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The late Mario Cuomo’s political vision is a reminder of the path America didn’t take.
When the media reported that former New York Governor Mario Cuomo had died, I couldn’t help thinking of Robert Frost’s famous poem, the one that ends:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The enduring message of Frost’s poem is that we choose the paths we will travel, and those choices do, indeed, “make all the difference.”
Mario Cuomo is probably best remembered for his speech to the 1984 Democratic convention, in which he criticized Ronald Reagan’s sunny description of America as “a shining city on a hill”–describing it as the worldview of a man unaware of poverty and unconcerned about impoverished Americans. “Mr. President,” he said, “you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘tale of two cities’ than just a ‘shining city on a hill.’” [pullquote] In a 1984 speech, Cuomo reminded Reagan that America was more a ‘tale of two cities’ than a ‘shining city on a hill.’ [/pullquote]
Cuomo himself came from a poor, immigrant family, and he never forgot the struggles of his family and the families in the neighborhoods he grew up in.
Cuomo’s antipathy to the death penalty was undoubtedly rooted in his Catholic faith, but it was a position that he defended with secular logic. He was deeply religious, but (unlike so many of today’s ostentatiously pious politicians) he understood the difference between religion and government, and why keeping that bright line between them was necessary both to authentic faith and effective governance. His principled belief in church-state separation led him to defy the Catholic hierarchy and publicly defend elected Catholic officials who opposed abortion and use of the power of the state to impose that opposition on others.
Brilliant and uncommonly thoughtful, Cuomo was an articulate voice for the “little guy” and a powerful advocate for the importance of government. [pullquote] Brilliant and uncommonly thoughtful, Cuomo was an articulate voice for the “little guy” and a powerful advocate for the importance of government. [/pullquote]
In his first inaugural address as governor he called on state government to “be a positive source for good.” But–as the New York Times noted in an article after his death– the speech “also offered a critique of Reagan policies and a liberal vision for the country. Fiscal prudence, Mr. Cuomo asserted, did not prevent government from providing “shelter for the homeless, work for the idle, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute.”
At the time, Americans rejected both Cuomo’s view of the civic landscape, and his belief in the possibilities of government. We chose the alternative vision: a country composed of self-reliant, “can-do” citizens with equal access to boundless opportunities offered by a country without structural impediments or systemic injustices.
Where has that vision taken us? [pullquote]In the 1980s, Americans embraced Reagan’s vision of America instead of Cuomo’s. [/pullquote]
The United States has the 17th-highest poverty rate in the O.E.C.D.; after taking into account the effect of taxes and government spending, the American poverty rate jumps to fifth-worst. When it comes to spending on social programs—unemployment insurance, day care, etc.–the U.S. is in the bottom third of nations in the O.E.C.D. In our zeal to punish those we have labeled “takers,” we have hurt everyone except those in the top 1%: The disposable income of families in the middle of the income distribution shrank by 4 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Meanwhile, as this blog has previously reported, the richest Americans enjoy massive public subsidies paid for by the shrinking middle class.
In the 1980s, two political paths diverged in America. We chose the one that was easier, the one that asked less of us–the path that allowed us to believe in our own superiority, blame poor folks for their poverty, and pursue policies that benefited the already comfortable.
And that has made all the difference.
Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Professor Kennedy is a columnist for the Indianapolis Business Journal and a frequent lecturer, public speaker and contributor to popular periodicals. She blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net