A candidate for mayor wants New York to be a “fun city” and thinks that by applying “modern management techniques” to municipal government, he can cut costs, improve efficiency, and deliver better services, from policing to garbage pickup and schools, for all New Yorkers. He is distrustful of public-school teachers and looks to private foundations for guidance on how to reform education and reduce racial disparities.
Who is this mayor? The description will fit Andrew Yang if he is elected. But it also describes John Lindsay, mayor of New York City from 1966 through 1973.
Lindsay came out of the now-extinct liberal wing of the Republican Party. He was a strong voice for civil rights and social spending, and against the Vietnam War, positioning himself to the left of almost all mainstream politicians in the city. But he was also an advocate of supposedly technocratic policies that changed municipal government for the worse.
As mayor, Lindsay initiated the practice of hiring consulting firms at enormous cost to advise on how to restructure city government. Most disastrously, Lindsay hired the RAND Corporation to create a computer model of where fire stations could be closed to increase efficiency.
As we now know, such models often include the racist biases of their creators. In this case, RAND recommended closing fire departments in poor communities. The result was a wave of arson which destroyed the homes of 600,000 New Yorkers, mainly in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
In the end, Lindsay’s faith in what he believed was the science of management was misplaced. He didn’t make city government more efficient, instead wasting ever more money on consultants’ fees. He and his management gurus had no response to the structural forces that were transforming New York City in the 1960s and ’70s: deindustrialization and the loss of working-class jobs, which left the city unable to provide employment or social services to the new waves of immigrants who joined the growing number of residents impoverished by capitalist restructuring.
NYC’s collapse during Lindsay’s mayoralty had two dire consequences. First, it degraded life for the city’s most vulnerable. Second, it discredited what in the late 1960s and early ’70s passed for progressive politics and governance. The political consequences were severe. Within the city, Lindsay was followed (after hack Democrat Abe Beame’s single term) by twelve years of race-baiting by neoliberal Ed Koch, and after a brief interlude by liberal David Dinkins, twenty years of deeper cuts in social services and vicious policing under Giuliani and Bloomberg.
New York City in the 1960s and ’70s could have taken a different path than Lindsay’s technocratic liberalism. The city’s government, in response to the demands of a powerful labor movement and energetic socialist and communist organizers, had in the 1930s and ’40s created a range of programs that went well beyond those of the New Deal. New York City offered free college through a growing city university system, free health care in a network of public hospitals and clinics, subsidized public and middle-income housing, publicly funded cultural institutions, and more. These benefits were funded in part through federal New Deal and Great Society programs, but mainly by a progressive city income tax and real estate taxes that fell mainly on commercial properties.
Lindsay thus inherited a progressive fiscal system and institutions that delivered social services valued by the middle class as much as by the poor. He could have used that political base to build support for policies and programs that would have addressed the consequences of deindustrialization. But that would have required the mayor and other liberals to identify capitalists as the real agents of the city’s decline rather than claiming that managerial reforms and efficiency gains would be enough to allow the existing array of government programs to continue.
Lindsay’s subterfuges and incompetence led to a fiscal crisis that allowed bankers and his successors to eventually gut city programs. More critically, he undermined the opportunity to bring together unionized workers with the rising New Left and increasingly mobilized minority communities behind a revitalized vision of social-democratic government. That, in turn, made it possible for Ronald Reagan and others to hold out New York as an object lesson of liberalism’s supposed fiscal and moral bankruptcy, drastically narrowing the ideological debate and the possibilities of governmental policy in the decades after Lindsay left office.
The Problem With Andrew Yang
In recent years, the space for leftist politics in America has widened. Yang’s presidential campaign sought to harness popular discontent and gain a progressive aura with his 2020 proposal for a $12,000 universal basic income for all adults, a plan similar to the one Richard Nixon proposed as president in 1969. In his mayoral campaign, Yang has further narrowed his sights, calling for a much more modest “targeted” proposal that would offer $2,000 a year to the poorest New Yorkers, a plan he hopes can “be grown over time as it receives more funding from public and philanthropic organizations.”
Beyond that, Yang’s platform is vague. His campaign website is filled with words and phrases like “innovation,” “responsible,” “recovery,” “reach out,” “partner,” “support,” “crowdsource,” “reduce red tape,” “streamline,” and “amplify.” There are no specific proposals. Instead, like Lindsay, he offers to look to administrative restructuring, consolidating departments under a single “responsible party . . . to coordinate all efforts across several different offices.”
