Mario Cuomo, the Speech and the Challenge to Democrats Today

Today’s Democrats should look to Mario Cuomo’s vision of an America in which we embrace our responsibility for each other.

Dan Cantor and Richard Kirsch

(Kenneth C. Zirkel / Wikimedia Commons)

Mario Cuomo’s historic 1984 address to the Democratic National Convention was a stirring defense of an America in which we deeply embrace our mutuality and responsibility to each other. It was the Democratic Party’s most vigorous and famous response to the Reagan era. Re-reading it thirty years later is revelatory — both for what it said of that time and of the economic challenges that the Governor did not anticipate.

Against Republican values of competition and the survival of the fittest, Cuomo offered Democratic “mutuality,” declaring: “We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another.” He blamed the crushing of middle-class hopes on Reagan’s supply-side economics, which he described as government caring for the rich and ignoring the middle-class and the poor.

In responding to Reagan’s attack on government, Cuomo did not fear being called a bleeding-heart liberal. He knew that liberals had done an awful lot of good in America. Cuomo was too smart not to know how dangerous the anti-government zealots were, and he fought back. But looking back these 30 years, we can see that Cuomo’s defense of government did not address the deep and troubling economic changes that working- and middle-class families were beginning to face in 1984 — and are still facing today.

The beginning of Cuomo’s speech rings as true today as it did in 1984. In responding to President Reagan’s portrayal of America as a shining city on the hill,” Cuomo asserted, Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more a Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a Shining City on a Hill.’ ”

But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.

In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. 

Maybe, maybe, Mr. President, if you visited some more places; maybe if you went to Appalachia where some people still live in sheds; maybe if you went to Lackawanna where thousands of unemployed steel workers wonder why we subsidized foreign steel. Maybe — Maybe, Mr. President, if you stopped in at a shelter in Chicago and spoke to the homeless there; maybe, Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn’t afford to use.

Against Republican values of competition and the survival of the fittest, Cuomo offered Democratic mutuality,” declaring: We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another.” He blamed the crushing of middle-class hopes on Reagan’s supply-side economics, which he described as government caring for the rich and ignoring the middle-class and the poor.

Mario Cuomo correctly identified Reaganomics as a terrible answer to the problems of a modern industrial society. But the Right’s control of the debate hemmed in what he was able to muster as an alternative. He objected to Reagan’s social spending cuts, but felt obligated to adopt a posture as a bit of a deficit-hawk all the same, calling Reagan’s budget deficit“a mortgage on our children’s future that can be paid only in pain and that could bring this nation to its knees.”Instead, he called for the nation to deal with the deficit intelligently, by shared sacrifice.”

Mario Cuomo delivered his speech ten years after wages stopped rising with productivity, as they had since after World War II. That change meant working people were no longer getting their fair share of economic growth. The incomes of the very wealthy had starting growing much more rapidly than everyone else’s — the beginning of the huge, destructive concentration of wealth we face today.

While Cuomo’s rhetoric in that speech pointed at the high progressive ideals of a society that works for all, he was still constrained from attacking the worst excesses of Reaganism or proposing solutions the met the scale of the crisis that Reagan’s policies created.

Cuomo declared support for unions in the speech, which is farther than many Democrats today are willing to go. But he fell short of directly criticizing Reagan for dismantling PATCO, the air-traffic controllers union, in 1981. That was perhaps the decisive moment of the Reagan presidency, signaling to corporate America that the federal government would be their ally in holding down wages.

In making the case that Democrats had plans for a better future for our children, Cuomo looked back to the accomplishments of FDR and the New Deal. But despite the high unemployment rate in Reagan’s first term, the Governor did not propose any government programs to put people to work — unlike Roosevelt. That would mean more government spending, and a bigger short-term deficit.

None of this diminished what Cuomo accomplished that night in San Francisco. We honor Cuomo’s celebration of diversity, welcoming of immigrants, concern for the poor and his unapologetic assertion of our mutual dependence on each other.

Our challenge today is to champion solutions to the grabbing of America’s wealth by the super-rich and powerful corporations at the expense of the middle-class, the stagnation of wages, suppression of the union movement and the lack of any government response.This is what defines today’s political economy. That is what defines today’s Tale of Two Cities.

The question for the Democratic Party is whether it will stand up to the powerful forces within the Party that want it to be just a few degrees better than Republicans. The Wall Street and corporate campaign contributors and lobbyists are very clear on their agenda: financial deregulation, low wages weak unions, cuts to retirement security and never, ever using robust state action to create jobs. The donor class knows what it wants, but the truth is that most rank-and-file Democrats are really Working Families”Democrats, not Wall Street Democrats.

A year ago New York Mayor Bill de Blasio returned to A Tale of Two Cities. De Blasio represents today’s progressive current in the Democratic Party, one which is willing to take on powerful interests to lift working families’ standard of living. In his first State of the City address, he declared, Because the truth is, the state of our city, as we find it today, is a Tale of Two Cities — with an inequality gap that fundamentally threatens our future. It must not, and will not, be ignored by your city government.”

To his credit, de Blasio laid out an economic justice” agenda, starting with improving low-wage work with earned sick days, a higher living wage for businesses that contract with New York City and raising the minimum wage. As for his economic development strategy, We will forgo big giveaways to a select few companies and instead pursue a city economic strategy that grows whole sectors of small businesses in emerging industries… [and] companies that can generate good jobs at decent wages in all five boroughs.”

Over the next two years, Democrats will debate the direction of their party and their country. We hope that the 2016 Democratic National Convention will have a keynote speech that not only reprises Mario Cuomo’s vision of an America in which we care for each other, but also a bold program for an America of shared, sustainable prosperity. Such a program would be worthy of the former governor’s memory. 

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Dan Cantor is the National Director of the Working Families Party. Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at The Roosevelt Institute and member of the New York Working Families Party State Committee.
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