The Era of Liberal Peace Is Over

The left might have Adams surrounded, but he has proven to be a cunning opponent.

Progressives may pine for Bill de Blasio soon enough. Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux
Progressives may pine for Bill de Blasio soon enough. Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

For the left, primary night delivered the definition of a mixed verdict. Eric Adams, a former police captain, dominated the Democratic mayoral field on a law-and-order message, unabashedly rejecting the “defund the police” movement and embracing various progressive bogeymen, such as real-estate developers and charter-school patrons. The next city comptroller is likely to be Brad Lander, who prominently featured his Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsement in TV ads. Joining Lander will be Jumaane Williams, who breezed to re-election as public advocate. Bringing up the rear is a City Council that will be shifted hard to the left.

So if Adams is able to win through subsequent ranked-choice rounds, then New York City could be entering its most politically volatile period in decades.

On Election Night, he spoke about his affinity for David Dinkins, New York’s first Black mayor — Adams is on track to be our second — but he campaigned more like a revanchist Rudy Giuliani, maligning one rival as a “fraud” and a “liar” and warning, without evidence or logic, that his opponents were engaging in voter suppression. As mayor, Adams would be able to wield his coalition of big real estate and organized labor against progressive activists and politicians the way Andrew Cuomo has. He will possess a reliable base of working-class Black and Latino voters. Unafraid of leaping into scrums and settling scores, he will, like Cuomo, emerge as an opponent the left dreads: powerful, cunning, and relentless. He is the kind of man who will, as promised, carry a gun on him when he walks through City Hall.

But it is not all gloom and doom for the ascendant left, whether it’s the Working Families Party, the Democratic Socialists of America, or the attendant activist groups. If the results hold, New York’s Democrats will be riven as never before (at least in recent history), with the moderate Adams pitted against politicians who do take their cues from AOC. Lander is an old ally of the WFP and seemed to easily best Corey Johnson, the more moderate City Council speaker, in a primary that saw Johnson consolidate the endorsements of organized labor to little effect.

Williams ran a DSA- and WFP-backed campaign for lieutenant governor in 2018 and might be the broader left’s most popular elected official outside of AOC. Like Adams, he is Black and has a political base in Flatbush, not far from Adams’s Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. He is one of the few politicians in New York (or anywhere) who has managed to unite white progressives and Black moderates; if he runs for mayor one day, he will be formidable.

It is easy to see both Lander and Williams, press-savvy pols with large social-media followings and proudly left-wing politics, emerging as able foils in the Adams era, teaming up for policy reports and outflanking the new mayor in the newspapers, on TV, and online. They will probably not be alone: City Council, where nearly 40 new members will take office next year, is expected to feature at least two DSA members and many Democrats with views that are at minimum DSA-adjacent. There will be a faction of furious, outer-borough moderates too — NIMBY demagogues like Bob Holden and Tony Avella should make plenty of noise — and this council might be the most fractious and unwieldy New York has ever seen.

All of this makes for a dynamic radically different from the last time there was such turnover in the five boroughs: 2013. Back then, Bill de Blasio rode to power as a popular progressive with a biracial family and was fawned over as an antidote to Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years of oligarch-like rule. De Blasio, of course, would become deeply disliked across swaths of the city, especially in white neighborhoods, but it is easy to forget how compelling his victory once was and how his mandate was perceived within government. De Blasio was able, in effect, to pick the speaker of the City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and enjoy a brief period of comity with the other citywide elected officials of the time, such as Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James. All of them were center-left Democrats who did not differ much in ideology. James even sang de Blasio’s name, literally, at one campaign stop.

That era is long gone — Jumaane Williams will never sing for Adams. AOC has the Twitter perch to flay the new mayor as much as anyone, if she so chooses. In 2013, the idea of admitted socialists winning office was laughable. Now they are serving in city, state, and federal offices. Adams can argue he is speaking for the true New York, the blue-collar outer boroughs. While he once told me he would be a mayor for everyone, “socialists” and “communists,” deep down Adams knows he has a base to tend to and that everyone else will only mean so much.

All of this could lead to open warfare. Adams is emboldened, rightfully so. He will interpret his win as a mandate and act accordingly. The left, in its own down-ballot triumphs, will find every reason to fight back and frustrate whatever it is Adams has planned, such as expanding charter schools or boosting stop and frisk.

The question looming over all of this is what kind of mayor will Adams be. His proposed agenda, so far, is quite thin, and he spent most of the election railing against rising crime. That is one part of being mayor but not all of it. As he enthusiastically fundraised from the powerful industry, Adams once said he was “real estate.” If he pursues development in the style of Bloomberg — luxury towers in working-class neighborhoods, downzoning in leafy enclaves — and attempts aggressive rent hikes on stabilized apartments, he will meet far more opposition than Bloomberg ever did. The last Republican mayor had his billions to muzzle or outright ignore the unruly masses. Adams will not be so lucky.

These ideological tensions are inevitable in a one-party town but will come to a head soon. In the 1990s, the left was demoralized, as the old liberal labor unions sold out to Giuliani, who once seemed invincible. Bloomberg’s 2000s neutered the left and turned enough Democrats into acolytes of his top-down technocracy. De Blasio’s 2010s swung the city leftward, but by today’s standards, his brand is rather tepid: He’s the kind of liberal who will speak at AIPAC conferences and flack for the NYPD as it beats down Black Lives Matters protesters.

The 2020s will offer something new: a clarifying struggle between two factions with distinctly different ideas about how to govern America’s largest city. The likely next mayor will not be shy about picking sides.

New York City’s Era of Liberal Peace Is Over