Eric Adams vs. DSA

Adams, the self-proclaimed face of the Democratic Party, is itching for a fight

Eric Adams, the next mayor of New York City, recently called himself the “face” of the Democratic Party. As that face, he is more than willing to go to war with the socialist left.

“I’m no longer running against candidates. I’m running against a movement. All across the country, the DSA socialists are mobilizing to stop Eric Adams,” Adams said at a recent fundraiser in Queens. “They realize that if I’m successful, we’re going to start the process of regaining control of our cities.”

Adams was speaking in Douglaston, at a fundraiser co-hosted by Republican Councilman Eric Ulrich and lobbyist William Driscoll, who has long been tied to the Queens Democratic Party. In an appearance on Bill Maher’s HBO show not long after the fundraiser, Adams double-downed. “This is not a socialist country, let’s be clear on that,” he said.

By now, you know where this debate is headed. Adams gave every indication, as he was running for mayor, this was the fight he wanted and he will have it. He was always, for the young ascendant left, the most dangerous of the Democrats running because he understood that his identity, as a Black man, could be weaponized against them. Adams went as far, at one point, to characterize stronger tenant protections as a form of anti-Blackness. Deeply cynical and almost brilliant, the rhetorical flourish carried with it a certain promise for the power elite coalescing around him. Billionaire real estate developers and right-wing finance titans, the kind of people pumping the Adams campaign coffers and super PACs with cash, could credibly claim they were on the side of a Democrat who came from the city’s working-class.

The Adams victory, as always, is inarguable on that point. Adams won with working-class Black and Latino New York, along with a mix of white moderates. Orthodox Jewish and outer borough white ethnics joined with Black homeowners and enough renters to power his narrow win over Kathryn Garcia, who dominated Manhattan and Park Slope. Adams himself has long transcended the working-class; he is now a well-paid elected official and landlord chasing real estate developer cash. He doesn’t have much in common with his old neighbors any longer. But in a weak field with no stand-out Left candidate, it didn’t really matter.

Adams, too, read the electorate better than anyone. Shootings and murders had risen sharply since 2019 and Adams spoke about gun violence at just about every campaign event. He sharply rejected the defund the police movement, now a bedrock of DSA, and was rewarded for it. Popular opinion has turned against the idea in its current form. Police reform has a bright future, but slashing the department’s budget in half does not. Young socialists cannot be in denial on this any longer.

It is notable that Adams, already, sees himself in direct conflict with DSA. In his fiery speech to the very rich, he did not invoke Working Families Party or the various NGOs, though he easily could have. Credit, perhaps, to the WFP for branding themselves this way—I am at war with Working Families doesn’t have the same ring—but the DSA call-out represents how the terrain on the Left has shifted. DSA is now the member-driven organization throwing young volunteers into campaigns across America. The NGOs organize and oversee, but the bodies are with the socialists. The democratic socialists are outpacing their predecessors, the New Left of the 1960s and 70s, by strategically flooding Democratic primaries and electing socialists beholden to their organization. Their realism allows them a brighter future.

Adams is right in one sense. The members of DSA in New York City tend to be the children of the affluent and the college-educated. Many of them graduated college, having their political awakenings there. They are newer to the city and potentially more transient because they don’t own homes. They are a renter class and they will lack the capital to become, like Adams, landlords. It is easy to declare DSA a bunch of young rich white kids—that’s the tired line of any moderate Democrat irked by the socialist resurgence—but the critique is beside the point. Many in DSA are not white. Many of the Black, Latino, and Asian members of DSA went to college too. Gentrification is no longer a white phenomenon in New York City, as much as bad faith actors would like to pretend it is. The gentrifiers are diverse; what unites them is a degree of social capital and literal capital that the poorer people of the outer boroughs lack.

DSA, on its own, cannot speak for the working-class. There are simply not enough working-class people in their ranks to do that. The Adams crowd would insist, in turn, they can because look at where the votes came from. Never mind that Adams won too with an onslaught of outside spending, that he was the darling of elites. The voters themselves were not. Adams can peer at the color-coded election map and declare himself a tribune of the working people. The cable TV stations will eat it up.

Allow Adams credit for punching at something of a soft underbelly of the socialist left: public safety. Adams will remind you he’s a former cop. He rose to prominence criticizing the NYPD from within, but offered relatively few dramatic reforms for the police once he became a mayoral candidate. An Adams NYPD will probably look like a Bloomberg and de Blasio NYPD: a hyper-militarized fiefdom less dangerous than it once was, but still a threat. The abuse and the lying will continue. Adams knows, though, that with most shootings concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, gun violence is now an overriding issue for the people who live there. Adams can shill for the landlords as much as he wants as long as the people of Brownsville and Hunts Point believe he will get control of the gangs. If your friend or mother or husband was murdered last week, you don’t want to hear about a well-intentioned blueprint for redirecting police resources into social services, with the promise that a greater safety net will, in time, reduce the root causes of violence. You want justice now.

A police presence can deter some criminals. Yet police do not, on their own, arrest crime waves. The causes of crime are deeply complex and hotly-debated. The nationwide crime decline of the 1990s cannot be explained by better policing and greater headcounts, not with such variability among localities. Adams and his ilk are making promises they themselves can’t deliver. Luck, circumstance, and various sociological and macroeconomic factors will play a far greater role in the future of crime in New York than any new task force, NYPD unit, or special prosecutor. Like Rudy Giuliani before him, Adams may end up presiding over a trend he has relatively little control over.

