Don’t Write the Obituary for Socialism in New York Anytime Soon

Centrist Democrats and mainstream media would love to write socialism off the map in New York. But socialists are advancing in the state, not retreating.

Socialist candidates, socialist policy solutions, and the socialist movement certainly aren’t going anywhere in New York. (Eric Blanc / Twitter)

Socialism is so over. At least that’s what mainstream media outlets wanted you to believe following a June 28 primary that produced disappointing results for the Left, when only one of the five Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)–backed candidates (Sarahana Shrestha in the Hudson Valley) won their election. Gotham Gazette’s headline read “New York Left Hits Wall.” The City declared this a “setback.” The New York Post cited the wisdom of professional Democratic strategists who proclaimed that the socialists failed because “the left needs to understand where the majority of voters in the Democratic Party are . . . [and] need to meet them where they are on the issues.” Perhaps the short-lived ascendancy of democratic socialism and left progressivism in New York was over.

Reports of socialism’s death, however, proved greatly exaggerated. The largely positive results in August primaries showed that the socialist electoral project was far from exhausted. But even if socialists hadn’t performed well last month, declarations of the Left’s end ignore the reality in New York: only the socialist and progressive movements in the state have solved the problems perpetuated and worsened by the New York State Democratic Party and its leadership.

Like the rest of the United States, New York suffers from myriad social, economic, and political problems. Currently, only socialists and their progressive allies are proposing the kinds of policy solutions necessary to address the unmet needs of working New Yorkers.

Which is why socialism in New York is here to stay.

The New York State Democrats’ Political Failures

News cycles are short, journalistic memory often shorter. But a recent history lesson is in order.

New York State is one of the fourteen Democratic trifectas in the country. Despite the numerical majority of Democrats to Republicans in New York, the only reason this was possible was the tireless work of DSA, New York Working Families Party, and progressive grassroots organizations mobilizing in 2017–18, not state Democratic Party leadership.

In 2018, DSA-endorsed state senate candidate Julia Salazar defeated an entrenched, real estate–backed incumbent. She was buoyed by newly energized left and progressive grassroots energy. Progressives in the state legislature defeated the six members of the “Independent Democratic Conference” (IDC), a group of eight state senators who effectively gave control of the New York State Senate to the minority Republican caucus.

The IDC, much like Salazar’s opponent Martin Dilan, were supported by entrenched corporate interests: real estate, charter schools, and the finance industry — all condoned by Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo. This was a defining moment in New York state politics.

As a volunteer for DSA candidates and the IDC challengers, on the doors, I often brought up to voters the number of issues that remained unresolved or blocked by the legislature: the expiring of rental protecting laws in 2019; the lack of statutory protection of abortion rights in the state; the lack of universal health care; the underfunding of public schools, universities, and transit systems; anti-discrimination protections for transgender people; and protections for undocumented New Yorkers such as the DREAM Act.

As a result of the largest Democratic state senate majority in recent years, 2019 was a watershed year for progressive and even liberal policies in New York State. This included significant progress on climate change goals, restoring of financing for public schools, a state-level DREAM Act, drivers’ licenses for undocumented New Yorkers, expansion and permanent status of rent stabilization laws, codification of Roe v. Wade into New York State law, and significant state-level bail reform.

Still, many issues remain unresolved.

The 2019 rent regulations protected many rent-stabilized tenants and even created some universal protections (including regulations around deposits) but came nowhere close to fully addressing the crushing affordable housing crisis still afflicting the city. CUNY and SUNY, the city’s and state’s university systems, remained underfunded. Health care costs remained a significant issue, as well as continued problems with mass transportation funding.

Given that the New York State Assembly emerged as the new bottleneck for progressive legislation, DSA and progressive activists, many newly mobilized from the successful fight against the IDC, recruited candidates to challenge more entrenched incumbents.

Despite the many challenges of campaigning during a pandemic, NYC-DSA enjoyed a clean sweep at the time, electing assembly members Marcela Mitaynes, Zohran Mamdani, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Emily Gallagher, and Jabari Brisport to the state senate, and many progressives won in open seats and against incumbents, including in congressional seats, such as DSA-endorsed Jamaal Bowman.

But following the 2020 election, the narrative of left ascendancy was quickly challenged as public safety and crime became a major talking point. Democratic moderates focused on the rising crime rate and the Right’s blaming Black Lives Matter and the call to “defund the police” as a winning message.

As a result, Eric Adams’s 2021 mayoral victory supposedly marked a resounding defeat of the Left by the center elements. NYC-DSA won only two of their five endorsed city council candidates, noted by the press at the time as “failure.”

But New York State Democrats continued to fail in 2021, when they did not spend any money supporting a statewide referendum that would have strengthened voting rights and ensured a smoother redistricting process following the 2020 Census. Republicans and their aligned groups, meanwhile, outspent the good governance groups that did support the ballot referendum by a ten-to-one margin.

