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Noam Scheiber: The Left Must Never Walk *and* Chew Gum!


There hasn’t exactly been a dearth of terrible argumentation today, but here’s one more example for the case files – and it’s a doozy. According to Noam Scheiber, author of The Escape Artists, Bill DeBlasio has erred:

instead of transcending the Obama coalition, Mr. de Blasio has become its prisoner…from the get-go, Mr. de Blasio’s campaign fused two distinct strands of progressivism. The first was economic populism. The second was what some have called “identity group” liberalism, which appealed to black and Latino voters as blacks and Latinos, not on the basis of economic interests they shared with whites…The problem for Mr. de Blasio is that only the first approach has widespread appeal.

In other words, we’re back to the old fight between class-based vs. identity politics on the left, because apparently it’s impossible to do both at the same time.

Let’s examine this argument, shall we?

Let’s take the argument that it’s a mistake for Bill DeBlasio to “promise to win better treatment for minorities at the hands of the police,” because this divides black voters from white, such that “blacks approve of Mr. de Blasio’s handling of “relations between the police and the community” by a two-to-one ratio; whites disapprove by the same ratio.” Instead, Scheiber argues, DeBlasio should pursue  “issues by their potential to unite whites and minority voters, the most promising would be populist economic issues like raising taxes on the rich.

This is a terrible argument for two reasons. First of all, on a factual level, DeBlasio has been pushing populist economic issues, specifically raising taxes on the rich. The “ham-handed showdowns with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo” that Scheiber clucks his tongue at are specifically showdowns with Cuomo over income tax surcharges on the wealthy to pay for pre-K.  In his first year, DeBlasio has not just pursued raising taxes on the rich, but has also enacted a number of populist economic policies: he got universal pre-K funded, expanded sick leave for NYC workers, committed $8 billion to an ambitious affordable housing plan, passed an expanded living wage ordinance, and pushed for an increase in the minimum wage (which Cuomo has finally deigned to try to push up to $11.50) up from $8/hr. So clearly a focus on ending “stop and frisk” hasn’t prevented action on this front – progressives can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Secondly, Scheiber’s argument ignores the desires and needs of the city’s minority voters. At the end of the day, New York City is a so-called “majority-minority” city, and the core of DeBlasio’s electoral coalition were African-Americans (96% of whom voted for him) and Latinos (87% of whom voted for him), who supported him on the basis that police harassment and brutality against people of color be ended. Scheiber looks down on DeBlasio actually following through on him promises, on the grounds that “Mr. de Blasio’s identity-group liberalism has capped his level of support. Inroads among African-Americans tend to coincide with a decline among whites.”

To which I’m moved to reply: who cares? Black votes count just the same as white votes, and in a city that’s only going to get demographically more diverse, it doesn’t make sense for DeBlasio to pursue the allegiance of a shrinking portion of the population at the risk of losing his support elsewhere. Especially since as Scheiber himself admits, the 20% of voters who stopped supporting him between his election and his inauguration are probably white voters who never were on board with DeBlasio to begin with.

And this is where Scheiber’s analysis begins to swing towards that nasty trend of suggesting that black and Latino votes aren’t as good as white working class votes. Scheiber admits that “of course, given the country’s changing demography, the same dynamic can raise a politician’s floor of support even while it lowers his or her ceiling, insuring against a steep drop in popularity,” such that DeBlasio’s current strategy of pushing for social justice and economic populism will probably lead him to “a narrow re-election.” But for some unspoken reason, Scheiber doesn’t like the idea of winning with a coalition of racial minorities and white liberals as much as winning with a coalition that includes white economic populists who get to dictate the agenda.

Nostalgia for the New Deal may be pleasant, but we shouldn’t let it blind us to the political realities of the present. This is New York City in 2015, not the U.S in 1936. If there are white economic populists in New York City, then they’re the liberals who continue to support DeBlasio and who understand the political necessity for alliances with the black and Latino communities and the moral necessity of ending police harassment and violence. The ones who have a problem with the latter? They bailed on DeBlasio back in January 2014, not because of anything the mayor said about Eric Garner.

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