Bill de Blasio on the Crisis of Inequality and the Blind Spots of the Democratic Party

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This post first appeared at The Nation.

Mayor Bill de Blasio Hosts Press Conference with Bipartisan Coalition of Mayors to Call for Long-Term Transportation Bill. Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. Wednesday, May 13, 2015. (Photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office.)

Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a press conference with bipartisan coalition of mayors to call for long-term transportation bill. Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. Wednesday, May 13, 2015. (Photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office/flickr.)

By almost any measure, Bill de Blasio enjoyed a remarkable year of accomplishment as New York City’s first progressive mayor in 20 years. To the surprise of many, he was able to institute a universal pre-K program for 50,000-plus 4-year-olds in time for the September 2014 school year. Whether the issue was education, housing, criminal justice, immigrants’ rights or public welfare, de Blasio made important down payments on his promise to use the power of the nation’s largest municipal government to address the inequality crisis that fueled his landslide 2013 election victory.

But as de Blasio himself has repeatedly noted, city government can do only so much. So long as Washington remains crippled by the power of money — to say nothing of the capture of the Republican Party by reality-rejecting right-wing extremists — New York City’s, and indeed, all municipalities’ power to address the crisis will remain severely hamstrung. That’s why the mayor argues it is necessary for him to help lead the movement that got him elected into the national arena to try to reshape his party and the national political conversation in a direction more congenial to efforts to address economic inequality. To do that, he has convened a number of progressive luminaries to sign onto a new “Progressive Agenda to Combat Inequality” modeled after New Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract With America” and to try to find ways to inspire, and to pressure, Democratic candidates across America to embrace its ideas.

I sat down with the mayor on the year’s first sunny spring afternoon at his official residence at Gracie Mansion to question him about the nuts and bolts of his effort and how he plans to try to institutionalize it over time. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity and space.

Eric Alterman: The inequality crisis sure has taken off since you made it the centerpiece of your mayoral campaign. Even Republicans feel a need to at least talk about the issue. But I’m a little confused about how you can hope to address it on a national level as mayor of New York City. I understand you’ve become a national leader and spokesman on this issue, but I’m confused about what you plan to do besides merely further elevating the discussion?

Mayor de Blasio: Well, it’s great question, so let me break it down. Being an optimist by nature, I would say if I were a legislator there’s still a lot I would be trying to do right now on the issue of income inequality. And because I do have a background in organizing, I would be trying to figure out how to organize a grand progressive coalition around these issues. A holistic solution to income inequality is going to take a lot of work, but every time you prove that one of the strands is achievable and that it has a positive impact on people’s lives you take another step towards proving the bigger theory of the case.

I’m trying to gather progressive leaders around this idea, speaking from the perspective of someone who’s already gone down the road in a substantial way. And look, I represent eight and a half million people now. It isn’t a small matter that we’ve applied some of these tools on a grand scale here in the biggest city in the country. I think it adds weight to the organizing effort, it adds validity. I certainly think there is an element of this that is showing that people of this country have already gotten the memo on income inequality in so many ways. There’s so much research that shows that that understanding amongst the populace is much more advanced than among a lot of the political leadership. That’s one thing, but the other thing is that the action being taken around the country is starting to add up. The number of cities and states that have raised their minimum wage or increased benefits like paid sick leave or are doing much bigger efforts on affordable housing or on free pre-K or free after-school programs. What you have now is sort of a Sagebrush Rebellion, where it’s happening in actual policy terms on the ground in lots of lots of places and that is adding up to a de facto national model. That’s the really interesting thing at this moment. I always think of Franklin Roosevelt during what was a parallel moment in history, the Great Depression. The leading edge was unquestionably in Washington. There was experimentation and there was ambitiousness of vision and there was a litmus test that you had to reach large numbers of people and you had to reach them quickly. Here we have the opposite situation, where there is no federal response to the economic crisis people are experiencing. There’s no prospect of one right now. There’s scattered state responses and the most consistent action is happening at the local level in a lot of cities around the country. So, how do you knit that together with an organizing strategy to change the political discussion? That’s what we’re trying to do.

EA: Speaking specifically about the Democrats, what’s been the problem up until now? Surely, the midterms were not an encouraging sign.

BdB: Well, you can be smart and you can be blind at the same time. There is a blindness in our party. I’ve spoken about the problem of a money-heavy, consultant-heavy political culture that negates the reality that people are experiencing on the ground and undervalues vision and platform and message. That’s one piece of what’s going on here. In the Democratic Party, many people in the party have moved away from our historic values and have gotten lost in a different set of assumptions about how to go about the electoral process. But I think obviously there’s great fear of donors—that pervades the process. I am always quick to point out that I have the blessing of running under a progressive campaign finance reform system. It helped immensely.

