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New York, New York: What A Progressive City Looks Like


New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at the city’s famed Cooper Union last week to outline his vision for a “progressive city.” Celebrating 100 days on the job, he lauded his administration’s efforts, from the most mundane (nearly tripling pothole repairs from last year) to the most fundamental (making progress toward universal pre-K education and afterschool programs). In between were extended meditations on public housing, crime, and health care policy.

On every subject, the Mayor had a team on the job, the money in the bank, and the energy to get things done. If you want to know what a “progressive city” looks like, look no further than Mayor de Blasio’s New York, New York, a universal call center where help–on every front–is just a (subsidized) phone call away.

To understand the Mayor’s vision of political life aright, one must note his constant emphasis on the efforts of city public employees. From police officers and firefighters to teachers and sanitation workers, de Blasio praised a “grassroots, people-powered government”—that is, rightly employed, the administrative extension of the progressive political movement.

And how could any resident complain? Anyone who spends a significant amount of time in NYC wants police officers and firefighters who protect and serve, teachers who educate, and sanitation workers who pick up trash–and appreciates the efforts of the many who do their job well. The problem with the mayor’s vision is that it leaves little for the rest of us to do. Just as the Progressive politician plays the hero of the political campaign, it is the Progressive mayor and public employees who play the heroes of everyday life.

As always, there’s more heroic work to be done. Create jobs. Build housing. Fix things. Engage parents in their children’s education. Hire more talented public employees. Be inclusive. And secure more state and federal funding to help pay for it all.

If you wonder what drives those engaged in this unending labor, you’re not alone. Playing the political psychologist, the Mayor asked, “Why do we do this work? Why are we so involved in our communities? Why do we engage the political process?”

Here the Mayor turned to Democratic icon Robert F. Kennedy for an answer. In making the case for universal human rights, then-Senator Kennedy argued before a South African audience:

Everything that makes man’s life worthwhile-family, work, education, a place to rear one’s children and a place to rest one’s head -all this depends on decisions of government; all can be swept away by a government which does not heed the demands of its people. Therefore, the essential humanity of men can be protected and preserved only where government must answer-not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, or a particular race, but to all its people. (emphasis added)

In Kennedy’s construction, government must be accountable to–“must answer” to–the whole people because of the power it wields over the most fundamental elements of the good life.

It turns out, though, that the old-fashioned liberal Senator Kennedy was not Progressive enough. Mayor de Blasio’s understanding of what it means for a government to “answer . . . to all its people” is fundamentally different from the original. First, he left out the clause in bold. We are not to be distracted by meditations on the dangers of despotic government. This striking (unnoted) omission is a clear window into the contemporary Progressive mind.

Moreover he reinterprets Kennedy, equating the duty to “answer” with the duty to “respond”: “That simple concept–that we must answer, we must respond, that it’s our obligation to see clearly what people are experiencing and to do something to make their lives better. That’s what we believe in.” Government, according to the Mayor, is not responsible to the people unless it is responding to the people, abuzz with efforts “to make their lives better”–that it, unless it is a universal call center ready to turn every inquiry into a governmental requisition.

Mayor de Blasio’s idea of a responsive government is very different from the founders’ original. Building upon the Declaration of Independence’s understanding of the proper scope of government (“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”), James Madison defends the Constitution in Federalist 39 against what he acknowledges to be a potentially decisive charge: that it is not “strictly republican.”

Madison readily admits that if this were true, “its advocates must abandon it [the Constitution] as no longer defensible.” Why? In the place where one might expect him to claim that a republic is the best form of government, he instead meditates upon the character of the American people:

It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.

Americans, Madison argues, are natural republicans–republicans in their heads and in their hearts, determined to show the world that “self-government” is possible. The republican principle, as Madison defines it later in the essay, requires “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.” That is to say, republican government is responsible to the people, from whom it ultimately “derives all its power” and to whom it must directly or indirectly give an account of its stewardship of those powers.

On this point, at least, there is no daylight between the positions of the 1960s-style liberal Robert Kennedy and the 1780s-style liberal James Madison. In both accounts, the people are primary; the government is secondary–a necessary help supporting self-governing citizens, in both the political and moral senses of the term.

Today, the Progressives leap from responsible government to a responsive government in which government is the main actor in the American play. Their efforts obstruct if not eliminate opportunities for moral self-government, leaving the citizenry playing the role of a supporting cast at best, and a prop at worst. Or rather leaving some citizens–the allies of the Progressive city managers–to be the nursemaids and taskmasters of their less enlightened neighbors, while others, feeding at the crony capitalist trough, can afford to be above it all.

Thus Mayor’s de Blasio’s charge to NYC residents at the end of his speech was predictable:

And to continue this mission, we need your help. Now, more than ever, we need your help. We need you to go out in your communities and make sure families sign up for pre-K and after school. We need you to keep leading the way, keep showing the leaders the path, holding your elected officials accountable. We need you to keep this momentum of these last 100 days growing all the time.

The people are to show “the leaders the path.” But, it turns out, there is only one, progressive path, already marked out with thick hedges on each side. All we’ve really got to do is make sure everybody’s in the lane–get’em all signed up. The means has become the end–“universal” enrollment,  not universal achievement–and the work of the good neighbor a matter of paperwork, not particular care or love.

So cue the band!

Start spreading the news. . .

we’re offering pre-K.

Let’s make your neighbor part of it—

New York, New York. . . .

Of course, Frank Sinatra sang of becoming “king of the hill, top of the list, head of the heap”–a troubling ambition in a progressive city. But don’t worry.  In Mayor de Blasio’s NYC,

If you can’t make it there

no cause for grief or care

just grab a phone

New York, New York.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.