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.
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.