I think if you look under the hood of 2014, you see sort of the ghost of the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council], and you see the deep desire to homogenize rather than to be distinct. It surprised me given that from 2008 on we saw clear change in our country economically. It surprised me given that 2012, the president clearly thematically addressed the concerns people had about an unfair economy. So you sort of see a progression, and then the bottom fell out in 2014 and sent a lot of Democrats seeming to go in the wrong direction. I think one of the things that I’m trying to address here is that that lesson can’t be missed.

EA: Well, you bring up the DLC and I wonder if what is most needed today is a progressive DLC. One thing that always drove many progressives crazy about Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns was that, as exciting as they may have been, he never left anything in his wake. There was no institution building. There rarely is on the left. So, I’m curious who you’re thinking about, as a movement guy and as a guy who got elected with a 50-point spread, are you thinking about building institutions on the model of the DLC?

BdB: Well, I’ll say it this way: I think your question is exactly right and I was actually a very active volunteer in the 1984 Jesse Jackson campaign and was disturbed for the same reason. We’re building a coalition to begin and a coalition that will have substantial form, meaning, not just a group of names on paper but a coalition that can do real work. Where it goes from there is an open question, but what is certain to me is that we have to reshape the debate and that takes enough organization to drive a message and a demand.

That’s why we’re doing a progressive “Contract With America.” We want to take the same bold, sharp, clear, simple vision that Republicans managed, at least the House Republicans managed in 1994 and put together something that speaks to the inequality crisis and gather a substantial number of leaders around it. We’ve also introduced today this notion of doing a presidential forum explicitly on income inequality. These are building blocks. Could a more lasting institution emerge out of that? Absolutely, it’s a real possibility. We haven’t gotten that far yet, but I think at minimum for this cycle, and what we are talking about transcends just electoral politics and it transcends just the next two years. But what we can certainly say is, the party is failing to respond to the issues that we’re experiencing and this coalition I hope will be a real weight pushing for that kind of response.

EA: Well, even Larry Summers is all of a sudden speaking in what used to be called left-wing language, and there’s a pretty strong consensus within that party that this is where the party needs to move, but there’s still the power of money in our politics. I think the progressive “Contract With America” is a great concept, but as I said earlier, Contract With America had the US Chamber of Commerce behind it, among a great many other powerful and moneyed interests. It’s a much harder job from the other side.

BdB: Well first of all, let me start taking one step back. I don’t think there is a consensus in the Democratic Party on income inequality. I think there is a gathering storm. I think there are more and more voices. Larry Summers is a great example of a powerfully counterintuitive voice. I’m sorry, if you look at the US senators, members of Congress, the governors or the structural backbone of the Democratic Party, I don’t think you’re going to find a consensus. I think you find more and more people speaking to it better, but not enough people at any stretch speaking to it forcefully and boldly. And certainly not if you take the 2014 example, there’s no Democratic template. There’s nothing that says, “Here’s what the values of this party are in terms of fighting income inequality.” So I actually think we’re at an earlier stage of construction than the way you raised it, but I think your point is very well taken. I am not suggesting that you simply bring together a lot of like-minded people and sign a piece of paper [saying] that you’re going to change the country. I am suggesting that is a beginning. I’m talking about elected officeholders of all levels. I’m talking about people who run issue organizations, many of which have very large constituencies. There is the possibility here of raising this demand with a lot to back it up in the electoral context. By the way, a moment in history where the central question of elections is who shows up to vote. So it’s a different version of power — it is not just money power. I agree with you, it’s an imperfect analogy to a Contract With America of 1994, but I contend an age where turnout is the determining factor, the ability to mobilize the voters and energize the voters is worth its weight in gold.

And we don’t have to stop there. I think it’s possible to potentially form an organizational base, but I think we want to walk before we run here and first get the core platform and the coalition behind it. I think that will generate such focus that you will start to see leaders and candidates feel the gravitational pull and as they feel the gravitational pull it will excite people at the grassroots. You could have a virtuous circle there of each one reinforcing the other, that’s I think a beginning vision.

EA: And aside from meetings and speeches, how is this going to be built?

BdB: I think we have some strong efforts already under way. On a substantive front we’ve been working very closely with my fellow mayors on income inequality issues, on immigration issues, now we just had the recent gathering in Boston around the transportation bill. So there’s a natural group of a hundred or more progressive mayors around the country who I can tap into pretty organically. Many of whom I think would align with this. I think the issue that we’re working with already on the core of agenda here in the city, the folks we worked with on paid sick leave, the folks we worked with on municipal ID, and on the executive action on immigration, the folks we worked with on affordable housing, the folks we worked with on pre-K — there’s immense local networks, but they all have great national relationships, and the fact that New York City is being seen as a bit of a progressive laboratory on these issues is drawing a lot more attention, a lot more connection, and a lot more people are coming to work with our people from around the country. I’m not overawed by that task because I think the people who would be the natural allies of the effort of that are pretty evident at the jump.

EA: Do you plan to raise money to create some sort of infrastructure for this to come together?

