Apocalypse Not: Conservatives and New York

Photograph Source: Jesús Angel Talansky – CC BY 2.0

The predictable facts about apocalypses are that, despite all their diversity, while they are forever present and appear to provoke genuine excitement or trembling fear for many souls, thus far they have proven to be very rare events. Evangelical types have had their eyes out for signs of the antichrist from the beginning. Nero was an early candidate, the 666 of the Book of Revelation, but countless figures since, from the worthy to the petty, have drawn suspicion. The year 1000 was sure to be the moment. So was February 24 1524, the year 1844, and the majority of the years that have since passed with the earth still intact. Dec 21, 2012 was incorrectly identified as the end of the Mayan calendar when a mysterious planet would collide with Earth, or some kind of reverse in the Earth’s rotation would take place causing strange, untold calamity.

Of course, there have been no shortage of the secular variety: overpopulation, the Andromeda strain, Y2K. Sometimes such visions, rather than spelling the end of Homo sapiens as a whole, are confined only to certain places. New York has always stirred the imagination of doomsayers. The city has been totaled by every means literature and Hollywood has been able to conjure up. There has always been the huge anti-urban strain of American culture, which as the largest city in the country New York has the served as the most obvious target.

In what was perhaps the most memorable moment of his forgettable 2016 presidential campaign, during a debate in the Republican primaries, Ted Cruz uttered the phrase “New York values” as a smear to New Yorker Donald Trump’s conservative credibility. Even before his explanation of, “I think most people know exactly what New York values are, everybody understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal, pro-abortion, or pro-gay marriage, focus around money and the media,” it was probably apparent to most what Cruz meant. Trump, while not specifically targeting New York, would get into a similar act himself painting Hillary Clinton (and Cruz’s wife) as tools of Goldman Sachs, and the finance industry in general, by way of her enormous speaker fees – this of course before Trump promptly appointed numerous Goldman Sachs alums to his administration. Then there was Trump’s inauguration speech featuring the imagery of “American Carnage,” meaning in his vernacular, cities overrun by violence and illegal immigrants. By the end of Trump’s term, his Justice Department was targeting ‘anarchist jurisdictions.’

Libertinism, violence, banks, immigrants – that covers almost every pillar of conservative populist mythology, all that is missing is the dreaded “socialism” and that has never been overly difficult to spot, especially in cities with many “foreigners” and a recent history of strong unions. Yet what separates much of New York’s apocalyptic fearmongering is that rather than being based on a future of tribulation, the day of judgement harkens a return to the actual lived past. Tucker Carlson, perhaps the most prominent present day Cassandra, recently harangued his audience with this:  ‘New York today looks like New York in the 1970s, but without Studio 54. The city has once again become dirty, chaotic, and increasingly dangerous. The parks and train stations look like refugee camps for mentally ill drug users. Just as in the 1970s, a lot of people who live in New York are fleeing. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you’re reading this right now, maskless, from your patio in Ft. Lauderdale or Naples, a glass of wine in hand, and thinking to yourself: “Why should I care about what happens in New York? I voted with my feet and got out of that place. Let it rot.” Carlson, after adding ‘And, honestly, that’s a fair point’, did correctly conclude: ‘New York is the biggest city in the United States. More than eight million people live there, including Americans. What happens in New York affects all of us. In the end, we’ll have to pay for the damage anyway, so we might as well root for the best outcome.’

The outcome referred to is the outcome of the current mayoral race to replace two-term mayor Bill de Blasio. One would not think that such an insipid figure as de Blasio would have it in him to be one of the horsemen, but he has been a star in that show for years. The Democratic primary is coming on Tuesday and the universal consensus is the winner of that contest will be elected in November. The candidates are legion. Yet despite the interesting wrinkle that this is the first election to feature ranked choice voting, the race has zero juice. It can be seen as a duller version of elections past. Andrew Yang, somewhat famous from his feeble attempt to run for president, plays the role of Michael Bloomberg, the former three-term mayor, albeit a much less wealthy and successful edition; the technocratic, problem-solving, centrist outsider who knows from his private sector experience how to make governing efficient. Brooklyn borough president and former police captain Eric Adams is running as a Democratic version of Rudy Giuliani. In fact, Adams says if elected claims he’ll dispense with a security detail and pack his own heat when walking the streets. Even Giuliani never reached for such manliness. Scott Stringer, the current City Comptroller, was an early progressive favorite until allegations of sexual harassment emerged. His prospects remain unclear. Like de Blasio he doesn’t cut much of a figure. Diane Morales was another candidate that reached for the progressive flag. She was met with a work stoppage by many of her own staff over accusations of a toxic working environment. The current progressive favorite is Maya Wiley, MSNBC legal analyst and former counsel to de Blasio, as well as former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Another candidate, Kathryn Garcia, got endorsements from the New York Times and the Daily News.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have echoed the party nationally by veering into total Crankville. Leading their polls is Curtis Sliwa, founder of the clownish outfit The Guardian Angels. Founded in 1979, its members don red berets and go on ‘safety patrols’ in a silly effort to combat crime (though Sliwa has admitted to staging crimes to bring the group attention). He has spent recent years as a demagogue on talk radio. His opponent is businessman Fernando Mateo, who lives mostly outside the city in Westchester County and maintains Trump won the last presidential election. This earned Mateo an endorsement from Michael Flynn.

