The American Cicero

Why The Democratic Party Needs A Philosopher Politician Like Mario Cuomo

By Professor Saladin Ambar (Lehigh University)

January 4, 2017         Picture: Bettmann/Getty.

This is a preview article for The Critique’s upcoming January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture And An Obtuse Political Establishment”

The shards of disbelief from the US presidential election remain perhaps too diffuse and sharp-edged for progressives to pick up just yet, though some are trying. But where to begin? History may be helpful, but which understanding shall we apply? The last great American progressive model was not truly created by the forces of the New Deal, as is often misunderstood; rather, it emerged at the turn of the last century, when a variety of Hudson progressives, taking the lead from the Populists and early proto-progressives of the late 19th Century, set the liberal agenda for the next 75 years. This New York and New Jersey based anti-machine politics was popularized by the work of reform minded governors – political leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes, Woodrow Wilson, Al Smith, and Franklin Roosevelt. Their efforts to erect an American state centered on the power of government to preserve economic, as well as civil liberties, is well-known. And their work became national with Wisconsin, Oregon, and California, among others, following suit. The governors of these states rejected the do little laissez-faire conservatism of the late nineteenth century. Voters were demanding more from government – especially the executive branch – and they were keen on giving it to them.

That ideologically-centered notion of governance gave way in the last quarter of the 20th Century, to a Sunbelt conservatism, also disproportionately represented by governors-turned-president (think Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush). The twilight of the liberal era was now ironically enough, emanating from the states, as the power of government to do good in this era was caricatured against the power of corporations, the need for law and order, and the quest to reassure whites that the demographic and political changes emergent during the Civil Rights Era would not render them some newly ineffectual branch of the citizenry. This is the chief political narrative of the last 50 years, dating back to at least 1966 when Republicans gained 10 governorships, and an “Emerging Republican Majority” was being predicted.

It was in this difficult terrain that Mario Cuomo began his political career. Cuomo would go on to serve as New York’s 52nd governor, and though his 12 years in that capacity provide harsh lessons for both the Democratic Party and the forces of progressivism (a distinction in constant need of reaffirming) his tenure nevertheless exemplifies a moment when liberalism’s ability to shape national politics held a degree of coherence sorely lacking in our time. And so, it is worth turning to Cuomo as political philosopher – a Cicero yes, in terms of his rhetorical power – but also one whose “pragmatic progressivism” as he labeled it – managed to provide considerable lessons for this new century.

In a sense, Cuomo’s politics married progressivism’s promise of secured economic rights for the middle class and the vulnerable, with a “realpolitik” view of race – directed largely at whites – that makes him a kind of inversion of Trumpian politics. But Cuomo’s vision and language were also, in a sense, an inversion of today’s Democratic Party’s would-be populism. Cuomo spoke honestly to his white supporters in ways we have not seen matched by party leaders today. In 1973, while contemplating a first mayoral run in New York City, Cuomo spoke of the not-so-hidden, and yet brutish fears of his white constituents in Queens Village – in the borough that would catapult him to acclaim in the City’s politics. In an off the cuff speech, Cuomo spoke to the gathering’s fears of racial integration, and the self-defeating folly of racial animus:

“Whether you love them or not,” Cuomo said, talking about blacks, “whether you have an obligation to them or not, is between you and God. When you go to confession on a Saturday, talk to the priest about it. But unless you do something about where they are now, how they live now, they will continue to come into your neighborhoods and mug and rape.”[1]

It was a striking foray into his constituent’s stereotypes – and he simply stated them for the obvious “facts” of the mind they were to them. But he did not end there. “Where are you going to next?” Cuomo said. “Wyandanch? Then where? Montauk? You know what’s going to happen? In time, they’ll be three miles away from Montauk and your daughter is going to get caught because next is the water and it’s all over. You can’t run forever. You have to find ways to break up segregated neighborhoods. And most of all, you have to find ways to get them jobs.”[2]

Today, the Democratic Party’s left speaks of white resentment and fear as if it is not central to white working class motives – motives linked increasingly and unapologetically to race. For all of Bernie Sanders’ beneficent work to make structural (and willful) inequality the rightful hobgoblin of working class ills that it is, he has not been able to do so while looking into the eyes of the white working class and name their darkest fears aloud. Cuomo did so. Today, the only other white political figure who dares invoke such fears – exploitative and without a shred of redeeming value – is the churlish man in the red hat. Until Sanders, Warren, and others on the left, garner the courage to speak to race (alongside class) as part of the same repressive system operating in tandem (as opposed to being some detached feature of American life), the Democratic Party will struggle to attain a new incarnation of progressive politics.

