After months of intense media coverage and campaigning, the New York Democratic primary was finally held this week. It is not usual - for much of the country or even most of the State’s residents - to focus on a primary. Yet this year was different as it was the latest front in the battle between progressives and establishment Democrats. The result for both left much to love and much to be desired. The incumbent Andrew Cuomo rolled to a landslide victory against his challenger and former Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon. However, much attacked democratic socialist Julia Salazar surprisingly won the nomination for State Senate as well as a slew of progressive insurgent challengers.
In his victory speech, Cuomo took no prisoners and showed no willingness to compromise. He came out on the attack, announcing that the so-called “progressive wave” was “not even a ripple.” Still, he had good reason to worry. He won only after spending $25 million and calling favors from such centrist luminaries as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. It was another sign that the Democratic establishment has gone from dismissive to scared of the rising popularity of progressive candidates, activists, and voters.
It is, apparently, tempting to focus on these hard-fought election battles. Progressive victories, though, raise a new and in many ways more significant challenge to traditional Democrats. If you actually have those in legislative power who believe in policies such as Medicaid for all, affordable public housing, higher taxes for the rich, ending the racist drug war, and free higher education - then what is stopping mainstream Democratic leaders from enacting such an agenda?
Cuomo was on the surface a somewhat unlikely target for a progressive revolt. He did pass a higher minimum wage, extended paid family leave, legalized same-sex marriage, and free college program. Yet for his critics, this was cover for his lowering of taxes for the rich and his unwillingness to really address the state’s rising inequality and unaffordability for both those in New York City and upstate. These competing narratives represented the delicate game Cuomo played to cultivate himself as a Liberal reformer who had to negotiate with a Conservative and often hostile Senate.
This hostility may seem strange to those outside of New York, a state that is commonly viewed as being “deep blue.” Nevertheless, these progressive commitments were held hostage by a group of centrist politicians who referred to themselves as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) who regularly caucused with Republicans. Even more troubling were widespread rumors that Cuomo actually helped to create the IDC for his political “profit” to keep “the left in check.”
Whatever the truth of these claims, they certainly came in handy, as he was able to continually blame the IDC and Republicans for all of his progressive failures. This echoed a broader politics of conveniently pointing the finger by mainstream Democrats nationwide. Hillary Clinton blames Russia for losing to Trump and Democrats in general blame Republicans for failing to achieve serious progressive victories while in office. They also notably hold conservative and centrist voters responsible for stopping them for their constant compromises and inaction. Reflected is a deep-seated Democratic blame game that has until now dominated progressive politics.
The growing number of triumphs by proudly progressive candidates directly challenges this culture of finger-pointing. In her viral social media ad, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proclaimed that these priorities are not impossible but require “courage.” This echoed ongoing attacked by leftist candidates - many openly supported by the Democratic Socialist of America - that Democrats are only held back by their commitment to their corporate donors.
Already these candidates, even those who ultimately were defeated, are moving the Democratic Party to the left. In the New York race, Nixon pressured Cuomo to suddenly find a way to break up the IDC, support the legalization of marijuana, and restoring voter rights for those on parole. Nationwide, this has led to previously derided leftist policies such as single-payer health care, drug decriminalization, abolishing ICE, Palestinian rights, free public universities, and a more progressive tax system to be acceptable Party positions. Even former President Obama has recently declared “Democrats aren't just running on good old ideas like a higher minimum wage, they're running on new ideas, Medicare for all.”
Nevertheless, the rallying cry of the purported “Blue Wave” for the 2018 midterm is to defeat Trump at all costs. The danger of this anti-Trump campaign is that it once more plays into the Democratic blame game. It allows those in the mainstream to accept corporate money, reinforce a broken status quo, all the while decrying how much they wish they could do more to change the system. With new leftist candidates coming to power, there will be less and less opportunities for them to deflect responsibility. Instead, they will increasingly have to show their commitment to creating a fairer, more equal and just society and world if they want to be taken seriously. The real question for establishment Democrats is with progressives on the rise, who else can they blame but themselves?