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Tom Hayden on Bill de Blasio's Win: A Harbinger of a New Populist Left in America?

Bold stances on inequality and overzealous policing propelled a progressive victory. If he holds true, can De Blasio shift the national debate?

Photo Credit: lev radin/


The overwhelming support of  New York City voters for  Bill de Blasio is the latest sign of the shift towards a new populist left in America. De Blasio owes his unexpected tailwind to campaigning on issues considered by insiders to be too polarizing for winning politics.

One is De Blasio's promise to redress the " tale of two cities" inequalities among New Yorkers, an issue forced into mainstream discourse by the 2011  Occupy Wall Street movement – not by New York  Democratsaligned with Wall Street. The other is De Blasio's pledge to sharply curb police stop-and-frisk policies directed against young people of color – aggressive tactics  favored by a majority of white voters and overwhelmingly criticized by African Americans, Latinos and Asian-American voters.

Despite its Democratic voter majority, New York in recent decades has been the political stronghold of the plutocratic Mayor  Michael Bloombergand, before him, the abrasive law-and-order Mayor Rudolph Giuliani – both  Republicans with national, even global, reach. Democrats have lacked a progressive voice on the national stage of American politics often provided by the New York mayor's office – until now.

De Blasio will have a mandate for economic and social reform backed by a newly-elected 51-member city council, the most progressive in years. As  Juan Gonzáles of Pacifica's DemocracyNow! put it:

I can't think of a time like this when so many progressives have been elected at once.

With American politics polarized between the Obama center and the thriving Tea Party, the only opening for the left is through state and local federalism serving as "laboratories of reform", to  paraphrase former Justice Louis Brandeis. After the Gilded Age and the Great Crash of the 1920s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1934-47) and legislators like Robert Wagner created the first pillars of the New Deal before it become the national platform of the Democrats. They successfully fought not only Wall Street bankers, but a virulent and racist American right.

De Blasio is positioned to similarly shift the nation's dialogue, policies and priorities in a progressive direction – assuming he delivers on his campaign pledges. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the federal government has passed a  loophole-ridden Dodd-Frank reform law, which failed even to regulate the trillions floating in the derivatives industry. Wall Street investors have been richly rewarded since then, while  middle-class incomes stagnate and the numbers of poor Americans reach the highest in 50 years. A report last week from the respected  American Community Survey noted:

No other major American city has such income inequality when it comes to rich and poor when it comes to New York.

Among De Blasio's first challenges will be prodding Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature in Albany to permit local tax increases to fund universal pre-kindergarten in New York City. Cuomo and most pundits say the De Blasio proposal is going nowhere, but seasoned reporters like Gonzales are not so sure. "It's hard but doable. I'm not sure that Albany will resist the home rule message from a new mayor with a large mandate."

De Blasio has direct power over New York City's $70bn budget and re-zoning policies, which, under Bloomberg, showered favors on a real estate industry bent on  competing with London and Hong Kong at the expense of residential neighborhoods. An early test for De Blasio will be the  Midtown East re-zoning project left unfinished by Bloomberg, which would erect Empire State Building skyscrapers from the East River to downtown. De Blasio wants to "fix" the proposal, while community groups are 100% opposed, saying they would be left in permanent shadows.