At a key moment in the GOP presidential debate on Thursday night, Ted Cruz criticized Donald Trump for his “New York values.” When pressed by the moderator to define the term, Cruz stopped short of insulting the entire Empire State. But he noted pointedly that “not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan.”
Trump’s rejoinder was effective, all the more so for being predictable: He invoked 9/11—“the smell of death” in the streets—and the spirit of the New Yorkers who came together to rebuild the city. He spoke with feeling, and he pretty deftly closed off Cruz’s line of attack.
I’m all for honoring the 9/11 spirit of resilience and common cause. In fact, I agree with Trump: New York values are worth defending. But as a native of Poughkeepsie —a suburb 90 miles north of the Big Apple but very much in its orbit of culture and values, I have a rather different take on “New York values.”
My love of this country, I realize as I reflect on my second-generation American upbringing, was shaped profoundly by being born a New Yorker. My New York brand of patriotism is about celebrating immigrant energy and cultural mash-ups. It’s about loving the ambition and hustle, and the jostling juxtapositions of the big city. It’s about the tolerance that is both cause and effect of an ecosystem where diversity-as-strength is not a slogan but a business model.
It’s about exceptionalism, but earned exceptionalism—the exceptionalism of “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” It is, admittedly, a parochial cosmopolitanism: New Yorkers think they can take on the rest of the world put together because they are the rest of the world put together. It’s embodied in uber-hybrids like Jay-Z and Jeter, Sinatra and Sotomayor; in the musical Hamilton, in the life of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created the musical, and, of course, in the life of Hamilton himself.
Alas, no one on the GOP debate stage exhibited these New York values—or cared to. And that’s unfortunate for Republicans. Because the party that embraces and embodies these values will own the future in American politics. As the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg writes in his new book America Ascendant, metropolitan multiculturalism has long been the source of reform and social innovation in the U.S. And in this age when whites are approaching non-majority status, it will be again. Yes, metropolitan multiculturalism creates problems of its own. But they are the problems of dynamism rather than stagnation.
What I call New York patriotism is different from the rural patriotism of the heartland. It is not as worshipful of tradition or as comfortable with conformity. It doesn’t have the hang-ups of Southern patriotism, which valorizes states-rights sentiments and keeps the idea of the United States at arms length (except when it comes to a strong national military). It’s unlike New England patriotism too, for though it is nearly as old and venerable as the Boston strain of American identity, it doesn’t venerate the founding the same way. It’s got a shorter memory. And it’s not as sunny as California patriotism or as sodden as Cascadian patriotism.
Now, of course, all this isn’t to say that New York values are better than all these other variants. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, the U.S. is a big country. Different regions will emphasize different moral foundations. And the country as a whole is stronger and more interesting for having this complex amalgam of tradition and anti-tradition, of Federalism and anti-Federalism, of Yankee memory and immigrant ignorance.
But I would assert—and I say this as a proud Seattle-ite for the last 16 years, so I can’t be accused of mere local boosterism—that what makes America truly indispensable are New York values, properly understood: fearlessness about an increasingly globalized future, comfort in close quarters with the unfamiliar, an abiding belief in enterprise and innovation, and a deep faith in the problem-solving power of well-activated diversity.
There’s no inherent reason why Democrats should own these ideas. Indeed, some of my Republican friends would claim them too. Now what they need is a presidential candidate who isn't afraid to join them—and to reveal a New York state of mind.
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