The death of former New York Mayor John Lindsay and the passing of liberalism

John V. Lindsay, who died last month at the age of 79, was mayor of New York City from 1966 to 1973, a period of social and political upheaval. Newspaper columnists and editorialists, along with former colleagues of the mayor, have commented on his legacy, but most of what has been written skirts the substantive issues raised by Lindsay's tenure in office.

John Vliet Lindsay was born in New York in 1921. He came from a prosperous and well-connected family, graduated from Yale, and got his start in Republican Party circles as a young lawyer in the 1950s. This was a time when the moderate and liberal elements of the so-called Eastern Establishment, such as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, still played a major role within the party.

After a brief stint as an assistant to Attorney General Herbert Brownell in the second term of President Dwight Eisenhower, Lindsay ran for Congress. He was victorious in Manhattan's “Silk Stocking” district—so called because of its wealthy residents—which was at that time the only congressional district in the city where a Republican stood a good chance of winning. Lindsay went to the US House of Representatives in 1959 and stayed for seven years.

In Washington, Lindsay quickly developed a reputation as a maverick, standing well to the left of his party leadership. He concerned himself with urban problems, backed the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights legislation, and in 1964 made some powerful enemies when he refused to endorse his party's right-wing presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater.

Relatively isolated within Republican ranks in Congress, Lindsay decided to run for mayor in 1965. After gaining the Republican nomination with the backing of Rockefeller and then-Senator Jacob Javits, he won in November with a 46 percent plurality, beating out the Democratic candidate as well as William F. Buckley, the right-wing journalist and commentator who was the nominee of the Conservative Party.

Lindsay won the election, despite the heavy majority of Democratic voters in New York, on the basis of an unlikely electoral coalition including the liberal middle class, large numbers of minority voters, and the Republican establishment. His victory in some ways recalled the coming to power of Fiorello LaGuardia, Republican-Fusion mayor during most of the 1930s and through World War II. Lindsay, however, did not have his predecessor's populist flair. A comparison more often made was between the new mayor and President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated two years earlier.

Lindsay, however, staked out a more outspoken position on some issues than Kennedy had. While in Congress, he had criticized the civil liberties record of the Kennedy administration. The new mayor had the political misfortune, however, to take office just as the economic basis for the reforms he espoused was collapsing. He was ultimately politically crushed by the intense class tensions that beset the city and erupted in strikes and other social struggles.

American capitalism at the end of the 1960s faced a growing balance of payments deficit, a rising inflation rate, currency crises and increasing competition from its rivals in Europe and Japan. The crisis produced massive movements in the American working class. Black workers and youth took to the streets in the mid-1960s in urban riots reflecting intense anger at the failure of the civil rights reforms to lead to significant improvements in their conditions of life. Workers and students were radicalized by the war in Vietnam. Trade unionists, refusing to pay for the war through cuts in their own living standards, demanded increases in wages and benefits to keep up with inflation and make up for past losses.

This was not a purely American phenomenon. The breakup in 1971 of dollar-gold convertibility and the other linchpins of the Bretton Woods monetary system established in the wake of World War II meant the unraveling of the economic and political stability which that system had helped to maintain.

Lindsay's two terms in office coincided with the most tumultuous years of the postwar period. He presided over the financial center of world capitalism precisely as the contradictions of the world system were erupting throughout the industrialized world. Lindsay's tenure more or less coincided with the unmistakable signs of the decline in the global position of American capitalism.

These were the years of the French general strike of 1968 and the rise of a mass movement in the US against the war in Vietnam. Within two years of his leaving office, the Tory government in Britain was brought down by a strike of coal miners, fascist and military dictatorships in Portugal and Greece collapsed, the first-ever forced resignation of a US president occurred, and the US suffered a humiliating defeat in Vietnam.

Lindsay's essential task was to appease the working class and keep the lid on growing discontent, while at the same time serving the interests of the ruling establishment to which he was bound by birth and political allegiance. By the late 1960s, that had become a near-impossible task.

The problems were exposed from Lindsay's first day in office, which coincided with the beginning of a bitter transit strike. The Republican mayor had none of the experience of his Democratic colleagues in dealing with the trade union bureaucracy. Lindsay made no attempt to work out a behind-the-scenes deal with veteran Transport Workers Union leader Mike Quill. Once the transit workers walked out, they were not so easily brought back to work. The strike was settled after 13 days on terms that set the stage for escalating wage demands from every other section of city employees.

Lindsay also faced a deepening social crisis intensified by population changes and developments in the city's economy. While hundreds of thousands of city residents moved to the suburbs, they were replaced by a roughly equal number of immigrants from abroad and migrants from the South. The black, Hispanic and immigrant sections of the population arrived just as decent-paying manufacturing jobs were disappearing. This contributed to a rapid increase in the city's welfare rolls, which jumped by 40 percent in just the first two years of Lindsay's' first term.

As the city's population became poorer, younger and more heavily immigrant, costs for a whole range of social programs, including education, health care and welfare, rose sharply. Taxes were raised to pay for some of these programs. This period also saw a number of other reforms, such as the open admissions policy at the City University—an attempt to provide working class youth with at least the possibility of competing for the white-collar jobs then being created.

Lindsay's policies were not a repeat of the New Deal, however. With all of its limitations, the earlier period of reforms was one in which Franklin Roosevelt had indicted the “malefactors of great wealth” and claimed to speak on behalf of all working people. Lindsay's liberalism was far more restrained than that of Roosevelt. While supporting certain civil rights and anti-poverty measures, Lindsay and other liberals of the 1960s tended to blame white workers for the problems of racism and discrimination. Whatever Lindsay's intentions, his policies served to pit one section of workers against another.

