How should we think about India Walton’s victory in Buffalo’s Democratic mayoral primary?
Capturing a significant executive office, while not unprecedented in the history of American socialism, has until now mainly eluded the resurgent movement. Over the past several decades, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members won mayoral office in college towns like Ithaca and Berkeley or acted as conventional left-liberal politicians with a mainly sentimental link to the radical left, like David Dinkins in New York City and Ron Dellums in Oakland.
These figures largely represented the electoral afterlife of the New Left: their campaigns followed the New Left’s repression and disintegration in the 1970s and 1980s and amounted to accommodation to the impossibility of radical change. To point this out is not to criticize them, necessarily; defeat brings on difficult choices and constrains what is possible at the local level. Nonetheless, Walton is different: she marks the advance of a historical process of class formation.
Over the last half decade of its emergence, the new socialist electoral politics has faced a genuinely existential challenge about its social basis: it has been a politics of mainly white and mainly middle-class activists, a reality that is ultimately incompatible with socialist analysis and vision. Insurgent candidates on the Left have succeeded where this group is numerous enough as an electorate, as a volunteer base, or both.
It is important not to obfuscate the issue with semantics about how members of the middle class, unable to live off their property and forced to sell their labor, are really workers. Such an axiom may obtain in theory, and certainly it embodies an important political aspiration — but we cannot abstract away the concrete problem that college-educated professionals are separated socially and politically from the working-class mass base that socialist advance requires. Nor is it sufficient simply to note the impressive work of the many socialist activists who are more squarely working class, people of color, or both. At the same time, the limited but real strides toward a multiracial, working-class socialist base imply that these social origins are historically contingent rather than structurally fixed — and that effective political work can broaden the socialist movement.
The possibility of socialist realignment begins in the cities. There we find concentrations of downwardly mobile or indebted professionals, who have made up the most significant ideological cadre for socialist politics but have struggled to establish a sufficiently broad base. Brooklyn’s Emily Gallagher, the socialist New York state assembly member for Williamsburg and Greenpoint, provides a useful example: formerly an educator in museums (an industry that has seen significant labor activity in the past few years), Gallagher now represents neighborhoods that symbolize gentrification more distinctly than any others in the country. So ripe was her district for political turnover that she was able to oust an incumbent without institutional support from either DSA or the Working Families Party.
The radicalization of the lower layers of the professional middle class, however, also allows us to imagine a political continuum into the upper fractions of the working class. These groups are still different from each other, but less than ever before, particularly as first-generation college students burdened with debt and faced with limited career prospects grow in number and fill the ranks of the socialist movement. Figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Tiffany Cabán, and Jabari Brisport embody this area of overlap.
Often more stably employed but residually a notch lower in the class system are the organized professional workers, particularly concentrated in the social service industries — teachers and nurses especially — who constitute much of the durable political leadership of the militant sections of the working class. Figures like Cori Bush (nurse), Jamaal Bowman (teacher/principal), Phara Souffrant Forrest (nurse), Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (teacher), and India Walton (nurse) exemplify this phenomenon in electoral politics; the Chicago Teachers Union’s Stacy Davis-Gates (and before her Karen Lewis) and United Teachers Los Angeles’s Cecily Myart-Cruz and Arlene Inouye do so in the labor movement.
Beneath this layer is another, both more militant and more diffuse: the low-wage, less regularly employed, more heavily policed and punished fraction of the proletariat that formed the riotous core of the 2020 street uprising. While it is less present in formal politics or trade unions and lacks visible spokespeople, figures like St. Louis’s Cori Bush, Buffalo’s India Walton, and Chicago’s Jeannette Taylor maintain real links to this social layer through the Movement for Black Lives.
It is also clear that friction occurs along the fuzzy boundaries between these layers. While they are all increasingly burdened with housing costs, the neighborhoods where they rent are typically not the same, and if they do overlap, one group encounters the other as the face of gentrification (even if newcomers’ presence is the result of much larger forces). Older members of the more secure working class may own homes (whose value may or may not be rising depending on urban geography), while younger professionals are frequently locked out of homeownership (though in some cases poised to inherit housing wealth from aging parents).
