers’ union’s deals with New York State.

But regardless of Nixon’s motivation for suddenly wrapping her arms around democratic socialism, it actually shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Look at her platform and campaign: Nixon is calling for an expansive redistributive program of taxing the state’s wealthiest residents to fund programs benefiting working-class New Yorkers, from Medicare for all and free public college to fully-funded public transportation and major investments in affordable and public housing. She’s also calling to abolish Immigrations and Customs Enforcement(ICE), end mass incarceration, legalize marijuana, institute public financing of elections, and make New York State 100 percent reliable on renewable energy by 2050.

This platform is firmly in line with those of other democratic-socialist candidates who have mounted Democratic primary challenges in 2018, from Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar in New York to Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato in Pittsburgh. Nixon has also received the support of community organizations in the state including Citizen Action of New York, New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York, as well as national progressive groups such as Our Revolution, Working Families Party, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

But Nixon’s newfound embrace of democratic socialism didn’t materialize out of the ether. And there’s no way to know whether it’s what she — a millionaire celebrity — actually believes to be her true political identity. But what she believes in her heart of hearts isn’t that important. The fact that Nixon — a legitimate contender running against one of the most powerful Democratic governors in the country — is vying for the support of the DSA while draping herself in the flag of democratic socialism is a powerful testament to the fact that left politics are both popular and ascendant, in New York and across the country.

The social forces that have pulled Nixon leftward are the same that brought Ocasio-Cortez — now being called the “future of the Democratic Party” — to join NYC DSA and appeal for its endorsement. Far from being a liability for insurgent candidates, the backing of democratic socialists has provided support, campaign guidance, volunteer power, and excitement among a base of solidly left voters.

In New York particularly, the tired, centrist politics that have marked the state’s Democratic establishment for years appear to be falling far out of favor with voters. Along with Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, left primary challengers to members of the conservative Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in the state senate are gaining steam, and Gov. Cuomo himself has responded to Nixon’s challenge by taking more progressive stances on issues ranging from public housing to legal weed.

Nixon’s agenda isn’t just far-off, wide-eyed policy goals. The work of dedicated activists and democratic socialists has helped galvanize public support behind the New York Health Act, which would create a state-based single-payer healthcare system. The bill, endorsed by NYC DSA, passed the state assembly on June 14 but is currently held up in the state senate’s health committee.

If Nixon were to upset Cuomo, and a number of left challengers to IDC members win out, Medicare for all could soon become law of the land in New York State. That possibility is proof of how far left the pendulum has swung on healthcare in recent years.

The same goes for housing. Nixon has joined in on calls to enact universal rent control across New York while instituting broad new protections for tenants. Both of these goals have been pushed by housing activists — including in the NYC DSA — for years, and Nixon’s program represents a sea change from that of Cuomo, who has been a major recipient of campaign contributions from real estate developers.

On immigration, Nixon obviously can’t abolish ICE within New York, but she does support a push to allow all New Yorkers to access drivers’ licenses regardless of their documentation status. This policy change could protect hundreds of thousands of undocumented New Yorkers from being snatched up by US immigration enforcement.

We should be sober.  Nixon is a first-time office seeker with no public record to speak of when it comes to legislating. However, she also doesn’t have a litany of wealthy benefactors to answer to. Like Ocasio-Cortez (and Bernie Sanders before her), Nixon’s campaign is not accepting any corporate PAC money.

This doesn’t guarantee Nixon would side with socialists on every issue once in office.  But her independence suggests that the progressive groups which support her would likely have a seat at the table under her administration. And she has brought into her campaign a number of staffers with established left politics, which bodes well for how she would govern — and for who she may appoint to key policy roles — once in office. This isn’t the determining factor for left elected officials’ ability to resist the conservatizing forces once in office, but it also isn’t meaningless.

Whether or not Nixon’s newfound embrace of socialism leads to support from groups like NYC DSA, she is helping to mainstream views and positions that just a few years ago appeared on the fringes of American politics. Candidates like Nixon running openly as democratic socialists can introduce a vision beyond the free-market fundamentalism that has defined our economic and political system for decades.

The goals of democratic socialists lie far beyond electing candidates who run on redistributive programs. Putting both political decision making and the economy under democratic control will only come about through mass movements — not governors, members of Congress, or presidents. But these campaigns do offer the opportunity to enact policies that would immediately benefit scores of working people and serve, as Bernie Sanders’s campaign did, as powerful appeals that swing open the door for millions of Americans to develop political consciousness around the failures of capitalism and the need for an alternative. It can become the precursor to socialism becoming a truly transformative movement in the United States.

Democratic establishment figures such as Nancy Pelosi and Tammy Duckworth will surely continue to plug their ears and write off the growth of socialism as marginal. But the popularity of left politics is growing. After Nixon’s announcement, it should be clear that the future is wide open for the American socialist left.