By John Lloyd
When New York City Mayoral-elect Bill de Blasio strode on stage for his victory speech last week, he said that "the people of this city have chosen a progressive path." But will they stick with it (and him)?
The international media, at least, are skeptical. The Economist opined that "New Yorkers may yet miss (Michael) Bloomberg." The Wall Street Journal gave generous space to doubters like the omnipresent Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who said that de Blasio "could go too far left, because there's a tolerance for moderation, not necessarily for liberalism." The Financial Times' columnist Christopher Caldwell took an opposite, but still skeptical, tack, questioning how far his leftism would really go: "de Blasio would be more like his predecessor than meets the eye." Only the liberal New York Times was generally welcoming, but covered itself against his possible failure by noting that "he is a politician who has yet to prove himself as a manager, and it will be a steep learning curve."
To the UK Labor Party's leader Ed Miliband, however, de Blasio's victory was particularly sweet. I recently talked to a member of his "shadow cabinet" — the group of opposition parliamentarians that correspond to the government's cabinet — and was told that Miliband's pitch of a "one nation Labor party" was based on inculcating an ethic of solidarity among citizens and reversing the rampant individualism that Miliband sees encouraged by Prime Minister David Cameron (and that de Blasio sees as having been fostered by ex-Mayor Bloomberg). So while recognizing that Britain is not New York, the two men share a common sense that a new civic mindset is as important as any specific measures.
But how to put that into place when there is a well of distrust and apathy for politics, particularly among the young? My contact in the Labor shadow cabinet admitted that under-30s were "in another world," while a recent UK report revealed them to have "a considerable aversion to formal, professional politics and to political parties and national politicians."
In many western states today, the governing parties are unpopular — and the opposition sometimes even more so. That's true in France, Japan, Italy, Spain, the UK and the U.S. To state the obvious, most people don't trust politicians: a euro barometer survey found that, since the start of the euro financial crisis, trust had halved.
Political scientists, and some rueful politicians, are wont to note that politicians have rarely been popular. But most politicians and scholars fear that today may be different. The Internet and social media may be sounding a prolonged death knell for the inevitably elitist nature of parliamentary decision making, whose efficacy and very existence depends on a measure of respect and at least passive trust.
Politicians do not usually lie, but they do gloss. They have to find a way to speak frankly — yet be able to win. It's tougher than ever to tell the truth in Western countries, given the way that globalization has put pressure on their economies. Large promises of social betterment, in countries with enormous debt levels, will be very hard to deliver. President Hollande of France came to power with many of the same aspirations as de Blasio and Miliband: that hasn't gone well, so far.
Nevertheless, they must try. While free societies cannot and should not stop people from becoming rich, they should be very tough on these crimes that are disproportionately those of the rich and powerful — fraud, tax evasion and corruption. It seems evident: but it isn't. Fortune magazine did a lengthy piece of reporting a decade ago that concluded that "the double standard in criminal justice in is starker and more embedded than many realize. Bob Dylan was right: Steal a little, and they put you in jail. Steal a lot, and you're likely to walk away with a lecture and a court-ordered promise not to do it again." Several high-income criminals have disproved the universal application of the Dylan law: but widespread belief in its applicability remains. There are few things more disillusioning, more provocative of either revolt or apathetic disgust, than seeing the elite get away with it.
Both de Blasio, now in office, and Miliband, who hopes for it, are right to proclaim that economies are disproportionately hard on the poor. And they are right to argue for an ethic that emphasizes social activism and common care. They should go further and try and make such an ethic gain cross-party support. That doesn't mean an end to competitive politics: it does mean a politics that agrees that citizens think of themselves as agents of communal betterment — a tendency strong in countries with large welfare states — and no longer assume that the state, and politicians, must and can fix all problems. Societies are doomed if they merely blame politicians for the ineffectuality of their struggles to contain them. Social solidarity works only if society, from the bottom up, creates it.
The late Margaret Thatcher is constantly quoted as saying, in an interview she gave in 1987 to the magazine "Woman's Own," that "there is no such thing as society." The fuller version was,
"Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbor and life is a reciprocal business."
Bill de Blasio and Ed Miliband would emphasize the role that the government and rich-poor redistribution has to play in "life as a reciprocal business." But they would, in government, soon be constrained to agree that society is, at its base, the citizens, not the state. If we wish it to continue in freedom and in relative plenty, we have to find the practical day-to-day behavior that helps ensure that. Politicians can — must — help in this: the state is a necessary instrument of support. But it's up to us.
(John Lloyd is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)