The key takeaway from Lee Fang’s bombshell story in The Intercept is that Pat Ryan, one of the candidates in the hotly contested Democratic Primary for the swing congressional seat in New York’s 19th district, “built a lucrative career spying on left-wing activists” for various law enforcement agencies. Ryan, according to Fang, also pitched his services to aid the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in their efforts to “disrupt” union activity.
Like all great reporting, Fang’s piece answers some questions but raises many more. In particular, while it seems that it should be damning, it is not obvious that the story should create problems for Ryan when one thinks about it. He is, after all, not being accused of anything illegal. Rather he was doing nothing other than operating a business, by all accounts quite successfully. And while the nature of this business involved surveilling left wing activists and unions, this would create a problem for Ryan only is if it assumed that most Democrats would regard this as wrong.
That was once the case. Years ago, most Democrats would have identified themselves as “on the left” and were philosophically and politically committed to protecting workers’ right to organize. But now, decades after the Democratic Leadership Council‘s string of victories culminating with the Clinton presidency, most would probably prefer defining themselves as inhabiting the center against the extremes of the far right and left. And just as significantly, relatively few identify strongly with organized labor.
To take one example directly relevant to NY 19, New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, has made no secret of his hostiility to the teachers and public sector unions regarding the former as “enemies of public education” and as “selfish.” Few would describe Cuomo, nor would he describe himself, as “on the left”.
Similarly, national Democrats’ attitudes toward the left were well captured by remarks from two high officials in the Obama administration, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel the former having derogatorily referred to “a professional left” in need of “drug testing” the latter characterizing them (and I should say us) as “retards”.
When it comes to the candidates for NY 19, most provide little reason for concluding that their attitudes towards the left or labor are more favorable than those of Ryan. One, Gareth Rhodes is routinely described as a protégé of the New York governor whose coolnees towards the unions and the left of the Democratic Party were just referred to. Brian Flynn, while the great-nephew of the legendary New York Transit Workers Union head Mike Quill, has, in his capacity as CEO of medical equipment firm Accumed, been responsible for outsourcing jobs from its former Buffalo headquarters to low wage regions of the country and abroad. Antonio Delgado, a white collar criminal defense attorney in the leading white shoe law firm Akin Gump-would hardly be described a friend of organized labor or the left. Jeff Beals, while taking pro-labor stances as a candidate which sharply distinguish his platform from the others, is a former CIA operative one of whose main objectives throughout its history has been the destruction of unions and left wing movements throughout the world. Finally, Dave Clegg, a Kingston personal injury lawyer is clearly committed to giving working people a fair shake and is both by inclination and action a man of the left. However, his professional career and activist commitments give relatively little indication of close connections to organized labor.
None of this is to excuse Ryan’s activities which, in my opinion, should be seen as disqualifying-a clear violation of what should be the core values defining what it means to be a Democrat.
However, that is only my opinion. If others disagree, they should clearly and forthrightly state that they are no longer believe being a Democrat means being strongly committed to workers’ rights and to a traditional left program (e.g. an active role for government in the economy, respect for the environment, civil and constitutional rights, favoring peaceful solution to conflicts etc.).
But the most important point brought up by Fang’s report on Ryan is that it’s not enough to know what what a candidate rejects. We also need to know what candidates believe in.
For too many candidates the answer to this question is either vague or non-existent, which is to say that they believe in very little or nothing other than getting elected.
It should therefore comes a no surprise to find this directly reflected in a recent poll which showed that in fact the majority of the public regard the Democrats as “believing in nothing (other than defeating Trump).”
While this might seem smart politics-allowing the Republicans to defeat themselves by deploying an electoral variant of Muhammad Ali’s “rope a dope” strategy-it has proven disastrous for generations now.
If that which Noam Chomsky accurately characterized as “the most dangerous organization in human history” is to be defeated, voters will need to know what Democrats stand for.
Pat Ryan has told us what they should not be standing for. It is incumbent on the other candidates in NY 19 to clearly show to the voters what it is they believe in. And that they will fight for it.