New York’s Socialist Revolution Isn’t What It Seems

The success of left-wing candidates in the Empire State has less to do with their ideas than with the decline of the Republican Party.

Jeenah Moon / Reuters

Bernie Sanders has a new rival in Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, who recently made a feisty case that he, not the senator from Vermont, should be the tribune of the Democratic Party’s socialist left. Jaded New Yorkers have for the most part treated de Blasio’s presidential campaign as a joke, one that reflects the delusions of a mayor notorious for his laziness and gargantuan self-regard.

Notably, disdain for de Blasio seems to unite New Yorkers from across the political spectrum, including more than a few young leftists who toil in his administration. So it has been striking to see the warm reception for de Blasio’s performance at the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign in Miami, where he distinguished himself with his eagerness to interrupt his fellow presidential aspirants and to stake out the most leftward position available on any given issue.

Whether de Blasio has staying power is an open question. I’ll admit I’m skeptical. Nevertheless, it is fitting that de Blasio is contesting Sanders’s hold on the country’s democratic socialists, for it is the gentrifying precincts of New York City, not the college towns of rural Vermont, that are the heartland of American socialism. Even if avowed socialists are ultimately vanquished in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, as seems likely, socialist politicians are gaining real power and influence in the Empire State. Though many socialists will no doubt attribute this development to the widespread appeal of their ideas, the truth is that it is more an artifact of low-turnout Democratic primaries and the Republican Party’s precipitous decline in America’s densely populated urban regions.

Shortly before de Blasio’s coming-out party in Miami, Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, appeared to have narrowly defeated Melinda Katz, a veteran local politician, in the Democratic primary for district attorney of Queens. (When all the ballots were counted, Katz had a 20-vote lead; the race is now headed for a recount.)  Cabán’s strong showing was, of course, touted as a sign that New York’s socialist insurgency has staying power. What it also reflected, however, is the fact that primary turnout was dismally low. Whereas 217,000 Queens Democrats voted in their party’s 2016 primary, a presidential year, only 85,000 turned out in June.

Primary voters in off-year elections tend to be more educated, more affluent, and more ideological than in other elections, which is a recipe that has served socialist candidates in New York City rather well. If she ultimately prevails with the support of a 34,000-vote plurality from a small pool of Democratic primary voters in Queens, Cabán is almost certain to win the general election and then to shift criminal-justice policy sharply to the left. And she’ll be in a position to do so even if a far larger number of Queens residents object.

None of this would have been possible without the withering of the New York GOP. For much of the postwar era, New York Republicans were able to maintain an ideological profile separate from their national party’s, one that offered fiscal rectitude and bourgeois morality rather than the Sun Belt libertarianism and overt piety associated with the GOP in other regions of the country. The New York GOP undoubtedly made missteps during the Giuliani and Pataki years, but the real driver of its decline was the larger nationalization of American politics.

As David Schleicher of Yale Law School has argued, “there is a mismatch between the level at which party identification is created and the level of government at issue in [local] elections.” Voters today come to their political opinions by aligning with either the Republicans or Democrats on questions of national concern, and then applying those allegiances to local and state races. The result is that because most New Yorkers reject the party of Donald Trump, local politicians like Tiffany Cabán and Bill de Blasio face only token opposition in general elections.

A similar dynamic has helped transform the New York State legislature. To understand why New York’s politics have moved sharply to the left since the 2018 election, it is helpful to ignore the state’s many outsize personalities and focus instead on a series of long-term trends. First, a growing share of the state’s population can be found in New York City. When you add in the city’s suburbs, downstate New York accounts for two-thirds of the state’s population. Second, downstate New York has grown more monolithically Democratic in state and local elections as the Republican Party has come to be seen as the party of socially conservative rural whites hostile to the region’s more socially liberal sensibilities.

Of course, this is not unique to downstate New York. The decline of the GOP in dense urban areas can be seen throughout the country, in blue states and red, as Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford University, observes in his important new book, Why Cities Lose. But it has been especially pronounced in the New York City region.

For several years, a small band of New York’s moderate Democratic state senators, the Independent Democratic Conference, formed a pivotal bloc that caucused with Republicans in the upper house of the New York State legislature to form a narrow majority. They did so in part out of an opportunistic desire to hold the reins of power, but also out of a sense that they needed to temper the ideological enthusiasm of New York’s activist left.

