The Obama administration’s pursuit of electoral victory in 2012 seems to be based on abandoning private-sector middle-class and white working-class voters. As Thomas Edsall rightly argued recently in the New York Times, the Democrats have become a top-bottom coalition comprising, at one end, highly educated professionals—many of whom work for government or are beneficiaries of government subsidies—and, at the other end, low-income recipients of government welfare benefits. But this isn’t a new model. New Yorkers who remember John Lindsay’s mayoralty from 1966 to 1973 will recall the devastating impact that a similar top-bottom strategy had on the city.
During the 1965 mayoral race, Lindsay warned against instituting a city income tax, explaining that “it would terrify middle-income groups. New York City would then be a city for the very rich and the very poor.” But after winning with 43 percent of the vote in a three-way race, Lindsay brought his own warning to fruition. In his very first year in office, the new mayor introduced the city income tax, as well as a commuter tax and a bevy of smaller taxes, to pay for rising public-sector union wages and an ambitious array of social programs, including a doubling of the city’s welfare rolls. Here was an early sign of Lindsay’s attempt to pit the poor against the middle class.
But the top-bottom coalition wasn’t truly formed until the following election season, when Lindsay, facing a tough battle, hoped to create a new political alliance—black militants and well-to-do liberals—and to pit it against the remnants of the old ethnic Democratic machine. In 1968, the Lindsay administration turned over the schools in the heavily black Ocean Hill–Brownsville area of Brooklyn to a group of black separatists, who then fired the mostly middle-class Jewish faculty. As Lindsay administration member Charles Morris later noted, the liberal foundations that bankrolled the separatists—Ford, Taconic, and New World among them—saw a chance both to reform education and to create a political alliance of the top and the bottom against the middle. In the ensuing series of bitter teachers’ strikes, New York’s cultural elite—from Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, and Murray Kempton to a host of A-list celebrities—came out for schools that promised, by freeing black children from the stifling fetters of middle-class morality, to let them express their innate capacity for creativity and cooperation.
Rhody McCoy, the leader of the “community-controlled” school board, was a disciple of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. He hired as one of his principals Herman Ferguson, who had been charged with plotting to kill civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and was free on bail. Other thugs, led by Sonny Carson, threatened the striking teachers with violence. McCoy’s minions distributed anti-Semitic leaflets insisting that black children should be taught by black teachers, not by “the Middle Eastern murderers of colored people.” The Ocean Hill–Brownsville affair ended with a teachers’ victory—the dismissed teachers were reinstated and due-process rights reaffirmed—but it shaped the 1969 mayoral election, in which the Lindsay administration faced an enraged middle class.
In that election, Lindsay maintained the loyalty of the city’s elites and African-Americans, despite the bitter school strike, the death of 14 New Yorkers in a winter storm in which only Manhattan’s snow got cleared, and a surge in crime—which increased by one-third between 1967 and 1969, a year that saw a record-breaking 1,000 murders. The mayor faced off against two Italian-Americans: Mario Procaccino, running as the law-and-order candidate of the white working and middle classes, who narrowly won the five-way Democratic primary; and the soft-spoken and cerebral John Marchi, who won the GOP nomination. Running solely on the Liberal Party line and backed heavily by Wall Street—the chairman of Goldman Sachs headed his finance committee—Lindsay outspent his two opponents combined nearly four to one. Carrying only Manhattan, Lindsay won with 42 percent of the vote. When Alex Rose, the leader of the once largely socialist Liberal Party, was asked if he found his party’s alliance with Wall Street disconcerting, he replied that Lindsay’s reelection represented a moral obligation to continue the cause of racial reform.
New York’s politics had been reconfigured, as Tom Wolfe recognized in his article “Radical Chic,” which described a soiree that conductor Leonard Bernstein held in his 13-room duplex penthouse on Park Avenue for the Black Panthers. There, the stylishly leather-clad Panthers mingled with the well-to-do backers of Lindsay’s mayoral run. Wolfe’s famed article on the party caught the surrealism of the moment: “Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons. . . .” The Panthers’ spokesman, Field Marshal Don Cox, told the gathering that the Panthers were facing a campaign of extermination led by police authorities in New York and elsewhere that marked the beginning of a fascist takeover of America. When Cox said, “We recognize that this country is the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world,” only one guest—the Hollywood director Otto Preminger, a refugee from Nazi Germany—objected.
What brought the socialites and the Panthers together was the sense that only the rich and the poor had a claim on righteousness. Only those at the top and the bottom could fully recognize, albeit for different reasons, the sins of American middle-class society. Liberalism had become a matter of style, and the rich were becoming part of the liberal coalition. The middle class was the problem—and soon enough, the middle class had a problem with New York liberals. The city, which hemorrhaged 600,000 jobs in the wake of Lindsay’s second term, suffered a massive emigration of middle-class residents during the 1970s. New York careened into the fiscal crisis of 1975 and near-bankruptcy. The city recovered from those calamities eventually, but the Left’s top-bottom approach in New York has never really changed since.
Now, under President Obama, the top-bottom alliance has gone national. Though the president may, like Lindsay before him, find a way to get reelected, the Democrats will pay a steep price for alienating the middle class.