If Adams has a more intuitive understanding of what the working-class wants when it comes to policing—housing is another matter entirely, and no struggling renter is begging for real estate developers and landlords to tell the new mayor what to do—a salient question must be asked: why is he already obsessed with DSA? In truth, socialists are not mobilizing across America to stop Adams. His statement, taken at face value, is absurd. DSA chapters in other towns and cities are focused, rightly, on their own local elections.

Pittsburgh DSA and Chicago DSA and Philadelphia DSA do not care about Adams because he is not about to become the mayor of their cities. The DSA national convention does not concern itself with Eric Adams. Even DSA in New York City is not overly focused on Adams. The chapter endorsed no candidate in the Democratic primary for mayor and many rank-and-file members were lukewarm about the entire field. Before her spectacular implosion, Dianne Morales was the closest to a DSA candidate in the running. But her refusal to identify as a socialist, coupled with a lack of class analysis in her politics, meant that there was little chance the city chapter would support her.

Adams, like Donald Trump and other Republicans, may view DSA, and socialists generally, as worthy of attack. He took pains to explain to members of Congress that he was not opposing the star DSA-backed politician, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. At the fundraiser, Adams never named her, after all, if the New York Post attempted to twist the story into a clash of personalities. Adams is probably smart enough to understand a media war with Ocasio-Cortez, the most famous member of the House in America, would not be terribly beneficial for him. Ocasio-Cortez has an enormous national platform and the ability, through a Twitter account with more than 12 million followers, to generate news cycles whenever she chooses. Normally, she targets Republicans in other states. Adams, as a new mayor, does not want to receive the Ted Cruz treatment and watch his approval ratings sag.

Adams may have calculated that DSA, for now, is easier prey. Ocasio-Cortez herself is a nominal DSA member who is not going to fight their battles for them. DSA does not have the kind of professionalized press apparatus that makes the WFP, in the pages of the New York Times at least, so formidable. There are DSA politicians in Albany who can frustrate Adams, but they are not yet in great enough number to threaten him. As a Black Democrat, he is probably primary-proof, barring scandal. Even Tiffany Cabán, the well-known socialist entering the City Council next year, has extended something of a peace offering.

Politicians—those who may lurch in demagogic directions, especially—crave foils, and Adams has found one. He can flex for the tabloids and quietly thrill the pundits who have been aching for a moderate Democrat to punch back against the socialist left. Andrew Cuomo is too damaged now; Adams, a fresh face, will do. There will be much copy made of this. If Adams has a difficult 2022, he will be casting about for blame. He would not be the first or last politician to try to red-bait himself out of a crisis.

The direct attack on DSA proves that they matter. It would have been unthinkable, as recently as 2017, for a mayor or an influential politician to furiously denounce the democratic socialist organization. There were no DSA-backed elected officials in New York City then. Their first campaigns, City Council races where they ran hard but lost, were local curiosities. Activists, on their own, will only scare politicians so much because a protest outside an office isn’t the same as knocking on doors to win votes. DSA began to matter to people like Eric Adams when they won elections or came shockingly close, like in the 2019 Queens District Attorney’s race. Adams may sniff out the DSA influence in the new City Council he will have to confront next year. Yes, only two DSA candidates will be there, but many more ran on near-identical platforms or unsuccessfully sought the group’s backing. Carlina Rivera, a top contender for City Council speaker, pandered to DSA enough to once become a dues-paying member.

Adams, an old Albany hand, must understand DSA is gunning for power up north too. The socialist caucus could very well double in number. None of these socialists will run anti-Adams campaigns—they’ll be too laser-focused on the incumbents they’re dethroning—and it will probably be Adams himself who tries to kick sand in their eyes. Beleaguered Albany Democrats could rush to the new mayor for fundraising assistance or an endorsement. Adams, who could be whipping organized labor to oppose DSA, will be happy to oblige.

“This is not a socialist country,” Adams grumbles, and he is right on that. America is not a socialist country. America is not unvarnished capitalism either. Many of the social safety net programs the Adams electorate relies upon are the direct products of a socialist agenda.

The early 20th century radicals fought for the initiatives that would become, in due time, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Unemployment insurance—money for not working!—is a socialist idea. On economic matters, even revanchist Republicans are slowly shifting to the left, voting for the enormous bills that sent free checks to most Americans during the pandemic. More socialism, like money for those who have children, could become a permanent feature of American life. All of these programs are quite popular because the working-class wants the government to do more for them. The socialist left is nowhere close to power, but it is fast recovering from its late 20th century nadir.

At some juncture soon, Eric Adams will have to explain, in clear terms, what he wants to do for New York City. Early in his campaign, he released a booklet of some intriguing policy ideas and proceeded to barely talk about them again. Instead, he acted as if policing was the only thing that mattered to eight million-odd people. Public safety does undergird much of what happens here. One mayor, though, cannot single-handedly lower crime. And even if he could, this would not solve the other crises. Lower crime will not make New York more affordable or allow the people of Jordan Coleman’s generation to own apartments or houses here one day. It will not stem the tide of homelessness or forestall evictions. It will not guarantee we have the best public schools in the nation. It will not protect the waterfront city from the ravages of climate change.

Adams can rail against socialism all he wants and flatter the Bill Mahers and Errol Louises of the world, but that will only get him so far. DSA will keep winning elections, no matter what Adams does. The city, meanwhile, will need a leader.