Today is the primary election in New York City, and at the risk of getting a bit parochial, I’d like to talk about our mayoral primary. While Bill de Blasio is overwhelmingly likely to win the primary and likely to win the general election, I’d like to make two quick arguments – one political and one policy – for why progressives should enthusiastically back his re-election.
The political argument:
The political argument is this: progressive voters need to reward elected officials who deliver on progressive policy agendas. This might seem like stating the obvious (or the party line here at Lawyers, Guns and Money), but given how often voters of all political stripes delude themselves that voting is an act of consumer expression, it does need to be restated. In a democratic election where millions upon millions of ballots are cast, divining individual from any one ballot is impossible; individual expression is impossible to divine by observers, which is why they’ve relied on unwieldy and increasingly errating exit polls, surveys, and focus groups as proxies. Instead, elections are collective exercises in power where groups try to shape the course of government through endorsements, agenda-setting, electing officials, and trying to hold those elected officials accountable.
But accountability flows both ways: while voters must absolutely punish elected officials who fail to support their agenda (especially if they have promised to and renege), it’s also true that they have to reward elected officials who deliver so that there is an incentive to pursue their agenda in the future. And while progressives have been broadly successful at shifting the Democratic Party on certain issues, we continue to face challenges in demonstrating that supporting our stances leads to election and re-election. Mostly, what we’ve done is come impressively close in races we shouldn’t have won, which has garnered notice.
Well, in De Blasio we have a rare example of an elected official who won by running to the left, and who has governed (not always succcessfull) from the left. Despite the Democratic voter registration advantage in New York City, we’ve actually had relatively few liberal mayors in recent decades: before De Blasio, we had Bloomberg’s three terms, Guiliani’s two terms. The last liberal mayor before De Blasio was David Dinkins, who only managed one term, and before him we had conservative Democrats like Ed Koch and Abe Beam who were elected on the back of the 70s backlash against the long string of liberal mayors stretching back from Lindsay to LaGuardia. (And I haven’t even mentioned the whole IDC phenomenon of recent years…)
So yeah, we need to re-elect de Blasio, to demonstrate loudly that running to the left and governing to the left will be rewarded by the electorate. Because until we can do that reliably, no candidate or elected official has any reason to support us.
What about the policy argument, you might ask?
The policy argument is this: while de Blasio has been stymied at the state level in achieving some of his goals (notably anything involving taxing the wealthy to pay for social servcies), he’s delivered on a huge swathe of progressive objectives. In the first year alone, de Blasio got:
“universal Pre-K, paid sick leave, a living wage ordinance, municipal IDs, ending stop-and-frisk despite a huge pushback (although it’s completely fair to criticize de Blasio for clinging to broken windows policing), proposing a “Vision Zero” program to end traffic fatalities, and proposing huge investments in affordable and public housing, and increasing the minimum wage…”
And it hasn’t stopped after the first year. Pre-K has been expanded to include more and younger kids, there’s been a wage theft ordinance to add onto the living wage ordinance and the sick leave, the minimum wage increased despite Cuomo’s usual Machiavellian shenanigans, public sector union contracts won significant wage increases, etc. And these policies have had a real redistributive impact:
Between mid-2014 and mid-2017, New Yorkers benefited to the tune of at least $21 billion — either in direct cash payments, or in the value of new city services they had not previously enjoyed, or in money de Blasio’s programs saved them from having to spend.
Gonzalez totes it all up: $1.4 billion that working families saved on child care thanks to universal pre-K, anoher $500 million worth of sick leave pay, $2.1 billion from rent freezes, and $15 billion in pay from public sector wage increases. This is money largely taken out of the pockets of the affluent through taxation or regulation and redistributed to working New Yorkers. This moving of the needle, reversing the tide of upward redistribution that’s held since the 1970s, is what I’m in progressive politics for. We need to see similar shifts in every city, every county, and every state in the country, because it can’t be done alone at the Federal level (unless we want to continue seeing Keynesian stimulus at the top blunted by austerity at the bottom).
So yeah, we need to re-elect Bill de Blasio, because we need to reward redistribution.