New York State Democrats did, however, spend the 2021 general election campaign season undermining DSA-endorsed Democratic nominee for Buffalo mayor, India Walton, in collusion with the state Republican party. New York’s Democrats opted to empower Republicans rather than win power through a leftist candidate.

This decision, plus the hasty approval of Cuomo’s conservative-leaning judicial nominees to the state’s highest court of appeals in summer 2021, led to the perfect storm of New York State’s redistricting drama.

Democrats Create a Crisis

Responding to a Republican-led lawsuit, the courts ruled that Democrats’ proposed districts (including for state senate and Congress) violated state laws on gerrymandering. The Court of Appeals decisions included votes against the Democrats’ proposed map, which would have given all but one of the state’s twenty-six congressional districts a Democratic advantage.

While the new court-drawn maps were considered more fair by authorities such as the Brennan Center for Justice, the important factor is that the Democrats, in their quest for seats, created a crisis, delayed the primaries, and led to confusion and hurt the legitimacy of the system by splitting the primary between the planned June 27 date and a second August 23 primary, announced in late April 2022.

Primaries historically have had low turnout in New York State, but this had been changing since 2018, which enjoyed a high turnout of 27 percent of eligible voters in NYC voting in the gubernatorial primary (up from 9 percent in 2014). Despite the early stages of the COVID pandemic, 2020 primary turnout was 25.7 percent, and the 2021 mayoral election had a turnout of 23 percent. Yet likely due in large part to the confusion, in June 2022, only 12.3 percent of eligible voters turned out for the primary.

Turnout this low suggests legitimacy and engagement problems among the electorate, an issue that the Democratic state leadership continues to fail to address. Mainstream Democrats, including DSA’s incumbent and well-funded opponents, did not decry the role of outsized PAC and Republican funding against DSA candidates.

Don’t Count Socialists Out

In 2022, DSA succeeded in its campaign to win the Democratic nomination for Kristen Gonzalez to a new state senate district in the August 2022 primary, despite being outspent and her opponent’s heavy bankrolling by real estate funding. DSA-endorsed state senate candidate David Alexis failed to win his primary but made significant gains and connections into the community through a new model of community-based electoral organizing.

While the mainstream press proclaimed the night generally one of a victory for moderates, citing the results of congressional primaries, the attempts by moderate New York City Democratic power players did not lead to significant victories. Despite declaring socialists his biggest threat, Mayor Eric Adams found that his endorsements failed to help in key state senate races. Similarly, former IDC supporter Congressman Adriano Espaillat, the leader of the Bronx/Uptown Manhattan machine, failed to take down progressive state senators.

While focusing on electoral results in the short term, the mainstream press conversation has missed the key issue that affects New Yorkers today. While moderate Democrats have cribbed from Republicans and lean heavily on the message of law and order to discredit and marginalize socialist candidates, feeding a narrative of fear and distrust also harms trust in public agencies and government effectiveness. Research from Latin America demonstrates that this in turn can hurt people’s trust of the democratic process, which here in New York has already been delegitimized by New York State Democrats’ recent questionable tactics.

While polls shows that violent crime is a major issue for many New Yorkers, emphasizing the fear of crime without clear, hopeful, and anti-carceral solutions only hurts our city. Even Bloomberg noted that fear of crime, despite record-low crime rates, had negative economic effects on New York and has led to a clear increase of arrests for lowlevel crimes.

Our opponents are focused on characterizing our candidates as out of touch, but they don’t offer solutions to substantive, material problems that New Yorkers continue to face. New York is suffering from rapidly rising rents, housing shortages, increased homelessness (currently at the highest level in New York City since the Great Depression, which includes more than 100,000 NYC public school students (over 10 percent). Of those New Yorkers who do have housing, over 20 percent report that they are “housing insecure.”

New Yorkers also face increased economic uncertainties with inflation and high fuel costs. Despite the talk of “recovery,” New Yorkers are suffering from increased inequality and poverty as a result of the pandemic. During this long hot summer, New Yorkers faced record levels of heat, heat deaths, and insufficient responses to the heat. Our public utility company, in response to the record-breaking heat, merely asked consumers to use less power. Our continued climate vulnerability, failure to develop our renewable/non–fossil fuel energy capacity, unmet health care needs, failure to adapt our transportation infrastructure, and much more will continue to challenge the everyday lives of working New Yorkers.

When Gonzalez stated in her victory speech that “socialism is here to stay,” this infuriated right-wing media. The statement triggered many of the conservative snowflakes who are threatened by the resurgent socialist movement, but Gonzalez highlighted the truth: only the socialist movement can respond to our communities’ most pressing needs.

As New York City students return to school, facing budget cuts instituted by our socialism-hating mayor; as workers crowd on underfunded public transportation; and as the state must face another storm season without passing meaningful climate legislation, we in the movement know that only socialism can substantively respond to our current challenges. Socialist candidates, socialist policy solutions, and the socialist movement certainly aren’t going anywhere in New York.