Who’s A True Progressive? Lately, The Answer Is Almost Everybody

The first joint appearance between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams was billed as a talk about gun violence but it instead began with a shared grievance: both politicians complained that they are described as moderates when they feel that they are in fact progressive.

“We are progressive Democrats,” Cuomo declared on Wednesday. “And we have the same definition of what it means to be a progressive Democrat.”

Adams backed up that sentiment, and reiterated his complaint that Twitter users far removed from the lives of working-class people had “hijacked” the term.

“I am the original progressive voice in this city,” he said. “Being progressive is not what you tweet, but what you do to help people on the streets every day.”

Needless to say, those on Twitter responded with scorn and skepticism.

The remarks by the two Democrats were only the latest example of how Adams’s primary victory is resurfacing a long-running internal debate in a fractured Democratic party: what values define a progressive and who gets to claim the mantle?

Neal Kwatra, a Democratic strategist, said these frictions are common in politics. “Every politician wants a particular type of branding to speak to the broadest part of the electorate,” he said.

In the end, he argued, “To the victor goes the spoils.”

As a mayoral candidate, Adams diverged from his rivals on whether to increase policing and signaled more friendliness with the real estate industry. His status as a former police officer who was once a Republican has earned him especial suspicion from left-wing Democrats. But he has nonetheless taken progressive policy stances: fighting poverty through expanding the earned-income tax credit program, combating climate change with congestion pricing, and recognizing entrenched racial inequality and racism in government institutions.

Adams was also not the only so-called moderate in the race who sought to brand themselves as progressive. There was Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate who based his progressive bona fides on his push to give cash payments to the poor. Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner who ran a close second to Adams, linked her progressive vision in part to a detailed climate change plan that won over environmentalists. She in turn opted for the moniker “pragmatic progressive.”

Even those who are widely regarded as progressive confess that the leftyish label has become difficult to pin down.

“The term progressive right now is almost meaningless because it’s not a consistent standard,” said Brooklyn state senator Zellnor Myrie, who belonged to a progressive wave of lawmakers that swept into Albany in 2018.

“Anyone can call themselves a progressive,” he added. “And there’s no one that says, okay, well, this is the exact way to do this.”

Myrie said he prefers to use the term “on-the-street progressive,” which he says is a politician that is beholden to the concerns of his constituents.

Brad Lander, the Brooklyn council member who won as the progressive candidate in the city comptroller race, was reluctant to engage in the debate over terminology. He was asked about whether he considered Adams and Cuomo to be progressives following an event on Thursday marking the seven-year anniversary of the police-chokehold death of Eric Garner.

“To me, it’s what you do, not how you label yourselves,” he replied.

A progressive seal of approval, however, was seen as helping tip the highly competitive citywide contest in favor of Lander, who was backed by several nationally recognized progressive leaders, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Historians point out that the word progressive has never had a single meaning, and over the decades, political labels have cycled in and out of favor. Dating back to the turn of the 20th century, the progressive movement encompassed an array of reformers that sought to oppose what they saw as the corrupting influence of industrialization and capitalism. The New Deal era introduced a shift to “liberal,” a term rooted in the defense of individual rights.

But starting around the Vietnam War era, the word liberal was devalued by both parties, said John Mollenkopf, a professor of political science at CUNY. By the 1980s, Republicans managed to connote the word liberal with tax-and-spend and morally lax Democrats, effectively turning it, in the words of one New York Times journalist, into the “American political insult par excellence.”

Democrats eventually abandoned “liberal” and, under President Bill Clinton, centrist Democrats revived “progressive” as a way to get away from racial identity politics, Mollenkopf said.

While there are “flavors of progressivism,” he argued that today the term refers to “people who are concerned both with political reform and with asserting the interests of middle- and working-class people, for example favoring unionization, as well as advocating for the welfare state.”

Prior to the ascendancy of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, Bill de Blasio distinguished himself as the progressive candidate for New York City mayor in 2013. Political experts have credited his victory with building a progressive platform that married a critique of growing income inequality with a signature policy initiative of universal pre-K. He further cemented his embrace for causes in communities of color by pledging to stop racist stop-and-frisk policing practices.

Adams, who earned the support of several major unions, also sought to identify himself with the interests of middle- and working-class New Yorkers, many of the same voters who elected de Blasio. But he also made public safety a centerpiece of his campaign. On the heels of Black Lives Matter protests last summer, those on the left pushed defunding the police as a qualifying criteria for a progressive candidate. Three of the top left-leaning candidates, Maya Wiley, Scott Stringer, and Dianne Morales, all supported some reallocation of the NYPD budget toward social services.

Adams has long advocated for reform in policing, but he is staunchly opposed to reducing police funding.

The pull between a desire for law-and-order and civil rights has long been an organizing principle for politics in cities like New York, according to Omar Wasow, a political science professor at Princeton.

Wasow said that while policing may be one of many issues that define a progressive, during this past election it had become the most salient one for voters.

“The media covers the plane that crashes, not the plane that lands,” he said. “And so a single incident like a shooting on the street that makes the cover of the Post can dominate the conversation.”

He said the fraught nature of progressivism reflects the inherent challenges in managing a party with diverse members and interests.

“Coalitions are fragile and the boundaries are contested,” he said. “Who’s defining them and which groups are driving the conversation?”

Not everyone views the fight over progressivism as a vexing problem. Gabe Tobias, who ran a progressive super PAC that urged voters not to rank Adams or Yang, said he is not dismayed when he hears Adams proclaim that he is a progressive. He argued that the push by moderates to define themselves as progressive is a sign that the movement has moved to the center of the Democratic party.

Ultimately, Tobias argued, it’s a rhetorical battle that no one can really win. But he wants more Democrats to identify themselves as progressive, which he equates with a fight for equality, justice and inclusion.

“Because we can hold them to that,” he said.

Joseph Gedeon contributed reporting.