Modern New York City is a crucible of progressivism. From 2014 to 2022, progressive mayor Bill de Blasio held the reins at City Hall, and until early 2023, progressives held a majority in the city council. Since the 2018 Democratic state legislature victory, progressive policies have reshaped New York, introducing major criminal-justice reforms, higher income taxes, legalized marijuana, and widespread e-bike availability. With weak, moderate Democratic leaders in New York State and City—Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams—and with both levels of government until recently flush with cash, progressives have freely pursued their agendas in the legislature, council, and high-profile district attorney offices.

Under this regime, though, New York City is regressing. On any life-safety metric, from homicides to fire deaths, and on any measure of prosperity or well-being, from population to job growth, Gotham is stagnant or sliding backward. A walk around town reveals no enlightened, well-funded urban oasis but something more like a twenty-first-century version of Frank Capra’s dystopian Pottersville, with neon cannabis-for-sale signs blinking on storefronts, addicts nodding off on sidewalks, and street vendors selling stolen toiletries, even as drugstores lock up merchandise to deter shoplifters.

Contrast this dismal vista with the original progressivism of a century or so ago: that of Theodore Roosevelt and Al Smith, of new building codes and workplace-safety laws, of settlement houses and citizenship education. That movement helped build a wealthier, safer, and happier New York. Its modern version is making us poorer, more endangered, and miserable. The old and new progressivisms share a belief in the power of government to make urban life better—but that’s where the similarity ends.

The original progressivism was a practical response to urban migration and industrialization. Its aim: to help city dwellers thrive in an environment of well-regulated capitalism. Progressives fought public corruption and government-corporate cronyism through a push for public transparency and political innovations that allowed for direct elections, instead of insiders deciding many key contests.

One goal of these efforts was consistent enforcement of the law—including criminal law. Beginning in 1895, nearly a decade before he became president, Roosevelt, a failed Republican mayoral candidate turned police commissioner, rooted out sleaze in New York’s police department. He wanted police officers to hold public trust, so that they could effectively and impartially enforce the law. “We deal with the criminal and protect the law-abiding citizen,” he said. “When we are told, as some demagogues tell us, that New York does not want honest enforcement of the law, we say [that] . . . we believe that the honest citizens are in the majority. . . . We stand on a sound platform, the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not steal.”

A year later, Roosevelt reiterated that “all laws must be honestly enforced,” despite the perception that, as he lamented, magistrates often seemed to have more sympathy for the offender than for the officer testifying against him. Police should be a “terror” to “wrongdoers,” he told charity groups, in the New York Times’s paraphrase. Though Roosevelt never succeeded in getting “saloons” to comply with laws requiring them to close on Sunday, he understood that a truly progressive society must embody the rule of law.

Progressives also passed and enforced civil laws and regulations to protect individuals from the danger and disorder that unregulated industry brought with it. Muckraking journalists like Jacob Riis exposed housing conditions so bleak—and potentially deadly—that state and city leaders had to strengthen housing codes. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, which killed 146 workers unable to escape because of locked exits, led to new safety standards. Concerns over skyscrapers blocking air and light resulted in New York’s 1916 zoning code. Many of these ideas, successful in New York, soon guided federal law, too.

State and local government had to build their own technocratic capacity to meet a growing population’s complex needs; progressives played a huge role in this transition. Robert Moses, the twentieth century’s “master builder,” was a product of the progressive movement. In the 1920s, after his early days working as a municipal-budget and civil-service reformer, he helped transform New York’s state government at Governor Al Smith’s behest, to make it work more efficiently. Later, Moses, through his various government positions, including state and city parks commissioner, ensured that New York could execute ambitious plans intended to benefit residents—building parks, beaches, housing, and highways. (Several of Moses’s housing and highway projects famously generated intense, and justified, opposition, as his increasingly autocratic instincts would reveal the ultimate danger of progressivism: a zeal for centralization of power.)

The movement thrived in civil society. Settlement houses and other charities, with funding from wealthy philanthropists, provided training, jobs, health care, and social services to immigrants and their children. As Henry Moscowitz, an early-twentieth-century reformer, put it in 1916, settlement houses helped “interpret . . . the finest ideals of America to the immigrant” and “reveal to the foreign-born inhabitant . . . the vision of America’s material and spiritual opportunities.”

New York’s standards of living improved during the first third of the twentieth century, the first progressive movement’s heyday. A key example: as death rates fell, the average male born in New York City in 1930 could expect to live to 56, compared with 41 in 1901, a rise in life expectancy of 37 percent. For women, the numbers were 60 and 45 years, respectively, an improvement of 33 percent. New York still lagged the nation in life expectancy by 1930 but outpaced it in its rate of betterment.

