Bill de Blasio and the Populist Mirage

Income inequality would be easier to fix if both parties stopped coddling their core voters

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De Blasio's campaign centered on the gap between New York City's rich and poor; in his inaugural speech, he vowed to raise taxes on the wealthy to boost spending on social programs.

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Populism, left or right, has always been a rough-edged and graceless American political tendency. It is inevitably accompanied by some form of intolerance--racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism--and de Blasio's installation was no exception. There was a black minister who called the city a "plantation" in the invocation. And Harry Belafonte had some wildly intemperate stuff to say about the criminal-justice system, which has suffered police excesses but also has had an unimaginable success in limiting crime and making life more tolerable in poor neighborhoods. De Blasio's notion that New York is "two cities" is a myopic inaccuracy. New York contains multitudes. It is the very opposite of a plantation.

For the past 25 years especially, it has been a fierce incubator of opportunity for a kaleidoscope of new immigrant groups who have come and worked hard and succeeded. Studies show that the American Dream of upward mobility is more alive in New York than in much of the rest of the country--a fact that its new mayor should not only acknowledge but also crow about.

The dual problem of income disparity and middle-class stagnation may be the most important we face now. Both have roots in globalization and technological advance. But they also involve questions of social morality. Twenty-two years ago, Bill Clinton traveled through New Hampshire in a bus plastered with the words opportunity, responsibility and community. It was pure political genius, the most succinct description of the values inherent in a middle-class democracy. Clinton didn't quite live up to it, especially in his policies toward Wall Street. But the values endure. They should form the parameters for a new conversation, conducted without rancor, about the true nature of civic equality.


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