Political “Pragmatism” Undermines Progressive Goals

The Working Families Party (WFP) bills itself as “New York’s liveliest and most progressive political party.” Founded in 1998, the WFP sought to use fusion voting and community organizing to “hold politicians accountable” to an admirable set of progressive principles including but not limited to “full public financing of elections…community control and equitable funding of our schools …a guaranteed minimum income for all adults[, a] universal ‘social wage’ to include such basic benefits as health care, child care, vacation time, and lifelong access to education and training …[and a] progressive tax system based on the ability to pay.” For many years, the WFP successfully propelled progressive politicians like Bill de Blasio into elected office.

Unfortunately, however, WFP leaders have lost sight of the party’s original intentions. Despite vocal opposition from many members, the WFP voted on Saturday, May 31 to back Andrew Cuomo in his bid for reelection as New York’s governor. While Cuomo secured the endorsement by promising to support, among other things, a minimum wage hike, public funds for campaigns, and the Democratic Party’s attempt to win control of the state Senate, his actions as a first-term governor demonstrate his unwillingness to actually pursue a progressive economic agenda. He deserves some credit for driving New York’s recent gay rights and gun control legislation, but there’s a reason big business and Republicans love Cuomo: he has worked to dismantle the estate tax and pass massive additional tax cuts, significantly undermined de Blasio’s progressive education initiatives and opposed de Blasio’s proposal to raise New York City’s minimum wage, killed efforts to publicly finance elections, tried to lift a moratorium on fracking, and consistently trampled on other progressive values.

The WFP, in large part, has itself to blame for Cuomo’s anti-poor economic policy agenda – the WFP gave Cuomo its endorsement during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign despite Cuomo’s explicitly pro-corporate platform. The WFP’s endorsement then and decision to stick with Cuomo now illustrate how a misguided concept of political pragmatism, endemic in Left-leaning circles, makes progressive policy considerably less likely in the long run.

The WFP’s endorsement was driven in part by the belief that Zephyr Teachout, the WFP’s alternative candidate, would be extremely unlikely to win in a three-way election that included Cuomo and Rob Astorino, the Republican candidate. Similar concerns about candidate “electability” surface frequently during each Presidential election; pundits and party operatives insist that votes for third party candidates are wasted. Yet psychological research and poll data indicate that liberal voters routinely underestimate the number of other voters who share their policy preferences. Fewer voters care about electability than the media would have us believe and most Americans want the distribution of wealth in the United States to mirror the significantly more equitable distribution in Sweden. As evidenced by Seattle’s recent election of socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant, claims about who is and isn’t electable are self-fulfilling prophecies; third party candidates have a chance to win when we base our votes on candidate policy instead of our perception of candidate viability. Historical data suggests that a progressive third-party candidate could be particularly viable in the case of New York’s 2014 gubernatorial election.

Perhaps even more troubling is the message the endorsement sends to Cuomo and other politicians. Cuomo has spent the past three-and-a-half years actively undermining most of the WFP’s espoused principles; by granting Cuomo its support anyway, the WFP has given Cuomo license to ignore its legislative priorities during his second term.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote in 2011, “telling politicians that you will do everything possible to work for their re-election no matter how much they scorn you, ignore your political priorities, and trample on your political values is a guaranteed ticket to irrelevance and impotence. Any [politician] motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle” (a description that sadly fits most politicians) “will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional.” Greenwald’s argument applies just as appropriately to Cuomo and the WFP today as it did to Barack Obama and progressive Democrats three-and-a-half years ago. Like Left-wing Democratic support did for Obama in 2012, the WFP’s endorsement, as Salon’s Blake Zeff notes, will allow Cuomo “to make a mockery of the party’s entire priorities list and then waltz to re-election” in 2014.

When we continue to support Democrats who undermine progressive causes, we enable their behavior (comic from http://americanextremists.thecomicseries.com/comics/522).

The Working Families Party’s support for Cuomo mirrors progressive support for Obama in 2012 (comic from http://americanextremists.thecomicseries.com/comics/522)

Which is more important: the difference between mainstream Democrats (like Obama and Cuomo) and mainstream Republicans (like Mitt Romney and Astorino), or sending the message, loud and clear, that the failure to enact progressive policy will hurt politicians at the ballot box? Progressives who argue for a lesser-of-two-evils approach to electoral politics aren’t necessarily wrong – there’s probably enough of a difference (though not as much as most people think) between members of the two major political parties to impact some people’s lives. However, our essentially unconditional support for Democrats-by-name-only deprives us of the opportunity for meaningful challenges to American plutocracy in the long run. Until we draw a line in the sand and punish Democratic politicians who cross it, we’ll continue to get Cuomo- and Obama-style Democrats who actively exacerbate income inequality and further disadvantage people unlucky enough to be born poor.