Contemporary progressivism has brought high-tax social anarchy to New York. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

What defines a modern progressive? In the early twentieth century, Republicans like Roosevelt had used the “progressive” modifier to distinguish themselves from those Republicans whom voters saw as too cozy with big business. But the modifier all but disappeared for decades after 1930. Republicans were just plain old Republicans again, though Fiorello La Guardia, running for the New York mayoralty in 1933, called himself a “New Deal Republican,” to distinguish himself from Hooverite Republicans. Post–Great Depression Democrats were “New Deal Democrats,” to signal that they wanted bigger government and more direct intervention in markets than progressives had sought.

Later in the twentieth century, politicians started adopting the term “progressive” again, but often struggled at the polls. Walter Mondale called himself a “progressive Democrat” in the 1976 presidential primary and lost decisively to more moderate Jimmy Carter. In the 1988 presidential race, Michael Dukakis claimed to be a “progressive Democrat”; eventual winner George H. W. Bush battered him with the tag.

Local progressives fared no better. In 1969, Democrat Mario Procaccino embraced the “progressive” label in his losing New York mayoral campaign against incumbent John Lindsay, a liberal Republican. Procaccino had sought to temper his law-and-order message for Democratic voters, but they just saw a muddle. Three decades later, in 2001, Mark Green portrayed himself as a “progressive Democrat” and lost to Republican Michael Bloomberg. Again, voters couldn’t figure out what “progressive” meant. Green’s claim to be a “practical, common-sense progressive Democrat” failed to clarify.

It wasn’t until after the 2008 financial crisis that “progressive” started to make a real political comeback. Democrats upset about Wall Street bailouts rejected Bill Clinton–style, market-friendly moderates. Occupy Wall Street, the months-long 2011 lower Manhattan sit-in that spread to other cities, proudly affirmed its progressive identity, protesting what its members saw as President Barack Obama’s too-moderate stance toward business.

Along with seeking higher taxes, Occupy Wall Street embraced other left-wing causes. After Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, for example, the movement twinned with Black Lives Matter to push for depolicing and prison abolition. But despite their support for political stars like Bernie Sanders, the new progressives had little success in achieving their goals nationally.

Where they did start getting traction was at the state and local levels—most prominently in New York. In the 2013 mayoral election, de Blasio rose to power with his “tale of two cities” message. He ran a campaign and, later, governed with an agenda straight out of the Occupy playbook: imposing higher income taxes on the wealthy to fund more education spending and enacting a higher minimum wage—the “fight for $15”—along with measures such as new sick-leave mandates for business. On criminal justice, urged on by an even more left-wing city council, he decriminalized some nonviolent misdemeanors, such as public urination, and agreed to close the Rikers Island jail complex and build four much smaller jail facilities across New York City.

But de Blasio was constrained for much of his mayoralty by the political environment. Until Covid-19 blew apart New York City’s daily life in 2020, he had benefited from the booming economy and record-low crime that he had inherited from his immediate predecessor, Bloomberg. Partly, he governed as more of a creature of Rudy Giuliani- and Bloomberg-era New York than his rhetoric indicated. His first police commissioner was William Bratton, a veteran of Mayor Giuliani’s administration, who subscribed to the preventive-policing methods that drove New York’s crime turnaround in the 1990s. During his second stint as commissioner, Bratton ably managed what he called a “peace dividend,” reducing police stops and arrests while keeping crime down.

De Blasio also lacked the power to pass some of his more ambitious proposals. The state government, then controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo, wouldn’t let him raise local income taxes on the wealthy, and de Blasio had no control over matters such as felony prosecution or bail, the purview of the city’s independently elected district attorneys and the state legislature. De Blasio’s plan to shut Rikers, though it became city law in 2019, remained a long-term blueprint, left to his successor to execute. In retrospect, however, de Blasio’s eight years as mayor may have made voters comfortable with a more virulent progressivism.

The arrival of Donald Trump on the national political scene helped galvanize that more virulent progressivism in New York politics. In 2018, fiery newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted a long-term Democratic congressional incumbent in the Bronx and Queens; a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America, AOC made New York politics safer for outright socialism. (Ur-progressive Teddy Roosevelt, it’s worth recalling, was an antisocialist; as Eugene Debs complained in 1908, “on every possible occasion, [President] Roosevelt vents his spleen against socialists.”) Also in 2018, Republicans lost control of New York’s state senate—not to moderate Democrats but to AOC-like upstarts.

