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Financing Identity: The Future of the Democratic Establishment

“Ms. Nixon, what in your background should give voters confidence you can run a state of 20 million people and a budget of almost $170 million?”

The camera zooms out to reveal two candidates sitting upright behind small desks with awkwardly forced grins. Tension fills the air at Hofstra University as the New York gubernatorial Democratic primary debate commences.

This first question was directed to Cynthia Nixon, the former Sex and the City star and current activist who announced this September that she would be challenging two-term incumbent Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York.

Nixon shot back with a clever, prepared response: her years of activism make her supremely prepared for the job, despite the fact that she has never held public office. But to her strong progressive base, it did not really matter how Nixon responded. She wasn’t running on experience, nor realistic policy proposals. She was running on a vision: a vision for a truly progressive New York, with universal healthcare, an end to homelessness, and a host of other idealistic policies.

This progressive vision is similar to the one that Bernie Sanders ran on in the 2016 presidential election, and it is almost identical to the one that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez championed when she defeated Representative Joseph Crowley in June. Collectively, their platforms constitute what is known as the modern progressive movement within the Democratic Party, a movement that has been gaining significant traction among left-wing voters in recent times.

The movement proposes ideas that most Democrats can support — a higher minimum wage, free public college tuition, a transition to renewable energy sources — but many doubt just how feasible these plans are. This divergence has created significant tension in the Democratic Party, essentially creating two classes of Democrats: progressives, who champion bold plans, and relatively moderate Democrats, who like the ideas behind many of those bold plans, but opt for more immediate compromises.

Over the past several years, this tension has emerged in our elections. It started with the presidential bid of Bernie Sanders in 2016, and it stretches to Cynthia Nixon’s candidacy today. Consistently, those who label themselves as “progressive Democrats” are challenging those who are considered to be “establishment Democrats” in local, state, and national primaries.

Regardless of labels, most members of the modern Democratic Party are relatively progressive and support progressive platforms; the truly moderate Clintonesque Democrat that thrived in the 1990s is fairly difficult to come across in today’s politics. Still, the distinction between “progressives” and “moderates” begins to arise when discussing whether or not it is best to achieve these policy goals through compromises. Take the issue of healthcare, for example. Although most Democrats supported the Affordable Care Act, moderates saw this piece of legislation as the best way to provide immediate coverage to more people, whereas progressives likely would have preferred to support legislation for universal healthcare coverage, even if it would be more difficult to pass in Congress.

This division has forced the Democratic Party to struggle with producing a coherent identity: should it adopt this progressive label and embrace its leftward shift, or should it maintain a somewhat more centrist base in order to pass bipartisan legislation and avoid political polarization?


One can presume that the direction of the party moving forward will be determined almost entirely by the voters. If voters really are hungry for change, then they will elect leaders who will push for this change. Several recent studies have suggested that Democratic voters do seem to want the party to move left and adopt a progressive label. According to the Data for Progress Report, commissioned by the progressive PAC Justice Democrats, “on issues from racial justice to economic equality, Democratic primary voters are increasingly united around progressive policies.”

Based on this, it would be logical to infer that voters would support candidates who will wholeheartedly pursue these progressive policies. Indeed, progressive candidates have seen victories in some significant New York races. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez garnered a lot of press attention when she beat ten-term incumbent Joseph Crowley for the Democratic nomination in New York’s 14th congressional district. In early September, several progressives were victorious over establishment Democrats in New York State Senate races, including Alessandra Biaggi in District 34 and Jessica Ramos in District 13.

However, in larger races, these victories have been much rarer. Andrew Cuomo, the more moderate candidate for governor of New York, received almost double the amount of votes that Cynthia Nixon, his progressive counterpart, did. Jumaane Williams, the progressive candidate for Lieutenant Governor, was not able to displace incumbent Kathy Hochul. Even in the 2016 presidential election, progressive Bernie Sanders, despite amassing significant momentum, still decisively lost the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton, an “establishment Democrat.”

These results beg the question: why can’t progressive Democrats win in larger elections against establishment Democrats? Perhaps it is because with bold policy plans comes higher taxes — for the upper class, but also potentially for the middle class — and this is a massive deterrent for many voters. Although a progressive platform can definitely resonate with voters from certain demographics in specific regions, when the electorate is expanded to a larger population, voters may naturally opt for a moderate candidate with policy proposals that seem more achievable.

