Eric Adams may be making all the headlines, but he wasn’t the only winner of last month’s Democratic mayoral primary. The Brooklyn borough president’s success was also a triumph for “everyday New Yorkers,” to hear him tell it — the bulk of residents whose political tastes run less spicy than those of the city’s left. Most of Adams’s coalition would gladly trade a systemic overhaul for the blander flavors of incrementalism: a little more safety, slightly better jobs, moderately improved schools.
His base looks like the president’s in this way, observed Ron Klain. “I think that the coalition that Mr. Adams put together in New York is not dissimilar to the coalition that President Biden put together,” the White House chief of staff told the New York Times earlier this month. “A coalition of working-class voters, African American voters overwhelmingly, and voters who want to see progress on core issues.”
The self-styled “Biden of Brooklyn” agrees. “I was encouraged by what the president did,” Adams told Jake Tapper on Sunday. “And I knew what I was hearing on the ground, that everyday New Yorkers were just like everyday Americans. They wanted, not a government of just an ideological approach, but a pragmatic approach.”
These claims shouldn’t be taken at face value. Any politician who suggests that pragmatism means being less ideological is selling something. Adams is no different.
Most pundits interpret the Democratic nominee’s success through the lens of policing. From the 1980s into the mid-’90s, Adams was a cop who loudly decried the racist excesses of the NYPD, drawing the ire of superiors and motivating investigations into his conduct. By the time he launched his mayoral campaign, however, he was touting his policing bona fides and posturing as a more traditional law-and-order politico. The strategy worked. At a time when crime is topping New Yorkers’ list of concerns, Adams has succeeded at being characterized in the press not only as the field’s most staunchly pro-police candidate, but as the final word on the doomed political prospects of defunding the NYPD.
He has succeeded, in other words, at being depicted as the field’s pragmatist, a guy who refused to bend to unreasonable leftist ideologues and interlopers, and instead spoke to the concerns of normal people. This was a coup on several fronts. Adams is now the de facto standard bearer against a movement that most of his challengers also opposed. (Even those who’d supported the idea in the past rushed to distance themselves from it when the race started.) And he accomplished this while casting his coalition of voters as the true and rightful New Yorkers, whom he’s rewarded — unfortunately, for those who want less invasive and violent policing — with promises that methods like “stop and frisk” will remain indefinitely on the table.
Defunding the police polls poorly. It’s specious to view Adams’s success as a referendum on its merits, but it clearly reaffirms what we already knew: that politicians try to avoid unpopular stances, while activists tend to support them despite their unpopularity.
It’s also true that adopting more widely embraced positions, like expanding the scope of policing, is neither innately pragmatic nor any less ideological. If calls to defund the cops are dangerously doctrinaire, what about calls to reinvest money and resources in violent right-wingers who only answer to democratically elected authorities when they want to?
If recent history shows us anything, it’s that the police are not dispassionate custodians of public safety. They are fiercely ideological and even political, often in the most crudely partisan terms. This is evident in the routine behavior of cops and their most visible political organs: police unions. Law-enforcement labor organization officials were rabid defenders of police impunity long before defunding and abolition entered the popular lexicon, when all that most people were asking for was basic accountability.
Most of these leaders have roundly rejected even that. Some of their greatest hits of late include coordinating protests against political regimes that they thought challenged their authority. When Mayor Bill de Blasio attended a funeral for two slain NYPD cops in 2014, hordes of their comrades turned their backs in rebuke. When the administration of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in Atlanta supported the firing of the cop who killed Rayshard Brooks, more than 170 officers caught the “blue flu” in protest, calling out sick and leaving their stations sparsely manned.
Several have acted as surrogates for then-President Trump. The heads of the largest police unions in New York, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis endorsed him and spoke on his behalf after popular protests against police violence roiled their respective cities.
During protests in Chicago last year, a group of more than a dozen cops broke into the campaign offices of Representative Bobby Rush. They raided the building’s food supply, kicked up their feet on the furniture, and, in some cases, took naps. When Rush and the mayor dared to suggest that this wasn’t acceptable, the head of the local police union defended his members and castigated their critics.
The company line for police officers and their unions, in all but the rarest cases, is that if the police do it, it must be right.
Even those who aren’t actively engaging in political campaigns or feuds with politicians broadcast their sense of impunity by other means. The prevalence of the “thin blue line” flag is a characteristic example. Popularized after a Ferguson cop killed Mike Brown in Missouri, the emblem was a tacit rebuke of the Black Lives Matter protest movement that doubled as a call to submit to police authority in all its forms.
It also functions as a banner of sovereignty — cops are of the state, but also above it when they think it benefits them. As Daunte Wright sat bleeding to death in his car after being shot by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, in April, the police station was flying the “thin blue line” flag above its headquarters.
These examples suggest an ideology as well-defined and persistent as any activist position on law-enforcement funding. To say that entrusting cops with more money, supplies, and responsibilities is mere pragmatism belies the necessary endorsement of a form of reactionary authoritarianism.
It’s in Eric Adams’s interest to push the idea that this is a middle-of-the-road position. Its broad contours have majority support, and he’s branded himself as the candidate of everyday New Yorkers. But it’s also an example of populist rhetoric being used as cover for vicious status quo politics. Its popularity doesn’t make it virtuous, nor any less extreme.