Excerpted from the final chapter of The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, a just-released book by Eric Alterman.
One could not help but be struck by the dramatic turns in the summer months of 2011. As President Barack Obama found himself forced to begin the dismantlement of some of the most significant accomplishments of the New Deal and Great Society merely to entice his political opposition to agree to allow the U.S. government to pay its debts, the New York governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo — son of former governor Mario Cuomo — was simultaneously concluding a remarkable run of legislative victories in what had famously been one of America’s most dysfunctional state legislatures.[ii]
The most significant of these was New York’s new law legalizing gay marriage. To win the necessary votes, Cuomo turned to top-dollar Republican donors who, according to a New York Times report, “had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure.”[iii] It was a thrilling moment, not only for gays, but for liberals looking for a leader who refused to be cowed by the scare tactics of conservative Christians.[iv]
Andrew Cuomo was no radical, however — the law was, in fact, popular with more than 60 percent of New Yorkers polled — and the respective roles he undertook as governor provided a picture-perfect incarnation of the transformation of American liberalism from its New Deal origins. Under Roosevelt’s presidency, liberalism became a political movement focused on improving the lives of working people and those who needed a helping hand from government. In Obama’s America (and Cuomo’s New York), however, liberalism was primarily a movement designed to increase social and cultural freedoms for those who could afford to enjoy them. Cultural liberalism, while not without political risk, did not cost the wealthy anything or restrict their ability to become even wealthier. As such, it proved a far easier sell in a political system like that in the United States in the twenty-first century, dominated, as it was, by the power of money.
The difference between the Cuomos, father and son, offers a telling illustration of this transformation. Recall the role that Mario Cuomo had played in rejuvenating both the language and the spirit of the New Deal with the series of mid-1980s addresses he gave in opposition to Ronald Reagan’s Social Darwinist reading of the American creed, culminating with his 1984 Democratic convention speech. As one journalist observed, “Mario was an FDR liberal (and child of immigrants) with an unyielding faith in the government’s power to improve people’s lives.”[v] Andrew, in turn, was the product of a political era described by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz as “of the one percent, by the one percent, for the one percent.”[vi] Despite being elected to run the bluest of blue states in 2010, Andrew Cuomo governed, in the words of the local news columnist Michael Powell, like “a bulldog for the rich.” In the same legislative session that legalized gay marriage Cuomo engineered a cap on annual increases in the amount of property taxes collected by local school districts. He presided over a budget that forced the firing of 2,600 New York City teachers and laid off 1,000 city workers, many of whom were involved in health care for the poor, at a time when the need for both could hardly be greater.[vii] And finally, and most energetically Cuomo fought to ensure the demise of New York State’s millionaire tax at the moment when its proceeds might have been able to prevent the kinds of cuts being enforced.[viii] These were the priorities of a man who occupied the office once held not only by his father but also by Franklin D. Roosevelt before him.
