Andrew Cuomo is the new face of all that’s wrong with today’s Democrats. Thanks to his trouncing of Zephyr Teachout, the idealistic leftist professor who mustered the courage to challenge him, that much is now clear.
As anyone in New York can tell you, Cuomo is nobody’s hero. In addition to fulfilling most of the crude stereotypes of a New Yorker, he also checks the boxes beside our most cruelly cynical views of politicians. Preening, arrogant, vindictive, and inexorable; awash with cash; corrupt; in bed with corporate America and big finance. No wonder he bludgeoned Teachout down.
Like Michael Bloomberg, a richer but classier left-corporatist, Cuomo wrote as many checks as necessary to spend his way to victory. But the governor also made New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, the man supposedly bent on restoring the liberal soul that Bloomberg had polished away, into his personal political henchman.
Matt Stoller, the anti-corporatist cofounder of OpenLeft and former Alan Grayson aide, got up close and personal with De Blasio’s seeming betrayal of his fellow progressive Teachout. As Stoller observes, “De Blasio is not a throwback Democrat,” but rather “a slightly more left-wing version of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.” Instead of harkening back to the politics of Bobby Kennedy, Gary Hart, and other Democrats who rejected the Johnson/Humphrey wing of the party, De Blasio is a “classic New Democrat” who mixes squishy-soft policies on public health with iron-fisted policies on security, surveillance, finance, and corporations.
“He believes that Wall Street should distribute a bit more lucre to the working class,” Stoller concedes; “but this is different than the Zephyr Teachout school of breaking up the banks or reorganizing corporate power and the state.” De Blasio, Stoller concludes, has come to realize the grand opportunities that open to him if he treats the populist wing of the party like a proverbial redheaded stepchild.
One does not have to be a Teachout volunteer, as Stoller was, to draw these kinds of conclusions. Indeed, one does not even have to lean left (as I learned while working with Stoller for a few months on Russell Brand’s FX talk show). The destruction of Teachout merely underscored what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been doing to the so-called “progressive base” for years: relying on their turnout, undermining their ideals, and keeping them alive on a liquid diet of token social-justice achievements.
It’s the kind of disillusioning moment many right wingers experienced in the last two years of the Bush administration. Today, finally, a fair number of those grassroots conservatives have realized they must broaden their base to include people allegedly “soft” on crime and security if crony capitalism is to be whipped out of the GOP.
This lesson has yet to sink in on the left.
In large part, that’s because the left is so badly fractured. A clear divide between moralists and libertarians separates the right’s reform rebels. Some even advocate a pro-middle class kind of class war! But on the dissident-to-revolutionary left, the ranks are even more disorganized. Die-hard cultural liberals compete for influence with a new generation of Marxist intellectuals on one hand and the true heirs to the Kennedy/Hart Democrats on the other.
From an outside perspective, two things seem evident. First, the left’s culture warriors have been conscripted into a corporatist con from which identity politics offers no escape. Second, although Marxism has much to say about why identity politics actually reinforces that con, a genuinely Marxist class consciousness cannot captivate a country as stubbornly spiritual, if not always religious, as our own. Even among many Democrats, ethical frameworks adopted from Western and Eastern sources alike orient our personalities toward a style of living that is unintelligible to dialectical materialists. We Americans, as the postmodern conservative professor Peter Lawler has put it, refuse to see ourselves as mere "history fodder."
Remarkably enough, there could be a surprise in store for Democrats who see these things clearly and are searching for a leader. There is a potential standard-bearer for the tradition shared by RFK, Gary Hart, and even Hunter S. Thompson. In fact, this leader is roughly a peer of those once-influential figures. He came of political age in the Democrats’ fraught period of post-LBJ soul-searching. His bona fides as a true liberal are beyond question. His executive experience is legendary. He is deeply rooted in a heartfelt and learned cosmopolitan spiritualism. He does not suffer fools, he does not bow and scrape before statists or corporatists, and he is hiding in plain sight.
He is the anti-Cuomo. And, in one of history’s finer grace notes, he just so happens to be the sitting Governor of California.