On Tuesday, barring any surprises, Democrats in New York will nominate Andrew Cuomo to serve as the party’s nominee—making it highly likely Cuomo will eventually serve a second term in the governor’s office. In his first term, Cuomo lowered taxes for the rich, increased corporate subsidies, undermined public sector unions, championed charter schools, and blocked campaign finance reform. Were it not for progressive stances on marriage equality and abortion, Cuomo might easily be mistaken for a Republican. Yet for his second term, Cuomo won the backing of the influential Working Families Party—the standard-bearer of progressive values in New York politics. This should come as no surprise. For progressives, electoral politics has always been a game of compromise.
My Daily Beast colleague David Friedlander recently published an essay suggesting that some progressive political groups are angry at Emily’s List because some of the women candidates it has backed have not been that strong on issues of economic populism. Of course, the critique could be made in the other direction. For instance, the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, the main critic of Emily’s List in Friedlander’s article, is backing Iowa’s Pat Murphy in his bid for Congress—despite the fact that in recent years, Murphy earned a 100 percent approval rating from anti-abortion groups in Iowa and a 0 rating from Planned Parenthood of the Heartland (not to mention less-than-enthusiastic support from grassroots progressive groups on the ground in Iowa).
But scrutinizing all these electoral trees misses the broader, ideological forest. What is far more interesting and ultimately transformational are those rare occasions when passionate issue advocates and progressive populist groups can unite, stand firm on a set of fundamental principles, and take a risk together. Perhaps the best example of this is Elizabeth Warren—drafted as a candidate early on by the PCCC but also backed by Emily’s List even before she announced her candidacy. In fact, the two largest donors to Warren’s initial campaign? The PCCC and Emily’s List.
Warren represents the anti-compromise—the strong-on-every-issue true believer who is such a star now among political progressives in large part because she’s so damn rare. Perhaps as a left we should spend less time condemning each other for failing to hew to our particular litmus tests, behavior that at the least amounts to a counter-productive circular firing squad and at worst suggests that, say, economic populism is more of a “true progressive” issue than reproductive freedom. Instead, the various parts of the progressive electoral infrastructure should criticize each other less and collaborate more—pooling criteria and cash to back more Warren types who score well on all our issues, ultimately forcing politics and politicians to yield to our agenda rather than all-too-often the other way around.
This is, of course, what the Tea Party has been impressively adept at doing—choosing uncompromising candidates to run in primaries, deeply threatening the mainstream Republican establishment by not being afraid of losing, and thereby pulling the Republican Party’s stance and leadership on issues decisively to the right. This is an even more impressive accomplishment given that, on most every issue, the Tea Party is out of step with mainstream American voters. Meanwhile, the opposite is true for progressives—from protecting reproductive freedom to passing sensible gun safety laws to raising taxes on the rich to strengthening public education, the progressive left represents a majority, and sometimes a strong majority, of the American people. And yet we can’t seem to convert those beliefs into concrete and uncompromising political power.
A Republican strategist once said that if electoral politics is a game of getting to 50 percent plus one—that is, you need half of the voters plus one more to win an election—what Democrats do is assume they start with 0 percent support and try to win over women voters plus black voters plus working-class white voters and hope the total rises above 50 percent. Whereas Republicans begin by assuming that 100 percent of the voters are with them and act accordingly—and then hope that, come Election Day, they haven’t alienated more than 49 percent.
This has always struck me as both accurate and profound. Despite being extremely out of step with the vast majority of American voters today (not to mention the even greater majority of voters of the future), Republicans continue to push their extremist agenda with an evangelism that is breathtakingly audacious. And meanwhile Democrats, including progressive Democrats, worry they have to prioritize among their core issues despite having all the wind of electoral demography and opinion polling at our backs.
Even analyzing, let along arguing about, whether we should back the pro-choice woman candidate versus the economic populist white guy candidate reflects a form of self-defeatism from the get-go that is not responsive to political reality but rather endemic to the Democratic psyche. How dare we expect, let alone demand, our elected officials to fully represent all of the views and values of the progressive movement and the American people?
This particular progressive self-defeatism echoes the historic rift on the left between economic justice issues and identity politics. Although progress has been made—for instance, the labor movement is much better on gay rights and race and gender than generations ago—the experience of identity issues being forced to take a back seat to the “more important” and allegedly universal issues of economic populism haunts many activists on the left. The implication here, for instance, is that “multi-issue” groups like the PCCC or Democracy for America are looking out for all people, while Emily’s List is just looking out for women.
That not only fundamentally misrepresents identity politics—which aims to transform society to be more fair and equitable for everyone, not simply those in a given identity group—but it reveals the inherent blind spots in the traditional Democratic/progressive straight white male infrastructure that reinforces the need for identity politics in the first place. In researching this piece, I was pointed to an effort in 2012 through which a number of progressive political groups—including the PCCC, DFA, MoveOn.org, Working Families Party and more—articulated a common questionnaire for candidates on “critical issues.” “I’m sure there are questions on there about choice,” my source told me. There weren’t. Not even one.
What this boils down to is what winning looks like. Groups like Emily’s List, the PCCC, Working Families Party and the rest exist explicitly because of the diversity failings and substantive timidity of the Democratic Party. Together, these groups help push the mainstream party further to the left. Each group plays a distinct role—Emily’s List explicitly elects pro-choice Democratic women while groups like the PCCC press an economic justice agenda. But no one push will do it. Instead of criticizing one group or another for loyalty to its piece of the progressive agenda or fighting to rank whose issue or strategy is “more progressive,” isn’t there something better everyone could be doing?
Maybe it is the WFP model—getting involved in local races, grooming candidates early on, and eventually electing genuine progressives to higher and higher offices (maybe not the governor’s mansion yet, but NYC mayor at least…). Or maybe all these groups could agree to throw down extra hard together when candidates come along who check off all the boxes—who are strong on every progressive issue and add essential diversity to our supposedly representative democracy. Maybe then we’d spend less time bickering and more time winning—and have more candidates worth fighting for in general, so Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t be so damn lonely.