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The 99% Mayor

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

He is joking, but he’s not kidding. “When I spoke last time, they needed a much smaller room,” Bill de Blasio says to laughter. “This is the glory of American democracy!” Exactly one year earlier, De Blasio had appeared before the same group, the Association for a Better New York, an alliance of city businesses and civic organizations; the turnout then, in October 2012, was 400, and the reaction was chilly—especially when De Blasio unveiled what would become a signature element of his run for mayor, a proposal to tax the wealthy to pay for new pre­kindergarten and after-school programs. This morning—fresh off an improbable, resounding victory in the Democratic primary—De Blasio is greeted by a sold-out crowd of 800 and a standing ovation.

Still, there’s a bit of tension served with the scrambled eggs: De Blasio unflinchingly repeats his vow to boost taxes, to which he adds emphatic praise for labor unions and higher minimum wages. To lighten the mood, De Blasio improvises a running joke. He decries the decline in city and state funding to the City University of New York, and the table directly in front of the podium—full of CUNY executives—breaks into loud applause. A few paragraphs later, De Blasio says he wants to restore $150 million in funding to CUNY, producing the same thrilled, noisy result. “I love these guys!” he cracks. “Whenever I need a little pick-me-up, I’ll just say the word ‘CUNY’ and this whole table will erupt!” When he opens the floor to questions, a woman from a tech firm asks how the likely future mayor feels about her industry. “I would like to have seen the same vigorous applause as from CUNY,” he says, “so you need to think about that.” But De Blasio quickly makes it clear he’s joshing, that he loves the tech sector, too. Then, a few minutes later, a representative of the hospital industry stands up and praises De Blasio. “You know, I just want to say, I’ve lost my interest in CUNY,” De Blasio says, smiling. “I think the health-care sector is where I want to put my attention after all! They placated me better than CUNY did! CUNY, it was great while it lasted.”

More laughter, but this time there’s an uneasy undercurrent. And, at a table of real-estate executives, raised eyebrows and shaking heads. They’ve got nothing against hospitals or city colleges, mind you. They’re just wondering what, exactly, the city’s next mayor really stands for.

Bill de Blasio ran probably the most surgically focused mayoral campaign in modern New York political history, relentlessly repeating a few key phrases—“a tale of two cities” … “income inequality” … “end the stop-and-frisk era”—that played brilliantly to the hopes, angers, and guilts of the city’s liberal, Bloomberg-fatigued Democratic-primary electorate. De Blasio genuinely believes in the ideals underlying the progressive rhetoric he’s been retailing; in 1988, he traveled to Nicaragua to support the leftist revolution, and he still converses knowledgeably about liberation theology. But in his own career in elected office—first as a Brooklyn city councilman and then as public advocate—De Blasio has shown a gift for the crafty compromise.

Which is why, as De Blasio nears what is likely to be a general-election landslide victory, the central questions are about just what he believes and just who he’d be as mayor. The business leaders at the ABNY breakfast weren’t all that upset about the prospect of a tax increase on New Yorkers making more than $500,000. And most weren’t buying the notion, lately promoted in a hyperventilating TV ad by Joe Lhota, the Republican candidate, that blood will run in the streets and crime will soar if De Blasio wins. The nervousness flows from something more subtle: the prospect that De Blasio will be a mayor who responds to whoever “placates” him the most, bouncing from one interest group to the next—an unsettling contrast to Bloomberg, who, whether you agreed with him or not, was a predictable and stabilizing force in city life.

And this isn’t simply a concern of the city’s wealthy elites: What’s more surprising is that De Blasio’s friends on the left aren’t quite sure of his core political identity either. “We want him to be Elizabeth Warren and not Barack Obama or Andrew Cuomo,” a labor leader close to De Blasio says. “I think that’s who he really wants to be. But I really don’t know.” De Blasio campaigned as a crusading lefty: against corporate subsidies, in favor of expanding access to food stamps and paid sick leave and taxing the rich to help the poor. Yet his formative political training came from wily realists like Cuomo and Hillary Clinton. The risk of a Bill de Blasio mayoralty is that it sputters with politically correct incompetence. But the great promise is that he might turn out to be a complicated, highly unusual mix of ideologue and operative. The stakes are high—not just for the continued vitality of New York, but as a test of whether progressive values can deliver a more equitable city.

Dante, Chiara, Chirlane, and Bill.Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine. Makeup by Elizabeth Yoon for M.A.C Pro. Hair by Takeo Suzuki.

Enter the candidate, sweating and laughing. “Hey!” De Blasio says, bounding through the front door of his Brooklyn house and spotting me sitting at the kitchen table with his wife and son and noticing that I’m wearing a dress shirt and tie. “Chris Smith thinks he’s on East 79th Street, in a townhouse!”

Which is funny and self-deprecating, because this sure isn’t the $30 million Bloomberg manse. The De Blasio homestead in Park Slope is a humble three-story rectangle covered in faded green-painted wood paneling. Inside, the first floor is a combined living room and kitchen, all of it well worn. On one wall is a small, framed drawing of the “Sodium Avenger,” a superhero created by daughter Chiara to lovingly tease Mom for banning salt from the dinner table. On the opposite wall is a vivid yellow-and-red floor-to-­ceiling poster commemorating the mid-eighties Artists Against Apartheid movement; his wife, Chirlane McCray, did poetry readings and is listed among the performers. If I needed any further indication that the city is on the verge of a radical change in mayoral style from Bloomberg, who seems as if he were born in a pin-striped suit, there’s the 52-year-old De Blasio himself: He’s just back from his daily workout at the 9th Street Y and wearing a frayed, sweat-soaked blue T-shirt and baggy gray sweatpants.

Chirlane, 58, hasn’t given up completely on getting her kids to eat healthy, but there’s only so much a mom can do with a strong-minded teenager. Dante is gobbling a second greasy slice of takeout pizza before tackling a mountain of Brooklyn Tech math homework. He has inherited his father’s heavy-lidded eyes, his mother’s bright smile. All his own, though, is the famous Afro, which Dante tugs at nervously with his left hand. “This one guy at school keeps saying ‘Go with the ’fro!’ when he sees me,” Dante says. “It’s pretty funny. It’s funny to him. I don’t mind it much, though, as long as it’s my friends who are doing it.”

Otherwise, the celebrity inflicted by starring in a charming, campaign-changing commercial doesn’t seem to have made much difference in his sixteen-year-old life. He’s more anxious about an upcoming debate-team tournament at Bronx Science than any added pressure from being the next mayor’s son. “I get my grades for myself,” he says, “and generally do not engage in behaviors that are going to incriminate my father in any way.”

Chirlane laughs, hard, but she knows he’s being honest. “Dante’s tough on himself,” she says. “He’s got standards for himself that are probably higher than the ones we have for him.”

