Universal Rent Control is about more than tenant power, it’s about reestablishing democratic power over the market


As election day approaches, the stakes keep getting higher and the political environment keeps getting scarier. It was inevitable that the President would turn to imaginary fears and blatantly false claims to poison the climate, partly because he sees the grave risk in “losing” the midterms, but mainly because that’s who he is. It is disheartening that so many other Americans seem to share his darkest impulses. It might not be enough to prevent Democrats from retaking the House, but we’ve seen that song and dance before. 

The real question for me is: how much will change if the Democrats win? The battle in New York for Universal Rent Control is a good place to consider what needs to change, what could change, and what might not change within the Democratic Party.

(Honestly, this blog got away from me and is more about the political process around URC than specific policy proposals, but feel free to check out something I wrote about it here for more details. I will be following up this article with more about URC.)

Now, of course things will change considerably for the President if Democrats take back the House. There will be actual oversight of the administration. There will be meaningful roadblocks to the Republican agenda on the hill. There will be some reaffirmation of some democratic checks and balances. This is all great.

But, look, we’re still in a bad way. The faith in our democratic institutions has eroded because the institutions themselves have eroded. The faith we have in each other as a whole has eroded because our vision of each other as a whole has fractured. The faith we have in the American Dream has eroded because our economic reality is a world away from it. Most disturbingly, the faith we have in our climate security has eroded because our planet is clearly in grave trouble and we’re failing to face it.

None of this changes if the Democrats take back the House

It won’t change and it’s not for the obvious reasons that they might still lose the Senate, don’t control the White House, and don’t control the Court. It’s the same reason why even taking power back in New York might not result in real change.

It’s because the Democratic Party doesn’t have any real answers for these problems. They haven’t for decades. Just look at this recent interview with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (starting at 2:58.) Seriously, what the hell is she actually talking about? They are nowhere near the nihilism of the Republican Party, but that’s not hard or virtuous. 

As the party continues to make commendable strides in promoting diverse candidates that better reflect the 21st century American experience, it has been notably less successful at promoting ideological diversity. They have allowed candidates to run to the right, but have mostly isolated those that run to the left. 

It’s obvious why: Democrats have been corrupted by the same system that has corrupted the Republican Party, only in slightly different ways, by only slightly different actors. And that system isn’t working.

For decades, both parties fully embraced neoliberalism as the end of history ideology

Privatization, deregulation, and globalization have been the name of the game for 40 years in America and both parties have become beholden to the moneyed interests that wanted it, benefit from it, and jealously guard it.

To be clear there is nothing inherently wrong with a competitive private sector, a proactive regulatory regime, or a deeply connected international world. In balance these elements can make us all safer, richer — financially and culturally- and healthier. But neoliberalism hasn’t delivered that world. There is no balance. 

There is something inherently wrong with “trusting markets.” 

The obvious point is that neoliberalism by definition doesn’t trust or value democratic control of power. It’s central belief dictates that power will be competitively dispersed between rational economic actors and that that competition will inevitably produce better outcomes for society. 

Those are some major leaps of faith to build a global society on:

  • It assumes that economic actors are rational (which is far from true for individuals, firms, and even states) and discounts the consequences of when they aren’t rational, which is most of the time. 

  • It assumes that competition between these actors will be honored rather than crushed, which is what always happens (either by brute force or collusion) and is unprepared for the fallout. 

  • And it assumes that all of this will produce a better society, while it has clearly ignored the toll it takes on the planet and on vulnerable populations.

What neoliberalism has left us with is a vastly unequal and unparalleled concentration of wealth and power that we can barely see let alone hold accountable. It has left us with a wake of destructive exploitation of human populations and natural resources that we can’t prevent or replenish. It has left us with severely compromised democratic governments that can’t represent or protect us. And it has put the very-near-future of our planet in peril. 

This is because the hallmark of neoliberalism is illiberalism, a fake democracy. It’s a term that we’re starting to hear used more about countries like Turkey, Russia, and Poland, but we have been experiencing it here for a long time. The structural flaws within the Constitution, the shameful voting suppression efforts in many states, and the corruptive flow of money across all levels of politics and media have warped our government far from any definition of “self.” Neoliberalism requires this. It’s a really raw deal for most of us.

How Democrats went from the New Deal to Neoliberalism matters for how we get them out

The Democratic Party is complicit in this. The party abandoned its New Deal commitment to democratic control over the economy, to public investment and ownership, and to sharing the benefits of prosperity evenly across society with an ever wary eye towards the future.

The New Deal represented a clear, unifying theory of self-governance forged from the trauma of the Great Depression: a strong interventionist state to create and spread wealth. It became the bedrock for the greatest sustained civic growth and wealth creation in the history of the world and it kept Democrats in power for 50 years. It remained the de facto organizing principle for decades because not only was it a powerful narrative, but it did what it said it would do. People believed in it because it did make life in America better.

Mostly for white Americans. That commitment wasn’t perfect and its fatal flaw was its reliance on actively preventing other groups, domestically and internationally, from partaking in it, often violently. 

