Thursday, June 24, 2021

In Praise of Politicians

Screenshot from ABC7, via Discourse Blog, which may be saying something similar (paywall, which I'm not ready to accept): As one commenter put it, "Revolutionary ideas take time up until they don't and then change happens."

Eric Adams did a funny in his provisional-victory speech last night: along the lines of, "People on social media don't win elections, people on Social Security win elections." 

Which doesn't seem like a very wise thing to say, telling a bunch of New Yorkers that they're old, and revealing a little too much of the behind-the-scenes technique, a bit self-indulgent, but the crowd roared with pleasure, as they did at pretty much everything he said. It struck me what the real thing I've been noticing about him is—that he's just really good at being a politician, easy in his skin, enough in love with his voters that he enjoys teasing them, and in a lot of ways kind of traditional in a way that doesn't necessarily sound quite nice, even distasteful, as in David Freedlander's profile in New York magazine a week ago:

“This whole race has been about people trying to create different frames for it. Is it an ideological-left frame? A pragmatic-manager frame? A businessman-outsider frame?” said David Schleicher, a professor at Yale Law School and an expert in New York City politics. “But instead it is Eric Adams, building a coalition inside the shell of the Democratic Party of labor unions, Black homeowners, real-estate interests, and other Democratic Party politicians. If he pulls it off, he will be one of the most powerful mayors New York has had in a generation. It is the return of the permanent government, and Eric Adams is going to be at the center of it.”

While I've been disregarding my own advice that I keep giving out ad nauseam and looking, like everybody else, for the most hopeful inhabitant of my own sector of the left-right spectrum, Adams has been following the advice and building the diverse voter base. Or it might be better to say he'd mastered it years before Thornton and I started trying to work out the issue in this little spot. 

He's also terrific at what they call "retail" politics (an unfortunate expression). People say that borough presidency isn't a real job, but Brooklyn borough presidency is a full-time job for Adams. because he always shows up, for everything, even to the point of the downright unseemly, with the activity of his personal charity, One Brooklyn:

Since One Brooklyn’s creation in 2014, the organization has put on all manner of community events. It has given away turkeys, coats and school supplies. It organizes luncheons and karaoke contests for seniors, financial literacy events for students and it connects constituents with social service providers such as citizenship lawyers. It also runs a tourism center in Borough Hall....
However, a POLITICO review of state financial disclosures shows that One Brooklyn devotes serious resources to causes that blur the line between uplifting communities and Adams’ public profile.

For three years beginning in 2017, the nonprofit hosted an annual gala at the Brooklyn Museum. The catered affair featured celebrity emcees hailing from Kings County and awards given out to businesses from around the borough. While the event was described as a fundraiser, information provided by the nonprofit show that nearly 70 percent of the money received in 2017 and 2018 went right back into paying for the evenings’ trappings.

What I want to say about the unseemliness is that it may be inevitable, and tolerable as long as it doesn't slide into criminality. For instance, any New York mayor is going to have to deal with real estate tycoons and construction companies, just as they'll have to deal with a somewhat unsavory police force (something Adams is especially well equipped for, as I seem to have been arguing, to my amazement, since sometime in 2014). 

Even if we were to go back to the full-time socialism of traditional public housing, the city would have to buy and renovate buildings. Our radical Mayor de Blasio, often criticized for an ugly and unprogressive connection to the housing industry, really got something done, during his time in office, according to a February report from the Community Service Society—not the administration goal of 300,000 affordable units (and not so successful with the poorest) but 167,000, housing over 400,000 people:

The report found that the de Blasio administration did produce more affordable housing than the Bloomberg administration, significantly more in some scenarios. Compared to its predecessor, the current administration produced 300 percent more housing for New Yorkers earning up to 30 percent of the Area Median Income (up to $30,720 for a household of three), and 33 percent more aimed at households earning between 31 to 50 percent AMI. De Blasio’s time in office produced 50 percent less housing for those in higher income brackets compared to Bloomberg (those earning between 50 and 80 percent of AMI, or $51,200 and $81,920 for a family of three).  

And that's the kind of thing the next mayor needs to do three times as much of.

There are charismatic politicians you fall in love with, because of their greatness, like figures in a classical tragedy. They may even possess a physical glow akin to the aura of sanctity, like Robert Kennedy or Barack Obama, or Maya Wiley in her very local New York way. Then there are the ones who fall desperately in love with us, or some other constituency, and will do anything to get us, comic characters whose passion may make them look ridiculous from time to time.

In a time of general distrust for professional politicians and preference for the gentleman amateur, we've had a dearth of gladhanders and camera hogs on the left proper since the days of Fiorello La Guardia and Lyndon Johnson, partly because we're so ideologically stern in deciding who qualifies (La Guardia certainly, but LBJ?). Now, with a brilliant comic politician in the White House staking out a position on the left, in the sick hangover from a moment when amateurism in politics was literally killing us by the hundreds of thousands, we could be entering a period when progressive machines start working again. We won't ever get what we want, but Adams could make a contribution to what we need. I may have a little more on this later on.

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