Steven Malanga joins Brian Anderson to discuss the growing prevalence of socialist-aligned candidates running for municipal offices, the Democratic Socialists of America’s plans for New York City in 2021, and the results of several big state referendums in this year’s election.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining us today from his home in New Jersey, is my colleague Steve Malanga. Steve is City Journal's senior editor, and he's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He's been writing a lot for us lately as he normally does but we asked him to come on the show today to discuss his feature essay from the autumn issue of the magazine which was called or is called City Hall Socialists. He released the piece online in late October. It's generated a fair bit of attention and there'll be a link to it in the description. Steve, thanks very much for joining us.

Steve Malanga: Oh, my pleasure. Just sitting here hunkering down, waiting for the massive snowstorm to envelop all of us.

Brian Anderson: Yes. 17 inches we're supposed to get in New York but we'll see. As you detailed in this essay, City Hall Socialists, the last few years have seen a striking emergence of self-identified socialists and their political organizations as active players in city politics across America with dozens of candidates winning office to various local positions. Where are we seeing this trend most powerfully? What cities has this been going on?

Steve Malanga: Well, first of all, you'd say big cities, and big cities that have traditionally been identified with liberal democratic politics. And in the past I would say five years increasingly identified with more progressive politics. I wrote actually about cities becoming more progressive a couple of years ago in City Journal and what that meant for a whole bunch of areas, including policing and budgeting. And now we're really taking the next step. And in part then what's interesting and perhaps predictable is that, we did see at the national level in two presidential campaigns, Bernie Sanders attracting a tremendous amount of attention.

What people didn't anticipate or perhaps worked really looking very closely at, was how this might actually translate at the state level and the local level. But essentially what happens is for instance, one of the socialist parties, the Democratic Socialists of America, that is closely associated with Sanders, they saw after Sanders last presidential run in 2016, and then again in 2020, they saw a tremendous increase in their national registrations of membership. For decades, this was a party that was started by Michael Harrington, a famous socialist dating back to the sixties and seventies. And he at the time that he formed the party and for years, decades after it, they had a couple of thousand members.

After Bernie Sanders ran, the first time membership shot up to 50,000. And then after the second time but actually in the time period between when Sanders first ran and his second run, it zoomed over 70,000, now they're looking at perhaps 100,000. In part, it's been spurred not just by Sanders but then some of Sanders you could say disciples, or some of those he's inspired, including especially Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected in New York, in a congressional district in 2018. That has a sort of supercharged membership.

So you have all this tremendous membership. Much of it is being concentrated in cities like New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver. I would say the usual suspects when it comes to politics but not surprisingly that is now beginning to have an impact on local politics. And by local politics I would mean both municipal elections, city hall, and city councils, and things like that. But also, in state legislative races in districts, in cities, we saw a number of Democratic Socialists of America candidates win election to the New York state legislature for instance, in the recently held, the November elections of representing New York city districts, places like Brooklyn. So there's...

Brian Anderson: So they're' really making local inroads?

Steve Malanga: They are. And the thing is, I think probably what's worth discussing is, they have a very aggressive, very far left agenda, particularly economic matters.

Brian Anderson: Well, that was my question Steve. My next question was, are these really socialists in the old fashioned sense or is this more a matter of rebranding? What is basically a kind of progressive Democrat?

Steve Malanga: Well, it's, it's interesting because in some places, I'm not sure these days, many people completely understand what words like socialism or Marxism actually mean. And so in some places, Denver's a good example. When a candidate was running for city council there and a local conservative group essentially branded this person a Marxist because what the person was talking about was doing things like, redistributing income, government takeover of utilities and private businesses like that, infrastructure takeovers and after the person was branded with that label, she kind of disavowed the label, even though she didn't disavow her agenda. And she... I think she said something to the effect of, "I'm not really a communist, I'm actually an anarchist."

It's interesting that would seem more acceptable in municipal government in America today. But if you look at the agenda for instance, I'll give you an example, the Democratic Socialists of America in New York city, they are in the process of selecting candidates to be endorsed in the municipal elections to take place in New York city in 2021. That includes the mayoral election but also includes 35 city council seats and also important roles like patroller and public advocate. So they basically asked people who were seeking their agenda whether seeking their endorsement, whether they would sign on to their agenda. Their agenda includes things like, taking over the utilities in New York city.

