Upon being elected mayor of New York City with nearly 75 percent of the vote, Bill de Blasio began his victory speech with words to gladden the heart of just about anyone who has ever written for Dissent: “Tackling inequality isn’t easy; it never has been, and never will be. The challenges we face have been decades in the making, and the problems we set out to address will not be solved overnight. But make no mistake: the people of this city have chosen a progressive path, and tonight we set forth on it, together, as one city.” He then repeated the last two sentences in Spanish.
Was de Blasio’s landslide win the harbinger of a larger, more unified American left? Nearly every progressive movement in American history was born in the cities and drew its strongest support from the modernist mingling of intellectuals, artists, working-class immigrants, and creative professionals to be found there. These movements—from pioneer labor unionists in the 1820s to settlement house workers at the end of the nineteenth century, to gay liberationists in the 1970s and ’80s—then aided local politicians who endorsed some of their demands, while pressuring them to go further.
New York wasn’t the only metropolis in 2013 to choose a new mayor who ran on an unabashedly progressive platform. In Seattle, Ed Murray, a gay man who led the fight for same-sex marriage in the state legislature, promised to raise taxes on the rich and to boost the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Bostonians elected Marty Walsh, a veteran labor official who had strong backing from black and Latino leaders. Chokwe Lumumba, the new chief executive of Jackson, Mississippi, is a former black nationalist who pledges to foster cooperative businesses and calls housing and health care “basic human rights.”
Of course, leftish campaign rhetoric is no guarantee of how a politician will govern. The gap between rich and poor yawns more widely in big cities than anywhere else in the country, and the desire to attract and retain wealthy taxpayers often works against building low-cost housing and giving public schools the funding they require. What’s more, the sirens of austerity who dominate on Capitol Hill and in many states can prevent left-leaning mayors from carrying out their promises, not to mention what their poor and working-class constituents need them to do.
But a renewal of civic hope has to begin somewhere—and where better than from the locales from which the very word “citizen” derives. As our beloved comrade Marshall Berman put it in his final public lecture—a version of which appears in this issue—“Cities can be places where people will have the spirit and power to look, to meet, to talk, listen, share, to be there with each other.” And, perhaps, to start transforming our unequal country too.