Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell (@LincolnMitchell) teaches in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His most recent book is “The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992.” (Kent State University Press, 2021) The opinions expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was growing more intense and deadly last week, Andrew Yang, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in New York City’s mayoral race, shifted his focus to the Middle East. “I’m standing with the people of Israel who are coming under bombardment attacks, and condemn the Hamas terrorists,” he tweeted. “The people of NYC will always stand with our brothers and sisters in Israel who face down terrorism and persevere.”
That sentiment would not have been out of place in a tweet, press release or on-the-record comment by almost every major candidate for mayor of New York since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. New York City has a large Jewish population of almost a million and deep connections to Israel. Yang’s tweet may have been based on genuine sentiment or it may have been pandering, but for most of the last more than 70 years, it would have been good politics.
In 2021, things seem to be different. Yang’s tweet was immediately attacked by Dianne Morales, one of his Democratic opponents, as well as by many other New York City progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Morales has expressed a degree of support for the Palestinian people, and condemnation of Israeli actions, that would have been unimaginable from a major mayoral candidate even a decade ago.
At the same time, other candidates in the race, such as Kathryn Garcia, who recently received the endorsements of The New York Times and the Daily News, and Scott Stringer, the only Jewish major candidate for mayor, offered support for Israel tempered by nuance and expressions of sympathy for the Palestinians. Two other candidates, Eric Adams, one of Yang’s closest rivals, and Ray McGuire, who is on the fringe of the race, offered strong pro-Israel statements similar to Yang’s.
The fact that Yang’s statement, on an issue with little bearing on the future of New York City, generated so much controversy, and the breadth of views candidates have on the conflict, is part of a broader development in New York City politics. In essence, the city appears to be moving away from the ethnic tribalism that has defined the city for decades.
In most recent mayoral elections, candidates have sought to consolidate their ethnic base and build out a coalition grounded in identity-based appeals to Jews, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Latinos, African Americans, LGBTQ voters and others. Similarly, many primaries looked more like censuses with African American, Latinos, white Catholics, Jews voting as a bloc for candidates who in many cases shared their heritage.
For much of this time, it was expected that candidates for mayor would visit the “three I’s” of Israel, Italy and Ireland, during election years or risk losing one of the major ethnic groups in New York. Those days are now firmly in the past.
None of this year’s candidates this year are running these kinds of identity-based campaigns. Morales, who is on the left flank of the race, would be the first Latinx mayor of New York, but that has not been the focus of her campaign. Although Adams has a strong base among African American voters in Brooklyn, his campaign is not based primarily on appeals to African American voters, not least because he is one of four Black candidates, along with Morales, McGuire and Maya Wiley, in the race.
Yang’s status as a leading candidate – he was the clear frontrunner until the race tightened last week – is only possible in post-tribal New York. While Yang has made efforts to become the choice of New York’s sizable Orthodox Jewish voting bloc, the rest of his campaign has been built around name recognition from his presidential campaign, his upbeat personality and his penchant for big ideas, albeit ideas that his critics assert are rarely fleshed out.
Yang would become New York’s first Asian American mayor, but Asian Americans only represent about 15% of the city’s population and because not all are citizens with voting rights an even smaller proportion of the electorate. Moreover, that population is very diverse, including many from South Asia as well as East Asia, and is unlikely to unify behind Yang. Many Asian New Yorkers are Muslim and were not pleased with Yang’s Tweet supporting Israel.
The nature of this New York City primary, where the race, religion or gender of the candidates are much less important than issues like Yang’s Covid recovery plans, Garcia’s reputation for a deep understanding of governance, the progressive politics of Wiley, Stringer and Morales, and competing policy proposals on issues from housing to policing to the economy, demonstrates that something has changed in New York City.
These, rather than questions of identity, have been at the center of the campaign and last week’s candidate debate. It’s evidence that even in one of the most heavily Democratic part of the country, identity politics are not always as central to the Democratic Party, or progressive politics, as conservatives would like us to think.
It is precisely the diversity of New York City, and of this pool of primary candidates, that has rendered identity politics something of the past. In a city with so many different groups, cross-cutting affiliations and identities, and a pool of candidates that come close to reflecting that breadth, politics can no longer be a simple as taking a position on Israel that pleases one group or having a last name that is familiar to another.