By the 1970s, the world was starting to catch up with the US economically or resist it’s influence militarily and at home the civil rights and gender equality movements, plus opposition to the Vietnam War, began to fracture the coalition. Tragically, it could not adjust to these new voices and realties. 

For the first time, many people felt that the American pie was as big as it was going to get and that it was necessary to fight over and protect your piece of it and prevent others from getting close to it. The right started exploiting these tensions to further crack the coalition with growing success. Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy” worked twice and has remained the Republican Party’s default playbook ever since. It has only been more naked with Trumpism.

When the New Deal seemingly ran out of answers to expand the American pie, it created a vacuum that neoliberalism filled.

Racial appeals and resentment were powerful subtext, but a movement needs actual text to rally around. Neoliberalism was a powerful narrative answer, especially in the hands of President Reagan. It was cloaked in Cold War rhetoric and spoke about expanding freedom throughout the US and the world. The way to expand the pie was to end communism and open up the world’s markets. It seemed very American.

But, unlike the New Deal, neoliberalism hasn’t done what it said it would do. Or, perhaps more accurately, it has done exactly what it was intended to do, but its supporters who said otherwise were either villains or fools. It has seized political power from popular representation and given it to a small amount of corporations and wealthy individuals. 

There is nothing “American” about enriching a tiny portion of stateless oligarchs and firms by turning people against each other, by robbing the public of our own social and economic capital, and by selling out future generations even as the current population’s slice of the pie is actually getting smaller. But that is what has happened under neoliberalism.

Although President Reagan was wildly popular and enacting neoliberalism created an air of revolutionary spirit, it never did kill the New Deal coalition. Democrats remained in control of Congress all during this period and voters remained wary of calls to totally deconstruct the welfare state (at least for white people.) 

But Democrats killed the New Deal Coalition. Bill Clinton killed the New Deal Coalition.

Though many old guards held out, a new generation of party leaders eagerly accepted the premise that the New Deal was failing, that America had turned right and that it was advantageous to go with them. Rather than try to challenge corporations’ and wealthy individual’s power, they wanted to channel it.

In the wake of several presidential losses (though, again, Dems held Congress each time) Clinton became Nixon essentially in 1992 and ushered in a Democratic machine that relied on big donor money and cosy relationships to corporations and Wall Street while distancing itself from “the era of Big Government” as though it hadn’t worked for the majority of Americans all along. Tough on crime, tough on welfare, tough on unions looked like “Serious People Making Serious Decisions” but was really slow moving betrayal of the New Deal coalition. 

The party has remained in the Clinton image ever since. President Obama included. It hasn’t been able to counter Republicans slow turn to the right because it has largely accepted their worldview and has been left arguing over degrees.

Ironically, Republicans realized the neoliberal game was up first

Despite pulling a Weekend At Bernies with the corpse of Ronald Reagan for years, it has been clear for a long time that Republicans have largely abandoned neoliberalism and replaced it with an ethno-nationalism that is really just zero-sum oligarchy with a bunch of racism and fanaticism to scrape out electoral victories.

The Democratic Party, at the national level, but also at local levels, has been left in the awkward and clearly untenable position of half-heartedly defending neoliberalism. Sure, compared to the nihilism of the Republican Party, protecting the status quo seems appealing and even noble, but it isn’t. 

Neoliberalism in the first place was a betrayal of the modern Democratic Party’s New Deal ethos and hasn’t worked for most Americans anyway. The American pie is getting bigger for the wealthy (many of which aren’t American) but fewer people are getting slices at all.

Forget #theresistance and resist the Democratic Party’s continued dereliction of duty

At all levels of the Democratic Party, the reliance on big donors and corporate coziness has killed its ability or desire to counter this and to address the issues facing our country in meaningful ways. Big, sweeping visions of societal change are anathema to these interests and thus the party has turned to bland incrementalism and technocratic insularity to keep muddling along. 

It is obvious that this has failed as a political strategy, particularly at the state level where Democrats have lost over almost a 1000 seats since 2008. But it has failed as a moral imperative. 

We need big thinking to turn things around. We need big actions to save the country and the planet. We need big ideas to overcome the cultural decadence and civic rot fueling all of this, which was encouraged by the individualist consumerism that neoliberalism requires.

That’s why the Senator Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign was so important, even if it fell short. It started much needed and much unwanted soul searching within the party because it was about big ideas. It was about what kind of country and what kind of world we can create if we control it. 

It offered a glimpse of a 21st century version of a New Deal coalition that has had a powerful impact on the party, despite every effort to resist it. It shows that there is a hunger for taking back democratic control over the economy and the environment from the market that neoliberalism trusts exclusively.

It has been slow and will continue to be, but the successes of leftist social-democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (full disclosure: I volunteer for her on housing policy), Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib at the national level means there will be more voices in Congress speaking for more people that have been voiceless there and within the Democrat Party for too long. This is an important development, regardless of who wins control of the House on November 6th.

Universal Rent Control is one of many local fronts in the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party

Wrestling back democratic control of the Democratic Party at the national level will be a multi-cycle project. There are, however, a lot of opportunities to impact the party’s future where you live. The real fight for the soul of the Democratic Party is happening locally as we speak over issues like Universal Rent Control.