BdB: Well, I think that’s the next-step question. I know the simple question of, If I want to gather X dozens or X hundreds of progressives to align to a core platform and start the process of building that out around the country, do I need an organizational base to do that? No, I don’t. To go beyond that, do I need an organizational base? I very well may, and the whole movement may. I think again, walk before we run. Regarding the organization-building question over the longer term, you’re asking exactly the right question. I think that’s the next thing we have to grapple with. Is the only way to truly energize this to build some organizational base to get the resources to do it? If the answer is yes, and it well may be, do I think there’s a lot of resources out there? I’m sure progressive donors and foundations and others who would be very enthusiastic to go at the question of income inequality head on. None of this strikes me as rocket science, but I also learned along the way that when you build an organization or institution it comes with its own challenges and pitfalls and I think some of what I’m promoting is the notion of speed and flexibility to begin with to get something off the ground.

EA: So can we judge the immediate success of your efforts by whether you and your allies can make these issues the template for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party in 2016?

BdB: I don’t think it’s just about the presidential election, it’s about all levels. I would argue, if we do our work well, existing leaders of all persuasions in the here and now are going to have to deal with it. I think it’s about existing leaders too. But if you want a simple, simple litmus test, I think the way you said it is right. Does this affect the behavior of Democratic candidates for substantial offices? That would be a simple, measurable litmus test.

EA: If we were having this conversation shortly after you became mayor, I might have proposed a litmus test against the statewide elections of 2014, and today that would have been seen as a catastrophe. We actually moved backward electorally in New York State in 2014 and now you are going to have a harder time getting what the city needs out of Albany. So then I have to ask you this: how confident can we be about this vision moving outward from progressive metropolitan areas like New York City?

BdB: Well, there’s 63 seats in the New York State Senate, we had a net change of three. So I don’t exactly think that the revolution occurred either way, I just want to be careful on that. It was not the right direction, sure, but if you had sat with me when I first took office, to be very blunt, we did not have an expansive vision of addressing the state level. You’re 100 percent right that in the three or four months in which we were able to put together the apparatus that it did not succeed the first time — no question. Although the outcome was not exactly massive or horrifying and we’re still up there in Albany getting work done.

But the coalition that got built, including a lot of progressive labor groups aligned in a way that I have never seen in the past 20 years, was different. And this is underreported wildly like all structural change. We had 1199 SEIU, 32BJ SEIU, Unite Here, CWA and the UFT working in a coherent constant coalition. That had not happened per se, to begin with, except for a few moments. Certainly not in a sustained electoral campaign like that. It was a moment in history with a lot of trust and the willingness to jump together. But that is a paradigm shift also, which didn’t work for the first time, but really reset what happens there in the future.

One of the problems of the past was that a number of theoretically progressive labor unions had been cooperating with the Republicans against their core interest because of some very generous deals. I think we’ve unhinged that once and for all and that’s not a minor achievement. Maybe it’s one of the classic, one step back, two steps forward eventually. If this progressive coalition holds it remakes the political map of New York State. If this was the down payment, I’ll take it any day of the week.

I think the economic crisis is the answer. I think the economic crisis has reshuffled the deck more than any of us yet understand. I think we’ve only begun to experiment with what it means to tap into it and to change our approach. I think my election and some of the other progressive mayors around the country were canaries in the coal mine. I think we were examples in places that people tend to dismiss because they say, “Oh, they’re Democratic, but they’re liberal.” I think there’s much more to it than meets the eye. The referenda in the red states that won on minimum wage and certainly the fast-food workers and Occupy; there’s such a combination of factors that suggests something is changing structurally. If the answer is, “Well, the other side has a lot of money and organization, so let’s all go home,” I’m not saying you’re saying that, I’m saying if that were the way we thought about it, well, it kind of confirms that we’re not going to find out what this moment means. I hope the magic of what we’re doing is, we’re basically saying, “We are going out into this frontier to find what’s there.” There’s something there. There’s no doubt in my mind. This is one thing I can say with assurance. There’s something there.

I believe there’s an emerging American majority for progressive economic change. The only way we’re going to find out is to go down the road. We don’t have the federal government to play with. That’s what they had in the New Deal — we don’t have that tool. We don’t have the vast resources that the right wing and the Republicans have, but we have a political moment and we still have a lot of reach and firepower of different types. We’ve got to try and knit it together. I have no illusions of grandeur. I just know as the mayor of the biggest city in the country I have some license. And I know as I reach out to others, they’re thinking the same stuff anyway. This is all occurring simultaneously with a lot of the same people. If we do this right, the first coalitional effort will bear some immediate fruit and start some ripples. If that’s working, I think it well could lead to something more substantial and more permanent. But right now, especially in the name of urgency, I want to get something off the ground to grab the moment.

Eric Alterman_crop
Eric Alterman is a distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College, and a Professor of Journalism at the City University of New York. A prolific writer, Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he writes the “Think Again” column. He is also a fellow at the Nation Institute, where he writes the “The Liberal Media” column for The Nation magazine.
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