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Voting for Bastards and the Question of Institutional Power


Well, it’s Election Day in New York, and progressives here find ourselves in a rare quandary: either you vote for Andrew Cuomo, arch-conservaDem, and thereby keep the Working Families Party on the ballot (and because of New York’s election laws, you can’t just vote Working Families for everything else and still have it count for ballot placement) and at least theoretically able to keep pushing for enactment of the platform Cuomo agreed to when he got their endorsement, or you vote against Andrew Cuomo because he’s aggressively and deliberately antagonistically trying to shift public policy to the right, thereby helping Andrew Cuomo in his mission to destroy the Working Families Party as an institutional power in New York politics.

It’s a strategic and moral dilemma, and worthy of some consideration.

To begin with, it absolutely is the case that Andrew Cuomo is exactly what his opponents accuse him of, and is the ur-example of the DLC/financial lobby/anti-progressive who are lurking around the Democratic Party across the country (see Newsom, Gavin; but also Booker, Corey; O’Malley, Martin; Khanna, Mo, and others). Take for example, this recent statement of Cuomo’s:

“I passed gay marriage! I passed the toughest gun law in the country! I closed more prison cells than any governor in the history of the state! Minority job vouchers! My record of progressive accomplishment tops anyone!” Pause, dramatic reduction in volume. “Now, do you have some voices on the left that are impossible to placate in any realistic way? Yeah … Ask yourself: If he were more liberal, he would have done what? What more could I have possibly done? You’re gonna use the tax code just to take money from the rich and give it to the poor? That’s not liberalism. That’s confiscation! Liberalism was ‘Lift up the poor’ … The problem for liberals and progressives — of which I am proudly one — is you have to demonstrate you can actually do what you talk about. And that’s what I’ve been doing. My government works.”

As with Gavin Newsom’s email, there’s some fascinating ideological work going on in this brief dialogue that deserves unpacking. Note, for example, the way that social liberalism (or at least as it extends to gay marriages, prison closures, and gun control, because there’s a hell of a lot of social liberalism that’s not on there) is used as the sole definition of progressivism. I usually treat arguments that “identity politics” are bad/hurt us with the white working class/distract from the “real issues” with a good amount of scorn, but this parallel phrasing does lend some credence to a weak version of that thesis.

The flip-side of that emphasis on social liberalism is a rooted objection to redistribution full-stop. It’s kind of breath-taking in its audacity – progressive taxation has only been a part of the progressive agenda since the 1890s, was a major centerpiece of the New Deal and was largely responsible for the creation of the more egalitarian distribution of wealth and income that lasted from 1945 through the 1970s, were a cause that his own father championed as governor of New York, and they defined Obama’s presidency post-health care. Here, Cuomo is making his stand on the core principle of Third Wayism: expansion of opportunity is the only allowable social policy. Anything else, any challenge to historic levels of inequality driven by the entrenched power of capital, is verboten.

(remember this speech, Andrew? I sure do, and I wasn’t born yet)

Andrew Cuomo is precisely the embodiment of all those tendencies in the Democratic Party that progressives need to fight, especially given his ambitions to run for the Democratic nomination for president (in 2016 if Hillary doesn’t run, in 2024 if she does) and the amount of Wall Street cash he could put behind his campaign.

Given all this, why did I vote for him on the Working Families ticket?

Well, mostly because Andrew Cuomo doesn’t want me to. And because I believe in institutional power.

See, earlier this year, Andrew Cuomo was genuinely scared of a challenge from his left, worried that if he didn’t get the Working Families nomination and instead the WFP political machine went to work for a challenger, his chances in November would be damaged, if not by an absolute loss at the polls, but by a poor showing that would tarnish his national reputation. And so Cuomo did something that no governor of New York has ever done before – he agreed to adopt the Working Families Party’s policy agenda in exchange for their endorsement (which became an instantly controversial topic on the left).

But, for the first time, the WFP was dictating terms to the Democratic establishment, and the list was pretty comprehensive:

  • endorsement of a working Democratic majority in the Senate – something that normally wouldn’t be an issue for a Democratic governor, but Cuomo liked being able to triangulate with Republicans and the IDC caucus, whereas a Democratic legislature, especially one where WFP had influence, would present him with a real independent power to deal with.
  • public financing of elections – absolutely necessary if the Working Families Party is to make a real play at the state legislature in the same way that it did for the New York City Council, up against the financial power of Wall Street.
  • decriminalization of marijuana – absolutely necessary to actually wind down stop-and-frisk, since the actual outcome of most stops that end with arrests is an arrest on minor possession charges.
  • the Women’s Equality Act – especially in an environment in which women’s rights are going backwards everywhere Republicans rule.
  • increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour statewide, with freedom for NYC to adopt $13 an hour – something Cuomo bitterly opposed as part of his ongoing battle against Bill DeBlasio, and a huge material win for the working class.
  • a state DREAM Act – likewise, a huge win for working-class immigrant kids, trying to get through public higher education, otherwise cut off from financial aid.

To give him credit, Cuomo is a cunning politician. Almost immediately, he tried to back off as many of these commitments as he could, and to exploit his new position to its extent. Now the WFP had endorsed him, they couldn’t easily un-endorse him, so he could split their base all to hell by launching verbal attacks against the teacher’s unions and ginning up an astro-turf “Women’s Equality Party” to try to siphon votes away from the WFP. It’s a no-lose: if progressives hold their noses and vote for him, he gets re-elected; if they get pissed off and vote Green, the Working Families Party might lose its ballot line if it doesn’t get 50,000 votes, crushing them as a force in state politics. If they’re not particularly savvy and vote WEP, then he creates a controllable rival to the WFP, and hopefully the Working Families Party loses their designation anyway.

A common theme here? Cuomo doesn’t want people to vote Working Families Party. His ideal scenario is him winning re-election and WFP losing its ballot designation, and his second-best scenario is that he gets re-elected with as few WFP votes as possible, weakening any leverage they might hold over him. If either of those scenarios happen, no left-wing party would ever be able to dictate terms on public policy.

And ultimately, that’s the important thing. Cuomo is a bastard, but bastards come and go. He might run for president, but it’s not going to be any time soon and he’s beatable if and when it does happen – and it’s not worth tanking the Working Families Party to tank his national political career.

But state-level institutional power, the ability to dictate the policy agenda to the governor and the state legislature? That’s something that can reshape the political economy of a state for decades to come, and reshape the political environment in which state senators and assemblymembers who’ll become future Congressional Representatives, U.S Senators, and governors operate in. And that’s the kind of power that progressives need to prioritize, rather than our ongoing obsession with the presidency and the personality of the holder of that office.

More on that in future installments. Go vote Working Families to spite Andrew Cuomo.

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