Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Should DSA Sue Eric Adams?
The mayor in the hot seat
Mayor Eric Adams has a propensity to exaggerate, misspeak, and outright lie. This has been true for the entirety of his political career. He kept a photograph of a fallen officer that turned out to be a fake. He told conflicting stories about a childhood beating in a police precinct. He might have lived in New Jersey while running for mayor.
His latest lie is blatantly political: he hates the Democratic Socialists of America, and has no problem, even in passing, tarnishing their reputation. Adams claimed, while speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” that “while our Jewish brothers and sisters were mourning the immediate aftermath of the slaughter that we saw in Israel, that, you had the DSA and others carrying swastikas and calling for the extermination of Jewish people. That's not acceptable.” None of this is true. Adams conflated a Palestinian solidarity rally held in Times Square with a DSA action. DSA did not sponsor or organize the rally, and no DSA-endorsed politicians spoke at it. An unidentified attendee, not affiliated with DSA, was photographed holding up a phone with a photo of a swastika on the screen. The crowd chanted “resistance is justified when people are occupied” in the wake of the Hamas terrorist attacks that killed more than 1,000 Israeli civilians. The New York City chapter of DSA sent a tweet out promoting the rally before it happened, but otherwise had no involvement. Organizers included various Palestinian activist groups and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which is communist and has no relationship with DSA.
Jeremy Cohan, a co-chair of the New York City DSA chapter, said DSA was considering suing Adams for defamation. It is plainly false that DSA was “carrying swastikas” or “calling for the extermination of Jewish people.” DSA is anti-Zionist, but that is not the same thing as calling for the death of all Jews. If so, the Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg would also be endorsing the destruction of their own kind. Proving the falsehood is easy. Meeting the defamation standard of intentional and reckless disregard wouldn’t be difficult, either.
Winning a defamation case is another matter. To prove defamation, you must show that you have been the victim of inevitable negative defamation consequences, such as decreased income, loss of money, or tarnished reputation. Public figures and public organizations have a harder time winning. DSA is well-known enough and the threshold for slander is high. Loss of income, meanwhile, is both hard to prove and unlikely to ever occur. If anything, Adams and other establishment Democrats challenging DSA directly might help their fundraising next year, when their state and congressional incumbents are up for re-election. Progressives and leftists have struggled, overall, to fundraise as strongly in the Biden era as they had when Donald Trump was president. The democratic socialists might prove the exception if Hakeem Jeffries, Adams, and others are serious about drumming up primary challenges or trying to undercut DSA in other ways. The DSA base in Brooklyn and Queens will be motivated to donate cash, knock on doors, and defend their own.
If a defamation suit is something of a long-shot, should it be attempted anyway? Maybe not. The Streisand effect could be in play here if DSA’s lawyers attempt to argue, in court, Adams wrongly said they carry swastikas and want to kill Jews. Reporters would be obligated to disseminate Adams’ lie, again and again, during a trial, and ordinary members of the public will be reminded of an episode that is probably going to be forgotten with the arrival of another news cycle. DSA might be better off leaving it all alone and moving on. This is probably what they will do.
But what if they fought Adams? It’s an intriguing scenario. Adams is the type of politician who likes to punch without getting punched back. Even mild criticism rattles him. So far, he’s had it easy, with an ally in the governor’s mansion and a couple of progressive citywide elected officials in Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams who are largely afraid of head-on confrontations. Since Adams is so unpredictable and willing to lash out—even elderly Holocaust survivors aren’t safe—his opponents tend to hesitate before battling with him publicly. No one was afraid of his predecessor, Bill de Blasio. In part, this was because de Blasio could never play the part of brawler. He was gawky, tweedy, even whiny; Adams is an ex-cop, and it shows. He is also willing to exploit his identity for political gain. The social justice politics of the last decade, built around identity games, is ineffectual against someone like Adams, who is New York’s second Black mayor. Many in DSA have been practicing these politics since the organization exploded in popularity in 2016 and 2017.
Adams will not react well to being sued for defamation. For the many leftists who want to see him defeated in 2025, it wouldn’t hurt, necessarily, to begin rattling him now. Adams has put the Left on the defensive for the last two years. Despite his scandals and controversies, he is in strong position to win again because no credible opponent has emerged to run against him. DSA, focused mostly on local legislative contests, will not likely be endorsing a Democrat against Adams. But the socialist ground game could be helpful in turning out voters against Adams in a Democratic primary. If DSA takes a pass on a direct challenge in the next mayoral election, will they settle for the courtroom? There are worse ideas. Adams would be forced, for once, to account for what he has said. He could, like Fox News, even end up settling, funneling cash to the very political actors he reviles most. DSA could use the funds to pay for a full-time communications director who will help them avoid the sort of controversies that lent Adams the opportunity to slander them in the first place. The media environment, particularly in New York, will never be friendly to socialists who criticize the Israeli government. One way or another, DSA will have to figure out how to effectively fight back.