The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is an organisation that first appeared in the 1970s, but has grown spectacularly in the wake of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Presidential primary. Sanders is not a member of the organisation, but at the time he described himself as a ‘democratic socialist’, which sent people to Google to find out what it meant.
I never thought I’d live to see two hundred people show up for a meeting of socialists here in the borough of Queens, in New York City, where I live. The DSA campaigned for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in last week’s primary for the 14th Congressional District, which covers this part of Northern Queens and, weirdly, a smaller part of the Bronx on the other side of the East River. And now Ocasio-Cortez has won the primary, in an upset win over Joe Crowley, who has represented these parts for nineteen years.
At the meeting, DSA campaign workers told their story to finger snaps. It was a great win, and there is talk of an ‘Alexandria-effect’ that it might cast over other efforts. I want to explain why it was a great win, before offering some more cautious analyses about the state of socialist politics in these times.
The DSA provided only about 20% of the field campaigners for Ocasio-Cortez. She was endorsed and supported by other progressive organisations, and so the DSA cannot take all the credit. Still, the group provided a hundred canvassers who knocked on 11,000 doors, and that’s just the Queens part of the operation. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suppose that the reason Bronx-born Ocasio-Cortez did better here than Queens-native Crowley is in some measure due to Queens DSA’s work.
This primary was the DSA’s first significant foray into electoral politics in Queens, famous for its old-timey Democratic Party ‘machine’ politics, with its culture of patronage, horse-trading, loyalty and waiting your turn. Joe Crowley was not just a Congressman from Queens. Since 2006, he has been chair of the Queens County Democratic Party (yes, the borough of Queens is also a county). I’ll come back to the significance of unseating someone as powerful as Crowley.
The Ocasio-Cortez run allowed Queens DSA to build the infrastructure for future electoral campaigns. This has two sides. One is the contact with the varied communities of Northern Queens. The district is majority-minority, half Spanish-speaking, but with significant populations from different parts of Asia. It has also seen an influx of younger, mostly white tertiary-educated people, whose political outlook is tending leftwards as their life chances diminish.
The other side is media credibility. Ocasio-Cortez received media coverage from Huffington Post, Refinery29 and other web-based media. The Intercept ran stories critical of Crowley which may or may not have had its origins in ‘opposition research’ done by the DSA. The major media outlets ignored the race until it was over. Now even the New York Times is trying to figure out where the outer boroughs are to cover socialist and progressive politics out here.
The Queens DSA also learned about how to do voter protection. Even here in a Democratic Party stronghold, the party itself has no interest in encouraging voters, particularly in primaries. As one DSA campaigner put it, the 14th District is kind of a ‘rotten borough’. Crowley has represented parts of Northern Queens for nineteen years and had not had a primary challenger for fourteen of those.
Being the incumbent is supposed to be a big advantage, but Ocasio-Cortez turned it against him. She made a lot of the fact that he does not live here. One of the DSA campaigners described attending both the DSA’s campaign launch and Crowley’s official campaign launch. The former attracted forty people, the latter only ten, plus the usual gaggle of other officials.
The Ocasio-Cortez social media campaign was also very effective. A video made by DSA comrades from Detroit, scripted and narrated by Ocasio-Cortez, hit just the right note and went viral. On election day, Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter had 384,000 followers, another 89,000 on Facebook and 130,000 on Instagram, compared to Crowley’s 31,000 on Twitter, 21,000 on Facebook and only a thousand and change on Instagram.
It is hard to know how effective social media presence is, and it certainly would amount to nothing without the field campaign. Yet it is worth noting that Ocasio-Cortez did very well in the more Anglophone, middle-class parts of the district such as Sunnyside, Astoria, Steinway and where I live, in Jackson Heights, where these English-language social media forms are a part of everyday leisure and working life. Ocasio-Cortez also had campaign materials in Spanish, Mandarin and Bengali, and field-workers did their best to reach out to Tibetan, Thai and many other communities in this very diverse district.
It helped a lot to have a young, charismatic and articulate candidate, who is also very tough-minded. There is a video of her campaigning in one of the elevated subways stations along Roosevelt avenue in Jackson Heights, being ignored by commuters and blasted by the constant rattle of the trains. She turns to the camera and says, ‘It’s a hustle. It’s just a hustle.’ Not much seems to throw this former bartender, who did well in town-hall debates against Crowley, on the occasions when he bothered to show up.
Not all candidates are created equal. At the Queens DSA branch meeting we heard from another who is likely to seek DSA endorsement for local office. Her pitch was rambling and content free. The DSA may skew young but the meeting had the presence of mind to cut her off with sustained applause. Even with a good ‘face’, a campaign needs content. Ocasio-Cortez ran on a convincing social-democratic platform: Medicare for all, free college, housing justice, and the abolition of ICE.
