The Progressive Power Vacuum
Thinking through NYC in the 2020s
Recently, I received a magazine assignment to come up with some influential New York political figures and advocates who may not be well known to the average reader. This would not be a power list that included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Chuck Schumer. As part of the assignment, I had to think of an individual—a non-elected official—in the world of New York progressive politics. Eventually, I settled on someone, and you’ll find out more when that piece is published.
But the exercise of coming up with important individuals who wield power in the large and somewhat amorphous sector of Left politics in New York City and New York State was far harder than I thought. It occurred to me that if I had been handed this assignment 10 or 12 years ago, the names would’ve flowed easily.
Forgive me here, this is going to be a bit of inside baseball.
Around 2012, the progressive or liberal wing of the Democratic Party in New York was far weaker than it is today. For one, there was no such thing as a self-identified socialist winning local office. Sure, Charles Barron, the Black Panther, was in the City Council, but his influence never extended beyond East New York, Brooklyn. He spent much of his time running quixotic campaigns—for governor, council speaker, congress—and seizing headlines for symbolic actions, like trying to get a bust of Thomas Jefferson removed from City Hall. The actual Democratic Socialists of America was a small meeting group for people over 60 and a few upstarts like Bhaskar Sunkara, the Jacobin founder. DSA, if it was lucky, could count on around 5,000 members then—in all of America. Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent, was still mayor, and Republicans controlled the State Senate. The most “radical” position one could take in New York politics was calling for the legalization of marijuana or demanding a local minimum wage of around $12. (The Fight for $15 movement was still quite new.)
A movement of talented people—labor leaders, political operatives, and activists—was about to change the nature of New York politics for good. For a variety of reasons, some of them quite subjective, a similar talent pool does not seem to exist today. Progressives and socialists have climbed much further and many of their success stories are now in elected office. No one on the Left would ask to go back to the world of 2011, 2012, or 2013.
Yet it’s growing apparent, in the Eric Adams era, the Left in New York might be more adrift than it seems. This will have ramifications for 2025, when Adams runs for re-election, and any progressive hope of dethroning Kathy Hochul, the moderate Democratic governor, in 2026.