Topping both, though, are Chirlane and Bill’s standards for themselves as parents, an outgrowth of their own difficult childhoods. Chirlane grew up in a small, predominantly white western-Massachusetts town, where her family was the target of ugly racism. Bill’s father, Warren Wilhelm, was a Yale-educated war hero who was gravely wounded in Okinawa, losing most of one leg to a Japanese grenade. Wilhelm returned and got a graduate degree from Harvard, then went to work in the Commerce Department. Bill’s mother, Maria, the daughter of Italian immigrants, graduated from Smith College and was hired by the Office of War Information. Both became ensnared in a McCarthy-era Red Scare investigation and eventually left Washington for jobs in New York and a house in Connecticut. Warren Wilhelm Jr. was born in Manhattan in 1961—he was always known as Bill, though no one in the family seems to remember why—and has brothers who are thirteen and sixteen years older. In the mid-sixties, the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Warren Wilhelm was increasingly trying to drown his physical and emotional pain in whiskey; when Bill was 7, Warren left the family. “Bill’s experience in those years was pretty bleak,” says Steve Wilhelm, one of his brothers. “Dad just kind of vanished, basically.”

Steve was living on a commune when he got a phone call that his father had been found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. “He’d had lung cancer, and it was coming back, metastasizing. He wrote a beautiful letter: ‘I don’t want to die in a hospital with tubes stuck in me,’ ” Steve says. “Bill and I emerged out of all that with some clear ideas of what we would do and not want to do if we were ever parents.”

De Blasio understands all the recent fascination with his father’s story but says the attention is misplaced, at least when it comes to understanding what shaped him. “My mother was the greatest influence on my life by far,” he says. “She was often very, very sad about things that had happened to her, but she had a fierce resilience—a very sharp, purposeful resilience. She was very practical. She always talked to me about a kind of Italian understanding of the world—she would juxtapose somewhat my father’s upbringing and what she saw as sort of an American affectation for a certain romanticism, a certain idealism, with her own Southern Italian sense of practicality. She was nobody’s fool, and when the whole McCarthy thing happened, it bothered her intellectually and it troubled her personally, but she was not surprised one bit. She came out of that experience further armored. My father came out of that experience further troubled.” When Bill changed his last name from Wilhelm to De Blasio, his brothers weren’t surprised. “The Wilhelm side didn’t mean that much to him,” Steve Wilhelm says, “and like everyone, he was looking for a family.”

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

He extended one through politics. In high school, De Blasio was a student-­government geek; in college, at NYU, he became a leading activist, helping form the Coalition for Student Rights, which rallied to protest tuition hikes and organized an overnight sit-in of Bobst Library to demand that it stay open later. He also argued for the superiority of Talking Heads over Blondie with an NYU roommate, Tom Kirdahy. “Bill was very smart but very funny,” says Kirdahy, who remains a friend. “And he had a crush a week.” De Blasio’s interest in politics, and the underclass, deepened as a grad student in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he shared one class, in Latin American politics, with Dan Cantor, who years later would team with De Blasio and others to launch the Working Families Party. He soon made two other pivotal friends and mentors: Bill Lynch, the wily Harlem political consultant who masterminded the winning 1989 mayoral campaign of David Dinkins, and Harold Ickes, the combative second-generation Democratic insider. De Blasio volunteered for the Dinkins campaign, then was hired as a coordinator of volunteers; in City Hall, Lynch hired him as a junior aide in community affairs. De Blasio says he learned how not to run an administration during the four tumultuous Dinkins years—“The organizational structure was divided, and there was a real lack of unity, a real lack of singleness of purpose a lot of the time”—but the most significant personal event during that period was meeting Chirlane, a press-office staffer in the Commission on Humans Rights.

De Blasio was persistent; McCray was reluctant. After a few months, she handed him a story she’d written for Essence about being lesbian. De Blasio wasn’t dissuaded. They were married in 1994, in Prospect Park, by a pair of gay ministers; McCray was three months pregnant with Chiara. “The fact that my parents’ marriage turned out so badly was not a great recommender of how easy it was to get it right,” De Blasio says. He tried psychotherapy in his mid-twenties, attempting to sort out his feelings about family. “I took a long time to believe,” he says. “And it’s absolutely connected to meeting Chirlane. That’s what finally made me comfortable, was finding a soul mate, finding someone I could believe that I could actually work it out with. And I was right.”

As his own life has become more public, De Blasio has propelled his family into the spotlight with him. Having cheery, mixed-race kids has paid political dividends, but De Blasio claims his motivation is educational as much as anything else. “You have to understand our family is different in the way we think about things. Chirlane and I met in City Hall; we had both had a history of activism,” he says. “We talked about it in broad ways; it was unspoken that we were going to pursue not only our love, our relationship, but our commitment to the world, and that was going to be a given in our lives … These are kids who, by the time Chiara was 5 and Dante was 2, they had slept overnight in the Clinton White House. [The kids] both got so much out of this experience this year, they got some real-life lessons about how the world works, but they also gained a lot of strength, a lot of confidence, a lot of understanding.”

De Blasio believes that his family would have become media fodder whether they were a prominent part of his campaign or not. And it’s true that everything about this family, as normal as it is in many ways, is inescapably political. Even the house. In 2000, when De Blasio decided he wanted to run for City Council, they moved one block so he’d be a resident of a district with an open seat. Chirlane still loves the neighborhood, but she disdains what she thinks the Bloomberg era has done to it. “The nursery school Chiara and Dante went to, both of them had fairly diverse classes—economically, racially. That was the cool thing. The two mommies, and Asian, and black, and Latino kids,” she says. “That’s not the case now. It’s gone the way of the mom-and-pop stores. It’s wealthier and whiter.”

Now the family may be relocating to the Upper East Side. McCray’s memory of one visit to Gracie Mansion is still vivid. She remembers going to a reception there in 2006 for council members and spouses. Chiara de Blasio—now 18 and a sophomore at a college in Northern California—had just begun middle school, and Bloomberg’s Department of Education had instituted a ban on student cell phones. McCray approached the mayor. “I said, ‘Mayor Bloomberg, you are my hero! Because you instituted the smoking ban, which is so important and has done so much for people who have respiratory problems in this city and for our children. I want to thank you for that. But the cell phones in the schools’—and as soon as I said the words cell phones, he turned his back and walked away from me,” she tells me. “I was so shocked. I had never had that experience before—someone just turning and walking away like that! Bill shook his head and said, ‘That’s just how he is.’ ”

De Blasio’s family and professional political career were launched in the Dinkins administration, but his training in hardball politics came later, from some of its craftiest Democratic practitioners. Harold Ickes helped De Blasio land a job as New York State director of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. For Clinton’s second term, De Blasio worked under HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo as regional director for New York and New Jersey. Then, in 2000, he was hired to be campaign manager when Hillary Clinton ran for the U.S. Senate. The job titles and responsibilities differed, but De Blasio’s skills were deployed in similar ways. “Bill was the person you would send to deal with people,” says a fellow operative from the Hillary Clinton campaign. “He finds common ground, and he sees the chess moves six moves ahead,” says another veteran of that campaign. “For instance, he was very good at working the Orthodox Jewish community, even though he’s neither Orthodox nor Jewish.” De Blasio became the chief emissary to Dov Hikind, a conservative, cantankerous state assemblyman from Borough Park who had the potential to deliver a large bloc of votes—or to create gigantic headaches. Hikind kept pressing for the candidate—and her husband, the president—to support the pardon of Jonathan Pollard, an American intelligence analyst jailed for spying for Israel. “Bill is very real, he’s very much willing to listen, he’s very much willing to learn,” says Matthew Hiltzik, who worked with De Blasio on the Hillary campaign and now runs a top New York public-relations firm. “And while he’s a little more liberal than I am, he is someone who’s very principled in his beliefs and also at the same time pretty practical.”

