The Zeitgeist Tracked Down Bill de Blasio

The Zeitgeist Tracked Down Bill de Blasio

The Zeitgeist Tracked Down Bill de Blasio

How the rise of Occupy and decline of the neoliberal narrative helped shape the “de Blasio moment”


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.

* * *

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.”

Launched in the mid-1970s, the neoliberal offensive exalted the role of markets over government in every dimension of economic and social life and, here as elsewhere, led to a series of policies, now familiar to all, that produced enormous wealth disparities and growing financialization of the economy. Social spending was cut, unions attacked, industry deregulated, global trade restraints lifted, and tax rates slashed for the wealthy. 

The New York City fiscal crisis in the mid-’70s was a crucial milestone in the corporate offensive. Proponents of austerity seized on the city’s crisis as a critical opportunity to roll back gains in social provisions won by New York’s working people in the New Deal era, thus setting a national example and at the same time laying the foundation for New York’s particular version of urban neoliberalism. William Simon, President Ford’s treasury secretary, advocated imposing bailout terms in 1975 that would be “so punitive, the overall experience so painful, that no city, no political subdivision would ever be tempted to go down the same road.”

The result was an increase in privatization, the taming of municipal labor, the elimination of free higher education, increased transit fares, and cuts through the muscle and bone of public schools, parks and welfare services. As Josh Freeman has written, New York’s fiscal crisis spread “the belief that the market could better serve the public than the government, that government was an obstacle to social welfare rather than an aid to it, that the corporate world, if left alone, would maximize the social good. Because New York served as the standard-bearer for urban liberalism and the idea of a welfare state, the attacks on its municipal services and their decline helped pave the way for the national conservative hegemony of the 1980s and 1990s.”

Forty years on, the consequences of market fundamentalism run amok are clear and well documented: soaring corporate profits and obscene executive salaries, extraordinary Gilded Age disparities of wealth, a national economy built around financial speculation rather than production, and mass insecurity for the poor and working class. Indeed, for most Americans, the notion that we have been in an economic recovery since mid-2009 is a cruel joke. But from the perspective of “the richest strata of the population”—particularly the top 1 percent, who have garnered 95 percent of the “post-recession” income gains—the neoliberal project has been an unmitigated success. 

New York City’s elite has enjoyed its own heyday under the current regime. Unquestionably, some elements of the city’s revival are of critical importance to all New Yorkers, the remarkable drop in crime foremost among them. But the city’s reconstruction on a foundation of finance, tourism and culture created the backstory for de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities.” Foreign and domestic moguls drop $40 million, $50 million, even $90 million on penthouse apartments while foreclosure rates soar in southeast Queens and Staten Island. Homelessness is at record highs. Wall Street shells out $20 billion a year in bonuses while 55,000 fast-food workers scrape by on an average wage of $8.25 an hour. Municipal workers have gone as long as five years without a raise. And after years of cuts, social services remain inadequate. 

Despite such clear and growing evidence of the devastating impact of the corporate offensive on the majority of Americans, market fundamentalism has gone largely unchallenged for most of the last four decades, deferred to by Democrats and Republicans alike. Indeed, the notion of ensuring a “better business climate” through deregulation, low taxes and curbs on union power acquired the status of “common sense” among mainstream policy-makers—until, that is, the neoliberal model spectacularly imploded in 2007 and 2008. Wall Street and deregulation lost their sheen, and the space suddenly opened up for a reconsideration of the dominant economic models. 

Much as in the Great Depression, crisis did not immediately produce a mass popular response. Indeed, economic insecurity and anger over the Wall Street bailout, coupled with a strong dose of resentment against the first African-American president, initially fanned the big-government fears of many older white Americans, producing the Tea Party reaction of 2010. But by 2011, a progressive, populist resistance had erupted, first in Wisconsin, then in the dramatic, almost magical appearance of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The actual Occupy encampments were relatively short-lived—armed force was often deployed to make sure of that. But the impact of Occupy endured. The theme of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent fundamentally reshaped the parameters of dialogue about the US political economy—not least because forty years of neoliberal policies have made it an entirely accurate description of how the economy has been working. 

Despite Occupy’s disavowal, for the most part, of mainstream political activism, the movement and its message have played a role in shaping the electoral landscape, beginning with the 2012 election. Voters rejected Mitt Romney’s characterization of the 47 percent of the nation that depends on Social Security, Medicare and other social benefits as “takers”; they knew the real takers were the Forbes 400 wealthiest billionaires—like Michael Bloomberg—who paid a lower tax rate than they did. Even more dramatically, Elizabeth Warren’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race—and her rock-star appeal to grassroots activists across the country—gave political expression to a new and compelling brand of anti–Wall Street populism. As Robert Borosage has argued, we are living in a post-Occupy zeitgeist, a time when the electorate is searching for policies that will offer an alternative to the bitter trickle-down fruit of neoliberalism.

