New York City begins its mayoral terms immediately, in your face, with an inauguration on Jan. 1. Typically, these are parochial affairs, with the new mayor greeted by a hungover fusillade of local crises–blizzards, strikes, budget deficits. This year’s ceremony was more portentous, though, one of the rare times that the city–an eccentric nation unto itself–has sent a political message that may be relevant to the rest of the country. That message is a new left populism, personified by Mayor Bill de Blasio and ratified by the presence of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who never seem far from the next new thing. It is no secret that income inequality and its faithful sidekick, middle-class stagnation, will be at the top of both parties’ domestic agenda in 2014.
We will ask the very wealthy to pay a little more in taxes so that we can offer full-day, universal pre-K and after-school programs,” said de Blasio, announcing his signature proposal. “Those earning between $500,000 and $1 million … would see their taxes increase by an average of $973 a year. That’s less than three bucks a day–about the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks.”
Sounds reasonable enough, despite the Starbucks dig. I would imagine most New Yorkers earning more than $500,000 would gleefully toss $973 into the pot if they thought that universal pre-K would actually help the poor. The greater likelihood, though, is that the money will fall down a very dark hole into the city’s sclerotic, union-paralyzed bureaucracy. If Democrats want to make government the agency of opportunity for the poor, they’re going to have to run it better.
But de Blasio was also being a bit disingenuous. Even if government ran as smoothly as FedEx and money could be successfully pumped into reformed social programs, the sources of income disparity (the Democratic formulation) and middle-class stagnation (the Republican version) would still be with us.
If the Democrats want to be serious about income disparity, they’re going to have to address the problems not just at the top of the social spectrum but also at the bottom–the explosion of single-parent families and out-of-wedlock births that have caused the bottom to drop out of working-class-family incomes.
If the Republicans want to be serious about middle-class stagnation, they’re going to have to address the plutocratic clot at the top. They’re going to have to address the subtle, almost surreptitious regulatory and tax-code tilt toward the financial sector over the past 40 years–especially its gamier casino aspects. In fairness, this has been a bipartisan excess. Bill Clinton’s ugliest hour came with the deregulation of Wall Street, which made the Great Recession inevitable. If Hillary runs for President, she will have to find a way to detach herself from her husband’s famous funders. She’ll certainly have to do more than attach herself to the populist rhetoric of the moment.
Populism, left or right, has always been a rough-edged and graceless American political tendency. It is inevitably accompanied by some form of intolerance–racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism–and de Blasio’s installation was no exception. There was a black minister who called the city a “plantation” in the invocation. And Harry Belafonte had some wildly intemperate stuff to say about the criminal-justice system, which has suffered police excesses but also has had an unimaginable success in limiting crime and making life more tolerable in poor neighborhoods. De Blasio’s notion that New York is “two cities” is a myopic inaccuracy. New York contains multitudes. It is the very opposite of a plantation.
For the past 25 years especially, it has been a fierce incubator of opportunity for a kaleidoscope of new immigrant groups who have come and worked hard and succeeded. Studies show that the American Dream of upward mobility is more alive in New York than in much of the rest of the country–a fact that its new mayor should not only acknowledge but also crow about.
The dual problem of income disparity and middle-class stagnation may be the most important we face now. Both have roots in globalization and technological advance. But they also involve questions of social morality. Twenty-two years ago, Bill Clinton traveled through New Hampshire in a bus plastered with the words opportunity, responsibility and community. It was pure political genius, the most succinct description of the values inherent in a middle-class democracy. Clinton didn’t quite live up to it, especially in his policies toward Wall Street. But the values endure. They should form the parameters for a new conversation, conducted without rancor, about the true nature of civic equality.
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This appears in the January 20, 2014 issue of TIME.