Rudy: Could the Savior of 9/11, and Prince of New York City, Become President of the U.S.?

By Siegel, Fred | The American Enterprise, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Rudy: Could the Savior of 9/11, and Prince of New York City, Become President of the U.S.?


Siegel, Fred, The American Enterprise


New York City residents have long seen their home as a cosmopolitan dynamo in which the only constant is change. New York pre-Civil War diarist Philip Hone complained that the local ethos was "overturn, overturn, overturn." In the 1940s, journalist A. J. Liebling described the city as constantly "renewing itself until the past is perennially forgotten." There is, however, one gigantic exception to New York City's willingness to continually adapt and change: politics and government.

Politically, New York City is dominated by a deep-dyed ideological liberalism that has made it the most stagnant and reactionary of cities. Firmly anchored in the politics of the 1930s--which exert an almost mystical pull on the local imagination--New York City has turned the temporary emergency of the Great Depression into the permanent basis of all politics and government.

City regulators, notes urbanist Otis White, were among the last "to give up elevator operators and trust people to push their own buttons." For more than 30 years, local bureaucrats resisted automating the city's subways. New York was one of the last cities to accept automated bank machines. It is the only major city that still has in place the emergency housing regulations, known as rent control, that were passed in many parts of the country during World War II. The common thread in each of these cases is that organized political interests blocked innovation.

Back in 1961, Nathan Glazer asked a question that endured for the next 35 years: "Is New York City ungovernable?" He noted that since World War II the number of students in the city schools had declined by 7 percent, while staff had grown by 22 percent, a pattern repeated in most city agencies. In New York, the answer to all problems seemed to be to spend more money in the manner it had been spent since the New Deal. Thirties-era rules and regulations "had taken on a life of their own and become the major obstacle to improving city services," Glazer warned. In a union-dominated, socialist-influenced city, "anything which affects, even in the slightest" the interests of government employees "runs into fantastic resistance."

The local version of FDR's New Deal generated an extraordinary array of special-interest offshoots from the city's vast public sector. Over time, New York's unions effectively ran the schools, the subways, sanitation, and other services, largely on their own terms. During the 1960s, other special interests took over the courts and social welfare system in a similar way. Then racial activists imposed an added layer of politicization on top of the demands of the unions and interest groups. Mayors ended up hemmed in by an extraordinary array of political constraints.

New York City was famously described in the 1930s as "the only part of the Soviet Union where open debate is possible." The various local interest groups jockeying to enhance their position often justified their political interventions in the mock-heroic language of militant struggle. Everything from rents to admissions at City University was seen as a high social cause, and part of a wider global crusade.

By the early 1990s, reflects Tony Proscio, an aide to liberal New York ex-governor Mario Cuomo, the city had a "long list of things from crime to transportation that we were told we couldn't do anything about." Gotham was said to be the victim of vast structural changes in the national economy and society, for which local leaders could not be held responsible. New York City was said to be unavoidably dependent on the generosity of Washington, D.C., just as the city's many welfare clients were said to have no alternative but to depend on state beneficence. Crime was similarly seen as an expression of the larger American society's failure to care.

Of course, if the city was ungovernable through no fault of its own, there was no reason to challenge the suppositions behind New York's monolithic liberalism. …

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