It includes things like canceling all rent and mortgage payments in New York during the pandemic. So just basically nullifying, how landlords are supposed to survive? I have no idea but it includes that. It also includes, well to give you an example, they were very, very prominent particularly AOC were very prominent in defeating Amazon's attempts to come to New York city and build a second headquarters there because they have this anti gentrification agenda which essentially says, "We don't want neighborhoods with all this economic development because they essentially transformed the neighborhoods."

Now, underlining that is a bit Amazon coming to New York and bringing 25,000 new jobs to an industrial area in Queens and that's not being used right now. That would have transformed an area, it would have made it better but they opposed it vigorously and essentially shot down this massive project that virtually every city in the country was vying for. So their agenda is, I would call it an anti-growth agenda that focuses on redistribution of income, that focuses on imposing more regulations and costs on businesses whether or not you think that's a socialist agenda or not, I certainly do.

Is it socialist to the extent that a place like Cuba or Venezuela is now socialists? I suspect it's not that extreme but it's pretty far to the left of much of what we have in America. Certainly very far to the left of what the traditional Democratic Party is in America. And we're seeing that in New York city because now there's significant conflict between elements of the democratic party in New York city, most especially the Union Movement and the Socialists.

Brian Anderson: Well, could you say a bit more about that? Because that's interesting. So the DSA is targeting New York city council in the next election with these six new candidates, they're backing, they're running for open set of seats, I believe. So they're not challenging the incumbents who would be democratic in every case in the areas that the DSA is interested in, I imagine. But this is as you argue in your piece, creating conflict with more traditional Democrats, even left wing Democrats, how do you see that playing out, and is this a conflict?

Steve Malanga: Yeah. First of all it's important to note that although they are running for open seats in New York city in the 2021 elections because New York city does have term limits. And therefore a lot of seats are open 35 of 51, that's a lot of seats open in any election these days in America. Despite that in previous elections, including AOC's election against Joe Crowley, who was a democratic incumbent and in the elections that just took place, the state legislative elections, these socialists candidates defeated incumbent Democrats and they were almost universally the incumbent Democrats supported by unions.

Now here's the thing, the unions say not surprisingly, that they tend to make endorsements of incumbents because they need to have friends in high places. And the socialists tend to be kind of radical reformers and are specifically looking to over turn the establishment including in a place like New York city, the democratic establishment. So that's created open conflict between the unions and the DSA. Now what happened was, after the AOC election, not a single union endorsed her. And after several other elections where unions were essentially not endorsing socialist candidates, the DSA produced a memo that was later uncovered by political magazine and released and written about.

They produced a memo which was essentially a strategy for infiltrating the unions in New York. The memo had some really devastating assessments of some of the unions for instance, it said that the hotel union in New York city which has about 35,000 members had become complacent and is essentially had done, was cooperating too much with management. They described the latest contract as a kind of suffocating period of labor management piece. So this was...

Brian Anderson: Their strategy is kind of permanent agitation.

Steve Malanga: Well, yeah. Until they assume power, and then they're going to look for consolidation. But the point is that rather than seeing unions as allies, and I mean, traditionally of course socialist movements were workers movements and did see and many of the early unions in America essentially were socialist in character. That was in fact one of the things that the union movement began trying to move away from after world war II in particular because that label became toxic in America. But they're actively challenging the current unions in the city and that is creating a very unusual dynamic.

Many of the unions, not all of them but many of them were upset when Amazon pulled out of the city and they blamed AOC and the DSA for helping to lead that movement because Amazon was bringing tens of thousands of jobs, including thousands of trade construction jobs almost all of which were going to be unionized. Construction in New York city, if any kind of major character is all unionized. And those were all union jobs that were lost because of the objections of the socialists in the city and their allies.

Brian Anderson: These Neo socialists, I imagine they come down pretty much at the dream end of identity politics as well. Right?

Steve Malanga: Well, absolutely in Chicago to give you an example, there's a coalition of five, well, five who recently won election. There was a six, two and one before. So there are six in the council now and it's called the board of Alderman in Chicago. And again, interestingly they won in that election running the kind of an anti-establishment agenda. They ran against Rahm Emanuel, even though Emanuel wasn't running for reelection. They ran against his method of, of party politics. They ran against the establishment, they defeated a whole bunch of establishment candidates, and now they have been among other things the leading voice in Chicago for defunding the police.