As a group, the progressive legislators are formidable. “Moderates in the Assembly have been cowed by those loud voices,” says Michael Benjamin, a former Democratic assembly member from the Bronx. “On issues of law enforcement and criminal-justice issues”—particularly after the “defund the police” movement gained traction in 2020—“I believe white liberals and moderates don’t want to be seen as siding with an oppressive system,” he observes. “Weak leadership by Cuomo and Hochul” (who succeeded Cuomo after his 2021 resignation following sexual-harassment charges) “didn’t help.” Facing his own progressive primary challenger, actress Cynthia Nixon, in 2018, the malleable Cuomo became fearful of his legislative left flank and began acceding to its demands. Manhattan’s progressive prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, won office in 2021 promising not to prosecute most nonviolent offenses, whether felonies or misdemeanors, and to go easy even on some violent crimes.

With these reformers controlling New York’s legislature and city council over the past half-decade, what have they been able to get done? Largely enacted between 2019 and 2022, their measures include major changes to the state’s criminal-justice regime, including ending cash bail for nonviolent crimes and limiting cash bail for many major felonies; adding onerous new burdens to the state’s evidence-discovery rules for criminal prosecutions, making it harder to prosecute crimes; and raising the age for adult prosecution and incarceration. State lawmakers legalized marijuana and e-bikes. They hiked state taxes—on millionaire earners in 2021, with the top rate rising from 8.9 percent to 10.9 percent and, in 2023, on all payrolls within New York City, with the payroll-tax rate rising from one-third to one-half of 1 percent.

The results are obvious—and very different from those associated with the earlier progressive reformers. Consider crime. Between 2019 and 2021, murders in the city soared 53 percent, the highest short-term spike in history, well above the national rise of 36 percent. Shootings more than doubled. Subway homicides went from one or two per year for decades to 31 over three and a half years. Other crimes rose dramatically, too. Research clearly ties New York’s dramatic crime burst with its “reformed” criminal-justice laws.

“Between 2019 and 2021, murders in the city soared 53 percent, the highest short-term spike in history, well above the national rise of 36 percent.”

In 2022, Eric Adams assumed the mayoralty after running a tough-on-crime campaign, but—owing both to his own lack of focus and to restrictions that the state legislature and progressive prosecutors have placed on the criminal-justice system—he has only partially reversed the trend. Through late November 2023, murders remain 14 percent above 2019 levels and shootings 23 percent. The city’s seven major felonies run a third higher than in 2019, reversing a decade of progress; petty larceny is up 25 percent. Traffic deaths are up, partly because of fewer traffic stops. With small-scale sale and possession of even hard drugs decriminalized, overdose deaths are breaking records—with more than 3,026 in 2022, the most since modern recordkeeping began in 2000.

Lawmakers have even helped create a brand-new hazard: deaths from e-bike battery fires, with the bikes unsafely stored by delivery workers in private apartments. Through early December, 18 New Yorkers have died in such blazes in 2023, bringing the total death toll to 28 since 2021, the first full year after the state legislature legalized the devices. (No such recorded deaths occurred before 2021.) Fire deaths in New York City consequently exceeded 100 in 2022, for the first time in two decades.

The effects of higher taxes are increasingly evident, too. For decades, yes, New Yorkers were willing to tolerate high taxes, relative to other states. And true, too, that for every successive tax hike—from David Dinkins–era surcharges in the 1990s to Bloomberg’s new levies after 2008—New Yorkers enjoyed better services, and an improving quality of life, as they paid more.

Now, though, New Yorkers face something that they haven’t dealt with since the 1960s: higher taxes accompanied by a worsening quality of life. A warning sign of what might follow: state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli reported in December that, in 2020, New York lost more than 6,500 taxpayers earning more than half a million dollars annually—four times more than left in 2019. In 2021, the exodus slowed, but only to 3,900. Overall, the city’s population losses since 2020—above 5 percent—are second only to San Francisco’s.

Though tax revenues remain strong, partly thanks to a vigorous stock market, New York is feeling the effect of reduced consumer spending and investment by these departed wealthy earners. As of late 2023, New York City has just barely recovered its jobs lost during the Covid-19 shutdowns, compared with 5 percent job growth nationally.

The original progressives believed in consistent, effective enforcement of the law, as Theodore Roosevelt, serving as New York City police commissioner, showed in attacking official corruption, while seeking to make the cops a “terror” to criminals. (MPI/Getty Images)

There’s no mystery as to why the results of the new progressive revolution are so abysmal, particularly regarding criminal justice. The twenty-first-century progressives forgot a key lesson from their twentieth-century predecessors, which Roosevelt demonstrated during his tenure as police commissioner: law and order are essential for progress of any kind. When you stop prosecuting shoplifting, more shoplifting ensues. When a teenager faces no penalty for carrying a gun, he is able to shoot someone with it. “There’s a fundamental distinction between a governing progressivism and a utopian progressivism,” observes Ritchie Torres, Democratic congressman from the Bronx. “The most egregious example of utopianism masquerading as progressivism is the movement to defund the police. The notion that slashing the police budget in half . . . would magically make New York City safer is the kind of wishful thinking that only ivory-towered academics and activists would believe.”

