Cornell University Press

“Not Liberal, Not a Party?” The Liberal Party of New York

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New York voters know that the state has a multiparty system. If they are old enough, they might remember the Liberal Party, which played an important role in state politics between 1944 and 2002.

And if they remember the Liberal Party, they probably recall its last years as a cynical patronage machine with few actual members, no internal life, and no principles to speak of. By the end, critics joked that just as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, so the Liberal Party was neither liberal nor a party. Rather, it was a law firm with a ballot line.

By the end, the Liberal Party was neither liberal nor a party.

But it wasn’t always that way. The Liberal Party arose out of New York’s labor movement, especially in the garment industry, and commanded considerable support in New York City’s Jewish community. It could mobilize tens of thousands for election campaigns or rallies. Mainstays of the city’s peculiar social-democracy-in-one-city, the Liberals prided themselves in being a “year-round” party that didn’t go into hibernation between elections. Rather, they worked constantly to extend New Deal-style social welfare programs and defend civil rights. There was no doubt in its first several decades that the Liberal Party was both liberal and a party.

From the beginning, though, the Liberal Party sought to strike a balance between idealism and pragmatism. Like New York’s other small parties, it mainly exerted influence by offering or threatening to withhold support from the Democrats or Republicans. As one party activist put it, the Liberals could not guarantee a Democrat that he would win in a statewide election if they supported him. But they could guarantee that he would lose if they didn’t. Conversely, in New York City, a Republican could only win a citywide election by outflanking the Democrat from the left with Liberal help. This strategy was successful, and the Liberal Party helped to elect presidents, governors, senators, and mayors. In return, winning candidates promised to support the party’s liberal priorities.

The Liberal Party wheeled and dealed with the most well-oiled of political machines.

But the balance between pragmatism and idealism was precarious. Winning candidates also promised to appoint Liberals to government jobs. Alex Rose, the party vice chair and de facto leader, defended the Liberals’ patronage practices by arguing that a political party existed to put its people in positions of influence. Moreover, the Liberals had good, qualified people. What was wrong, Rose asked, with seeing that they had jobs in government? Still, this strategy meant that the Liberal Party wheeled and dealed with the most well-oiled of political machines. Some began to question whether there was much difference between the Liberal Party and its infamous rival, Tammany Hall.

By the end of the 1960s, the Liberal Party began to lose its social base, as the garment industry shrank, the unions disaffiliated, and the demographic make-up of New York City changed. At the same time, the party’s New Deal-style liberalism began to seem old fashioned and out of step. By the 1980s, the party put much less emphasis on its program, and more emphasis on finding jobs for its people, fewer of whom seemed obviously idealistic or even qualified. By the turn of the millennium the party was a shadow of its former self. And in 2002, it lost its ballot line and went out of business.

By the turn of the millennium, the party was a shadow of its former self.

The recent democratic socialist insurgency led by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others within the Democratic Party shows that the issues of principle vs. pragmatism raised by the Liberal Party are not dead. The party’s history provides a cautionary tale for movements of all stripes that seek to influence American politics from the margins of the mainstream.

Cover image of Left in the Center.
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Daniel Soyer is Professor of History at Fordham University. He is author or editor of several books, including (with Annie Poland) The Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920.

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