8 Comments

Filed under Labor, US Political System

8 responses to “Political “Pragmatism” Undermines Progressive Goals

  1. I don’t think WFP lost sight of the party’s original intent. This has always been their intent. This the party that won its ballot line by endorsing Conservative Corporate machine Democrat Peter Vallone.

    There’s another third party which keeps to its intent by running progressive candidates. That’s the Green Party has a ballot line and with Howie Hawkins for Governor, hope to maintain that line if progressive genuinely want a progressive party.

    I’d also note that in 2013 WFP came in to support a machine Democrat against a viable third party Syracuse City Council candidate. The same Howie Hawkins who received 40% of the vote and previously in 2011 received 48% of the vote.

    You mentioned Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant as an example of challenging the perception of electability. She supporting Howie Hawkins as seen in her appearance as a featured speaker at his recent fundraiser.

  2. BTW I should say that generally I think you’ve made a very good critique. You point out the fundamental problem with WFP and who they support. It’s just that this issue has been ongoing and it happens on both the statewide and local level.

  3. I think there’s a difference between intent and action. You’re right that the WFP has for much of its history supported corporate Democrats for high-profile positions. However, I’d argue that their professed values are good ones; their political actions in pursuit of those values are what’s misguided. I believe many in the WFP think the realization of their policy agenda becomes more likely with the Cuomo endorsement (just as many Democrats think their policy agenda advances more with Obama in office). The evidence suggests very strongly that they’re wrong, but it suggests more that their tactics are wrong than their values.

    I don’t know very much about Hawkins, but it seems like the Teachout crowd and Hawkins supporters should band together to oppose Cuomo in this election. What do you think?

    Thanks a lot for the comment and for reading!

    • Ben, this article just came out today in NY Observer. Howie speaks highly of Teachout. He’s encouraging her to run against Cuomo in the Democratic Primary as sort of a two front attack.

      BTW this does point out another tactical issue in WFP. NY State law states that a candidate who gets 25% of the State Committee vote can be in the primary without petitioning. She received about 43% of the vote. The problem is she’s not enrolled in WFP. She’s a Democrat. NY State also allows a party to set rules to authorize a candidate to run on their line, who is not enrolled in the party. WFP rules require 50% of the vote of the State Committee to get that authorization. At 43% she wouldn’t get that.

      Tactically if you want to challenge the choice of the party, you should be enrolled in that party. If Teachout had enrolled in WFP last year, she could be on the ballot in the WFP primary without petitioning.

      Instead she’ll have to petition to get on the Democratic Primary ballot. She may not have the resources to do that. TACTICAL MISTAKE.

      http://observer.com/2014/06/green-party-gubernatorial-contender-double-digits-is-within-our-reach/

      • Thanks for linking the article – I enjoyed reading it. I agree that it would have been better if Teachout had enrolled in the WFP and ideal if the WFP had united with the Green Party in this election. I hope Teachout decides to run and that she and Hawkins give Cuomo a run for his money.

  4. Josh

    Overall a very persuasive article. I disagree with the WFP’s endorsement of Cuomo – he has been terrible for progressives, especially on economic issues; and based on his past record, I don’t think he can be trusted to keep the promises he has made in exchange for the endorsement. But I also understand the argument of those in the WFP who thought that this was a better choice (an endorsement in exchange for progressive promises) than supporting Teachout if she did not have a realistic chance of winning. That is an important question for me — did she have a realistic chance of winning. I disagree that claims about non-electability are always self-fulfilling prophecies; I think these claims need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis based on available data. Would you (and Nate Silver) agree? I also disagree with lumping Cuomo and Obama together: 1) Obama, though certainly disappointing in a number of ways, has not been as bad as Cuomo on economic issues, and 2) for the Obama v. Romney race, there was definitely no electable progressive alternative, whereas in the Cuomo v. Astorino race, Teachout was a much more viable alternative to at least receive a substantial amount of votes.

    • Josh it’s not about “winning.” WFP needs to garner 50,000 votes to maintain the ballot line in order to run candidates. Many, including over 40% of the WFP State Committee thought Teachout could have done that. That the main if not the only reason why third parties cross endorse on the statewide level in NY.

      Green Party proved in 2010 they could do it with much less resources that WFP has. Given what WFP has just done, even more progressives will be voting Green in 2014.

      WFP virtually never runs their own candidates so, on their own they generally don’t win.

