Bloombergism with a Populist Mask

by Reihan Salam

There is a phrase one occasionally hears on the left — “There Is No Alternative,” or TINA, a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s frequent insistence that “there is no alternative,” or rather no viable or sensible alternative, to market-oriented policies. There are at least some liberals and social democrats who accept the basic TINA thesis, and who mainly seek to soften the hard edges of neoliberalism. But others insist that there really is an alternative to neoliberalism, and that neoliberalism is morally and intellectually bankrupt. This trope comes to mind as Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York city, takes office. In his surprisingly hard-edged, if not mean-spirited, inaugural address, de Blasio presented himself as a tribune of the people, and in the weeks leading up to his mayorality, he pledged to depart from his predecessor’s approach to stop-and-frisk and real estate development, which he maligned (and egregiously mischaracterized) at every turn. But in appointing Bill Bratton as his new police commissioner, de Blasio has all but acknowledged that stop-and-frisk will continue. And as Jim Dwyer of the New York Times recently observed, the number of stops has already fallen dramatically — so much so that it is hard to imagine it falling much further. Meanwhile, Stephen J. Smith of The Next City reports that de Blasio’s new deputy mayor for housing and urban development is a veteran of a number of real estate projects spearheaded by the Bloomberg administration:

“We can do so much more to lift people up by investing in our neighborhoods,” [Alicia] Glen said in a statement, “especially in the outer boroughs.” She also said she would “not just [focus] on the large-scale projects that have been front and center over the past decade, but focusing on a comprehensive approach to neighborhood revitalization.”

The media played this up as some sort of rebuke to Bloomberg — who, of course, was an important partner for Glen’s work with Goldman — but it’s largely a continuation of his administration’s affordable housing strategy. Of the 160,000 housing units “created or preserved” through his New Housing Marketplace plan, only about 51,000 were located in Manhattan, with more than 100,000 spread throughout the five boroughs, overwhelmingly in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

And while “large-scale projects” like Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards made the most headlines, they were a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of thousands of units built on city-owned land in places like Morrisania in the Bronx or Brownsville in Brooklyn. The last major affordable housing project of the Bloomberg administration — a completely subsidized, 985-unit, five-building, mixed-income complex in the Melrose section of the South Bronx – is more representative of Bloomberg’s approach to affordable housing than the megaprojects Glen seems to be subtly dissing.

So it seems that when it comes to governing monolithically Democratic New York city, the politics of which must balance the interests of a large, vocal minority of organized public employees and a large, vocal minority of high-earners, there is no alternative to technocratic neoliberalism. The alternative I can imagine would embrace the neoliberal framework, yet which would place heavier emphasis on grassroots entrepreneurship, in the private sector (relaxing licensing requirements, lowering taxes, letting informal transit boom) and the public sector (moving from an urban school system to a system of schools, reforming the city’s approach to Medicaid to promote business model innovation). But instead de Blasio is offering Bloombergism with a populist mask. We’ll see how well it plays. The really interesting question is whether de Blasio’s left-liberal rhetoric is designed to shield him from attacks from public sector unions in the event he decides to be a tough negotiator, in which case his flights of rhetorical Jacobinism are perhaps a price worth paying, or if he’s playing a different game.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.