One undeniable success of the right’s decades-long campaign against the so-called liberal media can be seen in the eagerness of so many journalists to adopt conservatives’ terms of debate in order to pre-empt accusations of liberal bias. Rather incredibly, this happens when allegedly liberal reporters profess to be defending liberalism from its enemies—enemies who often turn out to be (you guessed it) liberals.
Today’s Exhibit A is “De Blasio’s Flawed Vision of Liberalism,” a critique of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio by reporter Noam Scheiber, written for the January 25 edition of The New York Times’s “Sunday Review.” According to Scheiber, a veteran of the Marty Peretz–era New Republic, de Blasio’s 2013 landslide victory “fused two distinct strands of progressivism.” These were “economic populism,” which appeals to almost everyone, and “‘identity group’ liberalism,” which appeals to black and Latino voters “as blacks and Latinos, not on the basis of economic interests they shared with whites.” According to Scheiber, “The problem for Mr. de Blasio is that only the first approach has widespread appeal.”
Now, had Scheiber made this argument honestly, I would be cheering him on. The argument that liberals must prioritize economics over identity politics at a national level runs through nearly every page of my history of postwar American liberalism (The Cause, 2012) and has been a frequent theme of this column. Instead, he chooses to distort de Blasio’s record to fit the contours of his ideology.
Take, for example, Scheiber’s complaint about what he calls the mayor’s “ham-handed showdowns with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.” I had to reread this sentence to make sure it was as dishonest as it initially appeared. Alas, another way to describe de Blasio’s “ham-handed showdown” with the governor—who, together with the State Legislature, controls most of the purse strings for the city—would be “the successful effort to secure $300 million worth of state funding in order to provide universal pre-K education to every four-year-old in New York City.” Were Scheiber reading the same paper’s editorial page, he would have seen this achievement described as “a milestone of education reform” for a “small city’s worth of children” and their families. A more impressive example of economic liberalism at work is difficult to imagine. And yet, amazingly, Scheiber does not even mention it.
Nor does he mention, just for starters, de Blasio’s successful efforts to allocate additional funding for after-school programs for all New York schoolchildren, his expansion of sick-leave and family-leave policies, his raising of living-wage requirements for companies doing business with the city, his successful demands for additional affordable housing from developers, or his fights in Albany to allow the city to raise the minimum wage to what would be the highest in the nation. True, de Blasio was caught off guard when Cuomo stabbed him in the back on the issue of charter school expansions and was forced to beat a humiliating retreat. But charter schools educate only 6 percent of the city’s 1.1 million public schoolchildren. Additional funding for them may be important to the hedge fund managers who bankroll political campaigns, along with a few right-wing editorial pages and pundits, but like de Blasio, most New Yorkers are far more concerned about the school system that serves the other 94 percent.