New Yorkers have been convinced for decades that some radical political correction was coming; the gap between the wealthy and the poor has simply become too broad and vivid to last. Conservatives imagined the revolution would be heralded by demagogic race-baiters, like Tom Wolfe’s Reverend Bacon; liberals envisioned charismatic figures of tribal ascent, like Chang-Rae Lee’s great, bootstraps-clutching immigrant pol John Kwang. And yet when the revolution came this year, it did not come from the projects. In the decisive primary election, Bill de Blasio built his greatest margins in brownstone Brooklyn, in lower Manhattan, in Williamsburg, and among white men across the city. He ran his Tale of Two Cities campaign, and his largest share of votes came from the oldest and most well-educated New Yorkers. This dynamic, in which a powerful voting bloc against inequality came from the very wealthy (if not quite the one percent), gave the mayoral election its curious cultural cast: a group of candidates as archetypal working-class strivers (Christine Quinn, the Tracy Flick gunner; Bill Thompson, a figure of caution and coalitions; and Anthony Weiner, a cell-phone salesman on the make), outflanked to the left by the closest thing to an aristocrat in the race, De Blasio, with his pink ties and foggy Boston vowels, dutifully telling every audience that the political world that they knew was about to come to an end.
Given his past as an operative, there was surely some opportunism in De Blasio’s recasting as class warfare’s chief exhorter. And yet it seems fitting that New York has been the site of one of the powerful nascent movements in American politics: the radicalization of the professional class, its lawyers and doctors and liberal artists, who increasingly see themselves as part of the disenfranchised 99 percent. Whether the forces that brought De Blasio to Gracie Mansion can transform America depends on whether his administration really can build in New York a laboratory for reducing inequality. But they have already begun to transform the American left. The liberalism of the upper middle class has long been a clutch of movements built to defend the grievances of other people—the poor, African-Americans, union laborers—and so has always carried a whiff of condescension, of inauthenticity. In De Blasio’s election the shape of class warfare shifted, as New York’s liberal Establishment looked into the face of the disenfranchised and saw, for perhaps the first time, its own image.