The left was recently faced with a disheartening reversal in the tug of war for the mayoralty of Buffalo, New York. The success of incumbent mayor Byron Brown’s unlikely write-in campaign in meeting the challenge of socialist upstart and Democratic nominee India Walton, who had bested Brown in a surprise primary win earlier this year, was almost as much of an upset as Walton’s initial turn of the tables. A Brown restoration via write-in had seemed so improbable — until the weight of establishment pressure (along with some unforced errors on the part of the Walton campaign) tilted the scales.
Now, in the wake of Brown’s revanchist triumph, left-of-center Democrats in Our Revolution, the political action nonprofit associated with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), have declared their intention to punish Brown for his subversion — they’re proposing that Brown’s position on the New York Democratic National Committee (DNC) be revoked in response to his betrayal of the nominee, which would have been treated as a grave transgression had a leftist perpetrated it. This admonishment, however, is almost certainly destined to remain symbolic. To power, hypocrisy — when it’s in service of the status quo — is deemed a virtue.
A Slap on the Wrist
Brown’s newest laurels (a fifth term reinstalled as mayor of Buffalo) come in addition to his existing membership in the New York Democratic National Committee, where he represents Buffalo Assembly District 141. He was also a state party chair until 2019.
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Larry Cohen, DNC member and chair of Our Revolution, has called for a campaign to remove Brown from that position in retaliation for his blatant electoral sabotage. They described an intention to press other Democrats to issue this citation of sorts, contending that Brown, after all, actively subverted the Party’s nominee with his recalcitrant write-in, accepting support from Republicans in order to do so. As some have pointed out, Brown’s actions are, among other things, a violation of Democratic Party rules. Were another candidate to attempt such a maneuver from the left, it would not be unreasonable to expect a swift and merciless condemnation.
Cohen told Politico, “When you pull a stunt like this, somebody wins a primary, a working-class woman, and you go to every rich donor in both parties to fund a write-in campaign … it’s a disgrace.” Politico also quoted a statement from Walton herself, echoing Cohen: “Not only do I support the DNC revoking Byron Brown’s post; I believe it would set a dangerous precedent not to.” (Politico’s resulting headline initially deemed the effort “payback,” a phrasing that Walton took issue with in a tweet. The headline appears to have been changed; progressives are now “taking aim.” The Wall Street Journal more vividly characterized it as “revenge” and “the long knives coming out” — in this metaphor, progressives are, of course, the Nazis.)
Still, any actual reprimand for Brown is, as Politico correctly notes, highly unlikely to take place. Party moderates are content with Brown’s glorious restoration, the swatting of another left-wing gadfly. There is almost no chance that any Democratic elites will entertain the notion of tarnishing the return of a moderate champion. Censuring Brown for trampling on the Democratic nominee — by political isolation, by making any kind of threat to his status with the application of pressures, whether grassroots or internal to the party — might at least have utility in discouraging future write-in gambits. But in truth, the censorious gesture has little connection to on-the-ground politics, appearing more akin to sniping between progressive and moderate elites.
Walton is right, though, that the precedent Brown has set is dangerous — especially for the left, whose future primary winners will likely feel far less certain about the solidity of any victory, now that the write-in has been weaponized. Brown has now proved that concession is a custom, not a law; any establishment candidate stung by a loss to a leftist may now seriously weigh a (well-resourced) write-in as a convenient do-over tactic. Former Rep. Joe Crowley might be kicking himself that he bowed out with such grace and solemnity when he was booted from his seat by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018.
But Our Revolution’s recent overture, unless it gathers momentum beyond elite insider and NGO circles, seems, at best, a bitter afterthought. To venture that centrists might rebuke their recent victor in service of high-minded notions like “party unity” is to proceed under the idealist assumption that the Democratic power structure operates according to a set of internally consistent moral strictures. As Cohen is likely aware, rather, bigwig moderates are happy to cite “party unity” and cohesion (“Vote Blue No Matter Who”) when these ideals can be leveraged against the left. But such lofty notions are the first thing discarded whenever they come into conflict with the determining material interests of power and capital: the real ideological pillars of establishment Democrats.
Default to Hypocrisy
Observers unfamiliar with the modus operandi of power might find it baffling on its face that the Democratic Party would countenance such an apparent betrayal. Brown, after all, toppled a Democratic nominee on a third-party line, and was happy to court funding and votes from Republicans in order to do so. Such readiness to welcome him back into the fold might read as hypocrisy.
