I learned of Mario Cuomo’s death while sitting at my computer on New Years Day working on this post. His son Andrew had been inaugurated for his second term just hours before. For anyone who regularly reads Beyond All That, you know that, like my former governor, I am a card carrying liberal, with a capital L. Okay, he actually preferred “progressive”. Despite some small, albeit significant, victories, we — liberal or progressive — have been steadily losing ground since the Reagan days. That time, you will remember, prompted Cuomo’s most memorable political speech before the 1984 Democratic Convention. It was more than three decades ago and counting. It’s worth a listen.
Being a political junkie, I started listening regularly to Democratic (and many Republican) keynotes as a kid and still do. Governor Ann Richards gave one of the most memorable in 1992 — “Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” But only two really stand out both for delivery and soaring rhetorical language. In each case, I was convinced the nation was looking at its future president. I was wrong about Mario Cuomo and right about Barack Obama. Beyond their shared gift for oratory, the two men had other things in common. For one, as Ken Auletta noted in his recent New Yorker remembrance, Cuomo “…had the temperament of a writer—not unlike Barack Obama.”
Cuomo in his 1984 keynote mocked Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”, pointing out that the one encountered and depicted by president was gilt edge and privileged. It was a place where few Americans actually lived — most were merely getting along, struggling or in dire straights. He spoke of America as a “tale of two cities”, a theme so contemporaneously relevant that Bill de Blasio adopted in for his 2013 New York mayoral campaign. All these years later you can listen to that keynote (and again I urge you to do so) and realize that it could easily and credibly have been delivered today. Not much has changed, and if so, often for the worse. Entering 2015, beyond all else, we have a far smaller and less secure middle class. It turns out that income disparity isn’t a product of the Great Recession, but of the decades’ long rise of conservatism and concurrent decline of liberalism. These days, we liberals are losing both the battles and the war, terminology I don’t use lightly.
Today’s conservatives, and indeed people at the edges of ideology right and left, are adept at, and comfortable with, fighting. Liberals are not. Conservatives have no trouble employing virtual weapons of mass destruction (including calculated misinformation) to gain victory. Resorting to such tactics run contrary to the very essence of liberalism. Liberals are often portrayed as people who believe in big government compared with conservatives who would severely contain its reach. Liberals see government as a solution. In contrast, Reagan proclaimed, “government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem”. But these of course are much too simplistic formulations — big or small government, solution or problem. Underlying the liberal point of view is that society has a responsibility to and for its constituency. Mario Cuomo might have put that in religious terms: we are our neighbor’s keepers and they ours. That explains liberal’s support of social programming, whether broad scale accessible education and healthcare or the need for a protective safety net for those in need. The size of government is not the issue; rather it’s what government does.
That said, it is not a difference in ideology or even in the role of government that explains the rise of conservatism and the retrenchment of liberalism. In fact, when pollsters ask respondents about approaches to specific problems or mores, rather than using hyperbolic code words like “Obamacare”, the liberal position often wins out. And on social issues, just look at the dramatic turn of public opinion on marriage equality that, with the addition of Florida, is now legal in 36 states. But, it’s not programmatic ideology that counts, rather a much more fundamental difference in worldview. The essence of liberalism lies in openness to both new ideas and alternatives including contrarian views. Liberals do not believe themselves to be in possession of “the truth”. In fact, they have a strong aversion to the idea that anyone owns the truth, to any kind of absolutism.
This is not to suggest that liberals lack conviction, quite the contrary. We hold strong beliefs, ones strong enough to form a foundation for how we live and conduct ourselves. At the same time, true liberals don’t assume that their conviction or mode of living is the only right way of doing things and that those who choose a different course are somehow flawed or stupid. Mario Cuomo was a deeply religious Catholic who personally opposed abortion. But as a governor presiding over a diverse citizenry with different views and personal truths, he was a indefatigable supporter of a woman’s right to chose. That suggests both respect for other views and with regard to society the need to compromise, not in how we approach life individually but how we function relative to others. That doesn’t mean compromise is always possible — there are lines drawn by our beliefs — but that living and functioning in community has distinct requirements.
Conservatives, whether in politics, religion or anywhere else, come at life differently. That’s especially so in the post Reagan era where rightists dominate. Today, those at conservatism’s center stage are more likely people who think they do possess the truth and, as such, are absolutists. For them compromise is an anathema, a betrayal of the truth and, yes, of faith. Prevailing is all that matters. Simply put, they are in the right and those with other views are in the wrong. To be fair, some of those on the outer edges of liberalism, albeit with the opposite ideology, have a similar take on things, one that I don’t share.
The bottom line is that, given our very different worldview, we liberals are at a distinct disadvantage on what has become a continuous battlefield. We can’t help it. While fervently believing in our positions and resultant policies, we recognize those on the other side are coming from a different place, one that for them has equal merit. It assumed to be heartfelt and deserves respect. That works well around a dinner table, but falls short on the battlefield. Soldiers are expected to hold the line, consider their cause as gospel and go on the attack. Liberals make bad soldiers. Constitutionally, we are more comfortable in mode of the famous 1914 Christmas Truce whose centennial we marked a few weeks ago.
I have good friends who look at conservative tactics before, during and after political campaigns and bemoan the fact that liberals aren’t hitting back, and doing so in kind. I’ve heard the complaints about how the president in that regard. I appreciate their frustration and point of view, but that kind of tit for tat of just doesn’t work in the context of liberalism. I’ve written before about how poor we are a slogan making and branding relative to conservatives. Liberals are not good marketers, certainly not t when that requires constantly spinning or shading the truth. I know it’s a pragmatic disadvantage to be that way, but it’s consistent with liberalism.
Of course, there is a difference between understanding a respecting an opposite point of view and not standing up for one’s own. Calling an opponent on the implications of their ideology or worse their fabrication of fact, is not succumbing to their way of doing things. Running away from the accomplishments of the last six years, as Democratic candidates did across the country this past November, is inexcusable — and costly. It bespeaks a lack of pride. Regan made “the L word” a badge of shame. I wear it with honor. If not, how can I expect others to either respect me or take me seriously.
I watched Mario Cuomo’s simple funeral today, just as he had wanted it. Aside from the parish priest, his son Andrew was the only speaker. It reminded me of my father’s equally simple funeral where I gave the only eulogy. Like the current governor, I had also spent some years working with mine. Andrew spoke of his dad’s career, but perhaps most germane to this writing was his final assessment: Mario Cuomo was “the keynote speaker for our better angels”. He spoke his mind and his conscience both a reflection of what I proudly call liberalism. We should take that as a lesson if we want to reverse our slide.