Cuomo’s commitment to the abolition of the “millionaire tax” was particularly illuminating and for economic liberals, deeply depressing. The surcharge, which affected only citizens earning a million or more dollars per year, garnered the support of seventy-two percent of state residents polled in October, 2011. It would have generated an estimated $2.8 billion in the coming year at a time when the state’s deficit happened to be $2.4 billion. What’s more, it had become a focal point of the first genuinely populist progressive movement to arise in decades. The so-called “99 Percent” took to occupying public spaces like New York’s Zucotti Park near Wall Street to demand an end to taxation and fiscal policies that served the interests of only the country’s wealthiest one percent. The millionaire’s tax enjoyed the energetic support of almost all traditional liberal constituencies in the New York legislature, including its labor union-supported representatives, as well as its Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian caucuses. But acting in concert with body’s Republicans, Cuomo scuttled the tax and then went on to compare his lone wolf position to that of his father’s unstinting opposition to the death penalty. “The fact that everybody wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much,” he explained, apparently without noticing that his father’s lonely stand had been taken on behalf of prisoners on death row, rather than multi-millionaires on Wall Street. [ix]
Andrew Cuomo’s agenda, like the nascent 99 Percent movement, was less a cause of the transformation of American liberalism, than its product. In the years since his father had begun seeking public office, economic inequality in the United States surged into territory unseen in more than a century. In 1974 the top 0.1 percent of American families earned 2.7 percent of all income in the country. By 2007 this same tiny slice of the population had increased its holdings to fully 12.3 percent, roughly five times as great a piece of the pie as it had enjoyed just three decades earlier.[x] Half the U.S. population owned barely 2 percent of its wealth, putting the United States near Rwanda and Uganda and below such nations as pre–Arab spring Tunisia and Egypt when measured by degrees of income inequality.[xi] By the end of 2010, as corporate profits rose to 15 percent of national income — their biggest share of the economy since such statistics became available nearly seventy years earlier — the share going to workers’ wages fell to its lowest level in the same period.[xii] However much the election of an African American president was a point of pride for liberals, the fact remained that at two years into his historic presidency, white Americans enjoyed, on average, median wealth of twenty times that of black households and eighteen times that of Hispanic households.[xiii]
Months before the passage of New York’s gay marriage legislation, President Obama caved into Republican demands to slash the budget for spending for the poor and middle class and extended the Bush-era tax cuts for Americans lucky enough to earn more than $250,000 annually. Shortly thereafter, during the debt limit debacle, he conceded even more on the economic front, agreeing to additional budget reductions without winning any new tax revenues from the wealthy, whose tax breaks were now secure. As a result, liberals found themselves faced with two vexing questions raised by Robert Kuttner, cofounder of the liberal public policy magazine The American Prospect: “First, how did we make such stunning progress in three decades on issues involving tolerance and inclusiveness? And how is it that, during the same period, we have gone steadily backwards on a whole set of economic issues?”[xiv]
The short answer lies in the power and influence Americans have allowed money to assume in their politics. “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,” the great liberal jurist Louis Brandeis prophesied in the second decade of the twentieth century. “But we can’t have both.”[xv]
[i] Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920 (Urbana, Ill.: Illinois University Press, 1981), 323
[ii] On the state of the New York State legislature, see Clyde Haberman, “The Stalemate in Albany: 5 Years On,” New York Times, June 8, 2009, quoted in Alan Ackerman, Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 23
[iii] Michael Barbaro, “Behind N.Y. Gay Marriage, an Unlikely Mix of Forces,” The New York Times, June 25, 2011
[vi] “Joseph Stiglitz: Of the one, by the one for the one percent,” Democracy Now, April 7, 2011
[viii] Thomas Kaplan and Michael Barbaro, “Cuomo Says Curbing Public Pension Benefits Will Be His Top Goal in ’12,” The New York Times, July 13, 2011
[ix] See Thomas Kaplan, “Despite Protests, Cuomo Says He Will Not Extend a Tax Surcharge on Top Earners,” The New York Times, October 17, 2011; and Mathew Cooper, “Occupy D.C.? Most Back Protests, Surtax,” National Journal, October 19, 2011
[x] See Seth Hanlon: “Making More, Contributing Less Millionaires’ Tax Rates Have Declined While Everyone Else Contributes to Deficit Reduction,” Center for American Progress, August 4, 2011, and Archon Fung, “Winning the Future: Should Political Scientists Care More About Politics?” Boston Review, May 12, 2011
[xii] Floyd Norris, “As Corporate Profits Rise, Workers’ Income Declines,” New York Times, August 6, 2011, B3
[xiii] Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry and Paul Taylor, Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics,” July 26, 2011
[xiv] Robert Kuttner, “The Paradox of Social Progress and Economic Reaction,” The Huffington Post, June 19, 2011
[xv] This quote can be found in many places, including William H. Gates, Chuck Collins, Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004) 17.