THE BLOG
12/31/2013 01:34 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2014

De Blasio Is No Socialist

Bloomberg via Getty Images

As a Swede living in New York, I've been hearing a lot about socialism; about how my country has pioneered it, and, starting in late August or so, about how Bill de Blasio represents it over here.

(To the former, I politely reply that, for seven years now, Sweden has had a centre-right government that has cut taxes and fudning for welfare programs; that since 1996, Sweden has seen the world's fastest pace of deregulation and privatization of public services, according to the Heritage Foundation, with a for-profit school sector comparable only to Holland's or Chile's; and that, sure, the Social Demorats dominated Swedish politics between 1932 and 2006, but that theirs was a always reformist take on socialism rooted in parliamentary politics and a hands-off approach to industrial relations that would satisfy both labor unions and the business community. I try not to sound like I'm recycling the same answer every time -- which, of course, I am.)

The latter, however, I've spent some time thinking about. And no, de Blasio is no socialist.

He has vowed to tax the rich to benefit the many, to fight inequality and prevent New York City from becoming "a playground for the rich." It may, for some, have been a radical campaign -- but such can only be the case where socialism -- the actual thing -- is miles off the mainstream political spectrum. In fact, I don't think that, in policy, de Blasio represents a pronounced leftward shift. Pronounced in rhetorical message, sure, but a closer look at his campaign's policy priorities renders a mayor mindful of holding the center and antagonizing as few as possible. Socialism will still be far off, here and in Sweden.

If there were a time for New York to shift progressive, this would be it. Nonhispanic whites -- the most reliably Republican voters, according to interactive maps compiled by the New York Times -- make up a much smaller share of the population than in 1990, when they accounted for 43 percent of the population. In 2010, a third of New York was white, Hispanics stood at 29 percent and Blacks made up 23 percent. Both Latinos and blacks are groups who sway liberal in opinion polls. Three-quarters of Hispanic respondents to the Pew Research Center in 2012 said they favor big government over small.

"De Blasio got the white Democrats, half of the Blacks, and a big chunk of the Hispanics," said Andrew Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College. "And he did very well among the Asians," a group that, according to new research from the Russell Sage Foundation, are twice as likely to vote Democrat over Republican once they have "made up their minds" politically. "If you can do that, that's a coalition."

The city's demographics favor liberal candidates, and the gap between rich and poor -- the "Tale of Two Cities," told this time by de Blasio -- is so significant that running on a platform to fight it will get you 73 percent of the vote. "I think the basic gestalt of the Democratic Party will be to move to the left in the states where it's strongest," said Joel Kotkin, an author and Urban Studies Fellow at Chapman University. New York, he said, is one of several states with such weak support for the Republican Party that it has a "one-party system" -- to the point of not having to "worry about middle-of-the-road voters."

Set against that backdrop, New York's new mayor cuts a compromising figure. De Blasio's centrism becomes more pronounced given the context in which he's proposing his policies. Yes, he has proposed to tax the city's wealthy to fund universal pre-Kindergarten and after-school programs. He has said that New York must "raise the wage floor" -- even though the city needs state support to do that -- and that "prosperity won't trickle down from the top." But some of his proposals face significant short-term obstacles. Others simply aren't as radical as they have often been made out to be.

De Blasio's pre-K tax -- a 0.55 percent increase on amounts made over $500,000 annually -- is up against a New York state legislature that faces reelection next year. Governor Anthony Cuomo, de Blasio's former boss, said in his inaugural speech in 2011 that his state has "no future" as the "tax capital of the nation." The Tax Foundation, a research group in Washington, DC that wants Governor Cuomo to lower taxes, has ranked New York's tax system as the worst for businesses out of any state. "Not only are state taxes high," Elizabeth Malm, an economist with the Tax Foundation, wrote in an email, "but property taxes are some of the highest in the nation." Business representatives have not exactly come out in support of the tax.

The proposal comes at a time when the anti-tax movement -- inspired a drastic property tax reducation in California, in 1978, known as proposition 13 -- is anything but dormant. "The forces advocating tax cuts for rich are stronger than they have ever been before," said Nick Johnson, an expert on state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank. Legislatures in Kansas, North Carolina, and Ohio have all approved of tax cuts this year, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has proposed to cut income taxes for people earning up to $400,000.

Yet de Blasio's proposed education tax does not go against the grain as much as it simply follows popular opinion. On the whole, Americans think the rich aren't taxed enough. Nationally, a 2012 poll by Gallup showed that 62 percent of Americans think upper-income people pay too little in taxes. That figure has fallen from 77 percent in 1992, but increased by seven percentage points since 2010. After the last presidential election, 71 percent of Gallup respondents said raising taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year was either "very" or "somewhat" important.