* * *

In this larger context of the apparent exhaustion of the dominant economic paradigm, it should have come as little surprise that de Blasio’s message resonated so strongly with New York City’s largely of-color, liberal primary electorate. What’s more, de Blasio’s campaign built upon the long-term endeavors—and policy proposals—of a variety of grassroots organizations that, largely off the mainstream radar screen, had been challenging the city’s most powerful interests for decades.

Foremost among them, perhaps, was the New York City chapter of ACORN, the national community organization of poor and low-wage working people. (Since the national group folded, the New York chapter reorganized as New York Communities for Change.) Founded in 1982 by the late Jon Kest and his wife Fran Streich, New York ACORN mobilized low-income residents from across the city in countless struggles for affordable housing, improved public schools and higher wages. Kest and Bertha Lewis, who became New York ACORN’s executive director, were both longtime collaborators with de Blasio; even in the days shortly before his death from cancer in December 2012, Kest was urging de Blasio to sharpen his message for an uncompromising populist challenge to the Giuliani-Bloomberg status quo. 

ACORN, along with unions like the Communications Workers and Auto Workers, and allied community organizations like Citizen Action, also played a key role in the formation of New York’s Working Families Party. Since its inception in 1998, the WFP has organized around an agenda that challenged market fundamentalism, electing progressives and pushing a program of increasing minimum and living wages, raising taxes on the wealthy, getting big money out of politics, and investing in healthcare and education. The WFP helped de Blasio in his come-from-behind victory for public advocate in 2009 and has been instrumental in forging a Progressive Caucus in the City Council that successfully challenged Bloomberg on policing policy and paid sick days. Thanks to extensive organizing, nearly two dozen of the Council’s fifty-one members will identify with the Progressive Caucus when it convenes in January, and, as this article goes to press, one of its founders, Melissa Mark-Viverito, seems poised to become speaker.

Other tributaries fed the rising progressive current that lifted de Blasio to victory. For a decade, police accountability organizations and groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union raised questions about the skyrocketing frequency with which the police were stopping and frisking innocent young men of color. These groups, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton and several progressive unions, eventually coalesced into Communities United for Police Reform, which, through legislative efforts and organizing, put stop-and-frisk at the center of political debate. (When de Blasio’s opponents failed to take clear stands on anti-stop-and-frisk legislation pending before the City Council, the issue, coupled with de Blasio’s compelling multiracial family, helped him capture nearly half of the African-American vote in the primary.)

Public education, meanwhile, became a major battleground, as Bloomberg and supporters of his corporate reform agenda sought to blame the failures (real or imagined) of public schools on the fact that they are public enterprises staffed by unionized teachers. Chancellor Joel Klein, who would eventually leave to run Rupert Murdoch’s for-profit education services subsidiary, pushed charter schools, high-cost technology and high-stakes testing, but faced powerful opposition from a coalition of groups that included New York Communities for Change, the Coalition for Education Justice, the teachers union and parent advocates (among them de Blasio, who is the first mayor in recent history, perhaps ever, with a child in public school).

In labor, a new generation of leaders like Vinny Alvarez at the Central Labor Council and Héctor Figueroa of SEIU Local 32BJ and George Gresham of SEIU Local 1199 emerged on the scene, determined to save the movement from extinction by forging once unimaginable alliances and broadening its agenda beyond the short-term needs of its members. This shift was paralleled by the rise of an increasingly savvy band of activist-oriented community groups like Community Voices Heard, Good Old Lower East Side and Make the Road New York, which battled for immigrants’ rights and affordable housing.

As the age of Bloomberg wore on, these disparate community and labor players began joining forces with increasing frequency, forging coalitions that became a defining feature of the era—and fixtures on City Hall’s steps. Together, they took on key issues for New Yorkers, from immigration reform to paid sick days, raising living wages, fighting Bloomberg’s term limits extension and, most potently, workers’ rights. It was, in fact, a coalition of several of these labor and community groups, including 32BJ and New York Communities for Change, that began organizing the fast-food worker strikes that have seized national press attention and helped put the “labor question”—the issue of fair treatment of workers—back on the national agenda. As recently as October, de Blasio was protesting alongside them, declaring his support for their unionization drive.

* * *

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?

Betsy Reed, “How Bill de Blasio Changed the Conversation About Education

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