That's also true in Seattle where you have just one very vocal prominent socialist council member who combined though with very progressive council members that are also part of the Seattle political establishment have been again really agitating for defend the police. So that's another part of their agenda. Now since the pandemic, they have been the leading voices in many places for the most extreme versions of economic aid including, again, just as I said before, canceling all rent, not just delaying it, not just withholding evictions but just canceling it. That's it, you don't have any mortgage payments, you don't have any rent for as long as there's a pandemic.

So their politics are, and particularly their economic policies are extremely aggressive. And we haven't even mentioned the business community and their relationship to this because these are cities some of which Chicago is a good example, were struggling as it was, looking at... San Francisco is another example, looking at out migration of big businesses as taxes went up and more especially as anti-business regulations increase. New York city for instance is a good example. During the de Blasio years, there's been a lot of additional regulation on businesses including mandates for paid vacation, mandates for paid family leave, higher minimum wages.

All of this increases the cost of doing business and we're seeing a significant out migration. Now, Amazon was going to be different. It was going to be a big win that the city could boast, and in part it was going to be a big win because they were given incentives to come here. But that loss really sent an even stronger message that, it's the same kind of message that we're seeing in San Francisco and definitely in Seattle, that as a business you continue to do business in these places at your own risk. And we now know that there are significant number of California businesses that are heading for the exits including people like Elon Musk.

Brian Anderson: On a different but still election related topic, you've written both before and after the November election, about the wide number of initiatives and referendums that were on the ballots in States where the state constitution is allowed that process. One of the examples you wrote about in California, there were I think 13 statewide propositions on the ballot this year including this measure to overturn the new rules for gig economy workers. I wonder, what's your sense of how those played out? You wrote a bit about this after the election. And what kind of messages we might read into some of the more prominent results of the state mandates.

Steve Malanga: Well, that's interesting. It depends on how exactly you want to characterize some of these initiatives but the one on the gig economy is a good example. This was led by Uber and Lyft, and what they were essentially trying to do is overturn legislation that the state had passed and the New some it's signed which is AB 5 legislation that essentially designated many contract workers, many freelancers as full-time employees and has been for many freelancers disastrous because what's happened is that many of the companies that employ some of these workers as freelancers for instance, being told by this legislation that you now have to consider these people full-time and pay them as if they're full time have simply stopped employing these people in California. And it's been disastrous for many of these people.

Despite the efforts to overturn it, the law AB 5 have gone nowhere. And so, what Uber and Lyft did, is they put a ballot initiative on the November ballot essentially saying that their drivers are contract workers. And that's how they're going to be defined, and therefore this law should not apply to them, and people had the chance to vote on this. The thing is, they spent $200 million passing this legislation so that they could continue operating in California in this manner. That's an extremely hefty price, that in itself is a regulatory price if you will. $200 million to escape regulation, they succeeded substantially.

Clearly there's sympathy within the electorate in California for this position but that was very expensive. And that was part of a larger theme which is that these ballot initiatives have gotten extremely expensive not just in California but around the country in aggregate supporters and opponents of state ballot initiatives. This is for the most part, spent more than a raise and spent more than a billion dollars in this election. That's a lot of money for state elections. In Illinois, governor Pritzker, tried to institute a progressive income tax which was, in order to do that it was necessary to change the state constitution.

That battle over the progressive income tax cost about $120 million. It was actually defeated. Surprisingly, I say surprisingly because number one, most of the polls before the election showed that it was leading and yet it was decisively defeated. And number two, it was defeated despite the fact that Pritzker was saying that if we don't raise taxes on the rich i in Illinois, and that's what you need to do, that's why you need a progressive income tax. He was saying, "If we don't raise taxes on the rich and Illinois, I'm going to have to raise taxes on all of you." Despite that it's still lost quite significantly.

There were a number of other ballot initiatives that also were record breakers for their States. The state income tax, the ballot initiative in Arizona, a regulatory issue in Massachusetts. So these are becoming increasingly more expensive. And whether that actually discourages groups in the future from putting initiatives forth, right, or whether it simply just keeps increasing the cost of these initiatives, is it kind of an open question at this particular point but it's really shocking the amount of money that we're spending just on, not even on candidates, just on ballot questions now.

Brian Anderson: Thanks, Steve. Don't forget to check out Steve Malanga's recent essay at City Journal called City Hall Socialists. We've discussed it here a bit and you can find it on our website. We'll link to it in the description. You can follow City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal, and on Instagram these days @cityjournal_mi, and remember you can email us if you've got any questions or suggestions. And always if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us ratings on iTunes. Thanks very much for listening and thanks Steve, as always for joining us.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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