    • Thanks, Josh/Dad, for the comment. While you’re right that a third party candidate polls better in the NY gubernatorial race than in a general election for president, my entire point is that this definition of electability is inaccurate. Most progressive Democrats have values that aligned more with Jill Stein’s platform than with Barack Obama’s during the past election cycle. I’d be willing to bet that at least 20% of the national population would currently vote for Stein if perceived “electability” weren’t a consideration. In fact, polls and studies about the public option, gay marriage, taxing the wealthy, and many other issues suggest that a majority of the public would support a candidate like Stein if we were able to effectively message her policy platform – I think the 20% number is a pretty conservative estimate of the people who would support Stein right now if they perceived her to have a chance to win, and it’s a much lower number than would vote for her if everyone operated with complete information and in their own self-interest (not likely to happen anytime soon, but it’s still worth pointing out).

      The problem is that most of this (again, conservatively estimated) 20% embrace a line of reasoning like yours: “I’d ideally prefer Jill Stein to Barack Obama, but I don’t think enough other people will vote for her, so I’m going to vote for Obama.” We have a tragedy of the commons-type situation where this inaccurate line of reasoning deprives Stein of the chance she would have had if people just voted their preferences. That’s what I mean when I say that electability concerns are self-fulfilling prophecy. While your individual vote may not sway the numbers, the votes of everyone with similar policy preferences sway them quite a bit, and a switch in thinking by that voting bloc would immediately and significantly change a third party candidate’s chances.

      Furthermore, the argument to vote for a politician “with a chance” is weak even if the number of people who support the better candidate is smaller than I’ve estimated. An examination of the only two possible cases of a voting bloc’s power shows why:

      Case 1: The voting bloc does not have enough votes to impact the outcome of the election. In this case, the bloc’s votes are purely symbolic. One could argue that a vote for the “compromise” candidate (in this case, Obama) increases that candidate’s positive feelings towards the voting bloc and possibly the likelihood of supporting progressive initiatives, but since this dynamic has already occurred and the candidate has already failed to enact progressive policy while in office, the chance of this candidate suddenly beginning to endorse progressive principles seems quite unlikely regardless of what the bloc does. There isn’t really any downside for the bloc, if it won’t influence the outcome of the election, to just vote for the candidate it likes better – a principled vote will at least give the issues the bloc cares about the maximum amount of attention.

      Case 2: The voting bloc does have enough votes to impact the outcome of the election. In this case, the bloc’s votes are vitally important to the “compromise” candidate. This case covers the plausible 2012 scenario in which, if everyone who preferred her had voted for Jill Stein, Mitt Romney would have garnered more votes than Obama. The question in this case, then, is whether the progressive bloc achieves more by voting for Obama and helping him beat Romney (thus sending the message that Democrats can behave like Republicans and still expect unconditional progressive support) than it would by voting for Stein and conveying to the Democrats that a candidate who completely ignores the party’s base may end up losing the election.

      You can make a coherent argument that the difference between a Democrat like Obama and a Republican like Romney is substantial enough to warrant progressives completely throwing away their ability to influence Democratic Party policy. For instance, we might have expected Supreme Court nominations in particular to be significantly more alarming under Romney than under Obama. However, I find this argument unconvincing because of the extreme similarities on most major issues between the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies. Additionally, having a Democrat like Obama in office has some negative effects we’d avoid with a Republican president because the Democrat normalizes policies that were previously considered heinous. As just one of many examples, Obama has claimed the authority to assassinate American citizens without due process. Yet liberals who protested Bush’s anti-terrorism policies now have fallen silent and/or defend this escalation of the very same policies they used to oppose (http://www.salon.com/2012/02/08/repulsive_progressive_hypocrisy/).

      All that is to say that the difference between the Democrat and Republican candidates in major elections is usually much smaller than people think. You might still decide to support the Democrat as the lesser-of-two-evils, but there’s no denying that doing so essentially ensures that most Democratic politicians (except for the small handful of principled ones) will continue to ignore what progressives want. That approach makes real progressive change less likely in the long run. I certainly understand the rationale behind it, but it ignores the longer-term implications of our voting and advocacy decisions.

      Finally, on your point that Obama has not been as bad as Cuomo on economic issues: that’s debatable. Obama’s rhetoric has not been as bad as Cuomo’s, but I think you could make the case that the bailout, the lack of prosecutions for rampant elite lawbreaking in the financial sector, the fiscal cliff deal, the failure to raise the federal minimum wage, and a whole host of other anti-poor and corporate-friendly policy decisions by Obama over the past six years have been at least as bad for lower-income Americans as Cuomo’s actions have been in New York.

      The pertinent question for me is: how do we best drive long-term policy outcomes to support the most disadvantaged people? Theory suggests and history demonstrates that the approach taken by most progressives (i.e. supporting politicians like Obama and Cuomo) doesn’t work. So let’s try something different and actually vote our values.

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