Why it’s New York vs. New York for president

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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After many decades when New York has been relegated to secondary status in presidential politics, New Yorkers are at the top of both tickets, says Julian Zelizer

For a long time both parties wanted nothing to do with what they thought NY symbolizes, he says

CNN  — 

So now it’s official. With the conventions over, it is notable that the nominees of both major parties are from New York. After many decades when the city and the state have been relegated to secondary status in presidential politics, today two New Yorkers are at the top of the major party tickets.

Hillary Clinton, now a resident of Chappaqua, New York, and a former U.S. senator from the state, is the Democratic nominee. Republicans selected the uber New Yorker, Donald Trump, to represent their party. Democrats and Republicans, as Billy Joel sings, are “in a New York state of mind.”

It’s been a long time since New York commanded such a prominent role in presidential politics.

In recent decades, New York fell from grace as far as politics was concerned. While the state of New York is incredibly diverse, ranging from largely rural, conservative communities to socially diverse cities, New York City came to represent ideals that both parties wanted to run away from.

For Democrats, New York stood for social and cultural values that the party was desperate to avoid. New York symbolized a belief in social and cultural integration. The city was a place where people from different ethnic, social and cultural, and racial backgrounds constantly came into contact. To be sure, economic and racial segregation remained a huge problem in the city but compared to much of the country, the diversity that most people experienced on a daily basis was unmatched.

New York was a city where individuals could find the space to be open about their individuality and sexuality. It was also a city and state with a strong progressive tradition. During the early twentieth century, New York was a hotbed of progressive ideas and movements that gave rise to the New Deal and Great Society. Even Republicans from New York were more liberal than many Democrats in the South.

All of these were ideas that Democrats hoped to shed after the 1960s. As more party leaders believed that the only way to survive was to embrace the conservative turn in politics, Democrats sought to disassociate themselves from everything that New York represented.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both products of the South, pushed their party toward the center and consciously moved away from the kinds of ideas associated with New York, and particularly the Big Apple.

Republicans did the same. During the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans focused their energy on building their base in the South and Southwest. The party shifted toward the right on economic, social and foreign policy. Republicans like Ronald Reagan courted the Moral Majority and championed a style of cultural conservatism that seemed anathema in New York.

The party no longer had room for New York Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller (who died the year before Reagan won election to the White House), whose tolerance for substantial domestic programs and social equality clashed with Ronald Reagan’s vision of a hardline approach to public policy. New Yorkers were the old GOP while the party wanted figures like Newt Gingrich who represented the booming conservative regions in the South.

But in 2016, New York is back in full force. New York is cool again. Why has this happened? Of course partly it is just a result of the two candidates who have captured the imagination of voters. Also, Hillary Clinton is someone who relocated to the state in 2000 and not a “native.” But part of the story is something much bigger.

For Democrats, the party is no longer running away from its own shadow. There has been a notable shift in recent years as many Democrats are becoming more comfortable embracing their progressive traditions. Barack Obama’s presidency was a clear turning point since his campaign drew on activists who refused to accept the inevitable shift of the party toward the center.

While Obama has been forced to make many compromises and often failed to move his agenda through Congress, he will leave office with a pretty robust legislative record, such as the Affordable Care Act, and he has aggressively used executive power to make progress on issues like the environment.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, whose unmistakeable accent brought Old Brooklyn to the campaign trail, demonstrated the groundswell of support among many Democrats for a candidate who will champion the use of government to diminish inequality and protect the social safety net. The huge gains made in recent years with gay rights and sexual equality have encouraged many Democrats to feel politically comfortable fighting for these issues. As a result, a candidate with such close ties to the state and city seems like a perfect fit for the times.

For the GOP, having a New Yorker at the top of the ticket signals that the Southern-based Republicanism of low taxation, social and cultural conservatism, unfettered markets and hawkish militarism no longer sits as well with voters in the party.

Simply by being from New York, with an accent and demeanor that connects him to the city, Trump represents something highly unorthodox for the Republicans. Throughout the primaries he proved to be an ongoing test for how willing Republican voters are to move away from the status quo. He has shown remarkably little interest in the religious conservatism of the Religious Right, despite picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate. His life itself is a rejection of their values and his positions on issues clash with GOP orthodoxy.

Trump has supported Social Security and criticized excessive military intervention.

He has attacked the free trade doctrine of Republican economics. While he has played to certain arguments that have appeal to traditional constituencies, such as his hardline anti-immigration views, overall he has run a campaign that moves far away from the party playbook. Having Trump, and New York, at the top of their ticket suggests that there might be unexpected room for movement within the GOP on major policy stances.

Voters in both parties are also clearly attracted to another so-called “New York value,” as Ted Cruz dismissively called them, and that is the toughness and grittiness of the city.

At a moment when many Americans believe that the nation faces incredibly difficult challenges — an economy where the middle class struggles to obtain security, an ominous threat of terrorism, and a gridlocked political system that will pose a huge obstacle to the next president — there is something appealing about the tough-as-nails, get things done attitude associated with New York. Within the Republican Party there is clearly an appetite for the kind of pugnacious rhetoric one often hears on the streets of the city.

Although both candidates hail from New York, Clinton should be much more optimistic about the prospects for winning the state’s 29 electoral votes. Despite Trump’s boasting about his ability to swing this state, one feature of New York is that it remains very Democratic, in terms of values, partisan affiliation and enrollment.

Who would have thought that New York would make a comeback in American politics? Barring some dramatic development, for the first time since FDR we will have a president from the state and city back in office, and that says a lot about how the parties are changing.

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Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.