In the Hillary Clinton campaign, the questions that arose were not about his political instincts but about his performance as an executive. His title, campaign manager, was misleading—the major decisions were always in the hands of Hillary’s Washington inner circle. But lower-level matters could produce prolonged discussions. One of De Blasio’s talents as an operative—the ability to see and argue an issue and a strategy from every angle—could be a liability as a boss. Friends also wonder whether De Blasio’s desire for inclusiveness in decision-making will be a refreshingly democratic improvement on Bloomberg’s top-down management or a prescription for stagnation. “The advantage of his background as an operative, though,” says a Democratic strategist, “is that it brings Bill a lifetime of relationships.”

De Blasio is in many ways a characteristic product of the city’s political system—and a master of it, as illustrated by a story that is a minor legend in city political circles. In 2003, De Blasio wanted to become leader of the Brooklyn delegation of the City Council. First he made an alliance with Al Vann, promising to share the post. Then the pair quietly went about assembling votes for the coup to depose the incumbent, Lew Fidler. To nudge the final few into line, Fidler claims, De Blasio told three different council members that they wouldn’t be the decisive swing vote—that each would merely be a little insurance margin. The three agreed, only to be surprised when they arrived in a meeting room and counted the minimum number of plotters. But they’d given their word and didn’t defect.

In the winter of 2008, though, De Blasio was coming off what, on the surface, appeared to be a significant defeat: He’d loudly and tenaciously opposed the extension of term limits for Bloomberg (though three years earlier, running for City Council speaker, he’d been in favor of an extension for council members). The loss turned out, in the bigger picture, to have significant political benefits: It raised De Blasio’s profile and gave him a jump on harnessing the Bloomberg fatigue he anticipated would peak in 2013. But in the meantime, De Blasio needed a new job. The public advocate’s office was open; the problem there was that John Liu, a fellow councilman, was shaping up as a formidable competitor.

Liu remembers an “impassioned” phone call from De Blasio urging him to shift to a run for city comptroller. Around the same time, Liu went to a breakfast meeting at Junior’s in Brooklyn with several labor leaders. They were inclined to back De Blasio for public advocate—but said Liu, too, might enjoy their support, if he switched to the comptroller’s race. “At that point, it wasn’t a difficult decision, and it was clearly an intelligent one,” says one of the participants.

Both Liu and De Blasio won citywide jobs in November 2009, with crucial backing from the Working Families Party and its union allies, setting themselves up for a run for mayor four years later. De Blasio, though, was holding a powerful ace. During the Dinkins years, he and another young, ambitious operative, named Patrick Gaspard, became fast, inseparable friends. ­“BillandPatrick—it was like one word,” an associate says. De Blasio’s daughter was the flower girl at Gaspard’s wedding; Gaspard’s son played Little League baseball for a team coached by De Blasio. Gaspard eventually became the political director of SEIU 1199, the city’s health-care-workers union and one of New York’s most effective Election Day machines. After serving as political director for Obama’s victorious 2008 presidential run, Gaspard moved to Washington to work in the White House and then head the Democratic National Committee, and then earlier this year to South Africa, as U.S. ambassador—but he has kept working the phones for his friend Bill. This spring, when De Blasio was struggling in the single digits in the polls, 1199 delivered a crucial endorsement, and this fall it spent at least $2 million on De Blasio’s behalf. Mayor Bloomberg has weekended in Bermuda; Chirlane McCray says she can envision a De Blasio mayoral visit to Pretoria.

It’s a diner, not a metaphor. De Blasio has chosen this place because it’s two blocks from his Park Slope house, he’s hungry, and the waitress knows him so well she assumes De Blasio wants his regular oatmeal. The name of the diner does indeed seem apt, however, for a conversation about politics and principles: Little Purity.

De Blasio squeezes his six-foot-five-inch frame into a booth in the back, turning sideways to angle his legs across the seat; behind his head is a mirror decorated for Halloween with stickers of goblins and pumpkins and BOO! in black and orange letters. It’s the morning of De Blasio’s first debate with Joe Lhota, the Republican nominee, and he’s fortifying himself with an egg-white Greek omelette and some nimble sparring. In 1990, he called himself a “democratic socialist.” At ABNY, he tried on “fiscal conservative.” Does he think, in an ideal world, socialism would be a better economic system than capitalism? “I have described my philosophy,” he says, a bit testily. “My worldview is one part Franklin Roosevelt—the New Deal—one part European social democracy, and one part liberation theology. That’s how I see the world.”

He is not now, nor has he ever been, a Marxist. But De Blasio is a sincere and loyal product of the late-twentieth-century American left wing who is only half-­jokingly called “comrade” by friends. “If you look at the whole body of my work, it’s not hard at all to figure out who I am and what I believe in,” he tells me. “My grounding in progressive movements is pretty solid, and it continues to be a way I think about the world, and so I don’t think there’s any question about where I come from ideologically and how consistent my views are today.”

The question is how those ideals will translate into actual governing. De Blasio says that if elected mayor, he will push to expand the “targeting” of city contracts and jobs to minority- and women-owned businesses—not quotas—and to use zoning to increase the supply of subsidized housing. “I think we have some real methods for doing that that have been underutilized by the current administration,” he says. “Local ­hiring—recognizing that there are legal challenges but also recognizing that a number of developers have agreed voluntarily, as part of a broader negotiation process, to some kind of requirement. That is a model I think we can do a lot more with—using the power of the city government to maximize the amount of affordable housing and to maximize the amount of job creation, but also to make sure that the jobs created reach people from the five boroughs and in particular people who have been less economically advantaged.”

As a council member, De Blasio did follow through on his principles even when there was minimal political gain: In the wake of the murders of Nixzmary Brown and Marchella Pierce, he staged hearings but also spent months collaborating on ground-level improvements to the city’s child-welfare system. Bertha Lewis, the fiery housing advocate and a close friend of De Blasio’s, lauds him for holding bad landlords accountable. But De Blasio can also be elastic and opportunistic. He’s talked about the outer boroughs’ deserving the same quality of services as Manhattan, but this summer he landed large donations from the entrenched taxi-medallion owners—and sided with them against an outer-borough taxi-expansion plan. He’s been exceedingly patient on the delayed construction of subsidized housing at Atlantic Yards, a project that got key backing from his friend Lewis and whose developer, Bruce Ratner, co-hosted a birthday-party fund-raiser for De Blasio.

