Newsreal: Broken politics

A liberal policy analyst blames the left for the decline of big cities and the "self-destructive" behavior of the black community.

Published November 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

riots and the "rolling riots" of violent crime, permissive attitudes about panhandlers and deranged street people and wholesale welfare giveaways have made a mockery of the average urban dweller's quality of life -- and all of it has been tacitly endorsed by the nation's liberal Democratic establishment over the past 30 years. A screed from same Limbaugh-esque talk-show clone? The liberal-bashing spawn of yet another right-wing think tank? A Salon column by David Horowitz?

Far from it.

This is the analysis put forth by Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, in a new book, "The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities" (Free Press). The Progressive Policy Institute was the brain trust behind President Clinton's 1992 election campaign, and Siegel, a confirmed Clinton supporter, is a confirmed city-lover with deep leftist roots. His book is an attempt to regain the moral high ground for big-city Democrats, who Siegel says have been badly tarnished by the ideological arrogance and blindness of liberal activists.

Siegel takes few prisoners. In the book, which is drawing great interest in Washington policy-wonk circles, he condemns civil rights leaders for turning away from assimilation (he calls it "acculturation") and its middle-class rewards and adopting a "riot ideology" -- threatening racial violence to achieve short-term ends (usually more government spending). Washington's ruinous Mayor Marion Barry may be the most extreme example, but not the only one. Siegel cites a 1967 New Republic article calling for cities to be "brought to an indefinite standstill by a well-organized guerrilla action against the white establishment."

While he has little patience for conservatives and their traditional opposition to civil rights, he exonerates them from most of the blame. "They are a tiny invisible sect," he said in an interview, "not part of the dialogue that helped wreak havoc in U.S. cities." Much more to blame for the urban morass, he maintains, is the liberal system of handing out welfare and government jobs to blacks who were thus excused from "having to make the long journey up the social ladder by gradually accumulating the skills needed for economic success." The result: "enormous self-destructive tendencies" in the black community. "Society still owes African-Americans a debt," says Siegel. "But what's interesting now is how it executes that debt. It has to be done more intelligently."

One who is acting more intelligently, Siegel believes, is New York's Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who with former New York Police Chief William Bratton instituted the "broken window" theory of pro-active police work. Arrests of turnstile jumpers, graffiti scrawlers, gang-loiterers and plain-old vagrants have radically diminished a permissive atmosphere (what Siegel incisively terms "the moral deregulation of public space") and thus crime itself in the Big Apple.

Since his book was published, events involving the force, a Haitian detainee and a toilet plunger may have called into question Siegel's rosy scenario. However, the author insists that the infamous incident involving Abner Louima at the 70th Precinct -- where Siegel lives -- was "more than an aberration, but much less than systemic."

"Look," he says, "the lesson of the 'broken windows' applies to cops as well as to criminals. With 'broken windows' you say, if you allow the small things to get out of hand, the big things will be worse." Which, Siegel believes, is what happened in the 70th Precinct, largely thanks to a police commander who failed to impose rigorous standards of behavior on his officers.

"This was a night patrol, 4 a.m., on Flatbush Avenue where you're only seeing lowlifes. Louima started the incident. That doesn't excuse the cops; they wildly overreacted. He bad-mouthed them and took a swing and they were going to show him. But there is not a conceptual connection between this incident and the 'broken windows' reduction in crime: The brutality is down along with the crime."

While the "broken windows" approach is being applied in other cities (Los Angeles recently adopted the program), Siegel's "radical centrism" may also be gaining ground. A recent cover story by Andrea Bernstein about Giuliani in the Nation was comparatively mild in its criticisms. "Andrea Bernstein hates Giuliani's guts," Siegel remarks, "but I think the Nation curbed her on this."

Siegel's explanation for this burst of realpolitik in the bastion of leftism: "The swing group in many big cities now are the liberals. They are undoctrinaire, usually vote Democratic, and they like Giuliani."

Even The Nation has to deal with that.

By Jack Skelley

MORE FROM Jack Skelley

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Rudy Giuliani Washington