No one better recognizes orthodox liberalism than Upper West Side Congressman Jerrold Nadler. No surprise that he piously enthused about the “old-time liberal gospel” he was hearing at a recent conference on how to bring the New Deal back to Gotham. Nadler had it exactly right: though the organizers billed the CUNY event as offering something vital to the city’s future, what they served up was paleo-liberalism, warmed over to seem relevant to a city with giant holes both in its budget and its downtown business district.
Historian Mike Wallace organized the conference to flesh out the vision of a federal spending spree in New York and other cities that he outlines in his recent A New Deal for New York. Attending the event was like entering a time warp. Among the speakers was sociologist Francis Fox Piven, an architect of New York mayor John Lindsay’s effort to expand Gotham’s welfare rolls in the 1960s—a move that helped drive the city to near bankruptcy in the 1970s. Also on hand: Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, who as Cleveland’s zaniest mayor presided over that city’s plunge into bankruptcy a few years after New York’s near miss.
After a while, one got a sense of how debased that “old-time” liberalism has become. The conference lineup juxtaposed the distinguished octogenarian historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. with current city councilman Bill Perkins, whose major legislative initiative to date was a bill to bar “transgender” discrimination. A conference that invoked the memory of Fiorello La Guardia could offer no current New York left-wing political leader more inspiring than former Bronx County Democratic chairman Roberto Ramirez, who, as advisor to then-mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer, helped stoke the racial resentments that torched the Democratic Party in the 2001 mayoral primaries.
Speaker after speaker sent the same message: the feds should bail Gotham out of its current economic and fiscal woes. Invoking the New Deal, participants called for a new federal public works agenda for the city, financed by higher taxes on businesses and the rich, and for laws to make union organizing easier. For good measure, attendees also called for a government push to roll back globalism and revive New York’s largely vanished manufacturing industries. Like much of the Left, this group could never see how New York has benefited from globalism—which has sparked enormous growth in the city’s financial sector and rippled out to its law firms, consultants, and beyond.
Though everyone involved seemed earnest, it’s hard to believe they took all this seriously. After all, the original New Deal was good for Gotham because the Democrat in the White House was a New Yorker, as were many of his advisors. They invested billions in mega-projects like the Triborough Bridge, as well as less grandiose efforts like building playgrounds all over town. Perhaps because the city did so well, New Yorkers clung to the New Deal’s unsustainable model of heavy government intervention in markets and vast public spending, even as the rest of the country moved on. Rent-control laws, for example, repealed in most of the rest of the country after World War II, remain on the books in New York, a toxic vestige of the New Deal.
Today, by contrast, the man in the White House is a Texas Republican, and New York’s political clout has been declining steadily, usurped by the growing and prospering South and West. Not only has most of the rest of the country rejected the kind of nostalgia for the New Deal shown by New York, but it has occasionally been hostile toward the city because of its free-spending ways, as in the 1970s fiscal crisis, when much of the country opposed a federal bailout of the profligate city.
Without much prospect that its agenda might gain traction, the conference really served as an excuse to gather the faithful together, reminisce, and occasionally whip the crowd into a frenzy—as Schlesinger did when he accused the “sanctimonious” Senator Joseph Lieberman of running a wing not of the Democratic but of the Republican Party. And of course, no gathering of self-respecting leftists would be complete without someone—in this case, Bruce Raynor of the garment workers’ union UNITE—calling President Bush a “moron.” Reviving the New Deal wasn’t the only fantasy that conference attendees cherished.