For such a pivotal contest, reports are that the turnout for early voting has been low. This is not surprising. Voter participation rates for mayoral elections have not cracked 40 percent since the mid-1990s. The last election in 2017 drew only 21.7 percent of registered voters (meaning only 8.5 percent of the population at large voted to reelect deBlasio).

What is different about this election? COVID hit New York first and hardest. Urban planning for generations has overly focused on expanding the central business district in Midtown and the pandemic has shut it down for over year. Property taxes represent roughly half the city’s tax revenue. With offices and hotels empty their market value fell by about 15 percent. In January the tax hit for the city next year was projected at $2.5 billion. The fear that remote work will become permanent has generated countless stories about a potential real estate collapse.

Yet the real issue is crime and disorder. Polls show that crime is understandably the top issue for voters. Overlapping crime in the public’s mind is the homeless crisis, particularly in relation to mental illness. Andrew Yang’s latest of many gaffes was his laughable get-tough attempt during the last Democratic debate: ‘Yes mentally ill people have rights, but you know who else has rights? We do!’ Still, it is certainly a fact that after over two decades of decline, crime has spiked during the pandemic. Shootings have more than doubled over the past year. The number of homeless people in New York now stands at over 53,000.

None of this is unique to New York. Crime is up nationally and homelessness is an issue for many cities. The right-wing chorus cackling over the fall of ‘blue’ cities is of course frivolous. The poorest states in the country have long been ‘red’ states, as are the rural areas drowning in opioids. What adds to the reactionary furor over New York’s current problems is that New York has represented a narrative of conservative triumph for the last three decades. According to this narrative, the city was rescued by a combination of austerity and tough on crime policing that started with the leadership of Ed Koch in the late 1970s, then most especially through the two terms of Rudy Giuliani, followed by the efficient three terms of Michael Bloomberg. Giuliani’s administration is credited with introducing broken windows policing; Bloomberg’s with stop and frisk. All this being undone by a naïve liberal philosophy represented by the weak, incompetent de Blasio administration.

Competence hardly reeks from de Blasio, yet this narrative can easily be penetrated. The recent rise in crime has been attributed to a number of policies: the end of stop and frisk, the limited decriminalization of marijuana, the defunding of the police, the bail reform law that came into effect in January 2020 and has since been narrowed, the release of people from Rikers Island to prevent the spread of COVID in the prison, and the dreaded Ferguson Effect. There is evidence that takes the sting out of each of these points. Stop and frisk was basically ended in 2014 (the number of stops were in decline in the last years of the Bloomberg’s term) and the violent crime numbers didn’t budge. The number of murders reached a new low in 2017. There is zero evidence that connects marijuana use with crime. New York experienced large-scale protests after Eric Gardner’s death in 2014 just as it did after killing of George Floyd in 2020. Evidence suggests that the NYPD staged an unofficial work stoppage after de Blasio publicly spoke of racial bias in policing. Crime didn’t rise a millimeter. NYPD commissioner at the time, Bill Bratton, dismissed the Ferguson Effect. In recent months gun arrests have been at an all-time high, hardly suggesting a police force on its heels.

Defunding the police has been mostly talk. The touted $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s almost $11 billion budget was a case of budget trickery. The actual cut was less than half the stated amount based mostly on projected overtime reductions, the rest simply was moved the other budget lines stilled used for policing. The bail reform law, which was passed at the state level, eliminated cash bail for low level crimes. After several high-profile incidents its scope was narrowed giving judges more leeway to order supervised release or incarceration. While the NYPD immediately screamed the law would lead to higher crime, early data bunked the idea that the law contributed to an increase in gun violence. This past February, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice released numbers that showed that 97 percent of the roughly 50,000 people awaiting trial monthly in 2020 have not been rearrested. Granted that still leaves a decent number who have been, however the myth of widespread lawlessness resulting from the law is not holding up.

Of course, all of this is taking place within the disruption of the pandemic that created a huge amount of unemployment and limited social services. The truth is it is not certain what is driving the crime spike. As the city reopens more evidence should come to light. However, it will be imperative for the next administration to focus intelligently on crime reduction or risk a major right-wing backlash.

As for the city’s finances, federal aid has helped buoyed New York through the pandemic. While budget projections foresee a short fall in coming years, these can be reversed if growth returns. For all the hysteria about the city’s real estate market it appears to be stabilizing. For better or worse the major tech companies, including Amazon and Google, are buying in New York. If the long-term budget is still unclear, it is likely the city will even run a budget surplus in 2022.

What does seem clear is that New York will not disappear but grind on like always. It is a city that has been reinvented throughout its history. Its last reinvention so championed by conservatives brought about the birth of neoliberalism. As a result, the poverty rate in New York is higher now than it was in the 1960s. There is still a chance for New York to reinvent itself as social democratic city. It is also clear that fight is ongoing.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).