For the Left, there’s always a danger that electoral politics can devolve into backroom deals among insiders, quarrels over which compromises are acceptable and co-optations of activist energy by the Democratic Party. Elections can be all about winning office, at the expense of winning anything else. But this year, in New York, socialists have been taking a radically different approach: using electoral campaigns — and the power of the socialist officials once elected — to organize their communities.
Justine Medina, a political organizer on the 2020 reelection campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the socialist congresswoman who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, observes that many of AOC’s staff come from “movement backgrounds,” activists and organizers who “a few years ago would not have been involved in electoral politics at all.” This has allowed the campaign to do much more than just reelect a democratic socialist congresswoman (still no small feat in the United States of America). AOC’s organizers saw that they had an opportunity to do something bigger: help build the movement.
Running a socialist campaign during a deadly pandemic and almost equally devastating recession, it was clear to AOC and her team that her community needed help, and that as an unusually charismatic and popular public figure, AOC was in a particularly strong position to be of service. The campaign raised over a million dollars in food relief, delivered eleven thousand bags of groceries, and distributed more than a hundred thousand masks to the community.
The AOC campaign also invested substantially in getting constituents to understand and be counted in the census. The campaign spent at least a million dollars and much of its human power, from the beginning of the primary to the last day of the census count, tabling and going door to door in the community to get people to fill out the census, and educating them about why.
“That’s entirely what the field staff was doing,” says AOC campaign’s political organizing director, Nina Luo. “They were doing the census all day every day.” It was wise for AOC to do this, thinking ahead to likely right-wing and centrist efforts to redistrict her out of a seat (which would leave New York with one less seat and even less proportionate representation at the federal level).
But there are other reasons why a progressive elected official should have been emphasizing the census: AOC’s low- and middle-income district is vastly underfunded, considering its needs, and each additional person counted in the census brings about $4,000-6,000 in government resources to the community, whether that be for school funding, parks, roads, health care clinics, housing, or much more.
AOC’s team also did something else that was unusual: they used the campaign to help develop the community’s organizing capacities. “It was important to us, not just to do movement work, but to come up with ways that it can continue and be perpetually generative in the way that organizing can be, even though there’s that obvious contradiction of an electoral campaign having a finite deadline, an apparatus that downsizes dramatically after the election,” says Medina. That’s where the idea of the workshops — for building constituents’ organizing skills — came in.
As soon as COVID-19 hit, the campaign began to respond to the urgent needs of a community hard hit by the virus and its economic fallout. They focused especially on organizing food relief in the community and hosted a special online workshop devoted to the concept of mutual aid. “The congresswoman really loved it,” says Luo. “It reached a lot of people. [Mutual aid] is an idea that lives in radical communities but is not as popular or common among the public. Because of the congresswoman’s platform, she has an audience that might not otherwise be able to access it. So we’re introducing the idea to folks and trying to do so in a way that emphasizes solidarity, not charity, trying to emphasize some of the principles behind it.”
The campaign was able to ramp up such efforts considerably after the primary, spending time with activists in the district to identify major community organizing needs. AOC wanted issues that were “broadly and deeply felt, but also where there was something to teach that could make a material difference in someone’s life,” Luo emphasizes.
The AOC team organized successful workshops on eviction defense, workplace organizing — this one with Labor Notes and Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) — organizing against ICE, and organizing against gentrification. Over the summer, responding to widespread concern over school closures, the campaign also held workshops — and follow-up sessions — with parents seeking to organize childcare collectives.
These efforts were experiments, says Medina, and didn’t always turn out as the organizers expected. “You learn the various things that can be done with a campaign,” she says, “and also the very real limits of it.” For example, she says, the campaign staff had imagined doing much more organizing themselves, perhaps sticking with constituents on a campaign, training them fully and, for example, helping to organize all the tenants in a building. “But we didn’t have that capacity,” says Medina.
The campaign learned that it could give people some tools and skills for organizing but, at least this time, couldn’t do much more. But in the future, Medina muses, as more volunteers and other constituents get more organizing experience in between election years — who knows what might be possible?
Medina says these projects helped to show socialism as a philosophy in action, “helping people to literally take ownership of their own lives.” Of the workshop on workplace organizing, she asks, rhetorically, “Has an elected ever done that?”
AOC wasn’t the only socialist elected official to take this approach, though she has had more money and more star power to amplify it. In New York, where six socialists will serve as elected representatives in state government starting in January — forming what newly elected state senator Jabari Brisport has called “the socialist lunch table in Albany”— several candidates have been doing similar work.
Socialist state senate incumbent Julia Salazar, Brisport, and socialist assemblywoman Emily Gallagher, all of whom represent Brooklyn neighborhoods, promoted the census and set up tables to educate constituents about it and encourage them to participate. The state-level candidates also distributed food and PPE in their districts.
More strikingly, they have already been using their campaigns and platforms to promote socialist ideas and organizing. Zohran Mamdani, newly elected state assemblyman, recently used his Twitter account to recruit new members to Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). But while explicit socialist shoutouts from elected officials would in normal times be remarkable by themselves, the dedication of all five DSA-endorsed elected officials to the socialist project seems to be much deeper than that. (There are now at least six socialists among New York state’s elected representatives, including Emily Gallagher, though Gallagher was not endorsed by DSA this election cycle.)
The five have been coordinating and planning to use their new roles to build the movement, just as AOC has been doing. In early October, DSA’s four newly elected state representatives — Marcela Mitaynes, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Brisport, and Mamdani — with incumbent Salazar, convened a weekend-long retreat, partly to strategize for the coming legislative battles, but also to plan how best to use their roles to build DSA’s power in their communities and in the state. One of the plans that emerged was to use the district offices as community organizing hubs. The vision is strikingly similar to that of the AOC campaign, with more permanent potential.
While elected officials’ legislative offices in the capital focus on legislation, their district offices typically focus on constituent services — helping tenants with landlord problems, getting potholes fixed, addressing immigration problems, and helping constituents file for unemployment. DSA rightly recognizes the importance of this role and also sees that constituent services present an organizing opportunity.
Housing complaints can fuel tenant organizing. Constituents calling with workplace problems could get help to organize a union. Individual problems can be connected to legislative campaigns (for universal health care or against eviction, for example). District offices can help facilitate mutual aid (as AOC has been doing with the childcare collectives and food assistance).
They can also communicate with voters about the issues DSA and the slate are working on; perhaps volunteers could even go door-to-door in between election seasons, asking not for votes, but for constituents to take action against evictions, or to support DSA’s efforts to pass a statewide single payer bill and the New York Green New Deal, and to tax the rich. DSA plans to organize its membership to volunteer to help with constituent services and with such organizing efforts. Since each of the electoral campaigns generated such a large and enthusiastic volunteer base, there should be plenty of people ready to help.
As AOC often says, electoral politics is not the only — or even the most important — way to build working-class and socialist power. And without a strong movement, these inroads into the state apparatus won’t be enough. These rising democratic socialists are showing how to do both at the same time.