By Sam Murray, Columnist
The U.S. needs to transition to political parties that are responsive to the needs of constituents. Buffalo, New York, a previously safe city for the centrist Democratic Party establishment, received a shock to its political scene. India Walton, a self-professed socialist, won the Democratic primary election for mayor. This victory gained national recognition among the Buffalo and New York State political establishments during the November 2nd election.
Walton’s policy platform had envisioned a bold new start for Buffalo — an opportunity for dramatic change and to challenge the status quo. Her agenda largely focused on demands from activists across all sectors of policy arenas, from policing to housing. For example, her policing policy was heavily informed by research and rallying cries from the summer of 2020 to defund, deescalate, and find alternatives to the current system of policing. Her goals envisioned an immediate timeline of accountability and removing police from responding to mental health calls alongside longer-term strategies of investing in real crime prevention mechanisms such as youth employment programs.
While Walton ran as a Democrat during the election, her beliefs are ideologically left of the “squad” in Congress (Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and others). She was a socialist candidate under a major party ticket. This achievement is fascinating as it may have sent down shockwaves in the party establishment. Perhaps the success and attention she received is either a wake-up call for establishment Democrats or a wake-up call for the deep divisions within the party.
In the June 2021 primary election, Walton, backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, defeated Bryon Brown, the four-term incumbent. If she had won the general election, she would have been the first socialist mayor since 1960 — a stunning feat.
Surprisingly, Walton initially faced no challengers on the ballot; no Republicans or third-party candidates planned to run against her. However, following his primary loss, Brown successfully initiated a write-in campaign to attempt to hold his seat. Brown, alongside close allies, including moderate and conservative Democrats and the New York Republican Party, created a strong write-in campaign to maintain his tenure as mayor. Per an interesting New York law, Brown mailed stamps to voters, who could use them in the “write-in” spot on the ballot.
Despite Walton’s loss, her campaign received endorsements from high-ranking establishment Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Senator Schumer’s endorsement included a statement on how Walton’s victory in the primary election displayed the diverse range of opinions within the Democratic Party. His endorsement may have been in strategic preparation for his 2022 reelection; it is speculated that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez may run as a primary challenger to his seat in 2022. Schumer may have provided support to Walton in an attempt to garner support or prevent criticism from Ocasio-Cortez’s ideological group.
Currently, the Democratic Party has three factions: the progressives, the establishment (of whom moderates are the largest faction), and the small conservative faction. Various ideological issues, messaging, geographic, and demographic differences in representation exist among these factions, but all tend to vote en-bloc under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer. Under the lens of political development, the Democratic Party is quite unified and, even with slim margins, maintains minimal defectors on votes. Recently, progressive and conservative Democrats have attempted to alter policy outcomes under their party’s slim majority by using their voting blocs as leverage to hold up a vote.
Walton’s politics are not a novel development. Socialism has a deep history in the U.S., from intellectual thinkers to activists and political leaders, and recently, it has garnered rising support. At one point, the U.S. had over a thousand socialists in office at varying levels of government, including 79 mayors’ offices in 1912. Since the Red Scares, the word “socialism” has been and is currently used as a fear-baiting tactic by Republicans. While not at past levels, membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has topped over 90,000. Yet, despite this, many of our current policies are rooted in socialist beliefs, which rely on the general collective safety and wellbeing of all. Medicare, Medicaid, fire departments, municipal water treatment, and even more controversial systems such as police and military are considered general socialist principles.
So why would a candidate like India Walton, who proposed ideas that will collectively benefit Buffalo, be threatening enough to initiate a write-in campaign sponsored by the opposition party? Is it the establishment’s fear of losing power? Is it the potential disruption of a successful candidate outside of the two-party system? Numerous factors come into play here, but disruption of the status quo at any level tends to cause retaliatory action from those holding power.
The two-party system has become an increasingly grid-locked, hyperpolarized, and zero-sum game. In essence, each side competes for power despite their beliefs being not all that dissimilar. Democrats and Republicans bicker over their agendas, yet minimal fundamental changes occur in our political system or communities when one party governs while another complains. There are obvious differences in issues that impact people’s lives, particularly regarding abortion, trans rights, and more. However, both parties feed into corporatist systems that promote incrementalism. Over time, changes are made, especially in response to major political, socio-economic, and international events, but those are far and spread out.
Perhaps in the future, political parties in America will genuinely be different. Perhaps India Walton will no longer be an anomaly picked up by national headlines. Perhaps her politics become not only more accepted but messaged nationwide. And perhaps we will have a genuine alternative to the two parties — a true difference that seeks to help the people rather than corporate donors. A socialist alternative? Or by simply breaking up the two-party system, acting as a catalyst to have multi-party elections, the Greens, Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, and a party of Trump-esque ideologues.
Two parties are not responsive to the diversity of ideologies and experiences. This system merely creates competitive power-grabbing and infighting while minimal policies are passed, and people still suffer. One party wins, and the other attempts to regain control; blame is placed on one another for poor economic conditions, and so the cycle continues. We need change; we need more people like India Walton running for office.