The fatal events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, and the grand jury verdicts which followed (exonerating the police officers involved) continue to fuel an undercurrent of unrest across America. For some, the incidents confirmed their worst suspicions about the failures of a supposedly post-racial nation. For others, the country appeared to be hijacked by divisive forces seeking to destroy the basic pillars of law and order. And for Bill de Blasio, New York City’s embattled mayor, Ferguson and Staten Island transformed a visionary politician with an uncertain direction into urban America’s Alexander Kerensky – the footnoted early 20th century Russian politician who went from being the face of the February Revolution of 1917 to an exiled lecturer overthrown in a Bolshevik coup. As de Blasio did for New York, Kerensky had a vision of a communal, inclusive and democratic Russia where otherwise radical elements would be brought into and compelled to coexist with the mainstream. Both also began their tenures believing that political credibility was an inevitable outcome rather than something which had to be achieved. Neither man cared much about legitimizing his power to his mainstream public – popular support, it was reasoned, would follow from the mere fact that power was attained in the first place. And so, rather than cement their positions, focus on practical governance rooted in law and order and pick their ideological camps from the outset, these two pursued the politics of zigzag and pandering, with radicals given early preference. If Kerensky’s eventual fate is any indication, the long-term political outlook for de Blasio and his flailing mayoralty leaves little to no room for optimism.
First Months – Pandering to Radicals
Kerensky, the “face” of the February Revolution and only socialist in a technocratic Provisional Government, spent his first three months in power freeing Czarist political prisoners, pardoning leaders of the far-left and ending censorship of radical opposition media. After Lenin and his entourage clandestinely arrived in Petrograd on April 3, 1917, Kerensky did not move to arrest them, launch a wider purge of Bolshevik activists or try to discredit them as German agents. Instead, he invited Lenin to a private meeting (which Lenin declined) and told his confidantes that he considered the Bolsheviks an intriguing faction which could play an important role in a future Duma.
De Blasio, on a micro-scale, closely followed Kerensky’s approach. No sooner had he taken office then the new mayor (elected in a low-turnout election driven by voter-fatigue, a horribly run Republican campaign and rivals plagued by scandal) doubled-down on his designs to quash Central Park’s horse carriage industry, implement universal pre-kindergarten on the backs of his city’s high-income earners and end the New York Police Department’s “Stop and Frisk” policing policy as part of a wider reorganization of municipal law enforcement – all initiatives desired by special interest activist groups. De Blasio even refused to march in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a New York City staple, due to its formal exclusion of LGBT marchers and displays – not surprising for an event rooted in observant Roman Catholicism.
Kerensky – Collapse
Kerensky’s early overtures to radicals eventually forced him into a series of devastating political zigzags which alienated all sides of the ideological spectrum and rendered his regime incapable of effective governance. The downhill spiral began when Kerensky acted to keep Russia involved in World War One while simultaneously democratizing the military. Kerensky pursued a pro-war course partly to protect billions of dollars in financial guarantees from Russia’s western allies along with their diplomatic support, but also (and perhaps more importantly) to reassure the technocrats in his own government, the military leadership and national conservative factions that he was a responsible politician committed to preserving his country’s honor and integrity. However, knowing that continuing the status quo at the front would enrage many of the radicals he previously ingratiated, Kerensky also advanced a proposal to 1) empower local military soviets (soldiers’ councils) at the expense of the Duma and Provisional Government and 2) re-engineer army relations by allowing soldiers to elect their officers; this so terrified Russia’s officer corps, already mistrustful of Kerensky’s avowed socialist views, retention of membership in the Petrograd Soviet and disastrous handling of an offensive in July, 1917, that some openly began plotting a coup (with Kerensky to be replaced by the popular general, and future founder of the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army, Lavr Kornilov).
Fearing the sudden rise in Kornilov’s popularity among the urban middle class and determined to reassure traditionalist forces, Kerensky made a full political u-turn. The darling of the left who invited Lenin to a private meeting now sought to portray himself as a reactionary hero. He shut down Bolshevik and other radical left press, introduced the death penalty for army deserters, launched a propaganda campaign to improve his popular image and jailed opposition leaders. Kerensky’s new zigzag surprised his erstwhile “allies” on the left. Once someone they could work with, he became a black sheep in bed with the worst of the traditionalist forces. The Bolsheviks seized the moment and called on workers not to cooperate with the Provisional Government. Even Kerensky’s desperate attempt to declare Russia a “socialist republic” in September, 1917 could not repair his broken bridges. And yet, far from getting a safety blanket on the right, Kerensky’s final turn left only reinforced conservatives’ earlier resentments. When Kerensky’s government was finally overthrown, the right embraced the generals and regrouped in southern Russia and the Ukraine to carry out a multi-front campaign against the Bolsheviks. Kerensky, once Russia’s self-ordained savior, fled to France and vanished into obscurity.
