In Chicago the Left Embraces the Democrats and Celebrates Brandon Johnson’s Victory

Brandon Johnson, a progressive black community activist, union organizer, and former teacher, won the Chicago mayoral election against Paul Vallas, the corporate Democrat opponent. Johnson’s victory expressed popular rejection of neoliberal privatization and respect for progressive unions, in particular the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Johnson was outspent two to one, but not out-organized, winning 52-48%. The election displayed once again the power and organizing skills of the CTU, and showed that people, when they are involved, can upend election predictions.

His campaign also showed how easily leftists can slide from opponents of the corporate rule of America with their two parties to fervent supporters of Democrats when a progressive or liberal candidate seems likely win an election. We saw this before with their enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders in 2016, then again in 2020, even after Bernie had kowtowed to the billionaires’ candidate. We see it with AOC, who is morphing from a socialist into a corporate shill. And before that, leftists had been enthralled with Mr Hope and Change, Barack Obama.

The “socialist” journal Jacobin enthused over Johnson’s mayoral victory: “A week ahead of the April 4 election, Johnson rallied alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders in Chicago, who declared, ‘The fundamental issue is: What side are you on? Are you on the side of working people or are you on the side of the speculators and the billionaires? And I know which side Brandon is on.’”

This is dishonest — both by Bernie and by the Jacobin — because the Democrats are on the side of the 1%, not the 99%. Bernie made this perfectly clear in his 1989 article “We Can’t Tail After the Democrats.”

We need a new, progressive political party in the U.S. because on almost every important issue the Democratic and Republican Parties, both controlled by Big Money, are indistinguishable…We need a new, progressive political movement in this country because the Democrats and Republicans are not only incapable of solving any of the major problems facing this country, they are not even prepared to discuss them…The boldness and clarity that we need to articulate can never be done through the compromised and corrupt Democratic Party — dominated by Big Money.

At his election victory celebration, Johnson declared, “Tonight is the beginning of a Chicago that truly invests in all of its people… a city where no one is too poor to live. There’s more than enough for everyone in the city of Chicago.” Certainly there is, but since the corporate CEOs run the city — a fact Johnson does not address – this will not happen.

How would working class left-wing activists view this election? They would explain that Chicago is owned by the business, banking and real estate elite. They would explain that elected officials are not the city’s decision-makers. It matters little what some politician says and promises while campaigning: even if s/he meant what was said, s/he does not call the shots. The corporate built and controlled political and economic structure does. They would explain that liberal Democrats like Brandon Johnson are obligated primarily to the Democratic Party chiefs and their billionaire bosses, not to the people who elected them. They would explain that even if a Brandon Johnson ran and won, not as a Democrat, but as a representative of an independent popular movement, his electoral victory would result in roadblocks placed in his way by the ruling class to thwart every progressive move his movement made.

Brandon Johnson, as mayor, plans to bring about expanded social programs to benefit the people funded by raising taxes on wealthy elite. His campaign website called for safe, vibrant neighborhoods, affordable housing, healthcare for all, fully funded schools. Any leftist knows it is naive, if not dishonest to propagate the view that these can be achieved under the neoliberal capitalist system we are trapped in.

The corporate owners of Chicago possess numerous weapons to housebreak a mayor, such as lowering the rating of municipal bonds, threatening to move their business out of the city, whipping of fear of crime (causing people to leave the city and undermining the city as a tourist destination — with $15 billion spent by tourists in 2017).

The power of the media, the banks, the police, the courts, the real estate companies, the billionaires’ corporations vastly outweighs that of Johnson’s supporters. Their Chicago City Council is aligned against him; a majority support Johnson’s pro-corporate neoliberal opponent, Paul Vallas, and able to vote down any unwelcome measure he proposes. Nor does Johnson have great influence in the Democratic Party machine.

A working class left-wing would explain that Brandon Johnson’s campaign promises must be okayed by Chicago’s business leaders to become a reality. Their power could only be countered by an ongoing mass movement of the people, who would have to fight hard for any substantial social change. Yet, as Bernie Sanders’ campaigns illustrated, the loosely organized movement behind him was disbanded after his campaign was over.

It is no surprise to any leftist that the owners of the corporations are the ruling class. Nevertheless, they seem forever willing to throw this ABC of Marxism out the window if some progressive Democrat is a serious contender for elected office, and act as if significant social and economic change can occur through the ballot box.

This scenario of leftists campaigning to elect some liberal or “socialist” Democrat, forever ending in some electoral defeat or capitulation to the Democratic bosses, repeats itself over and over. The Jacobin, “socialist” media for the Democratic Party, propagates this pipedream that the “people” can capture a power base in the Democratic Party, as if the people could capture a corporation. It declared this nonsense: “Chicago’s left scored its biggest victory in recent memory”; “a watershed moment for the progressive movement.”

Out of one side of their mouth leftists will proclaim, as Bernie did in 1989, that we need a working class party because the Democrats and Republicans are owned by the ruling rich. Out of the other they still hold that real social change can come through electing these people.

Marxists must be honest, must not mislead the people, must explain to people the class structure of US society, and the hard work we face if we want to end global warming and Martin Luther King’s three evils of society: war, racism and poverty,

Unions such as the CTU and other teachers unions, the SEIU, National Nurses United, did support and provide most of the funding for Brandon Johnson’s campaign. Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders, and the most progressive City Council person, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, actively supported his campaign. This did not make it a working class campaign, but a labor for the Democratic candidate campaign.

Let’s not overlook that his opponent, Paul Vallas, was endorsed by over 15 unions, and also built a base in the Black and Latino and Asian communities, one that included Bobbie Rush.

Johnson no longer calls for defunding the police. This change reflects the diversion of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement into a vote against Trump campaign. The ruling class has since been able to shift the sentiment of millions who demonstrated against police brutality. They had the police slack off in combating crime, crime rates rose, and fear of crime was whipped up. Now, just over two years after Blue Lives Matter was viewed as almost fascist, a common sentiment today is for more police.

Brandon did say, “Any speech or any effort to delegitimize Israel and its right to exist, that’s how I view antisemitism.” He is opposed to BDS. “The divestment movement is not aligned with my values,” he said. Rumor has it he privately apologized for these reactionary statements defending Israeli apartheid.

Brandon was congratulated by Obama, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. Chicago was rewarded with hosting the 2024 Democratic National Convention days after his victory. Thus, leftists for Johnson played a role in cloaking the Democratic convention in a faux progressive aura, where Biden or some other neoliberal warmonger will be nominated.

Leftists may pretend there are progressive Democrats in opposition to neoliberal Democrats, but Democratic elected officials see themselves as all belonging to the same tent, the same tent that includes Republicans. No leftist conjuring up “Our Revolution,” no Democratic Socialists, no United Working Families is going to alter that.

Stansfield Smith, Chicago ALBA Solidarity, is a long time Latin America solidarity activist, and presently puts out the AFGJ Venezuela Weekly. He is also the Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Read other articles by Stansfield.