To begin with Adams himself, his decades of shape-shifting doubtless contributed both to his victory and to the difficulty in characterizing him politically. At times, and in the case of The New York Times, in the same story, the media has painted him as both the establishment and anti-establishment candidate, police critic and police defender, Reagan-era Republican and Biden-era Democrat, working-class tribune and the go-to guy for the real estate lobby. Each of these characterizations has some merit, though some have a lot more merit than others. I’m partial to one that Adams himself offered, when asked about his ties to the city’s powerful (actually, hegemonic) real estate industry. “I am real estate,” Adams answered.
That could mean he owns property himself. It could mean he’s receptive to the industry’s requests. It could mean he’s signaling he can be bought and sold, just like, well, real estate.
My fear is that the third option rings the bell. Throughout his career as an elected official, Adams has been eager to do Big Real Estate’s bidding and has received Big Real Estate’s big money for his campaigns, most especially his current mayoral bid.
But one semi-distinctive identity that Adams carved for himself during the campaign was the Democratic version of a Republican trope: that liberal cultural and economic elites were seeking to impose their politics on working-class voters who didn’t share them. He focused, as Republicans do, on the “defund the police” battle cry that, in actuality, very few Democratic elected officials espouse.
To explain the resonance this attack had with Adams’s mostly working-class voters, a look at who occupies New York’s public spaces, and who doesn’t, may prove helpful. It’s disproportionately the working class who ride the subways and live in neighborhoods where crime is more of a threat. It’s disproportionately the working-class elderly who fear being trapped in these spaces and unable to flee.
Adams was sufficiently politically adept to exploit these fears, highlighting the kind of identity politics that would most appeal to such voters. He was the Black cop on the beat, a neighborhood fixture who presumably wouldn’t threaten Blacks because they were Black. He didn’t particularly highlight economic issues, because his status as a Democrat had that sufficiently covered with all but the most progressive voters, whom he wasn’t targeting anyway. And he’d been in the public eye long enough so that his core voters believed he was a known quantity, though the various deals he’d been involved in—none of which had really been subjected to widespread media scrutiny—suggested that there was a lot about him his core voters (and not just his core voters) didn’t know.
In a sense, Adams reminds me of a long-vanished species of New York pol: a Tammany guy.
In a sense, Adams reminds me of a long-vanished species of New York pol: a Tammany guy. Not that he’s part of a machine that is supported by graft and employs and rewards its supporters; such machines vanished in the middle of the last century. But like Adams, Tammany’s elected officials were devoid of discernable ideology. They based their appeal not just on that of Tammany itself, but also on ethnic solidarity, on working-class resentment of good-government elites, and on being established figures in their respective communities, though they generally had to be prodded by non-Tammany progressives to support economic policies that actually benefited those communities. (The greatest of Tammany bosses, Charles Murphy, had to be persuaded by a young reformer named Frances Perkins—who would later become FDR’s labor secretary—that supporting wage and hour legislation would actually help the organization’s electoral prospects. She was right; it did.)
Adams hasn’t been alone in bringing Republican-sounding attacks on progressives into the Democrats’ discourse. South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn has periodically excoriated the Squad and others of his Democratic congressional colleagues for being wedded to theory rather than the hard realities that are part of Black working-class lives, even though those Black working-class lives would be literally and figuratively enriched by the far-reaching economic reforms progressives are proposing (see: Charles Murphy and Frances Perkins, or for that matter, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders).
Given his susceptibility to the lure of the realtors and other mega-monied interests, it’s by no means clear that Adams will embrace progressive economic policies as Biden has. Securing such an embrace will require constant pressure from the city’s progressives, from its more liberal unions; groups like Make the Road, the Working Families Party, and DSA; perhaps the Times editorial pages (progressive on policies though not always on candidates); the left wing of the city council; and the two other citywide elected officials, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and newly elected Comptroller Brad Lander, who repeatedly showed during his tenure on the council that he’s the smartest and most strategic progressive in any American city government.
Did progressives blow the mayoral primary? The fact that both Maya Wiley and Scott Stringer mounted credible candidacies until Stringer’s imploded meant that key progressive leaders (like AOC) and institutions (like the WFP) didn’t give full-throated support to Wiley until very late in the game. The young, upstart democratic socialists who won elections throughout the city’s five boroughs were likely too young and too upstart to mount a mayoral campaign at this time.
Looking at America’s three mega-cities—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—it’s clear that today’s left can win numerous council seats and sub-mayoral citywide positions, but not yet the mayor’s office. That office may remain out of reach until the left can convince more unions and more working-class voters that its economic policies would really improve their lives, and that its other policies wouldn’t threaten them. Convincing workers, and not just in cities, that a conversion to a green economy can actually be beneficial will require formulating and publicizing detailed economic-transition policies that still need a great deal of work. Convincing working-class voters that policing can be transformed, though not abolished, will require a great deal more thought within the left as to what, exactly, that actually means, and what a critical mass of working-class voters of all races will actually support.
Until progressives have figured this out, we may see more latter-day Tammany Dems like Adams in mayor’s offices.
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