Convergence and The Forge interviewed organizers around the country by email, asking for their short takes on the midterm elections. New York Working Families Party Organizers Divya Sundaram and Tascha Van Auken size up a challenging landscape. Progressives are confronting voter demoralization, corporate Dems, and the right wing in the country’s biggest media market.
What was the most effective message or tactic that the other side used? How did you try to combat it? Were you successful?
One thing we have to contend with in New York (and New York City specifically) is that we are doing politics in the biggest media market in the country—and the other side is mobilizing massive amounts of money to wield that power. That tactic isn’t new nor is the message: that crime is rising. We saw the rise of this fear-mongering in 2021 with Mayor Eric Adams and the Common Sense PAC, which targeted progressive Democratic candidates with negative mailers and TV ads. The Left has had varying degrees of success raising enough money to compete – and the consequence is that the airwaves are being flooded by our opposition.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin built on this foundation. The phrase that New Yorkers heard over and over again in the build up to November 8th was “Lee Zeldin will make New York safe again.” With an impending economic recession, the ongoing consequences of the COVID pandemic, rising rents, and a wave of evictions, New Yorkers want security and stability! And while some of our populist messaging spoke to those desires, ultimately, we did not have a concise, disciplined, and compelling message that conveys the alternatives we are offering. That combined with financial constraints put us in a really tough position.
Ultimately, the organizing that the Working Families Party put in to mobilize a disenchanted left/progressive base to turn out for Governor Hochul made a critical difference in stopping Zeldin. The WFP made a strong case for how much more harmful Zeldin would be to working people, and put boots to the ground to actually talk to voters. The result was that the WFP ballot line was nearly the margin of victory for the Governor. The progressive movement won this election and stopped Lee Zeldin because we knew what was at stake.
But our vision of New York still doesn’t feel accessible or inspiring enough to working people who are experiencing rising inflation and demoralization. And we are struggling to convey why and how it is or could be if we mobilize. Adams, Zeldin, and others have proven to be formidable opponents, and the task ahead is to figure out how to consolidate opposition and fight back on all fronts: narrative, organizing, and electoral.
What did you learn through the midterms that we can use in the next phase of the fight against the MAGA right?
A big takeaway for us this election cycle was that bold, populist proposals are very popular— things like healthcare for all, housing for all, taxing the wealthy, investing in public good projects. People are suffering and need to see that the government is investing in them and not merely trying to maintain a status quo that doesn’t work. This, I think, is where the MAGA right finds leverage. If the Democratic Party is saying, “Hey, everything’s fine, we just need to keep things as they are” and an increasing number of people are experiencing dilemmas like having to choose between paying for a visit to a doctor and buying food for the week, then the Democratic Party is quite simply not relating to what people are actually experiencing and that opens up all sorts of vulnerabilities for the Right to exploit.
NY Working Families Party reached out to hundreds of thousands of voters this year and we saw that voters support issues like Good Cause Eviction, the New York Health Act, the Build Public Renewables Act, and taxing the wealthy. What’s hard is convincing people that it is worth their time to vote and to fight for these things. This demoralization can’t be brushed off, ignored, or judged. It has to be taken seriously because I think that sense of paralysis comes from a very rational place where people see that the Democratic Party has control over our state government but is often not fighting for them. I think it’s our job to create lots of on-ramps for people to concretely fight for the world we all need and to build power so we can start to move real legislation that addresses the many crises people are experiencing.
The biggest thing I learned was that when someone at a door or on the phone says, “Yeah, sure, all that sounds great but none of it will happen; why should I bother?.” we can’t dismiss that. We must take it seriously and learn how to respond in a way that acknowledges the very rational (and relatable!) place this comes from. If we can’t inspire people to action by talking about and addressing the very real suffering people are experiencing, then the right just gains ground because people that are with us aren’t turning out to vote and mobilizing their friends and neighbors.