The jobs where they work are unalike: a precarious graphic designer does not struggle with the same economic problems as a teacher, a nursing assistant, or a custodial worker, much less an unemployed person. The kinds of debt they incur are quite different: student and credit-card debt as opposed to medical, court, auto, payday, and for the more secure stratum, mortgage debt. As we have been reminded repeatedly, the more stably employed and home-owning sections of the working class are presently much warier about defunding the police than either the socialist activists or the rebels in the street.
We can compare experiences across these boundaries and identify commonalities, then, but we cannot collapse them. Organizing is the form of activity in which this comparison makes up the content. As Gallagher puts it on her website,
I’ve been a renter, a roommate, a cyclist, a commuter. I’ve been unemployed, underemployed, and have known too many months where I scrambled to make rent. I’ve worked in retail, the gig economy, public education and the nonprofit sector. I’m a survivor of sexual violence and harassment. I have friends who have experienced police brutality and friends who have faced their rapists in court and watched them walk free. I’ve lost loved ones to traffic violence and the opioid crisis. These experiences don’t make me unique.
While these differences originate in the working class’s economic stratification, they’re often mapped onto and understood through racial divisions: the professional group (largely although not only white) does not mingle enough with the broader metropolitan working class (which is much less white) to foster the propagation of socialist ideas through ideological common sense and cultural atmosphere — the way it has mainly happened for the professionals. If Gallagher’s district were less white, she would have been far less likely to win initially; the same is probably true for figures such as Brisport, Cabán, and Ocasio-Cortez.
What this means, quite uncomfortably, is that African Americans — who most polling indicates are more favorably disposed to socialism in general and specific left-wing policies in particular than any other racial group — still remain largely separated from the official socialist movement. This is the political paradox that socialists must resolve: neither accepting the substitution of professionals as a political base, nor abandoning socialism because it has not yet won the working-class support it requires, nor becoming resigned to the inevitability of a largely white socialist movement, but rather analyzing and attacking the barriers separating the groups from each other. This is a challenge of the utmost political importance.
At the same time, even as the New York Times warns of an emerging “disconnect between progressive activists and . . . rank-and-file Black and Latino voters,” it is not clear the problem is getting worse. Take New York City itself. In an examination of voting patterns in Astoria Houses, a public housing project in Queens, Matthew Thomas points out that the power of the Democratic establishment appears to be waning.
For years, progressive challengers have performed worse in the complex than they have in the rest of the borough, the city, or the state. Cynthia Nixon won only 23 percent of the vote there in 2018 but 34 percent statewide. Nixon’s running mate, Jumaane Williams, a progressive black New Yorker who already enjoyed some local popularity, only managed 48 percent of the vote in Astoria Houses against Kathy Hochul — almost identical to his statewide performance. This is a particularly challenging outcome to grapple with: a more progressive and presumably better-known black candidate losing to an unknown white moderate from upstate among a precinct-level electorate that would almost certainly select Williams’s views over Hochul’s if asked in the abstract.
But things appear to be changing. In the 2019 Queens primary for district attorney, Tiffany Cabán — who fought the party favorite to a virtual tie borough-wide — lost the complex by 4 percent. In her city council race this year, Cabán won Astoria Houses easily, even as centrist candidate Eric Adams did the same in the mayoral race. This presents a paradox — but also evidence of the possibility of resolving it leftward.
Nationwide, this same possibility has revealed itself in glimpses. During the presidential primary, even as he performed worse in places like West Virginia and Michigan in 2020 than in 2016, Sanders cleaned up with historically demobilized Latino voters in California and union members in Nevada.
The black political elite’s declining ability to deliver black votes to establishment candidates in contested congressional elections presents a key marker of left advance: the victories of Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush in their 2020 primaries suggest that this historically significant source of conservative power within the Democratic Party is fading in the face of direct challenge. The party establishment’s obvious fear of a Nina Turner victory this summer in Cleveland offers further encouragement.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s reelection contains positive information as well. If detractors were right and her initial victory was simply an aberration — hyperactive Astoria “gentrifiers” taking a complacent incumbent by surprise — then she ought to have been vulnerable in 2020 to a well-funded opponent who could pull the district back to its supposed political center of gravity. But Ocasio-Cortez’s coalition broadened, and Michelle Caruso-Cabrera’s $3 million campaign garnered only 20 percent of the vote.