Or perhaps it is simply because progressives have not been able to raise as much money as establishment Democrats, and thus have not been able to run as effective campaigns in larger primaries.  The considerable role money plays in large-scale elections is undeniable. In an interview with The Politic, former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano noted, “in local races, you rely more on direct voter contact than you do on [fundraising]. Sometimes, in a statewide race, it is largely purchased media, which is often expensive; if you can’t purchase media, this will put you at a disadvantage. And in national races, where you have to sustain a huge organization over a long period of time, [fundraising] is huge.”

This logic could explain why progressives can win in local elections, but struggle to win in larger ones. If establishment candidates are able to raise significantly more money through corporate donors, the campaigns they run in state and national elections will be much more effective for several reasons.

Campaigns with more money can produce a higher volume of ads, each of which is tailored to a different region or demographic. This will help candidates attract a broader electorate. Richard Bamberger, the communications director for Andrew Cuomo told The Politic that during Cuomo’s  2010 and 2014 gubernatorial campaigns, “there definitely is a difference in [marketing ads] in a statewide race, because the state is so huge that there are really different areas with different issues, different needs, and different wants.”

The issue of money is further complicated by the recent rise of identity politics. Identity politics is the term used to describe a rising political ideology that bases political stances around the perspectives of one’s identity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Although not all establishment politicians use identity politics, those that choose to do so have an immediate advantage because of their access to campaign funds.  “Different groups will care about different issues, and some ethnic and racial groups will be concerned about some issues more than others. Folks are motivated to vote and feel passionate about different things based on different circumstances,” Mayor DeStefano noted. With more money, candidates can control the narrative and direction of the election by making certain issues focal points of the campaign.

The confluence of money and identity politics was particularly evident in the New York Attorney General race. The race was highly contested, with four qualified candidates, all of whom were running historic, progressive campaigns. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney would have been New York’s first openly gay attorney general. Zephyr Teachout, Fordham Law professor and former gubernatorial candidate, would have been the first female elected as attorney general in New York. Letitia James, former public defendant and New York City public advocate, would be New York’s first black female attorney general, as would have; this would have also been the case for Leecia Eve, former aid to both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

If voters cast their votes based on qualifications alone, Zephyr Teachout likely would have won; the New York Times labeled her “a pioneering thinker in the legal case against Trump’s entanglements with foreign favor-seekers.” However, James received the endorsement of the Democratic establishment soon after announcing her candidacy and went on to win the primary with close to 41% of the vote.

In elections, voters consider far more than qualifications alone. DeStefano argues that the most important aspect of an effective campaign is not necessarily experience, but rather, as he put it, one’s “story: a biography and a message that resonates with the folks you’re talking to.” In the Attorney General primary, James was certainly qualified in her own right, but her story helped convince many voters to cast their ballots.

As someone who attended the New York State Democratic Convention, I can confirm that the establishment marketed James’s campaign in such a way that the most important factor was not that she was an experienced lawyer, but that she was an African American woman who was making history; this was her story. The establishment’s marketing strategy goes a long way to highlight the priorities of the Democratic Party.

The DNC in New York has truly embraced the use of “identity politics,” and the state’s  people have responded positively to this strategy. In the attorney general race, James was able to establish a strong base in New York City among minority voters that Teachout could not compete with, likely because of the nature of James’s historic campaign.

It is difficult to predict what direction the Democratic Party will gravitate towards in the near future — whether or not it will continue moving left, what issues it will prioritize, and what strategies it will use to attract voters. As Bamberger stated when asked about the gubernatorial primary, “Ultimately, it is often extremely hard to tell which topics voters will harp onto to make their judgement. That is just something we will have to see on Thursday night.”

On the Thursday night of the New York Democratic primaries, we learned a lot about voters and about the Democratic Party as a whole. We learned that although progressives can win on local levels, they struggle to do so in larger elections. We learned that identity politics have become a foundation of Democratic campaign strategy, particularly among establishment candidates who have the money to gage specific demographics of voters. Finally, we learned that money plays a pivotal role in determining the results of elections. Only time will tell if these strategies continue to garner success moving forward.