India Walton (in foreground on right), the Democratic Party nominee in the 2021 election for mayor of Buffalo, NY, walks to a polling place with supporters Thursday, October 28, 2021. (Photo: Matt Burkhartt for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Putting India Walton's Campaign for Mayor of Buffalo in Context

India Walton might have lost an election. But she also ostensibly helped Buffalo progress more than halfway through the stages of a winning social movement.

India Walton--the progressive, working class, 39-year-old, Black mother-of-four who stunned Buffalo's Democratic establishment with her June 2021 upset win in the Mayoral Primary Election--appears to have lost her bid to become the city's Chief Executive. As of this writing, she's received 41% of the General Election vote, with unnamed write-in candidates (but, presumably, Primary loser and 16-year-incumbent, Byron Brown) winning the remaining 59% of ballots cast.

Some observers, including Brown, have been quick to characterize Walton's loss as a "rebuke" of her leftist brand of politics, stating that her General Election performance should serve as a "warning" to Democrats that leftward movement will cost the party at the ballot box. To paraphrase the celebratory words of New York State's Republican Committee Chairperson on election night, Brown did not simply beat Walton--he defeated a socialist movement in Buffalo.

Funny thing about movements, though: they're not won or lost in an election. Rather, movements progress through phases of an iterative, nonlinear process. Engineer-turned-activist Bill Moyer, who's frequently credited with steering the Chicago Freedom Movement toward its focus on fair housing in the 1960s, labeled this process the Movement Action Plan (MAP)--a concept he originated, developed, experienced, and refined through a lifetime of organizing.

In brief, MAP proposes that successful social movements pass through eight phases:

  1. During "normal times", systemic problems like economic inequality or housing insecurity are not prominent on the public agenda. The problems, and the policies that sustain them, are relatively overlooked by the public and mainstream media.
  2. Small networks of organizations and activists with expertise on a systemic problem use official channels (e.g., media, courts, public hearings) to focus attention on that problem.
  3. Growing coverage of the problem produces "ripening conditions" wherein more organizations and people become sympathetic to the movement's positions. To Moyer, by this stage some 20-30% of the public are aware of and opposed to the problem.
  4. One or more highly visible "trigger events" animates the problem, illustrating the need for change. During this "take off" phase, people and organizations flock to the movement in greater numbers. For Moyer, the fraction of the public aware of the problem and opposed to the policies or institutions responsible for it reaches 40% in this stage (recall: Walton won over 41% of General Election votes).
  5. Seeing the movement's gains during "take off" as a threat to the status quo, powerholders mobilize their disproportionate power and resources against it, blocking its more transformative demands from being implemented. At least some members of or sympathizers with the movement perceive these unachieved demands as failure. This "perception of failure" leads to attrition.
  6. The movement's experiences with external pushback and internal attrition help sharpen its analysis of power and of the social, economic, and institutional relations that produce and sustain systemic problems. It uses that analysis to build or expand prefigurative institutions that model solutions to those problems (e.g., in India Walton's case, community land trusts like the one she co-founded to promote affordable housing in Buffalo). Over time, "re-trigger events" bring problems back to life and again draw people and organizations to the movement in numbers. In Moyer's experience, this is the stage of "majority public opinion", where most people come to see a problem in terms of the policies and institutions that create and sustain it. Thus, it's also the stage where most people come to oppose the status quo and the powerholders who uphold it.
  7. No longer just opposed to the status quo, a majority of the public embraces what were previously "feared" alternatives (i.e., the movement's more transformative demands), creating pressure for structural change. In Moyer's terms, this is a stage of "success", where incremental proposals no longer pacify the public as they once did. Instead, old policies and institutions are changed or dismantled, new ones are built, and people and organizations from the movement begin to replace powerholders who still seek to block transformative social change.
  8. Finally, in what Moyer called "continuing the struggle", the movement works to extend successes, fend off attempts to undo progress, and transcend the boundaries (spatial, social, or political) of its prior victories.

The champions of the status quo sounding the death knell on Buffalo's progressive movement either aren't thinking at the MAP temporal scale; or, more likely, they're intentionally holding up Walton's election loss as evidence that progressive politics aren't capable of taking root in the existing political-economic system, thereby attempting to accelerate attrition from the Buffalo-based movement that Walton's come to represent.

Don't fall for it.

Walton's campaign pulled back the curtain on Buffalo's "resurgence" narrative, highlighting how the city's pro-growth economic agenda has exacerbated inequality, creating wealth and benefits for affluent developers and property owners while making life more precarious for the disempowered masses. She helped elevate systemic problems like housing insecurity, food deserts, and care deficits to the public agenda. And, perhaps most importantly, she advanced alternative policies and institutions--public-community partnerships to develop networked community land trusts, participatory budgeting, a public bank, and more--that have the potential to address those problems at a structural level.

Not long ago, these proposals--which her opponents breathlessly call "radical socialist"--might not have won much favor in a "moderate, business friendly" city like Buffalo. But Walton just captured over 41% of the general electorate, while bringing scores of people (especially young people) into progressive politics. Her campaign was a trigger event that helped the movement reach "take off" (stage four). Her loss will be perceived by some as a failure (stage five). But, in truth, it's a turning point.

The speed and ease with which establishment Democrats and Republicans joined forces to drag Brown over the finish line as a write-in candidate laid bare the real fight. It's not about shifting power from one political party to another--but from the opulent minority to the working-class majority. With the Mayoral election in the rearview mirror, and the fact that Walton seemingly won over Buffalo's working-class communities, the progressive movement in Buffalo looks poised to drive headstrong into MAP stage six: institution building.

By working outside of elected office--for now--to continue building the prefigurative, people-centered organizations that Walton's campaign envisioned for Buffalo, progressives in the city can institutionalize their recent gains. That way, when the next "re-trigger event" calls Buffalo's collective attention to the city's worsening inequality, concentrated poverty, housing insecurity, or related problems--and such an event will inevitably occur, given the choice to keep a developer-friendly strategy in place--the movement will have ready-made infrastructure on which to greet the general public, whose eventual rejection of business-as-usual will come with a demand for transformative alternatives (stage seven).

India Walton might have lost an election. But she also ostensibly helped Buffalo progress more than halfway through the stages of a winning social movement. Now isn't the time for despair, but for sustained building and organizing: "success" is arguably just a stage (or two) away.

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