Perhaps even more heartening was Larry Krasner’s overwhelming reelection this year as Philadelphia district attorney. Krasner won among the city’s white liberals and black working and middle classes even as panic about crime and social disorder returned as the preferred weapon against the Left.
This brings us back to Buffalo. Walton, a nurse by training, became politically active as an adult while part of Buffalo’s enormous workforce in “educational services, and health care and social assistance.” In 2019, 33 percent of employed people in Buffalo fell into that “eds and meds” category — more than triple the size of the next group.
Buffalo, a former steel town, is in this regard little different from Rochester, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or even New York (the Bronx has a proportionally larger health care workforce than any other populous county in the country). Across the former industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, deindustrialization has produced massive social service sectors, with workforces disproportionately composed of women of color. The health workforce’s expansion is an index of disinvestment and social inequality, as abandoned populations become older, poorer, and sicker, and are dumped onto the health care system, which — as a nexus of public funding and private profit — grows to absorb this displaced surplus and hires labor from the postindustrial ruins.
Walton embodies the political possibilities that arise from this economic transformation. As care workers have become responsible for keeping the population alive and holding society together through the agony of economic abandonment, they have come to personify our mutual interdependency. As Walton put it, describing how she made it as a young and poor single mother, “We’re never alone, we’re not built to be islands.”
This principle is woven into the everyday work of nurses, teachers, and others like them, who exercise judgment continuously about how to compensate for insufficient resources and overwhelming need with their own effort. They’re both ideologically open to more radical politics and socially positioned to exercise leadership across the differentiated strata of the working class. While the phrase “essential worker” seems like a cruel joke, these workers’ indispensability has long been clear to those who depend upon them. The enormous popularity of the 2018–2019 teachers’ strike wave provided an object lesson in this regard.
After some youthful activism, Walton politically reengaged as an adult while working as a nurse, as a member, and then as a worker representative in SEIU. Having witnessed health inequality in her own family and at her workplace, she moved on to become a community organizer, and from there a housing organizer, an activist in the struggle against police violence, and finally a candidate for mayor. Her position as a trade unionist in the city’s largest industry, a participant in its militant Black Lives Matter uprising, and an activist for housing, health, and environmental justice allowed her to mobilize elements from each of the constituencies a socialist political project requires.
Still, Walton has not resolved the paradox of race and class that socialist politics faces. She ran better in the city’s poor multiracial and Latino lakefront and the largely white and fast-gentrifying downtown and North Buffalo sections than in the poor black neighborhoods east of Main Street. In the Fruit Belt, the neighborhood where she runs a community land trust, Walton carried the Latino western half but not the African American eastern half. Strikingly, this means Walton did not capture the areas of the city where the health care workforce from which she hails is largest — as in the East Side precincts southeast of the intersection of Ferry and Fillmore, where health and social assistance constitutes 50 percent of jobs. For Walton, too, a less white electorate would have been a more difficult one to win.
What this means is that a layer of militant and activist African Americans, demarcated especially by generation, has diverged from the bulk of the black electorate and moved leftward in both street politics and formal politics — arenas bridged by Walton. We may view this divergence as a problem, or we may view it as an opportunity — akin to the paradox of the Cabán-Adams voters of Astoria Houses — to resolve a contradiction in our favor.
Achieving the latter requires more than universalist rhetoric (though that too is important) — it requires durable organization that can deliver immediate victories and offer proof of concept to the skeptical and pragmatic black working-class rank and file. Most of all, it requires permeating the working-class black social world: the neighborhoods east of Main Street in Buffalo, south and west of the Loop in Chicago, west of 45th Street and north of Girard in Philadelphia.
The social and economic transformation of cities like Buffalo has not yet produced a militant, united working class. What it has produced are organic intellectuals and leaders — figures like Walton — who are positioned to mobilize new activist layers that reach across social boundaries, and thereby stitch together enough of the separated social elements of the postindustrial working class to win a foothold and earn an audience with unconvinced working-class people.
This is a tremendous sign of progress; it is a moment of advance in the process of class formation. The next step is more frontal attack on the residual power of the Democratic political machine with the black working class: this power is weakened but not destroyed, and it will require a massive increase in organization of the kind Walton embodies.
The rewards, however, should be obvious: when a militant nurse can carry those neighborhoods where 50 percent of workers are in her industry, she will be leading a far more powerful movement than the one that squeaked by in Buffalo last week.