The Zeitgeist Tracked Down Bill de Blasio
In this context, the de Blasio candidacy seems less surprising than necessary, and his mayoralty seems less like a novelty than a fork in the road. Nothing in this analysis detracts from the courage and caliber of de Blasio’s campaign, his grasp of the problems facing millions of poor and working-class New Yorkers, his willingness to insist that a different kind of New York was possible even as pundits and insiders wrote him off. But victory raises the stakes. As de Blasio heads to City Hall, he faces the challenge of constructing a new model of municipal governance—one expressly aimed at improving the economic circumstances and life chances of poor and working-class New Yorkers. It will not be easy. While the legitimacy of market fundamentalism may have been thrown into question by the 2008 economic collapse, its power is by no means broken. The champions of neoliberalism will continue to raise the specter of fiscal collapse and argue that if the city deviates from the economic mainstream, it will return to its crisis-ridden state of the mid-’70s. The phantom bond market vigilantes that have cowed so many policy-makers in Europe and the United States will surely make their presence felt in de Blasio’s New York.
Further, the city’s economy is embedded in a national and global system that conspires against change. Global shifts in production cannot be reversed, and there will be no return of the large-scale manufacturing sector, which provided New Yorkers without advanced degrees a pathway to economic security. Much of the tax and spending policies that determine the budget choices made by New York City are controlled by Albany, and elected officials who have yet to grasp the changed moment will continue to advocate compromises with corporate power.
On the other hand, the city controls enormous resources, and de Blasio can engage multiple levers to achieve the transformational goals of his campaign. The city’s $70 billion budget is larger than that of all but a handful of states, while billions of dollars in public contracts give it enormous leverage in its contracting and development policies. As James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute has argued, public contracts can be used to raise the wages of tens of thousands of underpaid social-service workers and ensure higher wages for workers in new city developments.
At the same time, the complex choreography involved in making sure the city runs well poses a challenge that progressives must not fail to meet. The garbage must be picked up, the snow cleared, books delivered to classrooms and crime kept low. An uptick in the murder rate or a high-profile company’s relocation to New Jersey will immediately provide fodder for the narrative that progressives aren’t up to the task of managing the complex enterprise that is city government. In fact, a progressive administration must focus on improving the quality of public services and bring together social-service clients and workers in an effort to figure out, democratically, how to make government work better for the people it serves.
Finally, it should be noted that the de Blasio moment arrives at an auspicious time in national politics as well. Writer Mike Davis dubbed the 2012 election “the last white election”; shifting demographics and the social liberalism of young people portend a long period of Democratic dominance in national politics. The Tea Party will continue to fight rearguard actions and will no doubt do enormous damage in the process. State-level gerrymandering will preserve redoubts of reactionary power at least until the next redistricting in 2022. But the “Emerging Democratic Majority” foreseen by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in their 2002 book appears to be taking shape. There will no doubt be setbacks and anomalies, but the long political horizon is tinted blue. Within that blue future, the critical question will be what shade: Robert Rubin blue or Elizabeth Warren/Bill de Blasio blue? The success of de Blasio’s effort to blaze a new path against the neoliberal model is essential to how that question is answered.
De Blasio won’t be able to meet the hopes he’s raised or make the changes he’s advocated by himself, and he won’t be able to do it without conflict. He will need his allies to take to the streets, to mobilize against his enemies and, occasionally, to pressure him. He will have to grapple with an incredibly difficult set of municipal labor negotiations left for him by the irresponsible management stewardship of Mayor Bloomberg. He will also have to contend with powerful counterpressures at every turn.
But like Fiorello La Guardia during the New Deal, Mayor de Blasio will have an opportunity to chart an entirely new direction for municipal social and economic policy—forging policies explicitly designed to intervene in the economy and make it work better for the millions left behind during forty years of trickle-down. At a moment of profound economic transition, he has defined a sharp alternative to the dominant economic paradigm of the last two generations. His success or failure will have national ramifications. Now our challenge is to translate this new zeitgeist into successful new policies—and a compelling new model for equitable and humane governance.
Also in This Issue
Mychal Denzel Smith, “It’s Time to Close New York’s School-to-Prison Pipeline”
Peter Dreier, “Ten Lessons for New York City From Los Angeles”
Dana Goldstein, “Will New York City Lead the Way on Pre-K?”