“Bernie Sanders has not been able to look into the eyes of the white working class and name their darkest fears aloud. Cuomo did so”.

Historians such as Douglas A. Blackmon [3] and Ira Katznelson [4] have shown us the dark road progressives and New Dealers took to hold together a coalition that would advance American liberalism. In both instances it was a racial buy-in that doffed its hat at white resentment and privilege. More recently, prominent white liberals within the Democratic Party have been aracial technocrats – and I am excluding the likes of Carter, and the Clintons from this group, as they never argued from any political position but the center or center right. From McGovern to Kerry, Democrats have failed to energize the type of political coalition Cuomo pieced together in New York State – one that saw the question of race and the plight of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans not only as a functioning obstacle to American greatness, however loosely defined, but also as an unsightly gash across the face of liberalism.

And yet, there is a cautionary tale of Cuomo’s three terms as governor as well. The State of New York would under his tenure go on to triple the number of state prisons than in all previous governorships combined. There were many local black officials who helped him do it – but it was done on his watch, in a time of liberalism’s demise as an effective governing ideology. Nevertheless, Cuomo held on to the language of progressivism in the Age of Reagan. He taunted Reaganism’s appeal to the middle class as a syrupy deceit, one that slyly played with racial fears. To his credit, Cuomo had the conviction to continually seek to shame the conservatism of his era, to shame the abandonment of black and brown inner cities, the working poor, and the little ethnic enclaves that dotted New Deal America, the one he was born into in 1932. But there was less shame to be found over time. Today, Democrats sound like 1968 Republicans scolding the other party for want of shame. The politics of race and class have never known shame, but today the right has neither the language nor care to hide it – though try as they might with the fig leaf of “alt-right.”

Part of Cuomo’s brilliance was in maintaining a steadfast commitment to his Catholic, and more specifically, Vincentian-inspired vision of social justice, while at the same time serving a broader, and more avowedly secular common good. As a governor, he was compelled to be less of a philosopher than he otherwise might have been. And yet, while ever the pragmatist, Cuomo made the language of social justice part of his bearing as a politician. Few politicians ever quoted Pierre Tielhard de Chardin to an audience at the YMCA. Cuomo did. His training as a Catholic bred in him a kind of moral obstinacy at times – but it also placed him largely on the right side of history. The poor, the outcast, were never far from his lips.

Indeed, even as he fought against the rising tide of Reaganism and the growing centrism of his own party in the mid-eighties, Cuomo refused to adopt the language of a “New Democrat.” “It’s easier for those of us who’ve made it to wave the flag,” he would say, “and invoke all the symbols and poetry of patriotism than it is to insist our patriotism be translated into the prose of government, into programs that buy some opportunity for a child in Roxbury.”[5] Cuomo’s America included black neighborhoods and they too, were never far from the tapestry of his ornate language about “America” writ large.

To be clear, the Democratic Party is not in nearly the national disarray it was during the wilderness years when Cuomo was governor (1983-1995). Democrats have won 6 of the last 7 national popular votes, and but for the most brazen collaborative foreign and domestic political assault on a party in anyone’s memory, would likely be holding the presidency, Senate, and perhaps a good deal more House seats. No, this is less about the national success of the Democratic Party than it is about the need to reconceive it along lines that are not only compatible with racial justice, but a progressivism that insists that the struggle of all working people is non-negotiable. This is not “identity politics”; it is what a rational political party must take for granted in a new republic fashioned as much by people of color in the coming years, as the old one had been by whites. And for many, that is a fearsome reality, let alone undertaking. And it is why Cuomo’s voice, at its best, must be picked up anew for these times.

Footnotes & References

[1] “Cuomo Rising: Will New York’s Great Smart Hope Run for Mayor?” Village Voice, April 18, 1977.

[2] “Cuomo Rising: Will New York’s Great Smart Hope Run for Mayor?” Village Voice, April 18, 1977.

[3] Douglas A. Blackmon. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor Books, 2009).

[4] Ira Katnzelson. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005).

[5] Mario Cuomo. Public Papers, Albany: State of New York, 1985, p. 652.

Saladin Ambar
Saladin Ambar
Saladin Ambar is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. He is the author of Malcolm X at Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era (Oxford University Press, 2014) and the forthcoming American Cicero: Mario Cuomo and the Defense of Liberalism in America (Oxford University Press, 2017).
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