This erupted in the 1968 teachers strike. Lindsay gave his backing to black nationalist forces which had utilized the city's scheme for school decentralization to gain power on local school boards. A bitter strike began when the local board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn transferred 13 teachers and 6 administrators out of the district. The struggle went on for 55 days.

The increasing social and racial tensions threw Lindsay's political career into a tailspin. He won reelection in 1969 with barely 40 percent of the vote. After losing the Republican primary, Lindsay ran as an independent with the backing of the Liberal Party. He was aided by the fact that his colorless Democratic and Republican opponents, Mario Procaccino and John Marchi, split the conservative vote.

Lindsay switched his party affiliation in 1971, in the midst of his second term, and made a brief attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. In 1973, as his financial backers made it clear that he had exhausted his usefulness in City Hall, Lindsay decided against seeking a third term as mayor. By 1975, less than two years after Lindsay's departure, New York was virtually bankrupt. The bailout of the city organized in that period set the pattern for the wave of give-backs, social service cuts and other reactionary social policies begun under Carter and accelerated under Reagan and subsequent administrations.

Today there are no big-city liberals left in US politics. Los Angeles and New York have right-wing Republican mayors. Democrats such as Ed Rendell in Philadelphia have adopted the same law-and-order and anti-working-class measures. Black Democratic mayors, such as Archer in Detroit and Street, the current mayor of Philadelphia, have followed suit.

A brief look at the mayoral careers of Lindsay and the next Republican to follow him in New York, Rudolph Giuliani, highlights the shifts that have taken place. Lindsay made an abortive attempt to establish a civilian complaint review board for the police, while Giuliani has been an ardent defender of even the most brutal police killings. Lindsay agreed to pay increases for city workers and the lowest-paid, while Giuliani has implemented wage freezes and presided over an unprecedented growth of the gap between the rich and poor. Lindsay presided over open admissions to the City University, while Giuliani has specialized in demagogic denunciations of public higher education and the entire public school system.

The political exile that Lindsay endured for his last 25 years was the result of the abandonment by the ruling class of the policies that he espoused. His political career ended when he was only 52 years old.

While Lindsay went into political retirement, right-wing forces, beginning with the Nixon administration, took full advantage of the bankruptcy of liberalism. As the American corporate elite concluded that it could no longer afford even the most modest reform measures, big business politicians crusaded against “big government” and made use of the “race card” to intensify confusion and divisions within the working class.

Nixon fashioned his “Southern strategy” to capture the White House and reorient the Republicans nationally, building up support both in the South and among sections of middle class and working class voters in the North who were led to believe that the poor and minority workers threatened their jobs and living standards.

Thinly-disguised appeals to racial fears and open racism became a major element in the shift of the Republicans to the right. Nixon was followed by Ronald Reagan, who inveighed against mythical “welfare queens.” George Bush, the father of the incoming president, placed at the center of his 1988 presidential campaign the infamous “Willie Horton” television ad, in which the Democrats were held responsible for the parole of a black convict who later committed a murder. Today the Republican Party is controlled by the most right-wing and racist forces.

The Democrats had no answer to the Republican offensive, because they represent the same essential corporate and financial interests. The imperatives of global competition and the fundamental contradictions of the profit system virtually eliminated the constituency for reform politics within the ruling elite.

Lindsay is only one of a number of political figures, including presidential candidate George McGovern and others, who dropped out of politics when their liberal reformism fell out of fashion. The vast majority of Democratic politicians moved to the right, adapting themselves to their Republican opponents. The Clinton-Gore administration only temporarily revived the fortunes of the Democrats by embracing the program of welfare cutbacks, support for the death penalty, balanced budgets and military adventurism abroad. As the 2000 election debacle showed, however, dominant elements within the ruling elite will not tolerate even the hint of reformism.

The shift to the right within the framework of the two-party capitalist political monopoly is also reflected in the media commentary on Lindsay's death. The late mayor has received some faint praise, but the emphasis has been on his “mistakes.” The New York Times in particular, regarded as a major spokesman for American liberalism, published some dismissive assessments of Lindsay's career.

An editorial paid tribute to his “passion, idealism and courage,” but went on depict the former mayor as something of a crackpot, dwelling at length on his “failed liberal experiments” like anti-poverty programs and “a mistaken belief that the city could tax itself out of financial troubles.”

Times columnist Joyce Purnick was even more negative, writing of Lindsay's “grave errors” and “their troubling impact.” Lindsay is credited with helping to keep the city calm after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, but, according to Purnick, the “storms” that Lindsay had to deal with were mostly “of his own making.”

The pundits and editorialists think they have learned the necessary lessons from John Lindsay's career. Thank God, they seem to be saying, we no longer have any illusions that government should act to improve the lot of the poor, or that politicians should encourage the aspirations of workers and young people for a better life.

These attacks on Lindsay from the right take advantage of the fact that he came to represent the failure of liberalism itself. All of the reformist attempts to deal with poverty and other social ills had only the most limited impact, while at the same time deepening the economic crisis and leading to the radicalization of broad sections of workers and youth.

The smugness and complacency of the media commentators are about to be exploded, however. It is one thing to recognize Lindsay's failures, but what do the capitalist politicians have to propose today, as the gap between rich and poor continues to grow even in advance of the inevitable economic downturn? As millions of working people respond to the ever more flagrant attacks on their democratic rights, the elite may come to wish it had another Lindsay to deal with the social anger from below. What the working class needs, however, is not a revival of moribund liberalism, but its own political party and a socialist program that articulates its needs.