The Grim Logic of Urban Politics

When he was defeated by David Dinkins in the Democratic primary after three terms as mayor of New York, Ed Koch quipped “The people have spoken . . . and they must be punished!” That comment encapsulates a truth too seldom emphasized in democracy. Elections are not only about holding office-holders accountable but about holding the electorate accountable. Citizens will be held responsible for their votes by the consequences of the choices made by the representatives they elect. Voter responsibility will become most clear when these decisions are the worst.

The two-way street of electoral accountability has never been more relevant than today. Local leaders across the nation, many elected with handsome majorities, have been shown feckless in the face of mobs raging through their cities. Jacob Frey, the mayor of Minneapolis, ordered his police to abandon a station with the result that it was burned down. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan permitted extremists to oust the police and establish control of key blocks of her city, calling it a symbol of a coming “summer of love.” Weeks of murders and lawlessness in the autonomous zone eventually forced her to take back control. The Seattle city council then banned the use of pepper spray, leading the Chief of Police to declare that her force will no longer be able to protect property against looters. In Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler has done nothing to prevent mobs from torching statues, including one memorializing the Elk who once roamed freely there.

This recounting constitutes only a partial list of the cities in which leaders have not been keeping basic order. If tolerating mere broken windows leads to more crime, it is hardly a surprise that decisions, like the one to permit a police station to be torched, lead even more quickly to crime waves. And the victims are mostly members of the minority groups for which protestors are marching.

The politicians who have failed to keep order no doubt have their reasons. They may not want to be blamed for any police shootings that happen on their watch and putting down disorder always carries such risks. They may (wrongly in my view) believe that it is impossible to encourage protests without permitting some violence. They may even sympathize with the idea that some statues and property should be targeted by mobs. (The noble elk is just collateral damage.) In any event, many local leaders have shown that they have less sympathy for preventing violence and protecting property than pursuing their other objectives. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio was more explicit than most in expressing his distaste for the values of order and protection of property when he recently quoted Karl Marx denouncing the state “as the executive committee for the bourgeoisie.” Most of these local leaders are not Marxists, but they are indifferent to the rule of law that undergirds a prosperous, market-based society.

In normal times, many people vote not with attention to consequences, but expressively to affirm their image of themselves as good people. 

Of course, most voters do have an abiding interest in social order, crime control, and the protection of their property. Such bourgeois values have been central to the increased prosperity of the West in the last centuries for all groups, including the poor. To be sure, some members of Antifa and other anarchist groups would like to force others to live in the squalor they celebrate, but these are nothing like a majority. Many voters—enough to swing the results of future elections—may become unhappy as they see property values decline and their neighbors, if not themselves, become increasingly likely to be victims of crime.

Most of the time, voters do not seriously consider such dangerous consequences when electing leaders. Part of the reason is that the combination of factors that lead to disorder (such as lockdowns against a virus and the obviously unjustifiable killing of George Floyd) are low-probability events. But more importantly, citizens are less likely to make a difference in the outcome of a major election by voting than they will suffer a car accident on the way to the polls. Therefore, in normal times, they are going to vote not with attention to consequences, but expressively to affirm their image of themselves as good people. Whoever is elected, they must live with themselves. In many urban settings, that means above all affirming the view of themselves as generous liberals, particularly in contradistinction to Donald Trump.

But when their elected leaders make decisions that lead to seriously adverse personal consequences, like loss of property values and increased fear of crime, accounting for results becomes part of the way they express themselves. When crime continued to rise under Mayor Dinkins and he failed to stop a riot against Jews in Crown Heights, enough voters in New York became concerned to elect Rudy Giuliani, although he was a Republican in a heavily Democratic city. The 20 years under his leadership and that of Michael Bloomberg ushered in a tremendous renaissance for New York City. The voters had indeed been punished by Koch’s defeat, and for a while, even New Yorkers recognized what David Pryce-Jones has called “the credo of the genuine conservative, namely that the veneer of civilization is frighteningly thin, hard to create but easy to destroy.”

The minds of voters are also concentrated by the ability of people and companies to exit cities where violence rises and property rights are disrespected. Ilya Somin in his fine new book, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom, shows how foot voting may often be more effective than casting a ballot to bring about political change. These days, companies may seem focused on putting out public relations statements to align themselves with protests, but they decide where to locate based on the bottom line. They will flee those cities in which it becomes harder to recruit the best employees because of their periodic descent into chaos.

Powerful forces are at work to make many voters regret casting their ballots for leaders who tolerate lawlessness. For that reason, it is important for the federal government not to intervene in what are essentially local law enforcement problems. To be sure, the federal government has a responsibility to protect its federal property and enforce federal laws. Nevertheless, substituting for local law enforcement, no matter how badly led, only retards the process of making voters accountable for what they themselves have wrought. Indeed, low performing local leaders will then try to distract from their own responsibility for the chaotic situation by attacking federal law enforcement. Because such enforcement is associated with the administration of Donald Trump, supremely unpopular in their cities, they can change the subject from their maladministration.

