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John Lindsay, Ed Koch and the end of liberalism

The mayoral career of Ed Koch was so long ago that political writers on Twitter joked that young colleagues only learned how to pronounce his name – “kotch,” not “Coke” like the infamous Koch Brothers – last Friday, upon the news that he died at 88. But Koch’s death made me think even farther back, to an earlier New York mayor, John Lindsay.

Growing up in New York, I saw the city of liberal Republican Lindsay become the domain of conservative Democrat Koch, all before I turned twenty, as bitter battles over race, education, unions, cops, and crime shattered the urban birthplace of the New Deal. As New York gathers to remember Koch at a memorial Monday morning, it’s worth thinking about the two mayors, as bookends to an era that began with optimism and ended in cynicism about the multiracial promise of urban America.

A moderate silk stocking Republican elected mayor in an epic 1965 election, Lindsay moved left and became a Democrat over the course of his career. A liberal Democrat, Koch moved right.  He never left his party, although he occasionally supported Republican candidates, including George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2004, largely because he liked their hawkishness on Israel. The two New York mayors’ journeys tell the story of liberalism’s demise, largely over issues of race, crime and more than we usually acknowledge, Israel.

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