Even with all its ongoing weaknesses, the American left wields more power today than it has in decades, sending democratic socialists and hard-line progressives to city councils, statehouses, and Congress with increasing regularity. Bernie Sanders, as chairman of the Senate’s budget committee, played an instrumental role in making Joe Biden’s stimulus bill a potential prelude to a historic expansion of the welfare state.
But Andrew Cuomo’s durability in New York — almost all the leading Democrats in the state have called for him to resign over sexual harassment allegations and for covering up nursing home deaths, but he’s refused to go — is evidence that in the seats of ultimate power across America, the Left is still shut out. Though members of Congress generally draw far more media attention and can accrue massive, million-plus social media followings, it’s the governors setting the policy agenda for much of the nation.
The Left needs to start dreaming of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes and Jamaal Bowmans in governors’ mansions, lording over legislatures and doing the work to make their own states hubs of ambitious leftist policies. Governors control tens of billions of dollars; a different governor in New York could have enacted a single-payer health care plan for the state by now. Leftists in power can grow the influence of unions, pursue innovative public transportation projects, erect far more permanently and deeply affordable housing, and tax the rich aggressively to pay for it.
The student debt crisis has its origins in the defunding of state-level public higher education. Federal funding has evaporated, but even states with liberal reputations like California and New York have pulled back funding for universities and community colleges. Governors of both parties, over the last forty years, have operated from often similar austerity mindsets: constrict spending on social services and education as much as it is politically feasible while offering paeans to the kind of robust, activist governments that rarely exist in practice.
The pandemic brutally reminded us once again that we live in a system of federalism. States can largely determine what kinds of schools you go to, what kind of neighborhood you live in, and whether you have access to public transit. Even in the spheres of taxation and health care, the state you happen to live in makes an enormous difference to what benefits you receive.
The federal government matters, of course, but who occupies your state’s governor’s mansion can matter just as much, or even more, and it’s here that the Left, as well as Democrats in general, have a long way to go. Consider that even after two massive anti-Trump waves, Republicans still control a majority of executive branches in America. Democrats are continually shut out of major states like Ohio and Florida or have elected governors (Michigan and Wisconsin) where the statehouses remain in the grips of the GOP.
These Democrats generally govern from the center, though none is as openly more hostile to the Left than Cuomo. Governors generally are portrayed in the media as the sort of politicians who are post-ideology and “pragmatic,” because they need to make tough fiscal decisions. But Republican governors have always dominated their states with a hard-right, fiercely ideological economic agenda that progressives have struggled to counter.
No Democratic version of Scott Walker has emerged. Walker, as a two-term governor of Wisconsin, was a transformational Republican, almost single-handedly obliterating the institutions of Wisconsin’s century-old progressive tradition. Walker broke the backs of labor unions, instituting a right-to-work law, and enacted destructive cuts to K-12 and higher education. Though Wisconsin has a Democratic governor now, Tony Evers, the shadow Walker cast is long: a Republican legislature is still there to check whatever power Evers can muster.
Leftists have their work cut out for them, but the future is not all bleak. Governors, unless they are rich or famous already, don’t usually appear from nowhere; they rise out of state legislatures or less prestigious offices. Socialists are beginning to take these posts, winning in statehouses across America. The growth of online fundraising has meant that outsider, antiestablishment candidates no longer need to struggle for cash as establishment candidates rake in donations from the real estate and financial lobbies.
Statewide races are undoubtedly a challenge — in large states, they are incredibly expensive and time-consuming and force candidates to appeal to a wide range of constituencies that don’t always align politically. But this is a hurdle the Left will need to overcome. In his two presidential campaigns, Bernie Sanders showed it was possible, winning in states like California, Nevada, and Michigan and running competitively in states where Democratic establishments were united strongly against him, including New York. A gubernatorial candidate won’t have Sanders’s fame, but democratic socialists are beginning to cultivate the sort of bench that can send well-known, well-regarded leftists into higher office.
This will become even more crucial if Democrats in Washington fail to nuke the filibuster and unrig the Senate, which heavily favors smaller, more conservative states. Mitch McConnell’s Republicans can easily slide back into power in 2023, and the Democratic grip on the House is tenuous. And Biden, of course, is not a lock to win reelection.
Conservatives long ago understood that states are the laboratories of policy, serving as a safe harbor for nefarious lawmaking when Democrats took control of the federal government. In the coming decades, it will be up to leftists to not only win executives offices but strongly put pressure on the Democrats who take charge without the support of any progressive or socialist infrastructure. No transformation is possible otherwise.