Sun, 1 July 2018
Being the only sober guy at a victory party is isn't fun. After writing earlier this week that we can sometimes elect progressives but we can’t hold them accountable, friends and comrades are all over Facebook accusing me of negativity, saying I got no analysis and I'm a magical thinker. I dunno, let’s see.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez won the NY 14th district Democratic primary earlier this week with only 16 or 17 thousand votes, a strikingly low number that wouldn’t carry most such primaries. According to Democrat chairman Tom Perez, she has no Republican opponent in November, so she's in. That's a victory for sure. At least for a while, she'll be able to put out her message which includes abolishing ICE, free tuition and Medicare For All in places that till now have rarely given a professed socialist the mic. That’s a good thing.
But there are four points to look at here, which I touched on my previous piece and posts on Facebook. I’ll dive into them just a little deeper here.
1. THE OCASIO-CORTEZ NUMBERS AND WHAT THEY MEAN
Historically NY authorities have rigged primary elections for low turnout. You can only vote in a NY primary if you're pre-registered a party member months in advance, so only 271,000 voters were eligible in the first place. The low 13% turnout in that contest was actually higher than in some neighboring NYC districts. The engineering of low turnout primary elections allows Machine politicians to monopolize their party’s nominations by getting out their relatively small and dependable vote and not getting the masses too excited over much of anything till the November general election when their numbers are needed to defeat suburban and upstate Republicans. Except for New York’s partisan registration it's the same system used by the Daley Machine in Chicago until 1980, when we broke it open to elect Harold Washington in 83.
Still, 16 or 17 thousand votes in a congressional district of 750,000 is far from a socialist landslide. Winning a congressional seat with that small a vote is a rare feat made possible by some local features that seldom occur outside New York City. While the Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez crew no doubt worked their asses off to get what they got, the same money and effort in most other places would not have done the trick in a congressional race. The 14 NY CD was a target well chosen by the folks at Brand New Congress , whom Ocasio-Cortez says asked her to run.
That’s running and interpreting the numbers through the lens of history, and applicability to other contests, not negativity or magical thinking.
2. JOE CROWLEY PRETTY MUCH GAVE UP THE SEAT
After 10 terms in Congress and with lots of corporate friends, Joe Crowley knows he can start at seven figures, at least six to twelve times his congressional salary plus bonuses as a lobbyist. That had to be a powerful motivation not to campaign too damn hard, and another circumstance unique to this particular contest.
The career path from legislator to well paid lobbyist is also not magical thinking, it's an American tradition. Ignoring this tradition and its likely effect on Crowley’s campaign might be magical thinking though.
3. DEMOGRAPHICS MATTER, MESSAGING MATTERS
Ocasio-Cortez correctly portrayed Crowley as an arrogant lazy white boy deep in the pockets of corporate contributors allegedly representing a majority Latino district. That was a necessary and highly potent message needed to raise turnout enough to make the difference in a contest with historically low voter participation. A former Bernie campaign staffer, she also ran to the left of most Democrats, campaigning on free college tuition, Medicare For All, unambiguously denouncing the Gaza massacres and jumping with both feet on the massively unpopular Trump policies of tearing families apart at the border. This too is classic US left electoral strategy aimed at raising turnout among the folks who ordinarily pay little attention to elections, a tactic the electoral left has to repeat everywhere.
The phenomenon of white politicians representing minority districts is not as common as it was a generation or two ago. Neoliberal black and Latino politicians have moved into most of those spaces, and are far less vulnerable to attack purely on representationalist grounds. So that part of the Ocasio-Cortez playbook is not something that leftists will often be able to duplicate.
Assessing the relative importance of demographic factors and the messaging they enable is not magical thinking. Gauging the applicability of the strategy that achieved victory in the NY 14th CD to other contests across the country isn't legerdemain or sophistry either, it's the kind of common sense we must employ if we intend to achieve leftist victories elsewhere.
4. US LAW AND CUSTOM MAKE CANDIDATES ENTREPRENUERS, NOT RESPONSIBE TO ANY LEFT CONSTITUENCIES OR INSTITUTIONS
I caught flack too for pointing out that under US law and custom candidates and office holders are free to do pretty much do what they like. This is true even in the Green Party, let alone the Democrats. Political campaigns are top-down affairs in which the candidate gets the final word on everything. Anybody who's actually worked a campaign knows this.
While there are no institutions under US law and custom that can hold leftist candidates and officeholders accountable to left constituencies or organizations, it's a fact that there are a galaxy of institutional levers and pressures operating inside the Democratic party aimed at flipping progressive elected officials rightward.
