The Progressives Strike Back

January 9, 2014 Topic: Domestic Politics Region: United States

The Progressives Strike Back

American liberals have a potential new hero in Bill de Blasio. Can he deliver?

It’s been a tough three decades for the American left, beginning with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, probably the twentieth century’s most conservative president and also one of its most successful. Then there was the Democratic presidency of Bill Clinton, whose principal governing strategy—after his first two years—was to position himself at the center and grab off elements of liberal thinking here and there. Then came eight years of George W. Bush, who wasn’t much of a conservative, but served as a bulwark against domestic liberalism. Of course, it was all going to be different with Barack Obama, but he proved incapable of fashioning a mix of liberal policies that could pull together a progressive coalition of serious force.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 1997, around midway through the Clinton presidency, commentator E. J. Dionne wrote a book entitled They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era, which posited that America was on the threshold of a new progressive era, reminiscent of the potent political movement that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and helped guide the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson.

It didn’t happen. Instead, Reaganism died, liberalism sputtered, and the nation found itself wandering through a wilderness of bewildering and nasty politics that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.

But now American liberals have a potential new hero in Bill de Blasio, the New York City mayor whose politics is described by the New York Times as “fiery populism.” His early actions as mayor, including at his inauguration ceremony, seemed to reflect a certain contempt for the traditional political thinking of his two predecessors, Michael R. Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani.

Letitia James, the mayor’s new public advocate, delivered a speech during the ceremonies that the Times said “amounted to a blistering rebuke” of Bloomberg’s twelve-year tenure. She decried the existence of “decrepit homeless shelters” in the “shadow of gleaming multimillion dollar condos.”

Other speeches were replete with attacks on luxury condominiums and trickle-down economics. The Times said there was "an unusually open airing of the city’s racial and class tensions," reflected in a poem purporting to expose "brownstones and brown skin playing tug-of-war" and a prayer decrying "the plantation called New York."

The mayor himself declared war on “economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love.” He vowed new taxes on the wealthy to fund pre-kindergarten classes and promised to return the city to the kind of redistributionist philosophy and class-warfare rhetoric that prevailed in the days of John Lindsay, when liberalism went largely unchallenged in New York (unless you count William F. Buckley’s quixotic, 13.4 percent, Conservative Party showing against Lindsay in 1965). He intends to terminate the “stop and frisk” policies of the New York Police Department that contributed to the strong decline in the city’s crime rate during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations. Those tactics must recede, he insists, in the face of a need to “protect the dignity and rights of young men of color.”

Expect de Blasio to generate abundant attention from the American left in the media and amongst political and cultural elites. They will portray him as a civic crusader of our time, bent on employing governmental authority to go after the rich, bolster up the poor, assault the powerful, empower the weak, and serve as a great leveling agent throughout the city. If it works, as they are sure it will, then this fiery brand of liberalism will spread to other political precincts throughout the land, as it already has started to do (witness Seattle’s new mayor, Ed Murray, who projects a kind of de Blasio-Lite persona, and its new Marxist city council member, Kshama Sawant).

But all this raises a number of questions: Why hasn’t de Blasio’s brand of political fervor gained serious traction in American politics for the past half century or more? Why has Barack Obama, who clearly shares de Blasio’s fundamental political philosophy, been unable to inject that philosophy more effectively into the body politic? Why have so many previous predictions of a dramatic national swerve to the left turned out to be erroneous—or at best premature?

There are two reasons. First, for many decades the American electorate has been intrinsically wary of this kind of redistributionist populism. Clearly, Americans want a level playing field. They don’t like to see special privileges and prerogatives contributing to uneven economic results and don’t like the whole class-warfare thing. They resist substantial governmental intrusions into their daily lives for purposes of social engineering. And, believing that America’s racial progress has been substantial over the past two generations, they’re uncomfortable with rhetoric that fans racial animosities based on out-of-date descriptions of the problem.

Second, wherever Blasio’s brand of politics has been tried, it hasn’t worked. Jimmy Carter sought to govern from the left and failed. Detroit was governed from the left for years, and now it is in bankruptcy. Bill Clinton tried it for the first two years of his presidency—and got his head handed to him in the midterm elections of 1994. Thereafter he crafted his “triangulation” strategy, which essentially meant governing from the center-left. He succeeded. Obama’s Affordable Care Act was the greatest liberal initiative of the past generation, and it now has the president tangled up in a political snare that threatens his standing with voters and his party’s standing in the next two elections.

And it was tried for years in New York City itself, throughout the 1950s and ‘60s and well into the ‘70s. In one eight-year period, between 1969 and 1977, the city lost 650,000 jobs. From the 1950s to the late-1970s, nearly a million inhabitants fled the city. That was also the era when New York avoided insolvency only through a $2.3 billion bailout loan from the federal government. It appeared to many back then that the town known as the Big Apple, facing rising crime rates and declining financial stability, was in irreversible decline.

But then the decline was reversed, and the city began to thrive. It started with the three-term tenure of Mayor Ed Koch, first elected in 1977, and reached its highest level during the twenty years of Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. Now that era has reached its termination point, as all eras must, and we are in a new day of de Blasio experimentation.

Perhaps it will work. Perhaps the mayor can enact his redistributionist policies, undo the conservative anti-crime initiatives of his predecessors, stir up cultural, economic, and racial animosities, and in the process generate a new dawn of harmony, vibrancy, prosperity, and safety in the city. But the country’s recent political history suggests otherwise. More likely he will fail, and his avid followers will suffer yet another blow in their long slog toward that grand new era of American progressivism predicted by E. J. Dionne nearly two decades ago.

Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.

Image: WIkicommons.