Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
You Don't Have a Mass Movement
The dangers of self-delusion
There is a habit, among the professional class leftists and those who labor at their attendant organizations, to make sweeping claims about what they do. In some sense, this is natural. We can all inflate ourselves a little, burnishing a narrative or fibbing in such a way to make a story seem better than it really is. Social media offers numerous opportunities to be more than we really are. The politically active are not immune to these temptations.
One danger of self-delusion is weakness; if you believe great success has arrived when it really hasn’t, you may not work so hard. Or you’ll attempt a maneuver that, in a vacuum, would never make sense otherwise. In the ongoing drama over Dan Goldman’s victory in the NY-10 Democratic primary, the progressive organizations and influencers that have rallied around Yuh-Line Niou are running such a risk. Several of her most prominent supporters, including the actress Cynthia Nixon, want Niou to run against Goldman, a very wealthy lawyer who worked on the first Trump impeachment, on the Working Families Party line in the fall. Niou, a state assemblywoman, legally doesn’t have the third party ballot line, but Mondaire Jones, the sitting congressman who also lost, could give it to her. The argument goes that Goldman is too moderate for the Manhattan and Brooklyn district, he subverted the democratic process by spending at least $4 million of his own money on the race, and he barely beat Niou, who may have lost because Jones and other self-identified progressive candidates took votes from her. With a clear field and a one-on-one opportunity, Niou could have a chance to do damage to Goldman or even defeat him outright, they argue. George Albro, an attorney who founded the New York Progressive Action Network, a statewide organization that took root after the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, declared recently that Niou has a “mass movement behind her,” the type that could dislodge a Democratic nominee who only took about 26 percent of the primary vote.
This is not true at all, though it sounds very nice.
Within the context of an election, the closest any left-wing American politician has come in the last 30 years to commanding a mass movement is Sanders. The Vermont senator won millions of votes in two presidential races and captured large, diverse states like California and Michigan. He inspired a new generation of voters and activists, almost single-handedly reviving the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest leftist organization in the U.S. since the Communist Party of the 1930s. He staged enormous rallies across the country. He still lost. And it’s not as if winning candidates can be said to be the leaders of large movements. Joe Biden dominated the 2020 primary after his top rivals dropped out and most Democratic voters decided he, not Sanders, was the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump. There were few open declarations of love or affirmative feelings for Biden as a presidential candidate. He was a default, a stopgap, a repository for a great amount of anti-Trump angst.
Leftists, as a rule, have not led mass movements in America. The most clear-eyed leaders and organizers recognize how far they have to go and work harder to reach a point where they can plausibly speak for many thousands of people. The more cynical—or the more deluded—simply declare they speak for these people already. No congressional campaign can argue, with any seriousness, it has built a large movement, the kind that inspires intense interest or devotion on the level of Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter. The Niou campaign, which won 15,380 votes to Goldman’s 16,686, is certainly nowhere close. She ran a strong race. That does not mean she can now, with the help of WFP and NYPAN and all the rest of the alphabet left, work miracles in the fall. Goldman, once he is certified the victor of the Democratic primary, will have the endorsements of most of the city’s House delegation, large labor unions, and Chuck Schumer. Nancy Pelosi and Kathy Hochul, the New York governor, have already endorsed him. He is going to raise many more millions of dollars. There is no path to beating him. In part, that is the nature of politics. Voters do not pick third party candidates over major party candidates. Even in 2020, when the WFP made a concerted push to have Democrats and independents vote for Joe Biden on their line to protect their ballot status in New York, 70 percent of NY-10 voters chose Biden as a Democrat. Just 14 percent voted for him as a WFP candidate. Niou could get more than 14 percent against Goldman, but she has no chance against him in a general election. It’s the kind of race that would excite activists and volunteers before severely disappointing them, as the Democratic nominee racks up huge margins.
Pretending a mass movement exists does a disservice to supporters of Niou and the left more broadly, feeding into pathologies that have damaged progressives over the last few years. It’s the same approach to politicking the led professional class organizations to believe majorities of Black, Latino, and Asian voters wanted to defund or abolish the police altogether when, in fact, they viewed policing in America through a more nuanced lens. It led them to misapprehend entirely why working-class Latino and Asian voters drifted significantly toward Trump in 2020. It even led them to speak in increasingly alienating ways about climate change, at a time when the stakes for coalition-building couldn’t be any higher. Arrogance, for any candidate or organizer, is one of the greatest sins, the kind that unravels a movement before it ever reaches its potential.
In the belief that Niou commands a movement—a genuine movement—and is not just another popular House candidate, her allies wish for what isn’t there, projecting fantasies onto the political system and the rest of the electorate. There is nothing wrong with attempting a third party campaign, especially in a district where the Republican will be irrelevant. What is wrong is telling ordinary Niou supporters who saw her narrowly lose to Goldman that there is a great chance to defeat him running as a WFP candidate. There isn’t. The left will not build power this way. Losing by such a wide margin is not going to inspire progressives in the district. It will not aid progressives in Washington. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does not gain clout if Goldman, as the Democratic nominee, runs roughshod over Niou’s campaign. Perhaps Niou’s backers get a few more months in the sun, a chance to feel righteous. Maybe that’s enough for them.