In his 1997 book The Future Once Happened Here, Fred Siegel described the “riot ideology” that emerged out of the civil disturbances of the 1960s as a significant element in the decline of major American cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Among America’s ruling elite at the time, that ideology rested on “the assumption that the violence of the sixties riots and their criminal aftermath were both justified and, to a considerable extent, functional in rectifying the sins of racism.” Only largesse from Washington could fix those problems. America’s great cities thus became defined not by their achievements (and their achievers), as they once had been, Siegel wrote, but by “a welter of woes whose ruin would be rewarded with financial aid from the federal government.” What emerged out of this agenda was what Siegel described as “dependent individualism,” a transfer of responsibility in places like New York City from the individual and the family to the state, epitomized by swelling welfare rolls.
By the time he published those words, Siegel had helped lead the pushback to these negative cultural forces in New York. As an early editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, and then as an adviser and occasional speechwriter to Rudy Giuliani, Siegel helped craft an agenda based on the recognition that America’s big cities, most of all New York, had always been masters of their own destiny, setting the tone and direction of the country, and not the wayward children of Washington. You can hear Siegel’s ideas echoed in Giuliani speeches. “Over the last century, millions of people from all over the world have come to New York City,” Giuliani said after becoming mayor. “They didn’t come here to be taken care of and to be dependent on city government. They came here for the freedom to take care of themselves.”
Siegel lived much of his life in New York City. He had witnessed, since the 1960s, the rapid deterioration of the city’s social order. Under the sway of riot ideology, officials like Mayor John Lindsay endorsed “a faith in a free market of morals” that helped undermine traditional mores and self-restraint and led to a vast expansion of crime and social disorder, Siegel argued. Siegel and others at the Manhattan Institute thus became influential in pointing out that the sharp rise in urban crime that plagued cities for decades wasn’t inevitable or irreversible.
In one of his first articles for City Journal, Siegel set out an agenda for reclaiming the city’s public spaces, which had become unruly and chaotic and were increasingly avoided by residents. That agenda began with the recognition that disorder was a choice made by officials, who had cut sanitation budgets and police patrols to boost social service welfare spending, in the process sparking an exodus of the middle class that only deepened New York’s problems. The worse things got, the more the city invested in addressing the supposedly underlying causes rather than reestablishing order, in the process “rewarding failure,” Siegel wrote. Giuliani himself spoke about how such policy tracts influenced his administration, which had issues of City Journal messengered to City Hall when they came off the press.
The revival of New York City that began with Giuliani’s election in November of 1993 eventually spread elsewhere, creating sharp declines in crime in many America cities and a resurgence in urban neighborhoods and downtowns. The revolution even inspired Washington, which passed a federal crime bill in 1994 and bipartisan welfare reforms in 1996, following New York City under Giuliani in reestablishing work requirements in exchange for government benefits for those able to work. Poverty declined, and work participation rates surged.
Still, Siegel understood that this was an uneasy victory, certainly not permanent. In 2014’s The Revolt Against the Masses, he wrote about how the liberalism that he had once embraced had evolved into an ideology of elites against the middle class, a creed centralized in a Democratic Party that increasingly seemed anti-democratic, scorning the pursuit of profits by businesses and the striving for upward mobility of ordinary people. In that book, Siegel argued that the traditional story of liberalism, retailed by academics and the media, drew a misleading line from Progressive reforms to the “social salvation” of the New Deal programs to the Great Society’s civil rights reforms. “But the story isn’t quite true in the beginning, middle or end,” Siegel wrote. Rather, he saw in the evolution of modern liberalism, epitomized in the Obama administration, a type of snobbery of people “who believe they deserve more power because they act on behalf of people’s best interests—even if the darn fools don’t know it.
Inevitably, the takeover of the Democratic party by an anti-democratic elite presaged the return of riot ideology. Siegel saw it coming back in 2015, where he outlined its new, more toxic form which spoke of reparations and demanded new rounds of federal urban funding in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police. “A new riot ideology has taken hold, one similarly intoxicated with violence and willing to excuse it but with a different goal,” Siegel wrote. “The first version of the riot ideology assumed that not only cities but also whites could be reformed; the new version assumed that America is inherently racist beyond redemption and that the black inner city needs to segregate itself from the larger society.” All this Siegel foresaw well before the George Floyd riots of 2020 and the subsequent return to an era of decriminalization and depolicing that has sparked sharply rising levels of crime, disorder, and property destruction in places like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York—sending a new generation of middle-class urbanites fleeing the cities.
Fred Siegel saw New York at its worst and helped explain how it got there. He also helped set the agenda that lifted New York back to its best. His words resonate anew today.
Photo by Brent Stirton/Liaison