In July, Jamaal Bowman defeated Congressperson Eliot Engel, a 16-term incumbent and the chair of the House foreign affairs committee, in the Democratic Primary (NY-16). Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party were at the center of the race, and for the Democratic Party leadership both in New York and nationally, the progressive victory was a concerning echo of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking 2018 defeat of Joe Crowley, just a district over.
The left has been contesting in Democratic primaries for many decades, but the number of organizational players employing this strategy as a central tool has exploded since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Justice Dems are one of many organizations that arose in the wake of HRC’s defeat, while pre-existing groups like DSA rose to greater prominence, using a similar tactical approach to electoral politics. Indeed, DSA was one of a small number of endorsements that AOC received in her 2018 bid, and the organization put boots on the ground.
In short, socialists and other progressives defeating machine Democrats with a seemingly stable power base has entered the mainstream.
In a recent article, Jarod Abbott attempts to parse those who engage electoral work in the Democratic primaries into two strategic camps, what he calls a “coalition strategy” and a “confrontation strategy.” In what follows, I argue that the two categories he employs are analytically flawed, and they therefore produce strategic prescriptions that miss as much as they capture.
Are these two distinct strategies?
The intuitive distinction Abbott makes between these two apparently distinct approaches is that groups like Justice Dems attempt to build coalitions with conservative Democrats and hence treat them with kid gloves, while organizations (presumably DSA, though this isn’t stated explicitly) that employ the confrontation approach adhere to a party platform and tussle with those Democrats who do not.
The distinction quickly breaks down, however: “Building… coalitions by no means rules out the idea of waging primary campaigns against conservative Democrats. Indeed, electing more progressive candidates in Democratic primary contests is an important aspect of the coalition strategy, since the larger the progressive legislative bloc, the more influence it can exert.” Meanwhile, those employing the strategy of confrontation are “doggedly advocating for a clear, working-class-oriented platform, and threatening Democrats with primary challenges whenever they fail to support that platform.”
Check. So, partisans of both strategies threaten to primary the Democratic colleagues of those socialists and progressives they elect, in order to gain leverage in moving social democratic legislation.
And, at the same time, employing the confrontational strategy does not at all preclude “the possibility of making strategic alliances with existing blocs in the Democratic Party coalition.”
Check. Again, partisans of both strategies will sometimes make strategic alliances with non-left/progressive blocs in the Democratic coalition, in order to get stuff done.
Perhaps, confrontation and coalition are actually of one thread.
New York rent laws, 2019
In May of 2019 the Housing Justice for All (HJ4A) coalition pushed the New York State legislature to pass a bundle of eight bills that devastated the landlord class in New York. According to one of their principal organs, the Real Deal, the 2019 reforms cost them billions of dollars. Even before COVID and the moratorium that followed, evictions in New York plummeted.
There is a movement story to tell of this win—tenants have been organizing for decades around the state, and they were physically attacked in Albany in the days leading up to the victory—but there is an important electoral story as well.
A clear power sharing agreement, based at first on gerrymandering, emerged between New York Democrats and Republicans in 1981. Democrats controlled the Assembly, the lower chamber, and Republicans controlled the Senate. No matter which party was in executive office, very little progressive legislation could move in this environment (Though groups like the Working Families Party found ways, raising the minimum wage above the federal for the first time in New York history in 2004, and reforming racist drug laws that same year, both under Republican executive control.).
Rise and fall of the”Independent Democratic Conference”
The arrangement slipped briefly in 2008, thanks again to the Working Families Party and to a wave year with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket: Democrats took tenuous control of the Senate. Progressive legislation ensued in the 2009 and 2010 cycles – but the Tea Party wave returned control of the Senate to Republicans. Democrats would have again regained control of the Senate in the 2012 Presidential cycle, and indeed they did, nominally. But a truly bizarre arrangement emerged: a small handful of Democrats formed the “Independent Democratic Conference,” (IDC) and formed a bloc with their Republican colleagues, preventing Democratic control of the chamber.
This exceptional arrangement held until 2018, when grassroots activists, who cohered in groups like NO IDC, recruited primary challengers to all eight members of the IDC, and six of them prevailed. Republicans were further eviscerated in the general election, and there was finally a Democratic trifecta in New York. In the same cycle, DSA made a splash when Julia Salazar won a primary race against a machine Democrat on a radical platform that centered on rent law reform.
With the Senate in Democratic hands, the Housing Justice for All coalition went to war. They went to Albany with nine bills, and Salazar carried the most radical. While HJ4A hammered from the outside, using mass protest and civil disobedience, they also knew how to count votes. They developed champions, both left and progressive, in the legislature, and then they organized the more cautious members of the Democratic delegation to support the bills.
This work ultimately put the chamber leadership in a position where their best option was to outflank the neoliberal governor and announce a deal that cost billions of dollars to the very forces that fund the campaigns of many in their delegation – and that represented an unequivocal win for poor and working-class tenants across the state and especially in New York City.
Confrontation and coalition in the rent laws fight
If the New York State legislature had a majority of Julia Salazars, coalition would be unnecessary. But the Left doesn’t have majoritarian control in any state or federal chamber, in New York or elsewhere. The billions of dollars in wealth transfer in 2019 was the product of a multi-year strategy that included both confrontation and coalition: the IDC primaries, as well as Julia Salazar’s primary win – not to mention AOC’s congressional win – put the fear of god into nearly every Democratic incumbent.
Meanwhile, even centrist Democratic confrontation with the far right on Long Island was pivotal to the outcome – the effective collapse of the Republican Party meant that Senate Democrats could act like a party, and importantly that there were a number of ways to count to a majority of votes in the chamber. In short, the 2019 legislative cycle was suffused with the threats that the left and progressives made good on in 2018, as well the wave that made challenges from the right less pressing. Not a single Democratic legislator wanted to be on the 2020 hit list.
And yet, HJ4A passed the bundle of eight bills in an actually existing legislature, where the Left was in the distinct minority. They maintained a spreadsheet and tracked conversations. They used carrots and sticks. They built and leveraged relationships. And they ultimately counted the votes of enough Democratic legislators to move billions of dollars from property owners to renters.
Until we build a socialist majority – or perhaps even then, given the diversity of the left!–in state chambers and in Washington D.C., any significant social democratic wins will involve an artful combination of confrontation and coalition. The forms that those two broad tools will take, and the amount and quality of their combination will vary by region, based on the electorate and the organizational forces that are at play. But even in deep blue New York, where confrontation has become the order of the day, moving legislation requires coalition work with non-progressive forces to defeat Republicans and to count to a majority in the legislature. It is, it turns out, inherent in the math.
Any attempt to position confrontation and coalition as distinct strategies rather than as themselves tools that combine in different circumstances to form appropriate strategies is ungrounded in the messy reality of even the left-most political players. Grappling with our messy, material reality should be the starting point of any deep discussion about left strategy.