Twilight of the Liberal Left?

In NYC, the coming future could be a collision of socialists and moderates

As a rule, I try to avoid bold, sweeping predictions because the future is always harder to imagine than we think. In 2005 or so, as a high school student, I took an elective on American government and was tasked, along with the rest of the class, on researching candidates for the upcoming 2008 campaign. The students rushed toward the front-runners—Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. I recall John Edwards was scooped up quickly. I decided to do a presentation on Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor, because he seemed like someone worth paying attention to.

No one, as far as I recall, chose that newly-elected senator from Illinois.

Of course, 2016 made fools of us again. It was going to be Rubio against Clinton, Walker against Clinton, Jeb against Clinton, Cruz against Clinton, Christie against Clinton. So it was decreed in 2014 and 2015. We know what happened next.

I weigh all predictions of tomorrow with that in mind. When I can, I prefer assessing the present to guessing at the future. That’s what my essay on the three factions of the American left—and the Democratic Party—was ultimately about: an exploration of what is in front of us, and what it all means. The essay provoked plenty of responses, most of them of intrigue, and it got me thinking on how it can be applied, in particular, to my home of New York City, and the wide open race for mayor that will be effectively settled in June.

I believe, roughly, the American left is split among three groups: the moderates, democratic socialists, and left-liberals. These factions are as much voter classifications as they are descriptions of particular organizations. Some people wouldn’t self-identify with the labels at all. And, as I always insist, there’s plenty of overlap.

In New York City, the left-liberals have had a great run because, for most of the last few decades, they’ve been all that constituted a left here. DSA had no serious presence in elections or left organizing until 2017, when the boom from the Sanders election gave them enough members to run competitive City Council races. Before 2016, the left in New York was made up of reform Democrats—youngish liberals opposed to local political machines, mostly in Brooklyn—and what I’ve termed the alphabet left, the various nonprofit groups like the Working Families Party and New York Communities for Change. The rest was the establishment, the moderates, the Queens and Bronx Democratic parties, consultant-lobbyists, the Cuomo acolytes, and the kind of people who thought real estate and Wall Street should set the agenda for New York City. The alphabet left, a faction of the left-liberals, was able to merge for a time with some of the left-leaning labor unions in New York, creating a formidable coalition that helped revive the left in the 2000s.

The coalition, thanks to Andrew Cuomo’s fierce opposition, was not sustainable. In 2014, Cuomo forced most of labor out of the WFP after they waffled on endorsing him for governor. The WFP, in practical terms, weakened, but increased their prestige through online fundraising and an ability to win favorable media coverage. Younger Democrats in elected office, when not explicitly supported by DSA, embraced the WFP label, helping to create the impression that the WFP of today was stronger than it had ever been. Given the lack of labor unions, though, this couldn’t be really true.

In the two citywide Democratic primaries being held this June, the left-liberals are on the defensive, and there’s a decent chance they will be entirely shut out of two of the city’s most powerful perches. The future battles in city politics may be waged between democratic socialists and outright moderates, a showdown on policy and sensibility that will create as sharp a contrast between two sides that has been witnessed in New York in decades.

But the question must be answered: who are these left-liberals and what do they stand for? The platonic ideal of the New York left-liberal is Brad Lander, a Park Slope city councilman who had been, until recently, a front-runner to become the next city comptroller. Lander is absolutely a man of the left, and someone who has pitched his share of admirable, far-reaching policy, like a revival of Mitchell-Lama housing in New York. Lander, for many years now, has been something of a leader of the left-liberals in the city, though he would use the increasingly meaningless umbrella term “progressive” to describe himself.

Left-liberals, though, usually reject outright socialism and rarely see themselves in league with Bernie Sanders. In 2016, Lander wrote a Medium piece entitled “I am a Brooklyn Jewish Democratic Socialist … for Hillary” in which he argued that the more centrist Hillary Clinton could “advance the ball on concrete goals. Bernie is certainly more visionary in how he exhorts us to action. But the job of the President is to get things done, step-by-step.” Lander, a white man, added that “especially at a time when Trump is revealing just how deeply entrenched racist and sexist attitudes are, it matters to elect women and people-of-color as our leaders.” (It should be noted that Lander calling himself a “democratic socialist” is somewhat performative because he has no role in the current DSA and doesn’t routinely endorse or campaign for their candidates unless they’ve been approved already by the WFP and other nonprofits.)

