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When Limousine Liberals Took Center Stage

books and culture

When Limousine Liberals Took Center Stage

A new book misses the connection between New York City’s 1969 election and the elitism of the modern Democratic Party. June 10, 2016
Arts and Culture
Politics and law

The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America, by Steve Fraser (Basic Books, 291 pp., $27.50)

Roughly 15 years ago, I took part in a symposium on the political legacy of former New York City mayor John Lindsay. Little of note was said from the podium, but I couldn’t help noticing that the former Lindsayites who spoke all had limousines waiting for them at the curb. It was a striking reminder of the epithets hurled at Lindsay during the 1969 mayoral election when his opponent, Mario Procaccino, mocked him as part of the “Manhattan arrangement” and a “limousine liberal.”

When I saw the title of Steve Fraser’s new book, I anticipated that he would focus in part on Procaccino, the now-forgotten clubhouse politician from the Bronx, whose mocking of Lindsay’s liberalism has echoed through the decades because it captured a profound change in American political life. I also thought that a book called The Limousine Liberal would discuss the increasing role of the wealthy within the Democratic Party. In 2010’s Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America, David Callahan approvingly describes how moneyed liberals arrived in private jets for Barack Obama’s inaugural in 2008. In fact, Fraser spends little time on the Democrats’ shift both leftward and upward on the social scale. Instead, as his subtitle indicates, The Limousine Liberal is more interested in rehashing the history of right-wing populist movements over the past century.

Mario Procaccino rose to political significance in the mid-1960s during an unprecedented explosion of crime and welfare in New York City, the concussive effects of which were felt nationwide. In 1965, William F. Buckley’s rakish run for mayor anticipated the creation of contemporary conservatism. Further, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s writings in Commentary paved the way for what would come to be called neo-conservatism. In 1969, Lindsay’s reelection limned the liberalism that Obama eventually brought to the White House. Lindsay was an ambitious liberal Republican congressman from the “silk-stocking” district on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Now extinct, such liberal Republicans were both strongly pro-civil rights and anti-Tammany Hall. In the late sixties, southern “Dixiecrats” remained a power in Congress, and clubhouse politics still had a hold over the big cities.

In the 1965 mayoral election, just a year after the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act—enacted in part thanks to a race riot in Harlem—Lindsay faced off against Buckley, running on the Conservative Party line, and Democrat Abe Beame. Lindsay and Beame competed to denounce the cosmopolitan Buckley as a racist and neo-fascist. Lindsay won; he went so far as to plant concocted stories in the pliant press about how his campaign offices in Queens came under attack from Buckley’s racist storm troopers. Procaccino, who had been brought into politics in the 1930s by New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a liberal icon, became the city’s comptroller. Moynihan, author of the landmark (but, on the left, notorious) account of the breakdown of the black family, was defeated for city council president.

Lindsay’s first term was marked by a deadly winter storm (during which only Manhattan’s snow got cleared) and a surge in crime. Between 1967 and 1969, violent crime in the city spiked by one-third. In 1969 alone, the city saw a record-breaking 1,000 murders. The crime explosion was matched by an eruption in the number of people on welfare, even as the country enjoyed its greatest economic boom up to that time. Under Lindsay, welfare expenditures quadrupled, consuming more than a quarter of the city’s budget.

In 1969, a scandal erupted. The headline in the pro-Lindsay New York Times read MILLIONS IN CITY POVERTY AGENCY LOST BY WELFARE FRAUD AND INEFFICIENCY. According to the Times’s report, a group of city employees had rigged computers to write checks to imaginary workers for nonexistent jobs. New York had “the worst administrative problems of any antipoverty program in any city” in the U.S., said Lyndon Johnson’s labor secretary Willard Wirtz.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the city was rocked by garbage, transit, and school strikes, leaving the middle class—already reeling under steep rent increases—punchy. Garbage piled up as a series of liberal-versus-liberal conflicts shook the city. The subway strike pitted the WASP mayor, who had written his senior thesis on the greatness of Oliver Cromwell, against Transport Workers Union boss Mike Quill, a former member of the Irish Republican Army. Teacher’s union boss Al Shanker squared off against Black Nationalists and their left-wing allies who insisted on black control over the schools in black neighborhoods. In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, set in these same years, Saul Bellow’s protagonist notes, “you could smell collapse. You could see the suicidal impulses of civilization pushing strongly.”

The 1969 election took place in the midst of these convulsions. Lindsay lost the Republican ballot line to John Marchi, the cerebral state senator from Staten Island. That left the mayor to run solely on the Liberal line. But the Liberal Party was itself split over the teachers’ strike. Shanker, a prominent Liberal Party supporter, refused to back Lindsay, whom he rightly blamed for stirring the flames of Black Nationalism. Liberal Party vice chairman Alex Rose worked to prevent the white backlash from defeating Lindsay. New York, Rose said, “had to become a political Stalingrad like the city where the forces of Hitlerism were turned back.”

The liveliest primary in 1969 took place among the Democrats. There, a three-way race pitted Procaccino against Bronx congressman Herman Badillo, the city’s leading Puerto Rican politician, and novelist Norman Mailer. For the good of Gotham, the competent Badillo should have carried the day. But Mailer, a concoction of Trump-like self-aggrandizement and public-policy pretensions native to Manhattan, insisted that he had to counteract “the boredom” produced by the fast-waning Democratic machine. Mailer’s call to make New York City the 51st state, and his Procaccino-like invocations of neighborhoods as the city’s heart and soul, took enough votes away from Badillo to set up a showdown between Lindsay and Procaccino in the general election.

Procaccino, a master of malapropisms, proposed to tame the financial sector with an unprecedented 1 percent tax on stock transfers. Informed that his proposal would hamper the financial industry’s considerable contribution to the New York economy, he replied “That’s all right.” “Why,” he asked, “must we always milk the public good and never touch the sacred cow?” Described as the champion of homeowners—the so-called “stoop-sitting voters”—Procaccino criticized Lindsay’s support for racial affirmative action by insisting on “a single standard for the city.” With the support of Gotham’s black voters, Lindsay eked out a victory. The final tally: Lindsay, 42 percent; Procaccino, 35 percent; Marchi, 23 percent.

The central issues of the 1969 New York mayoral election remain with us. But Fraser seems little interested in the history of the political terrain that produced the famous phrase that serves as his title. Rather, he uses the metaphor of the limousine liberal to chew again the already well-chewed story of right-wing economic populism. This history was artfully covered by the great political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset in his 1970 book, The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970.

The difficulty with Fraser’s book is that the rightward shift of working-class New Yorkers in the 1960s and 1970s can’t be shoehorned into the rhetorical categories that he has laid out. He says little about crime and welfare, the two primary issues for Procaccino’s supporters. At times, Fraser acknowledges the legitimate grievances that drove the white working class to abandon the Democrats. “[T]he presence of a noxious racism among elements of the populist right has often overwhelmed any inclination by limousine liberals . . . to appreciate what might be simmering in those precincts of discontent,” he writes. This is on target. The contemporary distaste for Obama is based more on the president’s failings than on his family tree.

With Lindsay—as with Obama, who will also leave a mess in his wake—liberals decided that good intentions outweighed the cost of failure. Benevolence, insisted Lindsay’s and Obama’s media supporters, washed away all sins, creating a kind of no-fault liberalism. The Lindsay campaign marked the turning point that shaped our current political configuration. It was the moment that limousine liberals, backed by the black poor, took center stage.

Photo by Harry Benson/Getty Images

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