In what can only be described as a political earthquake, left-wing insurgent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated incumbent and Queens Democratic Party boss Joe Crowley by 15 percent in the primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the national media coverage highlighted that this was a stunning victory for a “democratic socialist” as well as a stunning defeat for the political establishment. This dramatic outcome raises many questions about the political strategy needed to defeat Trump and the right-wing agenda but more generally about how to create a political force that serves the interests of working people and not the corporate elite.
Ocasio-Cortez organized for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016, and in her own campaign she stood on a similar platform including Medicare for All, free higher education, getting corporate money out of politics, immigration reform, criminal justice reform (including ending private prisons), solidarity with Puerto Rico, and more. In the final weeks of her campaign, her prominent stand against Trump’s hateful policy of separating refugee families and her support for the call to abolish ICE played a key role in propelling her to victory.
The New York Times described this result in the Democratic primary for Congress as “the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in more than a decade, and one that will reverberate across the party and the country” (6/26/2018).
Crowley is the chairperson of the Queens Democratic Party and the fourth-strongest Democrat in the House. He was seen as a leading replacement for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House if the Democrats retake the chamber in November. This defeat does not belong solely to him, but also to the political establishment in general and the Democratic establishment in particular; to big businesses, especially those who strongly intervened with their money and support for Crowley; and to the mainstream media who stood solidly behind the incumbent in hopes of halting the challenge to the corporate domination of politics. Equally important, this is a strong lesson for those on the left who outrageously endorsed Crowley, particularly the leadership of many local unions and the Working Families Party.
Socialist Alternative is proud to have worked with the Ocasio-Cortez campaign to deal a heavy defeat to Crowley and his corrupt backers. This victory has inspired working people and will boost other insurgent candidates such as Cynthia Nixon (running against Governor 1% Andrew Cuomo), who endorsed Ocasio-Cortez, and Julia Salazar, who’s running for State Senate in Brooklyn. Salazar, who is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has seen an instant upswing in her donations.
This result sent a chill up the spine of every corporate Democrat across the country. But the establishment will look at this as a strong warning, and they have a variety of tools to push back. We need to urgently take steps to prepare left-wing and socialist forces to use this victory as a launching pad to not only deal more electoral blows to the establishment but also to build a vibrant and well-organized movement from below to win the demands that Ocasio-Cortez and Nixon have campaigned on.
If Ocasio-Cortez moves expeditiously to broaden and cohere her wide and growing layer of supporters, this would give a huge boost to the emerging socialist movement in New York City and across the U.S., with anchors of power in working-class neighborhoods and workplaces up through national levels that could serve to unify and give voice to empowered social movements. Immediately Ocasio-Cortez and Nixon should call mass meetings across New York City to discuss how to step up the fight for Medicare for All, a federal $15 minimum wage, free higher education, ending the criminalization of immigrants and abolishing ICE, as well as ending mass incarceration.
A national stage
Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory has thrust her into the national spotlight. Barring a sudden independent challenger in July, which is unlikely, she will almost certainly win the general election and enter Congress next year as a high-profile leader of a re-energized socialist left.
Establishment leaders of the Democratic Party like Nancy Pelosi have tried to play down the significance of her victory. But for millions of people around the U.S., her victory will create hopes that progressive change can be won and that the Democrats can be pushed further to the left.
Socialist Alternative has consistently argued that the sharp divisions between the base of the Democratic Party and the dominant corporate wing of the leadership reflect the deep social crisis of capitalism, the loss of faith in its institutions, and the raging anger among working-class and young people against ever widening inequality. We believe the only way forward is a new party representing the interests of working people and the poor. We have consistently urged Bernie Sanders, as the most prominent left figure in the country, to help launch this party – and two years ago we circulated a petition which gathered over 120,000 signatures demanding that Bernie keep running all the way to November. Working people paid an enormous price in the 2016 presidential election for letting Hillary Clinton be the only major candidate facing Trump’s right populism.
But we also recognize the reality that, despite the fury of Sanders supporters at the rigged Democratic primary, the dominant energy on the left at the present time is still toward reforming the Democrats. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in a primary, where she was outspent 10-to-1, will reinforce this.
But even within the framework of the Democratic Party far more could be done to wage a decisive political struggle against the corporate leadership. Sanders, Our Revolution, and Justice Democrats, who all supported Ocasio-Cortez, should have spent the past 18 months building and leading the movement in the streets against Trump and the right-wing agenda, and should have built a mass democratic membership organization. Sanders himself is better positioned than anyone to call for the kind of active, sustained mass struggle from below which is needed. While Our Revolution has scored some victories in the primaries, the left could have sent far more anti-establishment, pro-worker candidates to Congress around a fighting program and with an organized force at their back.
A Left opposition?
