Does progressive politics have a future in New York?
It may seem an odd question to ask. New York City has just resoundingly elected as its mayor an avowedly progressive Democrat in Bill de Blasio, who is just beginning his four-year term.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo created a bit more than a ripple in the New York political fabric when he pointedly claimed that Republicans who are “extreme conservatives” have no place in the state.
Someone can almost always be heard deriding New York for its liberalism; and some even describe the state as a socialist nightmare.
Nonetheless, we observe Gov. Cuomo already sparring with his fellow Democrat, the mayor, with whom one would think he would be more in league.
More than any other New York Democrat elected in the past half century, New York voters have given Cuomo ample opportunity to assemble a legislative coalition that would pass and implement a truly progressive agenda. In each case, Cuomo can be said to have demurred.
First, he pulled back on strongly supporting meaningful electoral reform prior to midterm legislative elections in 2012. Still, public attitudes combined with emerging demographics produced Democratic majorities in both houses of the state Legislature for the first time quite a while.
Granted, elements of that nascent Senate Democratic leadership proved to be incompetent, dysfunctional or corrupt. However, as the undisputed leader of the state Democratic Party, it was clearly within Cuomo’s power and purview to engineer the changes and reforms necessary to preserve and bolster his party’s position.
Instead, he seemingly took a wholly uncharacteristic (for him) “hands-off” posture. The result was a fracturing of that elected majority and unprecedented minority Republican Party control in the Senate supported by a small cadre of dissident suburban Democrats.
Call this “Independent Democratic Caucus” what you will, but it is hardly a progressive force. It may be a moderating one; but as such it serves more to reinforce a status quo than to advance a more progressive vision.
What does it mean?
At this point, it might be helpful to define what one means by the term “progressive.”
While not a new term, it has been used more lately in part as a rebranding effort to counter conservative pundits’ tarnishing of “the L word” into a pejorative caricature. But progressive also is a more accurate descriptor, since liberal can mean any number of things depending on nationality, historical perspective and whether one is discussing politics or economics.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines a progressive as “one believing in moderate political change, and especially social improvement, by government action.”
In his fourth inaugural address in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a proud son of New York, stated, “[T]rue individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
He proposed a second bill of rights, an economic one that would guarantee each American:
• Employment, with a living wage. (“The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.”)
• Freedom from unfair competition and monopolies. (“The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.”)
• Medical care.
• Social security. (“The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”)
Far from being out of date and out of fashion, as some would prefer to characterize it, FDR’s “bill” seems especially timely now, given how inequitable risks and rewards are apportioned both in New York and America today. It is this New Deal vision that still distinguishes the mission of progressives today.
Much was made about the governor’s recent observation about “these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro assault weapon, anti-gay. Is that who they [the Republicans] are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.”
Regardless of any arguable lack of oratorical artistry, the wider point is completely true.
New Yorkers never will support a ban on abortions or pass constitutional amendments denying certain citizens equal legal rights on the basis of sexual orientation. In New York, there will never be “stand your ground” and permissive concealed weapons laws like the ones in Florida that have encouraged aggressive confrontational behavior. Those who advocate for such things are a distinct minority here. It is in that sense that Cuomo said what he did, and he’s right.
However, that alone doesn’t make Andrew Cuomo a progressive. Being against things does not define a progressive agenda. Being socially progressive is good; being economically progressive is better.
The Democratic Party is the only place in the two-party system where progressive ideas have even a chance of becoming policy. Yet, whether nationally or here in New York, opportunities for the party to fully embrace the progressive agenda outlined by FDR have habitually been eschewed in favor of the supposed “high road” of compromise that only weakens the impact of progressive policies, fueling the right’s caricature that they are ineffective. Of course they are if you water them down.
The governor’s father once mused that “you campaign in poetry, [but] you govern in prose”; but that excuse is too facile. Many of us know what we heard when our current president was campaigning and, while one should not rush to judgment about the private motivations and intentions of others, it’s hard not to feel somewhat deceived when one examines what a candidate says before — and then what he does after — an election.
John A. Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.