India Walton and the promise of democratic socialism

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Two hands holding different colored paper sheet as socialist centralized economic planning versus capitalist liberated free market over crowded street background. Future strategy concept red vs blue.
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These days, Republican leaders are labeling most ideas or policies that Democrats advocate as “socialist.” This is a decades-old attack but it is losing its punch according to a new Axios/Momentive poll. In 2019, 58% of Americans ages 18-34 viewed capitalism favorably. Now it is 49%. Back then, 39% of all adults reacted positively to the word socialism. That has grown to 41%. This increase is driven by African Americans and women.

 Interestingly, 66% of all Americans say the federal government should pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between the wealthy and the less well-off (up a bit from 62% in 2019). Most provocatively, 56% of Republicans ages 18-34 want to reduce the wealth gap now when only 40% of them favored such policies in 2019.

Felix Salmon of Axios says: “The pandemic has caused millions of Americans — including many younger Republicans — to re-evaluate their political and economic worldview. That’s likely because of two factors: a renewed focus on deep societal inequalities and the tangible upsides of unprecedented levels of government intervention.”

Billionaires have increased their wealth by $1 trillion during the pandemic. Meanwhile, rents and student debt have soared. Many jobs became much more precarious and dangerous. As a result, more people are attracted to alternative ways of running society.

Salmon concludes: “Politicians looking to attack opponents to their left can no longer use the word ‘socialist’ as an all-purpose pejorative. Increasingly, it’s worn as a badge of pride.”

Historian Maurice Isserman observes that the U.S. House of Representatives has more self-described socialists than at any time in history. There’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York District 14), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan District 13), Cori Bush (Missouri District 1), and Jamaal Bowman (New York District 16). They are members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and ran as Democrats.

Of course, there’s Bernie Sanders in the Senate, who is an independent but caucuses with the Democrats and is a crucial member of the Party’s national leadership. He isn’t a member of DSA.

DSA is the largest socialist organization in the United States, with over 92,000 members and chapters in all 50 states. In the 2020 elections, at least 36 DSA members were elected. 

Recently, there was an unexpected surprise in New York’s second-largest city. DSA member India Walton won the Democratic primary to become mayor of Buffalo. She is a 38-year-old single mother who is a registered nurse and union organizer. She has never run for office before. She beat Byron Brown, a four-term incumbent who is close to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. There was no Republican in the race.

After she won, a TV anchor asked Walton what a Democratic Socialist is. She explained: “That means that we put people first. That means that we prioritize the working class, the marginalized, the often unseen, unheard people over profits, corporations and developers.”

Brown has vowed to run as a write-in candidate. In a hysterical McCarthyite message, he said there is “tremendous fear” among voters who are afraid about the future for their children and their families. He said, “They do not want a radical socialist occupying the mayor’s office in Buffalo City Hall. You know, we know the difference between socialism and democracy. We are going to fight for democracy in the city of Buffalo.”

After Brown’s write-in announcement, the chair of the Erie County Democratic Party issued an unambiguous statement about India Walton, “to strongly affirm once again that we are with her, now and through the general election in the fall.” It added: “Last Tuesday, India proved she has the message and the means to move and inspire the people of Buffalo. It was a historic moment in Western New York politics. The voters heard her message and embraced her vision for the city’s future, and we look forward to working with her and her team to cross that final finish line on Nov. 2.”

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg found Walton to be quite politically savvy. Walton said her “early adopters were white progressives” like the Working Families Party and DSA.

But the surge in violent crime has hurt progressive politics.

She told Goldberg, “The challenge of the left is that we use our jargony activist language and don’t take time to fully explain what we mean to those who may not be as ‘woke’ as we are.” Polls show that both black and white voters don’t care for the “defund the police” slogan.

Instead of “defund,” Walton said, “we say we’re going to reallocate funds. We’re going to fully fund community centers. We’re going to make the investments that naturally reduce crime, such as investments in education, infrastructure, living-wage jobs. Nothing stops crime better than a person who’s gainfully employed.”

She has an exciting platform which includes a tenant bill of rights, a public bank to finance investment in city priorities and “a comprehensive land use policy that sets aside 50% of city-owned vacant parcels for public good.” 

We need to break from traditional politics and dream.  

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.