“On things that are not moral issues, you see what a tactician Bill is,” a former City Council colleague says. “Like horse carriages.” De Blasio declared he’d banish the Central Park ponies as one of his first mayoral acts; coincidentally, an animal-rights group bashed Christine Quinn for months, with some of its money coming from a major De Blasio donor. After winning the primary and being endorsed by the union that represents hansom-cab drivers, De Blasio has been a bit wobbly, first saying he’d “start the process” to institute a ban, then insisting the move is still a high priority. He trumpets transparency but last week shut the press out of a $1 million fund-raiser starring Hillary. None of those moves were corrupt, or even hypocritical, necessarily. But they were the footwork of a political pro. “I think he’ll be able to manage the conflicting pressures and stay true to his values,” says Bob Master, political director of the communications-workers union and a co-chair of the Working Families Party. “But look, do I think this is a guy who will never compromise? No. And we don’t want somebody like that. We want somebody who understands how to push things as far as you can go and make the best possible deal when it’s available.”

De Blasio’s signature campaign promise will test his political skills immediately once he’s elected—actually, the machinations are well under way. De Blasio needs state legislative approval to raise taxes on wealthy city residents and fund the pre-K and after-school programs that he says will slowly close the economic divide. Governor Cuomo, who says he’s determined to lower New York’s taxes, has questioned whether the proposal is merely campaign rhetoric. “Never forget that Bill worked for Andrew” at HUD, a Democratic strategist says. “And Andrew will always see the relationship that way.” The dynamic won’t be nearly that simple, though. De Blasio’s camp believes a landslide in November will become momentum in Albany. “Andrew is going to want De Blasio to help him next year, big time, on the left,” a pol who knows them both says. “Now, here’s the dilemma for De Blasio: What does he do if Andrew gives him the money for pre-K but eviscerates poor people outside the city?”

De Blasio often begins his answer to tough questions with a version of “Let me frame this,” and then proceeds to rearrange the subject to his advantage. It’s a skill he shares with Cuomo—and one reason he thinks he understands the governor’s psyche so well. “Bill is New York’s leading Cuomo-ologist,” a liberal strategist says. “Whenever we had questions about Andrew, it was, ‘Call De Blasio!’ ” He is being careful not to antagonize the governor even before he’s officially mayor. The pending state referendum on the expansion of casino gambling provides an intriguing example. You might expect De Blasio, the “true progressive,” to oppose such a regressive industry. But in addition to seeing policy benefits from casinos, De Blasio the pol knows that the referendum is highly important to Cuomo. “I don’t accept the characterization [that legalized gambling is incompatible with progressive values], first of all,” he says. “That may get back to my mother’s pragmatism. The industry exists. It’s state sanctioned when you call it Lotto. The money and the jobs are going elsewhere; we’re not in a position to let that kind of economic impact go elsewhere. And you know, since that is the reality, certainly the financial impact on a city, if we get $50 million, $100 million, whatever the final figure is each year for our schools, you know, that’s gonna do some good. I think it’s a very practical equation. I think we have to, at the same time, try to address the underlying dynamics—help people get the best jobs, the best education possible, then they will make their own choices.”

The financial industry won’t be going away, either, despite its fears of De Blasio. One fringe benefit to his enormous general-­election lead over Joe Lhota is that De Blasio has had time to sit down with Wall Street giants and real-estate-industry players, cashing their checks and parrying their skepticism. “I don’t think we have to have a philosophical ‘Kumbaya’ moment,” De Blasio tells me. “I think it’s clear I’m a progressive and that if the people choose me, I’m going to take this city in a progressive direction to address these inequality issues, and I think that certainly some of the business leaders I have met are not particularly interested in doing that. Some are, to be fair—there are some very progressive people within the business community who have told me with energy that they agree the inequality crisis is getting out of hand. All I care about there is where we have to work together practically to create jobs.” A top Democratic strategist who has worked with De Blasio puts it much plainer: “He’s more pragmatic than progressive. He’s a deal guy—which is why Wall Street should love him. They’re deal people, too!”

De Blasio is far from selecting a City Hall lineup, at least publicly. His campaign aides quickly bat down the names of potential commissioners that have been floated in the media, leery of looking overconfident, even with a 44-point lead. “I’ve been talking to people for advice for the last year or two while simultaneously assessing them,” De Blasio tells me. “You can do a lot of deep thinking, a lot of playing things out in your mind. If I’m the one [elected], I’m certainly not going to be caught flat-footed.”

The exception to this wariness, however, has been instructive. De Blasio himself has talked up two people he’d consider selecting for police commissioner. The first, Bill Bratton, is associated with dramatic turnarounds in both Los Angeles and New York—and, usefully for De Blasio, Bratton is also remembered positively by many in the city for clashing with Rudy Giuliani. The second, Philip Banks III, is currently chief of department in the NYPD—and, usefully for De Blasio, Banks is ­African-American. Both are law-enforcement lifers and very much in the mainstream of policing theory and practice, which allows De Blasio to tamp down worries that he’d make radical changes in a department that’s reduced crime to record lows. But, again, the floating of these names is more political than executive. De Blasio is savvy enough to understand the downsides: Bratton is a media magnet, and some police insiders consider Banks too nice a guy to run the department forcefully.

De Blasio’s ultimate choice for NYPD commissioner will be judged against the clarity of his campaign rhetoric. Given his belief that stop-and-frisk tactics have antagonized innocent residents of minority neighborhoods, wouldn’t hiring a nonwhite police chief to succeed Ray Kelly be a step toward healing what De Blasio claims is a dangerous rift? “I think the philosophy is the most important thing and the capacity to implement that philosophy,” he says. “So, I want a community-policing worldview, I obviously want to bring policing and the community back together, I want to fundamentally reform our current approach, and whoever can do that most effectively, that’s my priority. It’s less about demographics.” The other high-profile pick a Mayor De Blasio will need to make is for schools chancellor. As a candidate, he’s talked about greatly increasing parental participation in the school system and about reducing the Bloomberg-era breaks given to charter schools. Beyond that, however, De Blasio has been vague about what he considers the best ways to improve the city’s public schools.

In shaping his administration, De Blasio says he intends to borrow a goal from one of his former bosses, Bill Clinton, and strive to assemble a Cabinet that looks like New York. And New York, increasingly, looks like De Blasio’s family, which is one reason he’s stirred such optimism. His household touches more than a hopeful multiracial chord—it also represents the economically beleaguered middle class, a segment of the city that hasn’t been at the center of the Bloombergian universe. De Blasio is a true believer in the importance of unions in bolstering the middle class; he has been close to the movement much of his life—a cousin, John Wilhelm, rose to become president of the hospitality-and-textile-workers union. So De Blasio would enter office with an enormous reservoir of goodwill. He’ll need every ounce of it: The next mayor will be trying to find the money to pay thousands of civil-service workers whose contracts expired as many as six years ago—and who could ask for as much as $7 billion in retroactive raises. Real leaders, though, tell allies things they don’t want to hear; isn’t De Blasio going to need to disappoint some of his union boosters? “You misunderstand the theory I’m putting forward,” he says stiffly. “I’m not here to tell them how much they’re gonna hate me. I’m here to tell them that we are going to get to a deal and balance our budget. The whole campaign and all that preceded it was telling people things they didn’t want to hear. Telling the wealthy they were going to pay more taxes, telling developers they were gonna be required to create affordable housing. Go down the list, and the last time I checked, those are some powerful positions you could have.”

