Though the possibility of a runoff remains, it looks very likely that the New York City mayoral race will pit Bill de Blasio, a progressive, tax-the-rich liberal, against Joe Lhota, a Republican seen as the "last, best hope for salvaging the business-friendly government of the Bloomberg era." Are you ready for a real live class war? Now, we get one.
This looming political and rhetorical class war is not just a vague hope of ours. It is guaranteed. The billionaire mayor-for-life is leaving. The rich will miss him. He has turned much of New York City into a vast playground for the wealthy. He has been a warm friend to Wall Street, even as homelessness soared to new levels. He has produced a city that is wildly prosperous, with that prosperity unevenly divided.
No matter what you think of Bloomberg's legacy, it's clear that this mayoral election is going to be a referendum on whether or not to continue The Bloomberg Way. Bill de Blasio has soared to great heights of popularity on an explicitly anti-Bloomberg platform: rejecting stop-and-frisk, speaking of unifying our "two cities" of rich and poor, advocating loudly for affordable housing and social programs to help the underclass, aided by new taxes on the wealthy. Lhota, meanwhile, a deputy mayor under Giuliani and the head of the MTA for part of Bloomberg's term, is neatly set up to market himself as the stable, competent continuation of all that the upper class found so dear about Mayor Mike: "fiscal responsibility," "proven leadership," an explicit denunciation of de Blasio's "class warfare," and other code words that are music to the ears of the financial establishment. The New York Times today quotes a banker calling the prospect of a de Blasio win "terrifying."
“There is a fear among middle-class voters that we’re going to take a hard left turn away from the Giuliani/Bloomberg era of governance,” said Michael McKeon, who runs the political action committee. “It’s going to drive electoral support for Joe, drive financial support for Joe.”
It's comical, of course, for either man to denigrate "class warfare." De Blasio is deeply engaged in class warfare, on the right side. And Lhota, a deep underdog, has no viable strategy except for class warfare if he wants to shift the polls in his direction. New York is a Democratic city, and, on top of that, a city grown weary of the imperial benevolent Wall Street billionaire style of governing. Lhota's only chance is to appeal to fear: wealthy people's fear of higher taxes; Wall Street's fear of being demonized as the face of a a city's inequality; and the general incoherent fear of "a return to what NYC was like in the 90s," when Brooklyn wasn't gentrified and the subway system wasn't safe for the wanton display of iPhones.
This election will be a merry, bloody battle of the haves and have-nots. The haves crave safety and stability—they crave a hard-nosed leader who will allow them to keep the gains of the Bloomberg years, and who will do what needs to be done in order to ensure that the cries of the angry rabble do not leak through the soundproof windows of the city's forest of new condominium towers. The have-nots, meanwhile, crave their own share of the pie. The prosperity of the Bloomberg years has been all the more frustrating to the majority of citizens, who stood outside its scope and watched as Wall Street grew ever richer, like hungry people glaring through the windows of a sumptuous restaurant.
"The economy" has notionally recovered from the recession. The people, in reality, have not. Since the end of the recession, 95% of the income gains have gone to the top 1% of earners. The majority of the income in America now goes to the wealthiest 10%, the highest proportion recorded in over a century. The "recovery" is a hypodermic needle, injecting capital directly into the accounts of the already-rich.
New York is the richest city in the richest country, and it must decide whether it wants to be a city for New Yorkers, or a Disneyland for the global rich. Yes, we will have a class war. After 12 years of billionaire rule, it is high time that we did. And we hope that it is a rough one. It's populist anger vs. establishment fear. May the most violent emotion win.
(Bill de Blasio will win.)
[Image by Jim Cooke]