De Blasio – Beginning of the End
De Blasio’s early initiatives, as incompatible as they were with the views of New York City’s mainstream lay public, did not push his administration into crisis. Even his close association with organized labor and high-profile campaign against the expansion of and increased funding for charter schools did not completely disaffect the man on the street. What turned the tide, and continues to bedevil his government, was his intimation of systemic racism in the New York Police Department and implicit agreement with the highly controversial narrative that the Ferguson and Staten Island incidents portend a wider campaign by police departments to target urban minorities. This has become to de Blasio what democratization of the military was for Kerensky – the straw that could well have broken the mainstream camel’s back.
Just as Kerensky gained the early disdain of Russian conservatives and generals with his feelers to radicals, de Blasio annoyed many within the law enforcement community when he ended Stop and Frisk and ordered a comprehensive retraining of frontline police officers (i.e., siding with street activists rather than officers in the charged debate surrounding community-police relations). His close alliance with Al Sharpton, a pariah in City Hall since the Giuliani Administration, whom de Blasio called a “blessing”and “the real deal” added fuel to the fire. Then came the Staten Island verdict, de Blasio’s explanatory statements and the spontaneous protests which occurred in their aftermath. Some believed that de Blasio effectively handed the streets of his city over to the protesters, who blocked traffic, shut down tunnels and bridges and caused sporadic disturbances across town. While mostly peaceful, there were conspicuous cases of assault against uniformed officers and effigies hanging from bridges alongside ad hoc chants calling for dead cops. De Blasio’s passivity and thinly veiled support for those on the street signaled to New York’s law enforcement establishment, frontline officers and law and order middle class that their mayor was either indifferent to their concerns or categorically not on their side.
Yet it would appear that the execution-style murder of two New York police detectives may be de Blasio’s September, 1917 moment – the point where he lost all sides of the spectrum and found his administration permanently rudderless. Just as Kerensky desperately tried to salvage his ties to the radical left by declaring a socialist republic, de Blasio lashed out at the media for causing division and exhorted street protesters to stay home until the two officers were buried. As happened with his Russian counterpart, the radicals and Sharpton told de Blasio to pound sand (i.e., they saw the mayor’s criticism and attempts to restrain their activities as pandering to conservative forces and a betrayal of de Blasio’s earlier support). Neither did de Blasio’s attempts to quickly make peace with the police department, which he condemned weeks earlier, meet with swift success. Literally and figuratively, the law enforcement community turned its back on a mayor whose zigzags they partially blamed for the deaths of their colleagues. De Blasio’s approval rating had fallen to below 50% before the murders and it will be interesting to see whether the tragedy has accelerated the decline or if current attempts to mend ties have the potential to bear fruit. But if Kerensky’s fate is any indication, de Blasio will continue to decline and lose control without a complete and genuine course correction.
Alexander Kerensky learned and Bill de Blasio is finding out that responsible, civilized government is incompatible with populist pandering and assuming political legitimacy where none exists. If Kerensky’s priority was to keep Russia whole, diplomatically protected and funded by its European allies, he should have spent his first months in office jailing radicals, seizing their newspapers and making himself the undisputed head of the army. Instead, he assumed the mainstream would stay with him and that cementing personal authority was secondary to the pursuit of his vague. democratic vision. Similarly, de Blasio should have understood that New Yorkers did not give him a mandate to upend the law and order consensus of his predecessors. Although tolerating his early excesses and political liaisons, the mainstream’s desire for a safe, clean and orderly city (an expectation since the mayoralty of Ed Koch, who won his first election and governed as a centrist, law and order Democrat) remains categorically unchanged. Through his inflammatory condemnations of and bad blood with the law enforcement community, de Blasio may well have lost the mainstream forever and signaled the effective death knell of his government (and broader vision) before it really got off the ground.