True, but too easy: The wealthy and the real-estate interests aren’t the people who have put you in a position to win the mayoralty. “But, hold on,” he says. “It’s native to me that when you have a sense of mission, you keep pursuing the mission, and you give people an opportunity. Put people around the table and say, ‘Here is our task, here is the budget we have to balance, here’s the money we have, here are the options of how to do it. I need to find cost savings.’ That is usually a phrase that a lot of labor doesn’t like to hear at the jump. But I’m not here to say, ‘Look how big and bad I am,’ because that approach with Bloomberg and many others simply failed. I am here to say, ‘Let’s work together for a common good.’ ” And here’s where De Blasio’s gift for seeing multiple angles helps: Achieving the tax increase on the wealthy could make it easier for him to get labor unions to swallow reductions in benefits.

De Blasio will be a significant shift in tone and style from Bloomberg. The hard part will be how much, and how quickly, he can deliver on the substance of rebalancing city life. Hasn’t his campaign raised expectations unrealistically? “I’ve obviously thought about this issue,” he says. “The combined impact of all the pieces we’re talking about—the early-childhood and after-school plan, the affordable-housing plan, paid sick days, living wage, reprogramming dollars to small business and to CUNY—a lot of pieces packing a lot of firepower. And they’re going to add up to a lot.” Here he nimbly injects a note of caution. “So, is it going to end the problem of income inequality? Of course not. But do I think it will make a noticeable contribution toward progress? Do I think people will feel movement on a lot of different fronts and a real commitment from City Hall to addressing these issues? Yeah.”

One week before I visited him at home, De Blasio had been in the plush corporate boardroom at Viacom, lunching with the likes of Philippe Dauman, the media conglomerate’s chairman, and Rupert Murdoch, whose Post had been running a red-and-black caricature of “Che de Blasio.” Before the talk turned to sticky subjects like taxes and charter schools, De Blasio turned to Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs—but also, De Blasio pointed out, a man who’d grown up in a Brooklyn public-­housing project and knew what it was like to be among the striving have-nots. It was a smart attempt at connecting; Blankfein, afterward, said De Blasio had made a favorable first impression.

Now De Blasio stomps down the stairs into his endearingly cramped living room, freshly showered and gray-suited and ­yellow-necktied, ready to head to midtown for another fund-raiser, this one crowded with real-estate executives. Does Chirlane worry that all this wooing of the one percent will change her prole-loving husband? “Bill? No,” she says firmly. “Not in a bad way. People change, because they have to grow in order to live.” Bill de Blasio leans down, kisses his wife, and heads out his rickety front gate and into a mammoth black SUV, slipping into the front seat, next to his NYPD driver, and getting comfortable with his ride to power.

The 99% Mayor

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The Furies Never End

Photo-illustration by Gluekit. Clockwise from top left, Calhoun, Goldwater, Cruz, Gingrich.Photo: © Bettmann/Corbis (Goldwater), Terry Ashe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images (Gingrich); Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (Cruz)

The great ­government shutdown of 2013 was barely a day old, and already blue America was running out of comic put-downs to hurl at the House’s wrecking crew. Not content with “morons” and “dunderheads,” Jon Stewart coined new epithets for the occasion (e.g., “bald-eagle fellators”). Politicians you wouldn’t normally confuse with Don Rickles joined in too—not just the expected Democrats like Harry Reid, who had opted for “banana Republicans,” but blue-state Republicans like Devin Nunes of California, who dismissed his own congressional peers as “lemmings with suicide vests.”

Implicit in this bipartisan gallows humor was an assumption shared by most of those listening: The non-legislating legislators responsible for the crisis are a lunatic fringe—pariahs in the country at large and outliers even in their own party. They’re “a small faction of Republicans who represent an even smaller fraction of Americans,” as the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau put it in the Daily Beast. By this line of reasoning, all that kept them afloat was their possession of just enough votes in their divided chamber to hold the rest of America temporarily hostage to their incendiary demands.

Would that this were so, and that the extralegal rebellion against the Affordable Care Act, a Supreme Court–sanctified law of the land, would send the rebels, not the country, off a cliff. Off the cliff they may well have gone in this year’s failed coup, but like Wile E. Coyote, they will quickly climb back up to fight another day. That’s what happened after the double-header shutdowns of 1995–96, which presaged Newt Gingrich’s beheading but in the long run advanced the rebels’ cause. It’s what always happens. The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree. So deeply rooted are these furies in our national culture that their consistency and tenacity should be the envy of other native political movements.

Yet we keep assuming the anti-­government right has been vanquished after its recurrent setbacks, whether after the Clinton-impeachment implosion or the Barry Goldwater debacle of 1964 or the surrender at Appomattox. A Democratic victory in the 1982 midterms was all it took for David Broder, then the “dean” of Beltway pundits, to write off Reaganism as “a one-year phenomenon.” When polls showed a decline in support for the tea-party brand last year, it prompted another round of premature obituaries. But the ideological adherents of tea-party causes, who long predate that grassroots phenomenon of 2009, never went away, whatever they choose to label themselves. In recent months, both The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post had to scramble to assemble front-page stories spotting a tea-party comeback. Even so, it took only one week into the shutdown for a liberal ­pundit at the Post to declare that we were witnessing “the tea party’s last stand.”

That last stand has been going on for almost 200 years. At the heart of the current rebels’ ideology is the anti-Washington credo of nullification, codified by the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun in the 1830s and rarely lacking for avid followers ever since. Our inability to accept the anti-government right’s persistence is in part an astonishing case of denial. The Gingrich revolution, the Ur-text for this fall’s events, took place less than twenty years ago and yet was at best foggily remembered as the current calamity unfolded. There’s also a certain liberal snobbery at play: We don’t know any of these radicals, do we?

In truth we do. The name of David Koch, among the bigger bankrollers of the revolution, is plastered over half of Manhattan, it sometimes seems. And beyond New York, the distance between the crazies and the country as a whole is not quite as vast as many blue-state Americans assume. The rebels’ core strongholds are the 80 Republican districts whose House members signed an August letter effectively calling on John Boehner to threaten a government shutdown if Obamacare was not aborted. Analysts have been poring over these districts’ metrics for weeks looking for evidence of how alien they are to the American mainstream. The evidence is there, up to a point. The 80 enclaves predictably have a higher percentage of non-Hispanic whites than the nation (75 percent vs. 63 percent) and a lower percentage of Hispanics (10.8 vs. 16.7 nationwide). But even those contrasts aren’t quite as stark as one might have imagined, especially given that most of these districts have been gerrymandered by state legislatures to be as safely Republican as possible. To complicate the picture further, fifteen of the offending districts have a larger percentage of Hispanics than the country does, and 24 have a proportionately larger black population. The 80 districts also come reasonably close to the national norm in median household income ($47,535 vs. $50,502) and percentage of college graduates (24.6 vs. 28.5). The percentage of high-school graduates in the rebel districts is actually a smidgen higher than that of the country (86.6 vs. 85.9).