The piece, ultimately, is a master class in the left-liberal position: Reform; don’t radically overhaul; and always pay deference to identity. In 2020, Lander opposed Sanders again, this time endorsing Elizabeth Warren.

The city comptroller’s race matters in part because the comptroller, who oversees the city pension funds and audits agencies, inevitably runs for mayor. Scott Stringer, the current comptroller, is in the running. Lander, with the backing of the WFP, Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who straddles the socialist and left-liberal line—appeared to be on a glide path until Corey Johnson, the city council speaker, entered the race after deciding not to run for mayor. Johnson and Lander, to any outsider, have largely indistinguishable politics. They both belong to the City Council’s progressive wing and both backed Clinton in 2016. They supported, for the most part, the same legislation. Johnson’s political sensibilities are left-liberal too—he is no socialist, but he is plenty supportive of an expansive local government and helped push for reduced fare MetroCards for low-income residents, among other policies.  

But Johnson, as council speaker, had to make choices that aligned him more with the city’s moderates. He won a speakership race in 2018 with the backing of the Bronx and Queens Democratic bosses. He and Lander each failed to support Ocasio-Cortez in her primary, but Johnson was more skeptical of her after her stunning upset. Johnson had backed Crowley while Lander was neutral. “I don’t want to take away from her victory tonight, but I’ll say it was very low turnout,” he said shortly after Ocasio-Cortez won. “The electorate is very angry given what’s happening in the country right now. The Democratic base is fired up and motivated and are hungry for change in a big way.”

While Lander campaigned for the Democrats running against members of the Independent Democratic Conference, Johnson mostly stayed away. Lander strove to remake himself into a quasi-Ocasio-Cortez Democrat—backing Sanders in 2020 would be a bridge too far for him. For years, Johnson and Lander each fundraised aggressively from the real estate industry, but as 2021 drew near and the left began to decry the industry’s influence on local politics, both men vowed to stop asking developers for campaign cash.

In 2020, Johnson, as council speaker, presided over a city budget that was loathed by the socialist and liberal-left alike. Following George Floyd’s death and the mass protests against police brutality, defunding the police came into mainstream discourse The Council’s left-liberal faction—it doesn’t have any socialists yet—demanded a $1 billion funding cut from the NYPD’s $6 billion budget. Many of the same council members, like Lander, who had voted five years earlier to increase the department’s headcount by nearly 1,300 were now, in the spirit of the times, demanding a large reduction. Johnson, deferring to Black moderate council members who did not want to lose police in their neighborhoods, did not deliver a true $1 billion cut, angering much of the left. Protesters vandalized Johnson’s boyfriend’s Williamsburg apartment building.

Johnson’s struggle with the budget—both left-liberals and conservatives voted against it, either denouncing the police cuts as insufficient or attacking Johnson for even attempting them—weakened him politically, and he soon announced he wouldn’t run for mayor, citing mental health struggles. An HIV-positive gay man who had made national headlines, Johnson was seeing his promising political career come to a close before he turned 40.

Now he’s back, running for city comptroller and setting up a true clash between moderates and left-liberals. Lander is running with the WFP and the alphabet left; Johnson will end up with the endorsements of all the large labor unions in New York, as well as the support from party insiders like the Bronx Borough President, Ruben Diaz Jr. Johnson’s victory in the comptroller’s race will not lead to significant differences in policy outcomes—he and Lander agree on most issues—but it will signal that the traditional moderate coalition of large, risk-averse labor unions and establishment Democrats can still unite to tamp down the liberal-left. Johnson is undoubtedly, as of today, the front-runner. Other moderate candidates, including David Weprin, a Queens state assemblyman, could end up with sizable vote shares too.