Compared to certain other states, raising a marginal tax on earnings -- anything made beyond ten times the city's median household income -- does not represent the leftward jolt we've been hearing about. California's governor, Jerry Brown, raised taxes last year on those making over $250,000 by between 1 and 3 percentage points. Set against that example, de Blasio is taking a tentative step to the left -- not a giant leap. Sure, the new mayor has promised to "build or preserve 200,000" affordable housing units "over the next decade" -- but Bloomberg had the same ambition for 165,000 units between 2002 and next year.

There are signs that de Blasio will be tougher on businesses. A major spending initiative outlined in his campaign platform -- to increase the funding of the City University of New York by 50 percent -- will come not from raised taxes, but scrapped tax breaks offered to real estate developers. One example is the Industrial & Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP), which lowers tax rates for developers of industrial or commercial properties whose buildings are "built, modernized, expanded" or "physically improved."

To some, however, that only represents a return to normalcy. "You can't bend over backwards more for real estate interests than [Mayor] Bloomberg did," Beveridge said. "It used to be that development would help generate tax revenue. That seems to have disappeared." He anticipates not an advent of redsitributive politics under de Blasio, but policies that "stop redistribution to the top. I would expect more of that."

Bettina Damiani, the project director of Good Jobs New York, an advocacy research organization, hopes de Blasio's administration will invest less in retail and stadium construction projects, and more in sectors that will produce middle-income jobs for the city. "A lot of statistics tell us that New York City has not been lifting people out of poverty," she said. But, she added, it's too early to tell whether that will happen under de Blasio.

The mayor's message to fight inequality resonated because the gap between rich and poor in the city is more tangible than ever. New York's middle class has been waning for "thirty of forty years," said Joel Kotkin, an author and Urban Studies Fellow at Chapman University. In 2011, the Census Bureau found that New York City and New York State have the greatest income inequality in the country. Cue the centerpiece of the de Blasio campaign.

The message held appeal across income groups. As de Blasio's pollster, Anna Greenberg, told The New Republic, his campaign drew on research that suggested that New York's low- and high-income groups alike want to reduce inequality in the city. Rich and poor came out in support on election day. The Times' maps show that in areas where the average income is less than the city's median -- $51,000 -- de Blasio won over 90 percent of the vote. Yet he also earned a majority until the the average income began to exceed $217,000, with those areas -- particularly Manhattan's Upper East Side -- showing a clear preference for Republican Joe Lhota.

With such a broad coalition, general support for taxing the wealthy, and the city's new demographic profile, a more radically leftist candidate -- not to mention a socialist -- would propose more redistrutive policies than de Blasio has. Why he hasn't? In part, the answer is that he -- or any other mayoral candidate -- cannot afford to alienate the business community. And he probably won't; some have even labeled him "pro-development." Another answer lies in what de Blasio's pollster did not say. Although there is a widespread conception that inequality in the city is a problem, such measurements say little about policy preferences.

Research has shown that even as income inequality has increased over the past decades, Americans have become less supportive of policies that redistribute wealth. As the problem has grown, people have become less willing to fix it by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. "When inequality in America rises, the public responds with increased conservative sentiment," Nathan J. Kelly and Peter K. Enns wrote in 2010. "Rather than generating opinion shifts that would make redistributive policies more likely, increased econoomic inequality produces a conservative response in public sentiment." Their study suggests that income inequality reinforces itself; that even as it grows, support for policies that seek to address it wanes.

These findings go some way to explaining de Blasio's caution. Even as, according to Pew, 64 percent of Americans "somewhat" or "strongly agree" that the government should "work to substantially reduce" the gap between rich and poor, New York's new mayor has limited his redistributive proposals to a small tax on the very wealthy, which suggests he is aware of the tenuous support more radical alternatives would receive. Not to mention the uproar he might expect from wealthy donors if he chose a more progressive route.

What emerges, then, is not a Park Slope revolutionary, but a mayor who, like those before him, is attuned to opinion polls, aware of the risks they present; a mayor who plays on the popular mood in rhetoric sooner than he models policy on messages placarded in Zuccotti Park. In New York -- a city that some would say has developed a one-party system, where pronouncedly liberal demographic groups make up a majority of the population -- that strategy signifies caution. To the extent that de Blasio's victory sends a message nationally, it's that even where the playing field leans heavily in the Democrats' favor, the center holds a strong sway over policy. Over rhetoric? Not so much.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, the Social Democrats -- a party that still says its politics are about building a welfare state, not cutting taxes -- have said they will not scrap the fifth in a series of income-tax reductions by the ruling government government, even though they voted against it in November. They, like de Blasio, seem to believe the center will hold.