The Zeitgeist Tracked Down Bill de Blasio
In his account of the simple act of defiance that sparked the historic Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that the “zeitgeist”—the spirit of the times—had tracked down Rosa Parks. The same might be said of Bill de Blasio and his paradigm-shifting campaign to be elected as mayor of the nation’s largest city.
King was suggesting that a confluence of historic forces—not an individual act of courage—had given rise to the new nonviolent mass resistance to legalized segregation. The Montgomery boycott came not long after hundreds of thousands of black GIs returned home from fighting a world war against racial genocide, only to find domestic racism implacably entrenched. It occurred just a year after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and at a time when the Cold War was rendering American apartheid an international embarrassment. If it hadn’t been Rosa Parks, the moment—the zeitgeist—would have produced a similar act of inspirational resistance somewhere else.
It’s far too soon, of course, to begin drawing comparisons between de Blasio’s election and the epochal achievements of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery campaign. But King’s larger notion—that historical forces converged to create an opening through which the modern civil rights movement would erupt—is instructive in evaluating the meaning of what many progressive New Yorkers are now labeling “the de Blasio moment.” Now as then, the hot winds of the zeitgeist conspired to shape both the figures and events rattling the cage of the status quo.
King’s emphasis on the zeitgeist ran the risk of diminishing Parks, who in fact was serving as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter at the time and actively participated in planning the civil disobedience campaign. Likewise, de Blasio has a long record of social and economic progressivism, with a grassroots sensibility that winds all the way back to his youthful activism on behalf of the Sandinista government. As chair of the New York City Council’s General Welfare Committee and later as public advocate, he was a staunch progressive, supporting increased taxes on the wealthy, greater investment in social services, racial justice and workers’ right to organize; as a candidate for mayor, he was unwavering in his commitment to chart a new course.
Yet his forthright advocacy of a new model of bottom-up government activism cannot be traced solely to his personal history. It can be fully understood only in the context of long-term, deeply rooted developments in the national, even global, political economy.
Others have noted this broader historical significance. In the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart argued that the de Blasio campaign reflects the political crystallization of a generation of young people who have grown up in an era of dismal economic prospects and a tattered government safety net. This, Beinart predicted, will give rise to a new mass anticorporate politics that will benefit populist politicians like de Blasio and Senator Elizabeth Warren at the expense of more conventional centrists like Cory Booker and Hillary Clinton. Similarly, Harold Meyerson has written that de Blasio’s victory signifies the potential breakup of “the Democratic Party’s romance with Wall Street.”
But I would argue that the de Blasio moment reflects something deeper than shifting generational political allegiances or a delayed backlash against the Democratic Party’s Wall Street love affair. It represents a potentially profound challenge to the dominant economic policy arguments of the last two generations, a long overdue electoral response to the corporate offensive launched by the global elite in the mid-1970s.
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It may be difficult to recall now, but from the perspective of the corporate class, the late 1960s and early ’70s actually represented the apex of working-class and progressive power in the post–New Deal era. Strong domestic unions, increasingly radical, anticorporate student activism, relatively high tax rates on the rich, and a range of environmental and consumer safety regulations sent shudders of fear rippling through corporate America. Soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s infamous 1971 secret memo for the US Chamber of Commerce summed up these fears: “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack. The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival—survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people.”
Powell prescribed a comprehensive intellectual, legislative, political and public opinion campaign to restore the primacy of business power. This corporate offensive eventually took many names: supply-side economics, trickle-down economics, market fundamentalism. Across much of the world, it came to be known as the “neoliberal turn”—a global corporate project, as CUNY professor David Harvey has described it, “to achieve the restoration of class power to the richest strata of the population.”