The new progressives have ignored another lesson from the original movement: governing is not passing a law and forgetting about it. Whether one agrees with legalizing marijuana or not, for instance, when the state legislature did so in 2019, it could have established a regulatory regime that controlled legal pot sales, just as exists with alcohol and cigarettes. Instead, the lawmakers showed no interest in ensuring that only legally approved, regulated vendors sold pot to adults. Unregulated vendors filled the regulatory vacuum. Now, the architects of this system, including progressive state senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, pronounce themselves outraged at the outcome.

Similarly, when lawmakers legalized e-bikes in 2020, they could have prohibited home charging, maintenance, and storage of any device used for commercial purposes, such as food delivery, putting that burden on the local companies and global delivery firms whose workers depend on the devices. They could have required that New York change its fire code to ban home storage of any such device without first presenting it to the local firehouse to ensure that it meets safety standards. They took no such steps. By contrast, when the original progressives confronted the new mass-casualty fire risk of urban factories, they imposed and enforced clear new standards.

And what of progressive goals that remain unrealized (doubtless for the better)? Progressives would argue that de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers and replace it with four smaller jails is unrealized because Mayor Adams is too moderate. Fair enough, but it’s worth observing that, apart from de Blasio, when New Yorkers have had a chance to elect a progressive mayor or governor—as they did in 2018, when Nixon challenged Cuomo, and in 2021, when de Blasio advisor Maya Wiley ran as a clear progressive—they reject the option. A century ago, voters clearly approved of the original progressive ideas.

In contrast to the earlier era, the nonprofits that support neo-progressive causes are making things worse. A century ago, settlement houses did concrete things: they took care of children, provided medical care, and offered job training and arts education. Today’s progressive nonprofits, by contrast, are purely advocacy and protest organizations. The bicycle-advocate lobbyists who pushed for the legalization of e-bikes, for example, offer no practical aid to delivery workers who need an industrial location to charge and store e-bike batteries, or who even just need a restroom between deliveries. Advocates for decarceration offer no practical help to people recently released from prison or jail to help them avoid re-offending.

Why are contemporary progressives so uninterested in the measurable results of their policies and actions—even as polls show that New Yorkers think that their quality of life has eroded?

Part of it is political calculation: New York’s progressives are predominantly legislators, not executives. Many probably think that they can evade responsibility for passing the laws that have unleashed this chaos. Many lawmakers also depend on short memories, which let them escape their political legacy. Since early 2023, the city council’s progressive caucus has lost its majority, as a dozen Democrats balked at continued association with the “defund the police” movement and with other increasingly unpopular measures.

State and local lawmakers know, of course, that they aren’t immune to an anti-incumbency mood—the same kind that got them elected in the Trump era. The one factor possibly protecting them from such a wave in 2024 remains Trump himself. New York’s progressive lawmakers doubt that voters opposing the former president this year will vote for a Republican challenger for a state legislative seat at the same time. Important local elections will get decided in low-turnout primaries. To demonstrate at the ballot box the unhappiness that they voice to pollsters, voters must have enough credible moderate Democratic candidates to choose from to challenge incumbent progressives.

That’s not impossible, but it’s less likely when Trump-era voters see everything as a national fight between Democrats and Republicans. “New York progressivism values ideology over competence, and it replaces ‘all politics is local’ with ‘all politics is national,’ ” observes Torres. “I have seen local elected officials who seem more interested in calling on Israel to enter into a ceasefire”—a national and foreign policy matter—“than in ensuring that the Department of Sanitation is picking up the trash on time. Local government increasingly feels like a platform for national politics rather than a vehicle for actually running the city.”

Until New Yorkers can vote what they really think about progressive lawmakers, then, we’ll be stuck with this: the biggest-spending state and local government in America, with a daily life that often looks as though no government is in charge at all—a kind of luxury anarchy that progressives’ forebears surely would not recognize.

Top Photo: Pushing for the Green New Deal, an anti-carceral agenda, and other policies that harm cities, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrived on the political scene in 2018, winning a congressional seat as part of a left-wing Gotham reaction to Donald Trump. (Rachel Cauvin/Alamy Live News)


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