In New York City, Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory swept national attention and has made her an instant rockstar on the left, but she will be the first to say that she is part of a ground-up grassroots movement that is bigger than any one candidate or office.

That was on display in many New York Senate primary races on September 13th where 5 of the 6 NYC members of the infamous Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), who voted with Republicans in Albany, all lost to left-leaning candidates. All of these candidates ran on an unapologetically social-democratic agenda that includes universal rent control. They and others need help to win in the general election.

There is a real chance that despite severe gerrymandering, and real estate lobby money, Democrats will win the Senate in Albany for the first time in decades (the Assembly has long been in Democratic control) on the strength of this social-democratic agenda.

Democratic control of Albany doesn’t mean social democratic control — or that Universal Rent Control happens

If that happens, we’ll see just how much of a battle taking back the Democratic Party will be and why neoliberalism has such deep roots in Democratic politcs. The IDC and Republicans are an easy target to blame for the lack of more progressive policy in New York state, but the truth is more complicated. 

Many New York Democrats, notably Governor Cuomo, who is the poster boy for cynical Third Way Clintonism (he was HUD Secretary in Clinton’s second term after all), are skeptical of progressive policies and have deep ties to the real estate industry that make up the base of the traditional big donor interests in Albany.

Will these traditional Democrats listen to their constituents and the grass-roots movement trying to save the Democratic Party? How many Democratic voters recognize how much of the problem lies within the Democratic Party itself? The primary results show that there is real momentum, but the activists fueling this rise need to rally more Democratic voters to the cause, and it means talking about big ideas again.

URC and every progressive fight must be framed as taking back democratic control over our economic and environmental destiny

Universal rent control is a big idea. At heart, it is a series of policy proposals that aim to protect all renters in New York state from harassment, displacement, and homelessness. It’s a completely justifiable policy proposal given the structural nature of the housing crisis that cries out for more tenant protections. Half of all renters in New York are rent-burdened and there are over 89,000 homeless New Yorkers in the state. On top of this, the city and state are not ready for climate change, which will effect many of these low-income communities first.

Universal Rent Control has been and will continue to be attacked by the real estate lobby, most economists, and many members of the media as a foolish, self-destructive fantasy. That’s horseshit.

“Highest best use” has been the religion defining neoliberalism’s economic and political policy for decades, even as it has enriched faceless corporate entities at the expense of local communities and popular representation. The principles of efficient allocation of resources appear to be agnostic and empirical, but they are still subjective assessments of fundamentally moral arguments about what a society should be and whom a government should serve.

That’s why URC must be understood as being the head of a larger political spear aimed at fighting the illiberalism at the heart of neoliberalism. It is about taking back power from the high priests of the market. The goal is to give power back to the people through democratically elected leaders and popularly supported laws. 

Illiberalism has been on displace within New York State for years: blatant gerrymandering, terrible voting laws, and endless amounts of anonymous money (much of it coming from the real estate lobby) make New York’s government a truly anti-democratic institution. Only popular movements like URC can finally end this system.

To be clear, the point isn’t to suggest that ‘the people’ will agree on every issue. The point is to reestablish democracy as a forum where all sides felt heard, all views are addressed, and as much consensus is reached as possible. Only then will our self-government live up to its definition. Only then will it have legitimacy and buy-in, even if the results are compromises. That’s the whole point.

This is all a moral failure. Let’s keep calling it that.

Democrats have long abandoned the sense of morality that was the foundation of the New Deal coalition’s success. I’m not suggesting that the Democratic Party is devoid of morality. They have adopted moral language rhetorically for certain vulnerable populations and on the environment. Some of this language has resulted in real, meaningful action. 

But most hasn’t. As a result it falls into the lose-lose situation of being lambasted for its overly “PC” rhetoric and focus on identity politics while not actually taking legislative stands for those issues, harming those constituencies.

Democrats don’t need to try to revive the New Deal coalition per se. 40 years of increased diversity and increased economic burden has greatly expanded what this coalition should and could look like. But to do so will require reviving the moral clarity and civic purpose that it represented. If the New Deal came out of the Great Depression, the next version should come out of the Great Recession. 

It is a message that already polls well with Americans from all political spectrums. There will be political victory if the Democrats do, but that will pale in comparison to saving the country and the planet. The only way to do that is to wrest control back from the markets.

Let’s start with calling out the immorality of our housing policy. 80,000 of our fellow New Yorkers should not be homeless. Half of all renters should not be burdened. So many seniors should not be so close to housing disaster. Communities shouldn’t be displaced for the sake of private equity profits. 

These are choices that have been made without our consent. Universal Rent Control is the first step in taking control of these choices and fixing them. That means greater public investment and ownership of housing. That means holding the private sector accountable as a partner, not as a master. It means redefining what our society should value and who should get to debate and ultimately define that.

For all of us as individuals, this means getting out there and supporting movements and candidates that want to take control of these choices. There is still time before November 6th to get involved, but the work won’t end there. It won’t end if Democrats win or lose in Albany or DC. We must keep shaping the fight for the soul of the party and keep making it clear that this is about saving our shared future.

berniesneoliberalism.JPG