Of course, the gang of 80 who fomented this revolt are predominantly white men, and their districts are mostly clustered in the South, the Sun Belt, and the Midwest. But the same could be said of most of the GOP caucus. For Republicans to claim that this cabal of 80 legislators represents a mutant strain—“a small segment who dictate to the rest of the party,” in the words of a prominent GOP fund-raiser, Bobbie Kilberg—is disingenuous or delusional. (Kilberg herself has raised money for Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.) This “small segment” accounts for a third of the 232 members of the House Republican caucus. Lunatics they may be, but the size of their cohort can’t be minimized as a fringe in the context of the wider GOP. And they wield disproportionate clout because the party’s so-called moderates let them—whether out of fear of primary challenges from the right, opportunism, or shared convictions that are not actually moderate at all.

According to Robert Costa of National Review, the go-to reporter on internal GOP congressional machinations, there are more than a hundred moderates among the party’s House ranks. Where are they, exactly? Even Peter King, the Long Island Republican who sees himself as their standard-bearer, has essentially called them cowards. “They will talk, they will complain,” he says, “but they’ve never gone head-to-head” with the rebels. If the recent events couldn’t rouse them to action—assuming they exist—it’s hard to imagine what ever would. Costa’s estimate notwithstanding, the fact remains that until the middle of last week only 24 Republican members of the House publicly affirmed they would vote for a “clean” resolution to reopen the government—a head count even smaller than the 49 who bucked their party to vote for Hurricane Sandy relief. It’s the sad little band of vocal moderates, not the gang of 80, that is the true “small segment” of the GOP.

The radicals’ power within the party has been stable for nearly two decades. The current ratio of revolutionaries to the Republican House caucus is similar to that of the 104th Congress of 1995–96, where the revolt was fueled by 73 freshmen out of a GOP class of 236. For all the lip service being paid this fall to memories of ­Gingrich’s short-lived reign as the Capitol’s ­Robespierre, some seem to forget just how consistent that Washington train wreck was with this one in every way. On MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell went so far as to categorize the current House insurgents’ Senate godfather, Ted Cruz, as a rare new pox on the body politic—the adherent of “a completely different strategy than almost anyone we’ve ever seen come to Washington.” Really? The political tactics and ideological conflicts are the same today as they were the last time around. Back then, the GOP was holding out for a budget that would deeply slash government health-care spending (in that case on Medicare) and was refusing to advance a clean funding bill that would keep the government open. The House also took the debt ceiling hostage, attaching a wish list of pet conservative causes to the routine bill that would extend it. That maneuver prompted Moody’s, the credit-rating agency, to threaten to downgrade Treasury securities, and Wall Street heavies like Felix Rohatyn to warn of impending economic catastrophe. The secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, juggled funds in federal accounts to delay default much as his protégé Jacob Lew was driven to do in the same Cabinet position now. Leon Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff, accused the Republicans of holding “a gun to the head of the president and the head of the country” and likened their threats to “a form of terrorism.” (And this was before terrorism became an everyday word in America.) The internal political dynamics in both parties were similar as well. Gingrich has a far stormier temperament than Boehner, but like the current speaker, he could have trouble keeping control of his own caucus and waltzed into a shutdown scenario without having any idea of an endgame, let alone an escape route. President Clinton, like President Obama, held firm rather than capitulating to the House’s extortionists, betting that public opinion would force them to cave.

To fully appreciate the continuity between then and now, one need look no further than the Third District of Indiana. It is currently represented by the most conspicuous goat of the 2013 uprising, Marlin Stutzman, whose declaration in the shutdown’s early going was a ready-made Onion gag: “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” Those who think Stutzman represents a new breed minted in the Obama era would be advised to recall his immediate predecessor in the same seat, Mark Souder. “We didn’t come here to raise the debt limits,” Souder said during the 1995 shutdown, insisting that “some of the revolution has to occur,” for “otherwise, why are we here?” (This is the same northeastern-Indiana constituency, by the way, that gave America Dan Quayle.)

The midterm elections of 1994 were in retrospect the tipping point driving American politics today—not because of the shutdowns that ensued in the next two years, however, or the fact that Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Rather, it’s that 1994 marked the culmination of the migration of the old Confederacy from the Democratic Party to the GOP. That shift had started in 1964, when Barry Goldwater pried away states from the old solid Democratic South with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and it accelerated with the advent of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of pandering to racists at the end of that decade. But for an interim quarter-century after that, the old Dixiecrats were dispersed in both major parties, rather than coalescing in one. The 1994 election was the first since Reconstruction in which the majority of the old South’s congressional representation went into the Republican column.

This shift wasn’t fully appreciated at the time. When the Gingrich gang staged its sequel to the shutdowns of ’95 and ’96—the self-immolating overreach of the Clinton impeachment in ’98—Dan Carter, a preeminent historian of the civil-rights era, told the Times that he was “surprised that there’s been so little discussion” of how “the southernization of the Republican Party” had shaped events. “Maybe it’s like the purloined letter,” he said. “It’s sitting there on the shelf right in front of you, so you don’t see it.”

What southernization brought with it was the credo of Calhoun, the “Great Nullifier,” whose championing of states’ rights and belief in a minority’s power to reject laws imposed by a congressional majority (whether over taxes or slavery) presaged the secessionism of the Civil War (which Calhoun didn’t live to see) and the old southern Democrats’ resistance to desegregation a century later. It’s Calhoun’s legacy that informs the current House rebels’ rejection of Obamacare and their notion that they can pick and choose which federal agencies they would reopen on a case-by-case basis.

When Calhoun’s precepts found a permanent home in the GOP in the nineties—under the aegis of a new generation of southern Republican leaders typified by Gingrich and Trent Lott (a typical Democratic convert)—the animus was directed at Bill Clinton, a president who happened to be both white and southern. It was inevitable that when a black president took office, the racial fevers of secessionist history would resurface and exacerbate some of the radicals’ rage. One of the House’s current nullifiers, Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, called the Obamas “uppity” during the 2008 campaign, smeared Huma Abedin as a Muslim Brotherhood mole, and voted against a new Justice Department initiative to investigate unsolved crimes of the civil-rights era. Another, Jeff Duncan, a former Strom Thurmond intern who represents the patch of South Carolina that was Calhoun’s ancestral home, has likened what he sees as slack border control to “allowing any kind of vagrant, or animal, or just somebody that’s hungry, or somebody that wants to do your dishes for you, to come in.” This kind of thinking is all too representative of that small but effective racialist-nativist subset within the GOP rebel bloc that will doom immigration reform and is working furiously to erect new barriers to minority voting in a swath of states.