One challenge for Johnson has been how the liberal-left frames identity. Though the ideology and sensibility, bred in academia, is not widely known or popular, it is embraced at most elite institutions. Johnson, a college dropout with a Korean father, was attempting to become the city’s first gay mayor. But the New York Times didn’t see it that way. In a 2020 story entitled “Do New York City Voters Want Another White Mayor?” Johnson’s background was mostly ignored as he was portrayed, due to his white skin, as an ill-fit for the moment. “There’s always going to be a real concern and a legitimate concern over whether a white elected official with white privilege can ever fully understand the experience of people of color in the city,” Johnson conceded. Luckily for him, Lander is a white man too, so such concerns melt away.

The mayoral race is not going well for the left-liberals. Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley have been running in this lane, chasing younger progressives, MSNBC viewers, and even socialists as they try to knit together a winning coalition. Neither has managed to poll as high as second in the Democratic primary. One problem both have is that DSA didn’t endorse in the mayoral race and their significant electoral infrastructure won’t be deployed for any candidate. Stringer, as a white man, has run up against a wall with left-liberals who prize seeing a person of color rise. Wiley, a Black woman, has won more generous press coverage, but has struggled to attract attention from voters. Neither Wiley nor Stringer are especially charismatic; Wiley’s backstory is more compelling, but her most recent city experience is as Bill de Blasio’s counsel. Dianne Morales is hunting for socialist votes and gaining momentum, but she’s not a DSA candidate and her background—as a well-compensated nonprofit executive executive—and the lingo her campaign deploys are more left-liberal in orientation.

The moderates are faring better. Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, has consistently polled second. Andrew Yang, who can blend moderate, left-liberal, and some socialist sensibilities, is in first. Neither of them have any deep ties to the nonprofit left organizations like the WFP, Make the Road, and New York Communities for Change. Neither would ever win an endorsement from Elizabeth Warren. Neither support defunding the police. Adams, a former police captain, is a reformer, but would not cut headcount. Yang, to the consternation of the left, has called for more police in subways. Though he has spoken often of late about his Asian identity in light of the rising hate attacks against Asian-Americans, Yang has a long-running skepticism of identity-based politicking, saying in 2019 that he didn’t think “it’s a great way to try to build consensus or bring people together or get big policies across the finish line.” Yang added that it was a “stupid way” for trying to win elections.

Identity politics, built around both racial and ethnic identity, has a deep tradition in New York, where outer borough ethnics erected political machines around what European country their grandfathers came from. Moderates can engage in it as much as left-liberals. But the old-fashioned, identity-based coalition-building of a Barack Obama or David Dinkins has less in common with the CRT-inflected identity appeals that come straight from the academy and can be seen, most clearly, in the underperforming presidential campaigns of Warren and Julián Castro.

If the moderate candidates, and their coalitions, can capture City Hall and the comptroller’s offices, they will exist as the primary, if temporary, bulwark against DSA. There are no DSA candidates competing for citywide or countywide offices this year, but in 2029, the next time term-limits will force municipal politicians from office, the socialists will have a far deeper bench. It’s not impossible that four or five or six DSA members could enter the next City Council. Any of the current socialist legislators could seek higher office. The WFP-aligned lawmakers, like Jessica Ramos and Alessandra Biaggi, share much of the DSA policy aims in Albany.

With the rise of DSA and the durability of anti-socialist moderates, it’s easy to imagine, years from now, these two factions becoming far more dominant in New York. DSA is highly-organized, with a high ceiling for growth. They’re picky endorsers, which means large slates of socialists won’t enter office together in any one cycle, but their influence has clearly been felt in the state legislature already. At the same juncture, an anti-DSA bloc will inevitably rise: of moderates wary of the socialist label, who are willing to pull closer to the police and real estate. New York City itself has a very diverse ideological electorate and there’s no guarantee that today’s immigrant class, as they age and acquire wealth, won’t evolve in the same direction the Irish and Italians of yore did: toward a patriotic, pro-capitalist, and pro-police worldview. Rising shootings and murder rates can push them there even faster. And then, unable to excite the young socialists and unable to placate the rising tide of people with no interest in their buzzy nonprofits, left-liberals may be left in an uncomfortable place.

An earlier version of this essay incorrectly stated Brad Lander endorsed Joe Crowley in 2018. In fact, he was neutral in Crowley’s race against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.