In my previous piece and Facebook posts I never touched on how socialist Ocasio-Cortez is or isn't nor on her foreign policy stands if she has any, which Berniecrats frequently don't, something that ought to make us a little uneasy. Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist too, just with an imperialist foreign policy. I did say that progressive candidates and officeholders do sometimes flip, a little at a time or all at once, and when they do we have no institutions with which to punish them. "Feet to the fire" and "holding them accountable" are actually the phrases of magical thinkers because no means have yet been devised which enable the left to do those things.
I got in trouble for observing that while we can elect progressives from time to time we cannot compel them to remain that way. Until we figure out how to build institutions that can, we are at the mercy of their individual moral and political compasses. The need to develop left institutions to which progressive candidates can be held responsible is an acute one, which the Nation in its slavish devotion to the Democratic party predictably ignores. Noting this truth got me accused of being a petty, lazy purist and ultraleftist. Oh well. Sober analysis may not be what some people wanna hear at a victory party where everybody’s popping champagne corks, dancing the electric slide and toasting the universal lessons of the Ocasio-Cortez victory without the bother of real analysis.
Being the sober guy at a victory party kinda sucks that way. But real talk, we’re all gonna have to sober up eventually and figure out which parts of the Ocasio-Cortez playbook are peculiar to and which ones are applicable outside a majority Latino New York City district, and we have yet to devise any means of holding progressive politicians truly accountable. Those who think we don’t need critical analysis or institutions to enforce accountability are the magical thinkers.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA and can be reached via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.
Sun, 1 July 2018
Yesterday Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez won a NYC Democratic congressional primary in a majority Latino district against the arrogant right wing,out of touch white head of the Queens Democratic party, who hadn’t even seen a primary challenger since 2004. The white guy was so deep in the pocket of corporate contributors that he was one of the few favored to succeed or oust Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. That’s how the two parties choose their leaders in every state legislature and both houses of Congress – they’re the ones who bring in the most donations from wealthy corporations and individuals.
Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on single payer health care and free college tuition. She denounced the latest massacre in Gaza. She says ICE ought to be abolished, and the day before the election she was at a South Texas immigrant detention center. She’s a young working class Puerto Rican woman who reportedly refused corporate cash and was working a real job, waiting tables at the beginning of her campaign. She’s a DSA member and professes to be a socialist. And now she’s the Democratic nominee in a New York City congressional district. What does it all mean?
For a lot of people on the left, it’s an occasion for celebration. I can understand that, I worked my behind off in campaigns against the Daley Machine in my native Chicago for a quarter century. We elected progressives to the city council, county offices, the state legislature, to Congress and 1983 and 87 the mayor’s chair. I helped register hundreds of thousands of people to vote. I and the folks I worked with imagined that we could build a movement that might transform the Democratic party from below. It didn’t work out so well.
It turns out that both elected officialdom and the Democratic party are institutions, and institutions change individuals way more often than the other way around. Some of our folks backed away from their commitments little by little, others frankly flipped, some were isolated and outlasted till they could be outspent. Despite the phrase being on everybody’s lips, we never figured out exactly how to hold anybody’s “feet to the fire,” to enforce any sort of accountability.
We were and still are at the literal whim and mercy of our candidates and officeholders. When Chuy Garcia ran for mayor of Chicago he refused to stand up in front of the Homan Square black site and denounce the thing. He even called for the hiring of a thousand more Chicago cops, and his movement supporters were utterly unable to talk him into the first position or out of the second. Even the Greens are not immune to this phenomenon. When Jill Stein chose to back away from a 2016 ballot access drive in Georgia and North Carolina there was nothing Greens in those states could do. Nothing. So exactly what does holding a candidate or office holder accountable look like? Do any means currently exist which enable us to do that? Maybe not. Maybe this is something we’ve yet to build.
Late last year, in a two day Movement School session in Jackson MS, Kali Akuno, the co-founder of Cooperation Jackson observed that in Jackson the movement forces proved they could elect a Chokwe Lumumba, the father and the son, mayor. But several years and multiple elections into the project, they still didn’t know what degree of support there is in Jackson for their agenda of radical economic transformation.
We figured out years ago how to win elections under the right circumstances. Ocasio-Cortez was a Puerto Rican woman running against a lazy white incumbent in a majority Latino NYC district, and she built a competent organization. It should have been surprising if she’d lost. Her expressed views on most issues are laudable. What we rarely bother to think through is what we actually GET when we win.
When we’re victorious in executive branch offices like mayoral elections, our candidates actually become responsible for administering the austerity and cuts. That’s what’s happening in Jackson MS and Newark NJ, to name just a couple places. We’ve been electing progressives here and there for a long time now. It’s time ask whether our ability to elect progressives has far outstripped our ability to exert real pressure upon them. Are we transforming the Democratic party, or are we merely legitimizing it, and launching yet another glittering career?
I don’t pretend to have the answers. But these are questions which ought to be asked. And we can't be too thirsty to ask them.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA, and can be reached via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.
Find an updated analysis of the Ocasio-Cortez victory here.