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The Life and Death of Identity Politics In the Big Apple?

Speaking to reporters about the New York City Democratic Mayoral Primary, New York governor Andrew Cuomo remarked, “This is summer political theater in New York. We laugh, because if we didn’t laugh, we would cry.” And in an election rife with sexting scandals and an absurd number of celebrity endorsements, while most voters in the Democratic nomination chose laughter in order to stave off the tears, the results of the primary may have instead left some political observers scratching their heads.

An African American candidate did not receive a majority of the black vote. A female and openly gay candidate did not receive a majority of the LGBT or women vote. A Jewish candidate did not receive a majority of the Jewish vote. Instead, the Caucasian, male candidate, Bill de Blasio, did. Though it may have been the result of the candidates’ platforms, or even their personalities, the acute observer is still left with the sense that, in the city once defined by its identity politics, something has changed.

Ethnic and racial identity politics have long been held as a mainstay of New York City elections. Decades ago, a Democratic ticket for mayor may have featured an Irish candidate from Brooklyn, or a Jewish candidate from the Bronx, and members of those various blocs and boroughs could be expected to vote and come out in support accordingly (my grandfather, an Italian-American from the Bronx, once remarked that he would not vote for a candidate whose name did not end in a vowel). Should the results of the most recent Democratic primary to be seen as the end to this once balkanized electorate? Has the melting pot finally stirred the voting blocs into a more cosmopolitan and muddled stew? Perhaps. Or more likely, the results reveal a change in political, rather than racial or ethnic attitudes.

Bill de Blasio, once seen as the dark horse of the race, came out of the outer boroughs (those outside of Manhattan) victorious, riding a potent wave on a progressive agenda and on popular discontent with the policies of the outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Many observers view the outcome as an ‘Anything But Bloomberg’ election, in which candidates with close ties to the Bloomberg administration suffered from the backlash to unpopular policies such as the ‘Stop and Frisk’ laws, which many felt disproportionately affected minority residents. Others, however, point to the growing sense of disparity and inequality in New York City, in the areas of education, income, and cost of living and housing. Bill de Blasio ran on a vigorous progressive agenda, advocating for safe and affordable housing for outer borough residents, as well as increased access to social services, health care, and early childhood education.  This may be why the progressive Bill de Blasio won majorities of middle class and low income voters, less educated voters, and those who expressed housing, as well as jobs and employment as their most important concern.

During the Bloomberg years many residents in the outer boroughs of New York felt as though little of the benefits and attention trickled down to them, instead flowing disproportionately to residents of Manhattan, who only constitute one-fifth of the city’s population.  Once, as a mayoral candidate, Bloomberg remarked that he would never set foot in Queens, is one example of his Manhattan-centric agenda. Perhaps the results hail the arrival of the long awaited ‘post-materialist’ voter, who looks past the race, creed, or sexual orientation of the candidate, in favour of a candidate who can deliver a sense of direction, of empowerment, and of collective purpose, as embodied in the progressive platform and candidacy of Bill de Blasio.

Whatever the cause of the results of the primary, one thing is clear: New York City voters were seeking a candidate who can speak to their experiences, their needs, and their desires. And those voters overwhelmingly endorsed Bill de Blasio as that candidate. While it is the expectation of minority voters to automatically identify and support candidates who look or act like they do, the results of the primary have in many ways shattered these expectations; making the outcomes of elections not so simple and easy to predict as they once were. Perhaps, most importantly, the results show that identity politics rest on artificial lines and divisions, and once traditional distinctions have been blurred, one can see that race politics is in fact not dead, but has merely taken a more nuanced form; in which race is a factor that unites, rather than divides in politics and elections. New York City has always been a diverse mosaic of peoples, but what unites many New Yorkers more than anything is a shared sense of insecurity for the future and less confidence in the promises of the American dream; but also, perhaps more importantly, what seems to unite many New Yorkers is a shared sense of optimism and hope, in the candidacy of Bill de Blasio.  Hopefully he can deliver.

-Maxson Gallo


Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike postopp1, Creative Commons, Flickr

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