Yang matches Lindsay’s faith in the transformative power of bureaucratic reorganization and in the efficacy of the grand gesture. Yang’s guaranteed basic income is impossible to implement at the local level; otherwise, he believes that his main job as mayor is to serve as the city’s “evangelist and cheerleader in chief.”
John Lindsay also had a popular flair — he spoke in general terms of the need to overcome the legacy of racism and make life better for working people. He was credited with preventing riots in New York City in 1967 and ’68 following Martin Luther King’s assassination by “walking the streets” of Harlem. Unfortunately, those performances weren’t followed by serious efforts to build a political alliance that could reduce racial disparities.
Instead, Lindsay adopted the Ford Foundation’s plan to decentralize schools. That reform was a failure for students’ education and a disaster politically, pitting the then largely Jewish teacher union against black community boards, poisoning relations between the city’s two biggest blocs of liberal voters. Yang, like Lindsay, has faith in the good intentions and ideas of private interests, which Yang expresses in his endorsement of charter schools (a position that goes unmentioned in his campaign materials).
Like Lindsay, Yang would come to the mayor’s office with no firsthand experience actually administering a large organization. Both men went to law school and briefly worked at corporate law firms. Yang, in a twenty-first century version of Lindsay’s faith in management, presents himself as a tech entrepreneur — when in reality his brief involvements in tech start-ups all ended in failure. Yang got rich running a test prep company, which perhaps shaped his view that private enterprises, like charter schools, are the best providers of education.
Yang’s faith in business and philanthropy came together in the nonprofit Venture for America. Yang raised millions from big corporations with the promise that he would identify and train college graduates who would work for start-ups in poor urban neighborhoods. He claimed that would create 100,000 jobs. In reality, those new companies created just 150 jobs.
2021 Need Not Be 1965
Fortunately, the intellectual and organizational space on the Left is much broader and deeper today than it was in the Lindsay years. We don’t have to settle for grand liberal gestures and reform schemes devised by big foundations and corporations.
In 1965, John Lindsay was as good as a mainstream electable politician got. In that moment, it wasn’t yet clear that the men of the RAND Corporation and Ford Foundation who formulated Lindsay’s plans were literally the same men who directed the Vietnam War, and few Americans had figured out what those sorts of policies would mean for Vietnam or for the urban residents who became guinea pigs for the neoliberal experiments tested during the Lindsay administration.
In 2021, we should know enough to reject a candidate like Yang who asserts that bureaucratic reorganization or cheerleading (whether for the city’s revival or for “racial reconciliation”) is the solution to our problems. Politics can and should be a means for making concrete demands and opposing those who want to funnel city resources toward for-profit enterprises and the most privileged. Through the efforts of activists and left organizations, we now have a set of policies on housing, police, education, and more that we can measure each of the candidates against.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has decided this year to put its efforts into electing six new socialists to the New York City Council. That is a wise focus for DSA’s limited resources. In recent years, a left (though not openly socialist) bloc on the council has achieved a number of victories, most notably blocking government subsidies for building a new Amazon headquarters in the city and reducing the police department’s budget (nowhere near enough, but at least a start). If DSA succeeds in adding socialists to the council, more such victories will be possible.
The city council has long been an extremely weak branch of government, offering little opposition to mayors’ budgets or other plans and never initiating significant legislation. That finally began to change in the last few years as the left bloc grew in size, displacing notional liberals. Success in electing the DSA council candidates can limit the power of whoever is elected mayor. That will be especially necessary if Yang, or another so-called moderate, who in reality would continue neoliberal policies and budget priorities, becomes mayor.
We very well might not end up with a progressive mayor this year. But there is no shortcut to movement building; that work can’t be done for us by a single candidate, and certainly not by a pretend progressive like Yang, or by Ray McGuire, a senior Citibank executive who was put forth as a candidate by Wall Street and real estate interests and who calls himself a progressive because “I have a life of progressing through the system as a Black person in a 99.9 percent majority world.”
Organizing, of course, can’t be confined to the electoral arena. We need to build political and ideological resources for mobilization that can pressure capitalists as well as whoever becomes mayor and sits on the city council. But significant opportunities do exist in electoral politics right now — and they represent our best hope to avoid the John Lindsays of a new generation.