2020 Democratic Primary Starts With Amazon


Protest near future site of Amazon Headquarters in Long Island City. Photo by Walter Karling

Grab the popcorn.

The race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is getting underway early with a proxy fight that will play out right here in Queens. Amazon’s decision to pick Long Island City as the home for its new headquarters, thanks to a promised $3 billion in tax breaks and other incentives, has exposed the biggest current rift within the Democratic Party — its position on corporate America.

The energy and growing wing of the party is inherently skeptical of big business and corporations, permanently scarred by the 2009 recession and consequent lack of government action to punish the billion-dollar industries that bankrupted our economy with schemes that are at best immoral, and at worst criminal. This group views corporations as guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent.

Another wing of the party believes corporations are innocent until proven guilty, but that it is the job of government to be watching the barons of business closely and punishing them heavily if they step out of line. Often this group gets woven in with offshoot wings with more narrow focuses, like those who support big business as long as it takes care of workers and supports unions; or those who generally support businesses that back progressive causes, and turn their anti-establishment ire toward the companies that are viewed as political rivals.

The latter camp of Democrats is increasingly viewed with skepticism by the public, in part because it is more difficult for that camp to articulate its position on this issue. Its view of economics and workers’ rights is often more nuanced and complex, and therefore more complicated to explain — especially on the campaign trail. The former group has a simpler argument to make, one that has played well through the course of history: the argument that the rich and powerful are corrupt and are exploiting the people, and it will stand up against them.

Amazon’s arrival in Long Island City is an inflection point for this schism within the Democratic Party. We are already seeing the varying shades of responses, from the full-throttled ideological opposition put forth by Assemblyman Ron Kim in an op-ed on this page, to the giddy enthusiasm of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who sees this as a key benchmark in setting the state on a path for success for the next 50 years. In between these two takes is a lot of scrambling to find a safe spot — statements along the lines of “I welcome Amazon, but I am concerned about how the people were left out of the process”; or “Amazon needs to be a good neighbor and pledge X, Y or Z.”

Ultimately, the path to derailing Amazon’s move to LIC is a complete longshot. This is in part because it is not clear if there is the political will to do so. Also, the deal will go through an expedited process that will likely not result in its hitting any snags in the various layers of state and city bureaucracy that have to approve it.

The more interesting fight about to unfold is one over the future identity of the party. Will Democrats be a party that welcomes Amazon as a friend and scolds it if it is not socially responsible? Or will they disown the Amazons of the world and try to forge a new path going forward, one in which small business and entrepreneurship form the backbone that supports communities?

All eyes will be on Long Island City to see how this plays out.