The Moderate Minority
The mayoral showdown in New York City shows that a more diverse Democratic Party may also be a more moderate one.
By Zaid Jilani
If you want a preview of the future of the Democratic Party, look no further than New York City’s upcoming mayoral primary, to be decided on June 22. A range of candidates is battling it out for the party’s nomination, a prize that will make the winner a virtual lock for mayor in the November general election.
The leading candidates reflect the country’s growing ethnic diversity, with Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, an African-American, and Andrew Yang, an Asian-American, sitting squarely on top of the field. One opinion research firm estimates that just 36% of likely Democratic primary voters in the upcoming contest will be white, meaning that non-white voters will play a heavy role in the outcome.
But Adams and Yang share something else in common with many of the party’s minority voters: They’re ideologically moderate.
To the chagrin of progressives, Adams and Yang have rejected much of the progressive left’s policy agenda, particularly around criminal justice issues. Adams is a former police officer who has derided calls to defund police services. “There are a lot of young white affluent people who are coming in and setting the conversation,” he complained in an interview this spring about the origins of anti-police sentiment.
He argued that defunding police would necessarily result in a smaller police presence. “When you start defunding, hey, the cop is no longer on your corner,” he said. “That cop is no longer in your lobby. That cop is not standing outside when you leave your Broadway play. And I have never been to an event where the people were saying we want less cops. Never.”
Generally speaking, Adams correctly summarizes Americans’ preferences. Polling shows that Americans across the board want police to spend the same amount of time in their areas or spend even more time. Blacks and Hispanics are no exception, with around 80% of them agreeing with that sentiment even as confidence in individual encounters with police remains lower in minority communities.
Yang, a political neophyte who made his name with a dark horse bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, has taken the same tack, arguing that more police resources should be shifted to tackling violent crime.
“The truth is that New York City cannot afford to defund the police,” Yang said shortly after a shooting in Times Square. That shooting offered an example in favor of Yang’s stance: A four-year-old injured in the attack was rushed to safety by a cop who happened to be nearby.
Progressives, who tend to take their cues on politics from social media and activists, may argue that Adams and Yang are simply out of touch. Surely a progressive city like New York isn’t crying out to get tough on crime.
But the polling suggests it’s the single most important issue for a plurality of voters there. Forty-six percent of likely voters say that addressing crime and public safety should be a top priority for the next mayor; 33% of likely voters say they think Adams would handle the issue best, with Yang coming in second.
If you look at what’s been happening in the city over the past year, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Murders went up around 40% from 2019 to 2020, with shootings in particular skyrocketing. If anyone’s confused as to why Democratic voters in New York who are members of minority groups might be particularly skeptical of left-wing calls to reduce policing, they should look at the distribution of violence.
Because of the concentration of crime, the people who live in predominantly minority neighborhoods often bear the brunt of surges in violent crime. In 2020, 73.9% of the city’s recorded shooting victims were black, and 22.5% were Hispanic.
“The community is incensed with the crime. It’s hurting. Kids can’t go out to play in the park,” United Clergy Commission President Gerald Seabrooks, the bishop at the Rehoboth Cathedral in Bedford-Stuyvesant, told HuffPost reporter Daniel Marans about the crime wave. “We want to be treated like any other community, and we want the police to do their job.”
It should hardly be surprising that these voters are not rushing to support candidates who support defunding the police, like nonprofit executive Diane Morales, who sits in sixth place in the most recent poll.
Although New York politics is obviously sui generis, the moderate and pragmatic streaks in the city’s minority voters are in many ways reflected in the national Democratic Party. It was black voters in the South, after all, who effectively ended Bernie Sanders’s two presidential bids.
Although there are limits to what self-identification can tell you about someone’s politics, it’s worth mentioning that only around 29% of black Democrats and 37% of Hispanic Democrats identify as liberal. Meanwhile, 55% of white Democrats identify with the label.
Research by Eric Kaufmann and others has shown that white liberals have in recent years become even more left-wing on social and cultural issues than non-white Democrats, part of the so-called “Great Awokening.”
The civil society group More In Common demonstrates that these divides go beyond issue positions and can be found in social attitudes as well. Just 34% of progressive activists—the 8% of Americans who are both ideologically left-wing and outspoken in their political activism—say they are “proud to be American.” In comparison, 62% of Asians, 70% of blacks, and 76% of Hispanics agree with that statement.
Depending on what side of the political divide you’re on, these numbers may exhilarate or depress you. But they represent the reality of the Democratic coalition. A more culturally and ethnically diverse Democratic Party is unlikely to adopt the furthest left-wing policies. On the contrary, the party’s cultural diversity leads to ideological diversity, helping moderate it in races like New York’s mayoral primary and elsewhere.
Zaid Jilani is a frequent contributor to Persuasion. He maintains his own newsletter where he writes about current affairs at inquiremore.com.
Timely and perceptive article. Since I first heard it as a slogan, I felt like white progressives were mostly likely the people pushing it. And it's very reactionary. Because the real demand should be more capable police who know the communities they work in and who don't go around harassing and shooting people in those communities. The worst type of racism are politicians who accept gun fights, gang wars and murder in the communities that are most plagued by them. Malign neglect, top-down.
Recently I read an essay on the CSPI website about the cultural roots of populism:
It explains a lot about what appeals to voters and what they value as essential. It also suggests why strongarm types like to invoke "common sense" and make with the expletives and epithets in the name of "telling it like it is."
The biggest benefit of reading the CSPI piece was getting past the ALL CAPS megaphoning and bare-knuckle posturing of populists, and understanding the motivations of people drawn to them. Are some of those drawn to populists the ones Hillary dismissed as deplorables and belong to The Order of the 17th Letter? Definitely. Do some of them have the same moderate and pragmatic streak that Zaid observes in NYC's minority voters and the national Democratic Party? I think so.
I'm speaking as a JFK Democrat, as my conservative friends call me. I see an opportunity to re-connect with people who who aren't among The Woke but still acknowledge incidents of inequality and disparity. They don't want coastal Establishment elites shoving everything down their throat, but they're open to having a small taste if they get to help in the kitchen. Specifically regarding crime, my guess is that moderate pragmatists don't want to defund the police but at the same time don't want a modern-day Stasi.
I'd go so far as to say these folks also want equality of opportunity without crippling student debt, border enforcement without cages, and reliable public services without complete privatization. That's why I think a great approach would be to reconcile the originalist intent of promoting the general welfare with the progressive goal of serving the common good. It seems attainable. It just takes the right person to get there, regardless of party.