As one DSA campaigner put it, the platform was one of ‘big ideas, which resonate with voters because they connect to daily life’. From the young white hipsters to the undocumented service workers, what could unite people here are common struggles: to afford the rent, to get healthcare and survive education debt. The hyper-aggressive fascist turn in immigration policing is a real worry for many in the district, and has become a broadly felt ethical issue for many of us who are legal residents or citizens.
Ocasio-Cortez showed that it is possible to run on a social democratic platform, against the machine, and win. Not everyone in DSA is all that committed to electoral politics. The meeting that heard back from the campaign also heard from direct action groups who work on housing justice and immigration, as well as those connected to the revival of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign which is mobilising the religious left. The DSA is a big-tent organisation. The Queens branch meeting had a celebratory and united tone, but there are a lot of internal differences.
However, it is worth noting that the DSA claims a thousand new members since the Ocasio-Cortez win. The branch meeting in Queens just after her win was twice the size of the one that had endorsed her only a few months earlier. After the formal part of the meeting there was a break-out where we were all invited to sign up for other activities. The working-groups represented that night were on not just elections, but also housing, immigration, political education and mutual aid. That corner of Facebook that goes by the tongue-in-cheek name of Leftbook is full of the old debates about electoral versus direct action politics, but on a good day DSA manages a productive relation between the two.
The good news is that a socialist candidate who presents well, has a clear platform and strong social media and street campaigning abilities can win. But this has to be qualified somewhat. Joe Crowley’s seat had been redistricted in 2006, and he lost a part of Northern Queens that is older, whiter and more suburban. The turnout was only about 13% of registered Democrats, not unusual for a New York primary, but it can’t be said that the ‘Alexandria-effect’ mobilisation was particularly big. In some ways, her win is something of an outlier in the national picture, where few socialist or even progressive challengers have won even if they had made races competitive.
The win in the 14th District has reshaped New York politics, maybe for the good, but one has to be a bit level-headed about this. The former TV star Cynthia Nixon, who is mounting a primary challenge against Governor Cuomo, showed up to support Ocasio-Cortez at the last minute, and other Democratic office holder and aspirants have been quick to latch onto the Alexandria-effect. But there’s a difference between making left-wing noises in elections and actually governing. One election does not change the shape of the state into which a socialist or progressive is elected.
Here one has to get into why this is such an upset for Democratic politics, not only in New York but perhaps nationally. Crowley was one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, and a contender to replace Nancy Pelosi as leader, and perhaps as majority leader should the party retake the House. While he was portrayed as an old fart in the primary, at fifty-six he is by Washington standards a youngster, and the only possible next leader of the House under seventy years old.
Ocasio-Cortez got a lot of traction by portraying Crowley as in the pocket of big business and big real estate. But the other side of being a senior Democratic Congressman from New York is that the city is, with Los Angeles, one of the two great funnels for money into Democratic politics nationally. If one thinks within the existing system of money-politics, then having a New Yorker lead the party would have had its advantages.
Crowley was also on the important Ways and Means Committee in Washington, and as such in a position to get New York’s share of the spoils. In theory, Crowley’s position at the head of the Queens political machine provided similar advantages for Queens in relation to the rest of the city that he garnered for New York in relation to the rest of the country. Of course, ordinary voters in Northern Queens could be forgiven for wondering how much benefit there was for them in all this, or whether it just served a small coterie of machine loyalists and patrons.
One of the speakers at the DSA meeting whipped up the crowd to a kind of hysterical optimism by mapping out an imaginary career for Ocasio-Cortez, as congresswoman, then senator, then first woman president! The meeting let itself indulge this fantasy, but only for a moment. There were only a few in attendance who like me are fifty or older, and none of us caught the fire. I only hope the younger people there don’t turn into us, but don’t get burned out by false hope, either. Crowley felt the effects of accountability as exercised in the negative, when primary voters turned against him. But there aren’t many affirmative kinds of accountability. We will be relying on Ocasio-Cortez’s personal integrity for that.
By the standards of New York politics, Crowley wasn’t a bad guy. Many of the progressive Democrats I know supported him. There was daylight between him and someone like Chuck Schumer, Senator for Wall Street. The limitations of Joe Crowley are more those of the structure of power rather than defects of character. I only met him once, when the city struck a deal to buy the playgrounds from a financially troubled private school to make more public parkland here in Jackson Heights. If he had paid more attention to local, retail politics of that order he might still be on top of the world.