Mario Cuomo’s Wagon Train

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After Mario Cuomo died on New Year’s day, many tributes referred to a 1984 speech, in which he criticised Reaganomics and conjured up a different vision of the United States. It resonates today, because the inequalities that were rising during Reagan’s era have continued in much of the West. The speech also contains some lessons in how to challenge people who don’t agree with you.

The speech became known for its central metaphor, “A Tale of Two Cities.” Reagan often used the image of America as a “shining city on a hill” to revive a spirit of optimism in the country. Cuomo, then Governor of New York, flipped Reagan’s image with help from Dickens.


While Reagan saw just people who were doing well, he had failed to visit a part of the city full of despair – of struggling families, people sleeping in the gutter and “elderly people who tremble in the basements”. These vivid images are what the speech is best remembered for.

For me, the clever part is when Cuomo hijacks the wagon train.

Most Europeans easily accept the idea of social justice. The French talk about solidarité. Even in Britain, which tends to lean further right, it’s hard to be against “fairness”. And the EU anthem is a tune from Beethoven’s choral symphony, which everyone associates with four of its German words: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder“.

Brotherhood is a harder sell in the United States, where self-reliance often trumps social justice as a fundamental value. Conservatives such as Reagan, said Cuomo, had chosen not to see the hardship undergone by many Americans.

So Cuomo conjures up a wagon train, which symbolises the courage of the pioneers in a world of minimal – or non-existent – government. This world is normally celebrated as an environment where rugged individuals sink or swim. It was thus a favourite theme for westerns starring conservative actors such as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan himself. LINK TO THIS

But Cuomo depicts the wagon train as a collective project:

The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail.

He invites listeners to choose between this cruel image and an inclusive wagon train – which respects the family, another institutoin traditionally claimed by conservatives:

We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact…

And the reason Democrats think like this, and had driven ambitious reforms in areas such as education? Because, in spite of Reagan’s sunny rhetoric, Democrats are the confident ones:

Some of us in this room today are here only because this nation had that kind of confidence.

So he’s annexed the wagon train, the family and confidence – all of them representing values that conservatives cannot disagree with or dismiss in the way that they can ignore tales of hardship. By the end, the shining city sounds less like a promised land and more like a gilded fortress where the wealthy barricade themselves against the troubles of the less well off.

Cuomo was speaking to the Democratic Convention in support of presidential candidate Walter Mondale, who lost a few months later to Reagan. But 20 years on, Barack Obama used the same technique, using another pillar of American conservatism – the bible – to conjure up da progressive vision.

After Kane kills his brother Abel in Genesis, he asks rhetorically, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Obama told the 2004 Democratic convention:

It is that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper – that makes this country work.

Put like that, it’s hard to disagree.



Photo: Sgt Tracy Santee, USAF