Ocasio-Cortez has said in interviews that she may start a new caucus in Congress. The formation of even a small group in Congress who reject corporate cash and fight for bold policies would undoubtedly be a welcome change in U.S. politics – if it actually happens. Millions would look to them to hold the leadership of the Democratic Party accountable. However, if Ocasio-Cortez and others are seriously prepared to fight for the interests of working people they will need a strategy to stand up to the fierce resistance from establishment leaders of the Republicans and the Democratic Party, along with big business.
The pressures of elected office are real. Congress is a hostile environment that can isolate genuine working-class representatives and surround them with lying, dirty politicians and hallway-roaming slimy lobbyists. Unfortunately, there are too many examples in history of progressive politicians being elected on the basis of bold pro-worker politics, but who adapt and sell-out under the pressures of office.
To take on big business and the right wing as well as the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party, Ocasio-Cortez will need to rely on the movement of working people outside Congress. This is the approach Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative in Seattle have taken. When Sawant was first elected in 2013 to the Seattle City Council as an independent socialist in a campaign which focused on the call for a $15 an hour minimum wage, not a single member of the council supported $15. We helped launch 15 Now as a an organization that anyone could join and the movement democratically decided to campaign for a ballot initiative if the city council didn’t deliver. Within six months of Sawant taking office, Seattle became the first major city to set a pathway to $15 an hour.
With a presumptive Congresswoman as their highest-profile member, DSA now has the potential to both mobilize nationwide support behind Ocasio-Cortez and other socialist candidates taking office – such as the three DSA members who recently won primaries for state office in Pennsylvania – and to build a broader movement to fight for a radical pro-working-class program.
One fundamental way for a working-class representative to remain accountable to the people they represent is to only take the average workers’ wage. A congressperson’s salary is $174,000, not including benefits such as health-care insurance. This puts public representatives far above most of the people they represent especially in an overwhelmingly working-class and immigrant area like New York’s 14th Congressional District. This change in living standards means that public representatives don’t feel the same pain as working people. They don’t need to worry about rent, health care, and education. For that reason, Socialist Alternative believes that every working-class representative must earn the average wage of the people they represent. The median income in New York Congressional District 14 is $53,000. In order to have the same living standards as her constituencies, we urge Ocasio-Cortez to take in only the median income, excluding work-related expenses. The rest of the money should be donated back to the movement.
We need an organization
Ocasio-Cortez ran a strong campaign completely independent of corporate money and party resources. As she said in her public meeting with Socialist Alternative last month, her campaign was a vehicle that she and her supporters had to build completely by themselves without any help from the Democratic Party. As shown with Bernie Sanders’ campaign for President in 2016, with Kshama Sawant’s campaigns in 2013 and 2015 for Seattle City Council, and again with Ocasio-Cortez for Congress, working-class and socialist candidates can get a strong result or even win, relying only on small donations from working people. This points toward an outline of an independent party of the working class.
In our view, a new party is both possible and necessary to defeat the capitalist establishment and the politicians they own. We disagree with those who say the Democratic Party can be transformed. As we previously wrote, “to actually turn the Democrats into a ‘people’s party’ would require creating democratic structures accountable to the membership, refusing corporate money, and actively building mass movements to fight for real change for working people and the oppressed. The corporate leadership uses any opportunity to demobilize genuine movements and would rather split or destroy the party than submit to such a fate. A far more realistic strategy is to begin now to sow the seeds for a new mass party of the working class, using campaigns such as Ocasio-Cortez’s as a the first step.”
In New York City, we have called on DSA to help launch a new socialist party as a tool to build movements and hold socialist candidates and elected representatives accountable. After the exhilarating victory of Ocasio-Cortez, it is possible to go further and call on Ocasio-Cortez, Cynthia Nixon, the Working Families Party, the National Nurses United, DSA, and others to begin discussing the launching of a new mass membership organization that rejects corporate cash, fights for a radical program, and runs candidates against the Democratic Party establishment and independent of them.
Fight for socialism
The opposition to progressive and socialist demands in the Democratic Party are only an expression of the class the corporate leadership represents – the billionaire class. Capitalism is in a serious crisis, shown by massive income disparity and lack of sustainability. With increasing military conflicts and wars, food insecurity, lack of clean water and air, housing crises, the environmental crisis, and increased attacks on labor, people of color, women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, capitalism has proven itself incapable of providing even the most basic needs.
Socialist representatives should use their positions as a platform to call for mass struggles that go beyond what is acceptable to this system and point toward the need for a socialist society. Socialist Alternative calls for taking into public ownership the top 500 corporations and running them democratically by the workers and the public; for a democratic socialist plan for the economy based on the interests of the overwhelming majority of people and the environment; and for a socialist U.S. and a socialist world.