The Magazine

A Curious Form of ‘Populism’

Bill de Blasio and Wall Street.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By FRED SIEGEL
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First, a matter of numbers and nomenclature: Bill de Blasio, who is being hailed like Eliot Spitzer before him as the new face of American liberalism, won his race to be New York City’s next mayor with a near-record victory margin but also record low turnouts in both the primary and the general elections. There was no “populist” surge as reported in the press. De Blasio won 40 percent of the 22 percent who showed up for the Democratic party primary. And he won not only because he has a beautiful interracial family; more important, he was backed strongly by 1199, the hospital workers’ union, which has the best get-out-the-vote operation in Gotham. 

De Blasio hugs his children November 5.

De Blasio hugs his children November 5.

Newscom

In a city of well over half a million government employees—city, state, and federal—in which the largest source of “private sector” employment is government-subsidized health care providers, as well as numerous, often government-funded, “nonprofit” organizations, de Blasio’s “populist” vote came heavily from those with a direct personal stake in the outcome.

Populism in America has been traditionally associated with self-employed farmers and miners fighting the great railroads and agricultural combines, looking to get a fair shake from government. Gotham’s “populists,” better described as “statists,” are people looking for a greater transfer of wealth from the private to the public sector. And therein lie the limits of de Blasio’s agenda.

De Blasio is a first-rate politician. He won office after Anthony Weiner self-destructed for a second time, because he alone among the Democrats, any one of whom would have won in a landslide this year in a city that had voted 81-19 for Obama in 2012, pursued an anti-Bloomberg course in the Democratic primaries. But that said, de Blasio—like Obama and even more than Bloomberg, with his vast personal wealth—will depend on Wall Street profits and crony capitalists to fund his agenda. His program involves intensified extraction from the private sector by way of greater housing subsidies, higher wages in government-subvented work, and more state spending from Albany to keep failing hospitals with empty beds open. None of this touches the underlying framework he inherited from Bloomberg of a city sharply divided between top and bottom with a hollowing middle. Nothing de Blasio does will reduce inequality, but what it will do is make the working poor a bit more comfortable and the gentry liberals, in his home base of Brownstone Brooklyn, a little less guilty when they look into the mirror.

The last mayor with an agenda for moving people into the middle class was Rudy Giuliani, who was therefore reviled by the New York Times for his misplaced priorities. The de Blasio version of a middle-class agenda involves offering pre-K classes to all the city’s children, paid for by a tax increase on the roughly 40,000 New Yorkers who earn more than $500,000 a year. There is, as Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute has explained, scant evidence that pre-K advances learning in the later grades or reduces inequality. It will, however, both employ more members of the teachers’ union and provide baby-sitting for poor and middle-class families.

But for all the continuity the election heralded, it also signaled a change little discussed in the local press. The dominant political player, thanks to Gotham’s peculiar party system, is the Working Families party (WFP) that was created 15 years ago by the city’s public sector unions. Candidates cross-endorsed by both the Democrats and the WFP, of which de Blasio was a founder, won the city’s top three elected offices and now control the single-largest bloc on the 51-member city council. In a city that is 33 percent white, Republicans contested only 29 of the 51 council seats—mostly with token candidates—and only 4 of the 29 were victorious. Under big-spending, socially liberal Michael Bloomberg, who had ties to the private sector and its real estate industry, the council’s left-lurching tendencies were held somewhat in check. But no more: The new mayor and new council largely see eye-to-eye, although some tensions are bound to emerge in terms of which interests are best watered.

When de Blasio takes office in January he’ll be faced with declining revenues and a roughly $2 billion deficit out of the city’s nearly $75 billion budget. De Blasio will, with some justice, blame Bloomberg for his fiscal difficulties since the city’s debt doubled under the billionaire mayor. City spending increased 55 percent on Bloomberg’s watch, while pension costs grew 300 percent. The city now spends $6.5 billion a year on debt service. That leaves de Blasio with very little to spend on new programs.

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