But to brand this entire cohort as racist is both incorrect and reductive. It under­estimates their broader ideological sway within their party. The unifying bogeyman for this camp is the federal government, not blacks or Hispanics, and that animus will remain undiminished after Obama’s departure from the White House. Though Andrew Jackson—under whom Calhoun served as vice-president—dismissed the ideology of nullification as “subversive” of the Constitution, it has always been wrapped in patriotic rationalizations, as it is now. In Ecstatic Nation, a new book about the decades bracketing the Civil War, Brenda Wineapple writes that even the South’s secessionists “saw themselves as protecting the Constitution, not tearing it apart.” Or as Jefferson Davis, speaking like a born tea-partyer, claimed: “We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution.” Whatever the bottom line of Washington’s current battle, the nullification of federal laws is growing as a cause at the grass roots. Of the 26 states that are refusing the federal Medicaid expansion—at the price of denying their poorest citizens health care—23 of them have GOP governors. That’s a bigger slice of America than can be found in the map of the 80 districts of the defund-Obamacare brigade.

How and where will this rebellion end? After a week of shutdown, Gallup found that the GOP’s approval rating had dropped to the lowest level (28 percent) for either party since the question was first asked in 1992. But there is no political incentive for the incumbent rebels in safe districts to retreat. “They may think of us as extremists here,” said Mark Souder when serving as a foot soldier in the Gingrich rebellion of 1995, “but none of us are extremists at home.” Playing Russian roulette with the debt ceiling of the despised federal Leviathan is even more of a plus in such overwhelmingly Republican enclaves today. A current House freshman, Ted Yoho of Florida, thinks nothing of publicly cheering on the “tsunami” of a default as a follow-up to the mere “tremor” of the shutdown. Now, as over the past century and a half, these revolutionaries aren’t going to disappear no matter what short-term punish­ment may be visited on their national party in 2014 or 2016 or both. Nor is their money going to run out. A donor like Kilberg may not write them checks, but the Koch brothers will.

Some Democrats nonetheless cling to the hope that electoral Armageddon will purge the GOP of its radicals, a wish that is far less likely to be fulfilled now than it was after Goldwater’s landslide defeat, when liberalism was still enjoying the last sunny days of its postwar idyll. This was also the liberal hope after Gingrich’s political demise of 1998. But his revolution, whatever its embarrassments, hypocrisies, and failures, did nudge the country toward the right: It’s what pushed Clinton to announce in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over” and to adopt policy modulations that tamped down New Deal–Great Society liberalism. The right has only gained strength within the GOP ever since. Roughly half of the party’s current House population was first elected in 2010 or 2012, in the crucible of the tea-party revolt. While it’s Beltway conventional wisdom that these Republicans don’t know how to govern, the real issue is that they don’t want to govern. That’s their whole point, and they are sticking to it.

Dwindling coastal Republicans of the nearly extinct George H.W. Bush persuasion like Peter King nonetheless keep hoping that the extremists will by some unspecified alchemy lose out to the adults in their party. Tune in to Morning Joe, that echo chamber of Northeast-corridor greenroom centrism hosted by Joe Scarborough, a chastened former firebrand of the Gingrich revolution, and you’ll hear the ultimate version of this fantasy: Somehow Chris Christie will parlay his popularity in the blue state of New Jersey into leading the national party back to sanity and perhaps even into the White House.

To believe this you not only have to believe in miracles, but you also have to talk yourself into buying the prevailing bipartisan canard, endorsed by King and Obama alike, that the radicals are just a rump within the GOP (“one faction of one party in one house of Congress,” in the president’s reckoning). In reality, the one third of the Republican House caucus in rebel hands and the electorate it represents are no more likely to surrender at this point than the third of the states that seceded from the Union for much the same ideological reasons in 1860–61. Unless and until the other two thirds of the GOP summons the guts to actually fight and win the civil war that is raging in its own camp, the rest of us, and the health of our democracy, will continue to be held hostage.

The Furies Never End

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The State of Assange

Photo: Andrew Parson/I-Images/ZumaPress/Newscom

Until very recently, there have been only a hand­ful of people on the planet with a precise sense of how much interest the world’s intelligence agencies have in them. Some schizophrenics have been con­vinced someone was always monitoring them, but they were wrong. Most of the rest of us have assumed that we did not matter to spies at all, but after the Edward Snowden dis­closures, that seems wrong, too: Each of us, evidently, is of a very tiny bit of interest to spy agencies.

In 2010, as he was publishing Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s revelations of the crimes of the American military and the inner workings of the U.S. diplomatic corps, Julian Assange was the rare individual with a good idea about who was watching him, and how intently.

When Assange, already infamous, fled London for the English manor house where he would prepare the Cablegate disclosures, and costumed himself for the trip as a giant woman with an implausible wig; when his assistants, watching American politicians on television calling for their boss’s murder by drone, heard planes passing overhead and flinched; when he insisted on paying for everything in cash to avoid leaving an electronic trail—when he did all of this, Assange was being amateurish and overly theatrical. But he was probably not being crazy.

Which makes one aspect of Assange’s behavior especially surprising: how trusting he was with new volunteers, how quickly they breached his inner circle. “There was no vetting at all,” says James Ball, who was part of Assange’s inner circle at WikiLeaks for several months in 2010. It helps to explain Ball’s own story. He was 24 years old, working for a production company pitching documentaries about the Iraq War, when he heard that WikiLeaks had a tremendous trove of secret documents related to that war. Ball managed to arrange an introduction to Assange, and at the end of their first evening together, Assange slipped him a thumb drive containing everything about Iraq that WikiLeaks was preparing to release. If he was at all cautious about the motives of newcomers like Ball (and the whole genre of literary British spy fiction is built around characters like Ball, a couple of years out of Oxford, government internships in his past), Assange did not act like it. No encryption, no conditions, no formal nondisclosure agreements. Here it was.

Assange’s entire public life has been an experiment on the theme of trust, one devoted to the conviction that the public trust in government has been badly misplaced. But for a time, in 2010, Assange felt a part of something larger—if not affiliated with any institution other than his own, then at least part of a broader political movement against American power. The Fifth Estate, a thoughtful drama out this week with the English actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, focuses on the extraordinary eight-month period when WikiLeaks published the military’s war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, the State Department’s internal cables, and the “Collateral Murder” video—everything that made Assange famous. There was a casual brutality to the way that powerful states and com­panies seemed to behave in these documents: A Shell executive bragged about having packed the Nigerian government with sympathizers, American military officers substantially underreported the numbers of Iraqi civilians their soldiers were killing. In London, Wiki­Leaks became an Establishment liberal cause, and the Australian found himself joined by human-rights crusaders who had been knighted by the queen, journalists and filmmakers, concerned citizens and TED Talk celebrities.

These allegiances were always bound to collapse—Assange is simply too weird, in his person and his politics, to have become part of any mainstream coalition—but they have collapsed so completely that there is little left of Assange’s public image right now beyond the crude cartoon. Vain and self-mythologizing, he has been accused of sexual assault by two of his supporters; a prophet of the mounting powers of the surveillance state, he now reportedly lives in a fifteen-by-thirteen-foot room in London’s Ecuadoran Embassy, sleeping in a women’s bathroom, monitored by intelligence agencies at all times; still trusting of the volunteers around him, he gave one such man access to secret American diplomatic cables about Belarus, only to find that information passed along to the Belarusian dictator. It is as if Assange has been consumed by his own weaknesses and obsessions. Calling around, I’d heard that the last prominent London intellectual who still supported him was the writer Tariq Ali, but when I finally reached him, via Skype, on an island in the Adriatic, it turned out that Ali, too, had grown exasperated with Assange. “He hasn’t formulated his worldview,” Ali said. “Certainly he is hostile to the American empire. But that’s not enough.” Assange has come to be seen, as a journalist at The Guardian put it, as nothing more than “a useful idiot.”