Once a crisis recedes into the distant past, voters are likely to once again lapse into expressive voting with little regard to consequences. Localities may again elect the kind of leaders who have made so many serious mistakes today. Bill de Blasio could only win because the transformation of New York had been so great that its denizens no longer remembered the grim days before Giuliani’s tenure. Because of the nature of voting and voters, local governance generally only improves through crisis. It remains to be seen if the disastrous decisions of many urban leaders wake up the woke.

Reader Discussion

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on August 06, 2020 at 08:07:42 am

Professor McGinnis argues that in order to "affirm their image of themselves as good people" voters vote for the clueless communist, DeBlasio, the feckless Lightfoot, the Idiot Mayors Fry, Durkan, Wheeler and Bowser and the Gubernatorial Ship of Fools, Pritzker, Cuomo, Whitmer, Murphy and Inslee. How does a morally reckless, politically-stupid act that is demonstrably self-destructive and inflicts permanent, irreparable harm on one's family, community and future "affirm their image of themselves as good people?"

I fail to see it.

Prolonged psychoanalysis may explain the symptom, but psycho-therapy will not relieve it. Of those millions who drank the Kool Aid, the agony of economic reality, physical hazard and other Hobbesian experience may compel some hundreds of thousands to mitigate their suffering. They will do so not by throwing the bums out of office. That's too obvious an answer for a Democrat, and, besides, it would undermine "their image of themselves as good people." No, they will not vote the right way; they'll flee and leave their mess behind. Those who can afford to get out will abandon their self-created war zones ("foot voting",) transfer their money and mental illness to other locales (say Texas, Florida, Idaho and Utah) and, like drops of sewage in vats of wine and bad apples in fresh barrels, restart there the process of cultural contamination which will lead to a repetition en masse of voter malfeasance.

That's how a civilization is lost.

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on August 06, 2020 at 09:23:52 am

Paladin, you ask “ How does a morally reckless, politically-stupid act that is demonstrably self-destructive and inflicts permanent, irreparable harm on one's family, community and future ‘affirm their image of themselves as good people?‘“

The answer: they do not understand cause and effect, they analyze policies purely from the standpoint of hopes and intentions. They are possessed by what Thomas Sowell calls the “unconstrained vision.” I think it’s ultimately because they’ve adopted crazy metaphysics and epistemology, and deep down they don’t like themselves much.

You are certainly right about them taking their poison elsewhere. Maybe one appropriate response is to work make elsewheres explicitly hostile to leftist ideas, supporting liberty, rule of law, and the enforcers of these (the police).

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Charles N. Steele
on August 06, 2020 at 09:31:02 am

Why would “Good” people not be excited about medical treatment that has been demonstrated to be helpful in keeping the fatality rate low for many Countries who are dealing with Covid 19? Are they fearful that using this successful treatment will have a detrimental effect on those who will in the future possibly also receive a vaccine? It makes no sense.


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on August 06, 2020 at 11:55:15 am

Sadly, these "expressive" voters neither learn NOR do they want to learn.
Witness, the primary victory of the Soros-backed Prosecutor in St Louis.

As for taking their poison elsewhere, the end result of that is to replicate the process of "Californication" that transformed Seattle into the Progressive Hell-Hole that it has become.

But Wait, there is more (as the TV Pitchman says):
Let us take a page from the Progressive Handbook of Gov. Cuomo. Let us institute checkpoints at the State borders. Instead of checking for evidence of viral infections / prevalence from surrounding States, let us demand evidence of the subjects voting preferences.
And why not? - as no one appears at all concerned with constitutional niceties.

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on August 06, 2020 at 13:34:38 pm

Checkpoints for getting in! Who'd want to do that? Did anyone able to flee East Germany want to return?

Also, Governor Death should read Edwards vs. California.
BTW: at the accelerating rate of wreckage wrought by Governor Death and Mayor Trotsky it will not be long before NY and NYC residents will need Stasi-approved "papers" for permission to leave.

"Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo, tear down that wall!"

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on August 07, 2020 at 11:00:17 am

It is only logical to assume you are referring to the atheistic materialist overpopulation alarmist globalists, those who deny that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage. Thus, we can know through both Faith and reason, that that which has infiltrated this Nation, is that which has infiltrated Christ’s Church.

One cannot hold Love, Life, And Marriage Sacred, if one denies The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage.

Caritas In Veritate; Veritas In Caritate; Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Amen

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on August 06, 2020 at 14:15:58 pm

This post is a good, concise explanation of the rot at the core of American democracy.

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David B Frisk
on August 07, 2020 at 11:24:35 am

And let us not forget, Our Blessed Mother Mary was the one who, Through her Fiat, Affirmed The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, and thus the fact that There Is Only One Son Of God, One Word Of God Made Flesh, One Lamb Of God Who Can Take Away The Sins Of This World, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus There Can Only Be One Spirit Of Perfect Love Between The Father And The Son, Who Must Proceed From Both The Father And The Son, In The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

Woe to those who would place pachamama in The Holy Place offending Our Blessed Mother Mary, and Our Lord.

“Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.

Blessed are thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

Holy Mary Mother of God,

pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen”

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on August 07, 2020 at 18:38:57 pm

These are arguments also made the the Chinese for suppressing violent dissent in Hong Kong, and therein lies a fault in the article. The point that is missed in this article is the grand failure of statecraft whether in Beijing or in Washington that leads to frustrations and violence.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.