Exposing the ugly underbelly of Democratic establishment politics

The Democratic party leadership has a lot more in common with Republicans and the Trump administration than it has with its own base and hence it should not come as a surprise that it finds ways to maneuver against policies that its supporters want but goes against the interests of the ruling classes. This struggle has come into the open as progressives are launching primary challenges against veteran Democratic lawmakers and the latter scramble to find ways to defend their penchant to ally with Republicans tio undermine the progressive agenda.

Ryan Grim shows this dynamic in operation in New York state politics.

For at least half a century, “three men in a room” was an Albany cliche that stood in for New York state’s governing structure, a simple yet ingenious method of cooling the passions of the electorate, lest they expect the government to do something for them.

The roles of the three men were played by different characters over time, but their job titles remained the same: governor, Assembly leader, Senate leader. The three got together and hashed out deals that the rest of the government had to rubber stamp and carry out. For decades, the arrangement worked nicely because power was divided between the two parties. They traded the governor’s mansion back and forth, while Democrats held the state Assembly and Republicans the Senate.

But as the state became bluer, the arrangement was threatened, so a deal was pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo: Some politicians who campaigned for the Senate as Democrats, would, in Albany, caucus with Republicans. In January 2011, they became known as the Independent Democratic Conference. If Democrats controlled both chambers and the governorship, then voters might demand they deliver on their promises. But if power was divided, all power was then in the hands of Cuomo and the legislative leadership. Any activist or interest group who wanted anything done had no choice but to seek Cuomo’s blessing, and he had an easy mechanism to punish any group or person who slighted him. He could simply kill whatever it was they wanted passed.

The IDC’s eight members, led by state Sen. Jeff Klein from the Bronx and Westchester, had been effectively handing away power in exchange for a little bit of it for themselves.

We saw this same strategy play out on the national level during part of the Barack Obama presidency when Democrats controlled all three branches of government. That would have been the ideal time to pass a progressive legislative agenda. But there is little to show for that window of opportunity. The Affordable Care Act was pretty much it and although it was an improvement on what there was before, the Democratic establishment, including Obama, started out by saying that any plan that was passed had to have bipartisan support, effectively giving Republicans veto power, so that killed any idea of single payer or even a public option. But when Republicans control things, they have no hesitation in pushing through their extreme right wing agenda.

That is the game that the Democratic establishment plays, to make sure that their own interests and that of the oligarchy are never threatened.

The voters in New York were stunned that the Democratic legislators whom they had elected were caucusing with Republicans in order to undermine the agenda they had voted for and that has led to a revolt of sorts. Grim writes about how Cynthia Nixon, Zephyr Teachout, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others made attacking the IDC the centerpieces of their campaign, dragging it out of the shadows where it liked to do its shady work and into the spotlight. And they succeeded.

Across New York, people began raising their hand to primary those state senators, and a group called No IDC launched in early 2017 to try to organize the effort.

IN JANUARY, WHEN the new members were sworn in to the New York state Senate, Democrats fully controlled the state legislature, and progressives were driving the agenda. As its first act, the new body passed into law the Reproductive Health Act, a sweeping defense of reproductive freedom that Cuomo had long claimed to support, but the IDC had bottled up.

On January 22, 2019, he signed the bill into law. In February, in alliance with the newly elected women in the legislature, the Sexual Harassment Working Group held its first hearing, geared toward rooting out what had become an endemic rape culture in Albany’s men’s club.

The rest of the session saw win after win. When the legislature finally adjourned, the New York Times editorial board would marvel, “Albany, of all places, has provided a glimpse of what can happen when politicians believe that they owe the voters rather than the donors.”

Indeed, the real estate developers who watched in dismay as Dilan and the IDC fell one by one on election night could hardly have imagined just how much influence their money had previously purchased. With the developers in retreat, Albany pushed through a sweeping affordable housing package that was so tilted toward renters that landlords and developers decried it as having been pulled from the campaign website of Cynthia Nixon.

On climate, New York passed the most ambitious legislation any state has attempted to implement, pledging to zero out carbon emissions by 2050, banning most kinds of single-use plastic bags, and implementing congestion pricing aimed at reducing traffic in Manhattan.

A criminal justice reform bill eliminated cash bail for many crimes and required prosecutors to come clean about evidence much faster. Undocumented immigrants won the ability to obtain a driver’s license and apply for scholarships and financial aid to college. Sexual harassment laws were toughened up. Conversion therapy for children was banned. Hate crime laws were expanded to cover transgender people. Farm workers won overtime pay.

This is why the national Democratic establishment takes such a hard stand against progressives, hoping to reduce their presence and influence before they get too strong and upend the cozy bipartisan (how they love that word!) relationships that have been formed that result in the interests of ordinary people getting squeezed. They know that the bells are tolling for them.


  1. jrkrideau says

    I had not realized that any state in the US was that liberal. And I live just across the lake.


  2. says

    If they run Biden, I am not going to vote (which, in Pennsylvania means I would be effectively voting for Trump) -- I keep getting democrat party fund-raising calls and I tell them that. It’s not going to make a difference.

    I want radicals, not progressives.

  3. Matt G says

    @1 jrkrideau- The liberalism is mostly due to our big cities. The New York Times published an electoral map after the 2008 election. Instead of displaying it red and blue by state, they did it by county. What jumps out at you is the rural vs. urban divide. Go just a handful of kilometers south of the border and you will find Confederate flags, and they’re being flown by people who have never been south of the Mason-Dixon Line (unless they were stationed there…).

  4. Kevin Dugan says

    @2, Marcus Ranum
    I want radicals, not progressives.

    Could you please define what you mean by “progressive” and “radical” in this context and give examples?

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