As long as this coalition of Republicans and rogue Democrats held the state Senate, left-of-center Democrats in the state assembly couldn’t get their way on taxes, charter schools, and rent regulation, among other issues. But in 2018 six of the moderate Democratic state senators who had previously aligned themselves with Republicans lost their seats to self-described progressives who campaigned on legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, single-payer health insurance, and extending new protections to unauthorized immigrants. In short, the sensibilities of the urban activist left triumphed over those of the suburban center.

Armed with majorities in both houses of the state legislature, Democrats have begun clearing the backlog on the progressive wish list, including the most stringent rent-control law since New York City was flooded with GIs returning from the Second World War. The law’s main thrusts are twofold: It forecloses the path to market prices and greatly reduces landlords’ incentives to maintain their buildings and units.

After a series of reforms passed under former Governor George Pataki, the number of rent-regulated units in New York City fell as property owners were given greater freedom to raise rents, old tenants were replaced by new ones (vacancy allowances), and monthly rents passed the state’s vacancy-decontrol threshold (which was set at $2,000 in 1993 and then raised to $2,733 in 2015), after which a unit was eligible to be rented at market rates once its current tenants moved out. Additionally, though yearly rent hikes in stabilized apartments are set by the Rent Guidelines Board, owners were previously allowed to tack on additional rent increases of up to 6 percent if they invested in the building or the unit.

New York’s progressive lawmakers thought this provision was too often used as a cover for excessive rent hikes, and so they’ve tightly constrained the extent to which landlords can recoup capital investments through higher rents. One likely consequence is that New York’s landlords will grow less inclined to invest in maintaining or improving rental housing. As for those who’ve made large investments in rent-stabilized housing in recent years in the expectation that they’d eventually be able to charge market-rate rents for their most valuable units, well, they’re about to see their investments crash in value, which in turn will discourage other investors from pouring their money into rental housing. The legislature could have taken steps to address this problem—for one, it could have paired new rent regulations with measures that would make it more attractive to invest in new market-rate rental housing in New York, which is in desperately short supply. But it did not.

The new legislation promises trouble along a number of other fronts as well. As The Wall Street Journal has detailed, the bill’s benefits will be concentrated in the hands of relatively well-off Manhattanites, who, though not rich per se, are far from the neediest New Yorkers, many of whom live in dangerously crowded illegal apartments on the edge of the city. It is in the city’s wealthiest borough where the largest gap exists between market and regulated rents, and where renters are effectively being subsidized to the tune of thousands of dollars.

It is not at all clear that these renters are more deserving than low-income outer-borough renters. The other challenge, endemic to rent-control efforts across the country, is that the forces that generate the political appetite for rent control are also the ones that ensure it will be counterproductive.

According to a report from the state comptroller, more than a quarter of the city’s renters pay 50 percent or more of their income in rent. Generally, policy makers and experts consider an affordability crisis to be an environment where a sizable share of the population is paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent. By that measure, New York’s housing crisis really did warrant major intervention. It’s just a shame that the more than 6 million New Yorkers who don’t currently reside in rent-regulated units, and all those looking to move to New York City in search of opportunity in the years to come, will now see their housing situation become more dire.

The reason, as Roderick M. Hills Jr. recently argued in The Washington Post, is that price controls encourage “producers to move investments out of price-capped commodities—namely, rental housing—into owner-occupied housing such as condominiums,” which in turn “diminishes the total supply of rental housing and increases the rents of any units that are not controlled.” Again, relaxing local land-use regulations might mitigate this effect, but the New York State legislature has betrayed no interest in going down that route.

Since 2018, despite a governor who is clearly wary of the far left, it is the democratic socialists who’ve seized the policy initiative in New York State, as moderate Democrats, fearful of left-wing primary challengers, have put up little resistance to their agenda. The long-term viability of this left-wing politics, though, is unclear.

Whether it be in two or six years, at some point Donald Trump will no longer be an omnipresent figure in our politics, and while he will undoubtedly have left his mark on the Republican Party at that point, it is hard to imagine another candidate so perfectly designed to raise the ire of suburban moderates. Additionally, by that time, suburban New Yorkers will have been reminded of all the places where they diverge from the fiscally expansive agenda of the urban socialist left.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has shown an Olympic gymnast’s flexibility on so many issues, has been unbending in holding down property taxes. Moreover, the suburban state senators who flipped the chamber balked at the prospect of statewide single-payer health care, not least out of concern for what it would have done to the finances of New York’s major hospitals. Should New York’s Democratic left stray too far from Cuomo’s political formula of marrying progressive symbolism with (relative) fiscal discipline, expect the revolution to fizzle out.