Progressive Electoral Surge in New York and Its Limits

Chris Aquino

Summary: Reflections on defeat of establishment pro-Israel warhawk Eliot Engel by an avowed socialist and on the limits of electoral organizing for the left — Editors

Results were finalized on July 17 of a June race in New York where Democratic primary voters shot an earthquake through the ground of the United States political world and demonstrated the weaknesses of the neoliberal establishment. Representative Eliot Engel, the warhawk and pro-Israel standby from the Bronx, was soundly beaten in the primary election by Jamaal Bowman, a Black Democratic Socialist with a progressive message.

Bowman focused his campaign on a single payer healthcare system and a Green New Deal to fight climate change. He contrasted Engel’s alliances with the United States military industrial complex and the Israel lobby to his own pro-Palestinian stance and his fundraising, which was free of capitalist donations. Even when the entire Democratic Party establishment — Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Andrew Cuomo, etc. — backed Engel, as did the members of the Congressional Black Caucus (the political representatives of the Black bourgeoisie), most of the district refused to back a man who supported oppressing people of color in Palestine. With Eliot Engel being the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, this shows that being a stalwart ally of the Israeli state no longer guarantees a victory in New York. It also shows from Bowman’s participation in Black Lives Matter that credibility with the street can defeat tremendous establishment backing. Bowman won by a 15-point margin, 55 percent to 40 percent.

In Brooklyn, an Indigenous working woman and immigrant from Peru, Marcela Mitaynes, also beat a longterm incumbent in a New York State Assembly primary on a Democratic Socialist platform, despite her overconfident opponent initially claiming victory. Also, a self-described Marxist, Julia Salazar, effectively won reelection to a New York State Senate seat by emerging victorious in the Democratic primary in Brooklyn. They both campaigned heavily on rent control at a time when it is increasingly becoming impossible for working families to live in New York City.

In the first past the post electoral system that the United States endures, two political parties become strengthened at the expense of the people. Constant cries to vote for the less awful of the two candidates overwhelm attempts for the left to organize electorally. The many anticapitalist third parties with weak influence on the streets and the ballot boxes testify to this.

Yet, the inability of the Democratic party to protect its valuable incumbents in party strongholds reflects a weakness in the face of insurgent movements of working people of color and their allies. That these things happened during times of low turnout compared to presidential elections demonstrates the emerging organizing power of socialists, moderate or otherwise.

All of the above-mentioned socialist candidates are members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an anticapitalist organization that took off from people discontented following the twice failed presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and unwillingness on the part of Democrats to fight for people of color and workers against corporations. Their main electoral strategy is to run as Democrats and use the Democratic Party as a base of operations to achieve power. We need far more than that, however.

The average DSA chapter does not espouse a radical platform of quickly abolishing capitalism as do those of us with more radical views. Still, the street always leads the way. The Black Lives Matter and Abolish ICE movements have demonstrated the pernicious consequences of white supremacy and borders in our age of international families and economies. These movements are creating the opportunity to create a truly humanist world. We must continue street action, economic disruption, and campaigning for proportional representation, with electoral drives as *one* of the left’s strategies, but not its only one. No face in a high place will ever save us, only we can save ourselves. We see people’s strength in the ballot box, but now look at the power on the streets!

 

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