07/11/2014 12:39 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

The State of the Progressive Movement: New York

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Last week I discussed the condition of the progressive movement in my current home state of Maryland. This week I will move on to the status of the movement in the state of my youth, New York. This is relevant because two of next year's Democratic presidential contenders, Martin O'Malley and Andrew Cuomo, are the current governors of these two states, respectively, and they both consider themselves progressive. Neither of them, however, can be called "progressive" in the traditional sense of the world.

Richard Brodsky, former New York State Assemblyman from District 92 and now a writer for the Albany Times Union, who has described Gov. Cuomo as "progractionary," told Vox's Andrew Prokop:

If he's successful -- if in a state like New York one can be an acknowledged champion of progressive politics with those kinds of economic policies -- there's no reason that argument can't be made nationally. You'd get a re-definition of progressive politics that takes the economic component out of it for the first time ever.

After helping pass marriage equality through the New York state legislature in 2011, Gov. Cuomo intoned:

The other states look to New York for the progressive direction. What we said today is, you look to New York once again. New York made a powerful statement, not just for the people of New York, but for people all across this nation.

In his Vox article detailing Gov. Cuomo's economic policies, "Governor 1 Percent," Andrew Prokop writes:

On social and cultural issues, the governor has fought hard for progressive priorities, and managed to win groundbreaking new laws on same-sex marriage and gun control. Indeed, he may have achieved more on those issues than any other Democratic governor in office today.

On economic issues, though, Cuomo has blazed a very different trail. Repeatedly, Cuomo has tried to cut taxes, particularly for the wealthy. He's cut the estate tax, repealed the state's bank tax, capped local property taxes, and reduced an existing tax on millionaires. He's stymied de Blasio's attempts to raise New York City's taxes on the rich and to increase the city's minimum wage. And he's consistently been skeptical about the value of government spending, and proven willing to cut billions from health and education. "He's adopted the philosophical and political posture that the problem with government is overtaxing and overspending," former assemblyman Richard Brodsky tells me. "How is that different from a Tea Party conservative?"

This is the case I made in my recent campaign for Maryland State Senate. My opponent could not be considered a real progressive unless we radically redefined the term "progressive" to exclude economic matters. Fighting for marriage equality doesn't make you progressive. It may be necessary, but it sure isn't sufficient. Being gay doesn't make you progressive. In 2012, 25 percent of gay voters chose Romney. There is no monolithic gay community, just as there isn't a monolithic black or Hispanic community. When those of us who care about other things, such as economic justice, speak out and criticize the objects of their adulation, we hear cries of "traitor!" and "disloyal!" Identity politics trumps economics, even though many who can now get married can't manage to survive economically. It brings to mind Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? from 2004. Really, how can people so readily vote against their economic interests?

My colleague Richard Socarides, a longtime gay activist from back in the days of the Clinton administration, told Politico that Gov. Cuomo is "clearly" now "the most progressive leader of our party." Yet Prokop's Vox article continues:

"Democrats are supposed to be the party of the workers and the poor, but they're also the party of the professional class, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and the universities," [Thomas] Frank continues. "And until 2008, they thought of themselves as the party of Wall Street -- they used to celebrate it as where innovation was happening. The Democratic Party that exists today isn't interested in doing anything substantive about inequality, because it would be costly to all those Democratic donors."

Brodsky sees Cuomo's governorship as a particularly crucial moment for progressivism's future. "This is the culmination of about a 50-year movement on the left in which what I'll call the politics of identity and social issues have become a substitute for the politics of economics and class," he says. "If the movement is headed toward pure identity and social content, then I think there's reason to worry. There's got to be a political voice for progressive economic policies." Eric Alterman [author of The Cause, a history of American liberalism] agrees: "We liberals have won the culture war already, it's just a matter of time. The battle is now over income inequality. And the question is, will the Democratic Party make that fight?"

In New York it's hard to believe that it will. Let's not forget that Gov. Cuomo was quite happy to play ball with a group of "independent Democratic senators" who formed the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in 2009 and threw the Democratic State Senate back into the hands of the Republicans. Such a betrayal may have served as a how-to manual for Virginia Republicans when they recently maneuvered a post-election takeover of their state senate.

Socarides told Vox's Prokop:

It's the classic liberal dilemma: do you want someone who's effective and who can get progressive things done, or do you want someone who'll put a stake in the ground for you? From the very start, [Gov. Cuomo has] wanted to be effective.

But it needn't be a dilemma, and using that as an excuse simply perpetuates the current corporate control of the Democratic Party. Prokop's article continues:

"There's straw in the wind on this," Harold Meyerson [who profiled the progressive Working Families Party for The American Prospect] says. "Among the base, and in the states, things are bubbling up. It will take a while for it to reach the leaders, but any politician who can read polls understands that inequality is an issue that's not going away, because the problem is not going away, and if anything the problem is getting worse." But other progressives are more pessimistic. "I would say the true economic populists wield little power in the Democratic Party," says Frank.

What does the future hold? John Cassidy of The New Yorker discusses the progressive challenge to Gov. Cuomo in the next gubernatorial election:

In some ways, the governor is a throwback to the so-called D.L.C. Democrats of the Clinton era, whose goal was to make the Party more palatable to tax payers and business interests. Setting job growth as his overriding goal, Cuomo has explicitly adopted supply-side economics or, as he described in his State of the State address this year, "a top-down reducing-tax theory."

After hearing Cuomo lay out his fiscal proposals, the Republican leader in the State Senate, Dean Skelos, jokingly described him as a "good, moderate Republican."

In any case, Cuomo's reëlection campaign has been hauling in a lot of cash from moneyed interests. According to an analysis by WNYC's Andrea Bernstein, almost two-thirds of the thirty-three million dollars in his war chest came in donations of ten thousand dollars or more. And less than one per cent of the total came in donations of two hundred and fifty dollars or less.

In this age of Occupy Wall Street and Thomas Piketty, Cuomo's unapologetic centrism and his scraping to the rich raises hackles in liberal circles. So does his support for charter schools and the public humiliation that he served upon Bill De Blasio, New York's mayor, during his dustup with the charters, and their Wall Street backers, earlier this year.

There is some reason to be hopeful. In a recent interview with Der Speigel, Hillary Clinton said of Thomas Piketty, author of the bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century, "I think he makes a very strong case that we have unbalanced our economy too much towards favoring capital and away from labor."

Maybe, as someone recently suggested, we need to clean up and clarify our language, and we can start by moving from the horizontal -- left vs. right -- to the vertical: top vs. bottom, the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent. I tried to do that in my last campaign. I, and all of us who care about a better future for all, need to do better.