But there’s no real contradiction here. Centrist acquiescence to Brown’s seemingly duplicitous behavior is wholly explicable in light of the material incentives from which ideological and rhetorical justifications derive. The answer is that Brown’s revolt was not a betrayal at all. It restored a major player in the New York Democratic machine to power and is broadly acceptable to major party elements, as it aligns with the interests of corporate and wealthy donors, to whom they are responsive.
Joseph Geevarghese, executive director at Our Revolution, also told Politico: “You’ve got the establishment Democratic Party trying to block the path forward for progressives, and it’s incredibly challenging and frustrating for the grassroots.” Capital and its emissaries were never going to allow a socialist to take office. It was clear from the outset that they would go to considerable lengths to prevent Walton from assuming the mayoralty (including eliminating the mayor’s office entirely).
To the point, Brown was lavished with funding from corporate allies. Most notably among them were numerous development interests that had benefited handsomely from his tax breaks and handouts to real estate, made in the course of Buffalo’s “redevelopment,” which was uneven, to say the least. During Brown’s terms, inequality continued to widen between the wealthy and the poor in Buffalo, where racial and economic disparities are “severe.” Brown had the backing of a friendly judge in an attempt to force his name onto the ballot, as well as elements of local media that gleefully publicized opposition drops against Walton for irrelevant personal issues: parking tickets, an old workplace conflict, a mean Facebook comment, a few hundred dollars in underpaid taxes. Meanwhile, Brown’s demonstrable history of graft and corruption was consigned to the background, when it was raised at all.
The establishment’s tacit acceptance of Brown’s challenge — and its repugnance at the prospect of a Walton mayoralty — found expression in the professed neutrality of some prominent Democrats. Few in the party, likely conscious of the optics of sanctioning a nominee’s sabotage, overtly endorsed Brown. Instead, they made their tolerance implicit by their passivity.
The stubborn “neutrality” of Governor Kathy Hochul, State Party Chairman Jay Jacobs, and several other leading Democrats was not neutral in the least. Taking the unusual step of declining to endorse the Democratic Party’s nominee was tantamount to supporting Brown. State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes went as far as to endorse him outright. Notable exceptions included the Erie County Democrats and, somewhat curiously, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. However, they certainly didn’t rush to her defense. (Jacobs also made a few unwise — and revealing — comments that implicitly compared Walton’s win to a hypothetical candidacy by noted racist monstrosity David Duke, which should illustrate the degree of his disdain.) These elites’ hesitance to endorse the party nominee is in line with a broader centrist revulsion at even the most milquetoast leftism, to say nothing of the raised hackles of Republicans like reactionary developer Carl Paladino.
It is perfectly comprehensible that liberal power structures should prefer a Brown victory via write-in campaign, however treacherous on its face, to the ascent of a nominal socialist. Calls for unity are deemed appropriate when they have the effect of silencing leftist critics — but when a betrayal on the scale that Brown has just perpetrated happens to thwart the left, we hear not a word. “Party unity” is a smokescreen; fealty is only demanded when it means getting in line behind a donor-friendly agenda.
Some Democratic strategists are defining that agenda, as Osita Nwanevu has written in The New Republic, via an approach that might be called “popularism” — hewing to whatever policies are most “popular” (by arguable metrics) to, theoretically, win elections and restore the Party’s worsening prospects. Naturally, this means repudiating the left, along with movements like “defund the police.” There’s a sort of circular logic there that, conveniently, legitimates existing centrist tendencies. In the same vein, we’ve seen a “Team Blue PAC” launched with the express intent of deflecting any left challenge to Democratic incumbents. The party remains bitterly divided. Yet the overwhelming majority of progressive politicians and candidates in the U.S. are far from Marxist revolutionaries — even tepid social democracy is exceptional. Any failures at the ballot box, centrists insist, can be attributed to even the most minimal overtures made to the left. These patterns are omnipresent: Tack to the middle, triangulate, compromise. In this way, the country continuously ratchets to the right, calibrated to the needs of capital. Accordingly, observers have seized upon Walton’s loss as irrefutable evidence of the unpopularity of left policy. Brown, predictably, described his win to CNN as “a rebuke of defund the police, a rebuke of socialism.”
The real battle lines in the United States are not drawn between Republican and Democrat; they lie between labor and capital. Centrist elites — indeed, the power structures of both capitalist parties — fall well within the latter camp. As such, Brown might have, on paper, betrayed the Democrats, but he never really switched sides. Though he enjoyed considerable support from unions as well, he was first and foremost the choice of the ownership class, as the electoral fracas in Buffalo has made eminently clear. We might hope that he suffers some symbolic consequence — but it will take more than a token reprimand of one comparatively minor figure to combat the power structure’s abhorrence of even the faintest specter of socialism.