Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why the NYC Mayor's Race Matters

Although I live in Newark, I take a great interest in New York City politics, partly because I work there, and partly because it's such a multifaceted and interesting topic.  Throughout the city's history, there has always been a fundamental tension between its chaotic nature and the need to govern it.  For a long time, New York oscillated between machine and reform mayors, from the drenched in corruption Jimmy "Beau James" Walker to the exuberant progressivism of Fiorello LaGuardia.  The machine mayors promised patronage and protection, the reformers called for efficiency and good government.

In recent years, however, this cycle has been broken, and the New York mayoralty has been the province of authoritarian technocrats.  That's only fitting, since New York City has become the global capital of globalized capitalism, a city emblematic of our current political economy where elites and their monied allies make all the decisions with little to no input from the people affected by those decisions.  Both Giuliani and Bloomberg -who have collectively occupied Gracie Mansion since 1994- have ruled with a strong hand, usually in the interests of the financial and real estate industries.

While crime has dropped under their tenure (something that began, it must be said, during the Dinkins administration), New York City is increasingly becoming a city of haves and have-nots.  The only new housing being built is either subsidized or luxury, and cage-like micro-apartments now have Bloomberg's approval.  The middle is being squeezed out of existence, with the city doing practically nothing to stop it.  Bloomberg has been very skilled at keeping this particular subject at bay by burnishing his social liberal credentials at every turn.

By hitting on side issues that liberals love, Bloomberg avoids criticism for policies openly hostile to the city's less advantaged.  He has been a vocal advocate for gun control, healthy eating, anti-smoking, and education "reform."  In all of these cases, be it through ending smoking in parks, banning big gulps, or closing schools left and right, he has preferred authoritarian, top down solutions.  It's the same authoritarian tendency behind the use of the stop and frisk policy, a policy that many white liberals are willing to overlook.  After all, they're not the ones being subjected to police harassment.  While I appreciate his work on gun control, the school closings and stop and frisk far outweigh his moral stand on that issue.

Right now the mayor's office has a completely dysfunctional relationship with the people of New York.  For decades now, mayors have ruled an authoritarian fashion.  The have worked almost exclusively for the interests of affluent Manhattanites, practically ignoring the will of the middle and working classes in the outer boroughs.  (Apart from the brief tenure of David Dinkins, that's pretty much been the case since Ed Koch took office in 1977.)  While the machine mayors of the past could be corrupt, they often handed out goodies to their working class constituency.  Reform mayors, LaGuardia in particular, could also have a populist streak in them.  I am amazed that such a big and diverse city is currently being operated for the benefit of so few.  It doesn't have to be that way, as any examination of New York's rough and tumble political history shows.

This year's election is actually a referendum on the authoritarian technocracy that has dominated NYC's politics.  Some candidates, Joe Lhota especially, still carry that torch high.  Others, especially Christine Quinn, look more progressive at first, but deep down they are pseudo-liberals anxious to be part of the city's elite power structure.  They are playing to the political winds, which are increasingly blowing for change, but from where I stand, they don't seem to want to change much.  Unfortunately, I fear that the more liberal Democrats will cancel each other out, and the final race will be between Quinn and Lhota. I hope that's not the case, because if the forces of authoritarian technocracy are defeated in New York, it might embolden others around the country to reject phony ed "reform" and to demand better conditions for the middle and working classes.  That, in a nutshell, is why the New York City mayor's race is so important.

No comments: