Can progressives govern?

Can progressives govern?
© Greg Nash

Two important events took place this month that raise a key question for progressive politicians and their supporters to answer. Can progressives govern? The first important event was the decision of Amazon to abandon its plan to locate a new corporate campus that would create 25,000 jobs in New York City. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezAdams, Garcia lead in NYC mayor's race: poll House Republicans introduce resolution to censure the 'squad' This week: Democrats face fractures in spending fight MORE responded to that unnecessary economic debacle by publicly taking credit for it and gloating about her victory. In her words, “A group of dedicated everyday New Yorkers and their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed.”

New York has successfully defeated lots of companies in recent years. Its business environment has become so hostile that a growing number of companies and citizens have voted with their feet. The high rate of exit from New York has cost it a dozen seats in Congress since 1970 and could cost it another seat in 2020. If New York follows the lead of progressives like Ocasio-Cortez, the rate at which companies leave will only accelerate. Many of the everyday citizens that Ocasio-Cortez represents will follow those companies to states with less hostile business environments. If that is the hallmark of progressive politicians, most Americans will reject the progressive agenda and those candidates for office who identify with it.


It is unfortunate that states and cities must negotiate special deals with companies to induce them to locate major facilities in their jurisdictions, but that is a part of the reality within which politicians must function. As Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio recognized, politicians must compromise in pursuit of some goals in order to attract and retain the private sector employers that are critical to the future welfare of a state or city. Politicians who remain unwilling to compromise to attract and retain employers under their watch are not capable of governing.

The second important event this month was the important vote for the compromise spending bill that House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNew Mexico Democrat Stansbury sworn into Haaland's old seat Greene apologizes for comparing vaccine rules to Holocaust Overnight Health Care: Biden pleads for more people to get vaccinated | Harris highlights COVID-19 vaccination safety | Novavax COVID-19 vaccine shown highly effective in trial MORE negotiated with Republicans in Congress. Everyone knew the alternative to passing that legislation was another government shutdown. Yet, Ocasio-Cortez voted against the bill. She was joined by some Democratic senators who identify as progressives and who are now running for president in 2020.

If being a progressive means that you would rather close the government for an indefinite period of time than engage in the kind of compromise that is essential to a functioning legislative process, then progressives are not capable of governing. While the majority of voters in the Democratic primaries might prefer uncompromising politicians, the majority of the electorate prefers politicians who are willing to participate in the process of compromise that is essential to the ability to govern in a democracy.

The progressive movement certainly has laudable goals. Progressives want to take actions that will increase the availability of health care, reduce the trend toward increased disparities in wealth, and mitigate climate change. Politicians who share in the vision of the progressive movement need to decide whether they support or oppose compromise. If they oppose compromise, they are not capable of governing. Anyone who runs for office as an uncompromising progressive will, and should be, rejected by most voters. Candidates who combine progressive values with a realistic understanding of the essential role of compromise in governing a democracy can, and should be, embraced by most voters.

Richard Pierce is the Lyle Alverson Professor of Law at George Washington University. He is the author of several books on government regulation and administrative law that have been cited in opinions of the Supreme Court.