All of this is Assange’s own doing. And yet it is strange how completely these dramas have obscured the power of his insights and how fully we now seem to be living in Julian Assange’s world. His real topic never was war or human rights. It was always surveillance and the way that technology unbalanced the relationship between the individual and the state. Information now moves through electronic circuits, which means it can all be collected, stored, analyzed. The insight that Assange husbanded (and Snowden’s evidence confirmed) is that the sheer seduction of this trove—the possibility of secretly knowing everything about other people—would lead governments and companies to abandon their own laws and ethics. This is the paranoid worldview of a hacker, assembled from a lifetime of chasing information. But Assange proved that it was accurate, and the consequence of his discovery has been a strange political moment, when to see the world through the lens of conspiracies has not only made you paranoid. It’s also made you aware.

Assange’s detractors often call him a conspiracy theorist and mean it as a simple slur. But in the most literal sense, Assange is exactly that: a theorist of conspiracies. He gave his major pre-WikiLeaks manifesto the title Conspiracy As Governance, and in it he argued that authoritarian institutions relied on the people working within them conspiring to protect potentially damaging information. In large institutions like militaries or banks, to keep these kinds of secrets requires an enormous number of collaborators. If you could find a way to guarantee anonymity, then even the most peripheral people within these institutions could leak its secrets and break the conspiracy. WikiLeaks was built to receive these leaks. Bradley Manning, in other words, did not simply find WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks was designed for Bradley Manning.

The image that Assange used to describe how these conspiracies worked was of an array of nails hammered into boards, with connecting twine looped around the nails. Each nail was a person and the twine was the information; snip it and the whole system would unravel. WikiLeaks was the snipping mechanism. And yet in the three years since Assange’s major disclosures, the twine has not detectably unraveled. Governments have not fallen because of what WikiLeaks exposed. Policies have mostly been left unchanged; there are more secrets than ever. Some other force was at work.

None of this diminishes the power of the revelations. To take just one example from the military logs released by Manning: In 2007, in the Afghan district of Zarghun Shah, American rockets hit a school, killing six young men and seven children. Military spokesmen then said that the rockets had been fired as part of a normal patrol, and the soldiers were responding to insurgents who had taken refuge in a nearby mosque. The classified record looked different. The rockets had actually been fired by members of a secret squad of Special Operations soldiers called Task Force 373, dedicated to high-value targets, who had gone after the mosque when intelligence reports said that a senior Al Qaeda leader was holed up in the complex. It wasn’t until the WikiLeaks revelations three years later that we learned that the reports had been wrong and that the military had simply made up other details to try to excuse the murders and that the local Afghan politicians had been pressured to echo them. This was an extreme case, but even so, the ease with which murders were turned into secrets is startling. “The principle is trust and verify,” says William Binney, a former NSA crypto-mathematician turned anti-secrecy advocate. “But in reality there is no verify, only trust.”

WikiLeaks’ last major document release, at the end of 2011, was called the “Spy Files,” and it consisted in large part of information gathered by an English lawyer named Eric King, who, working for the British organization Privacy International, spent several years traveling to trade fairs where Western digital-surveillance companies presented their new technologies. Often the customers were government officials from Third World countries. In Kuala Lumpur, King told me, he watched a delegation from South Sudan, a nation then just a few months old, being taken from booth to booth by a group he took to be from the Chinese government, being told what they needed to buy to spy on their own citizens, as if they were pushing a cart around a supermarket.

King noticed a particular mentality at the conferences among those who kept official secrets. “The attitude at the conferences was often, ‘If you don’t have a security clearance, then you just don’t understand how the world really works,’ ” King says. During the revolutions of the Arab Spring, when activists and journalists cracked open abandoned secret police offices, their discoveries seemed to confirm how dependent the governments were on Western surveillance technology. In one Tripoli intelligence center, Qaddafi’s spies were using a tool Libya had bought from the French company Amesys to monitor all e-mail traffic, and technology from the South African firm VASTech to monitor all international calls.

Some of these tools seem to have been sold despite embargoes; in many more cases, there are simply no rules at all. Hacker-activists have detected web-filtering and blocking software made by a Sunnyvale, California, company called Blue Coat Systems being used by the Syrian government to restrict the Internet; the Sudanese and Iranian governments have also used Blue Coat’s products. (The company has admitted this but says it did not directly sell its products to the Syrian regime.) Though it’s impossible to verify, King says he often hears that Western intelligence agencies tolerate these sales because they have back doors built in, so that they can monitor, say, the Libyan government as it monitors its own dissidents.

Spying turns out to be extremely cheap. One prominent tool sold by the U.K.-based Gamma Group, FinFisher, lets a government agent take remote control of any user’s cell phone by infecting it with malware, allowing the agent to pinpoint that user’s location, record his calls, and even turn on a microphone in the phone to listen to the user’s off-line conversations. This technology costs around $500,000—“a sixth of the cost of a secondhand tank,” King says. “That’s dictator chump change.” FinFisher has been sold to 36 governments, among them the brutal dictatorship of Turkmenistan.

America, of course, is where Assange’s ideas have been most coolly received. The crimes of Task Force 373 were a big story in The Guardian and Der Spiegel, but they played much smaller in the American press, including in the Times. In Congress, the task force has not been mentioned once. The Fifth Estate is steeped in a kind of expository triumphalism—figures around Assange are forever explaining how much the world is about to change or how much it just has. And yet in real life, the revelations have demonstrated the tremendous inertia of American politics, of the enduring capacity of things to stay almost exactly as they are.

The great puzzle of the recent scandals in American public life—in the banks and refinance shops during the mortgage crisis, in the military and the national-security apparatus during the war on terror—is why our institutional loyalties have remained so strong, and why whistle-blowers have been so rare. Why, if 480,000 people have Snowden’s security clearance and more than 1 million have Manning’s, have there been no other leaks?

Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern philosophy professor who studies hacker activism, thinks the answer may lie not in the nature of American politics but in something more basic and human. He pointed me to the work of a sociologist named Robert Jackall, popular among hacker-activists, who found that in large companies and governmental institutions, middle managers routinely followed the internal codes of corporate life rather than their own ethical convictions, even when confronted by clear evidence of wrongdoing. “Conspiracy doesn’t have to mean old white dudes at a mahogany table,” Ludlow says. “It can be an emergent property of a network of good individuals, where all of a sudden you’ve got a harm-causing macro entity.”

The consequence of the WikiLeaks revelations has been to persuade some people to see these patterns, and so to see the world more like Assange himself does. But this perspective is not for everyone; it is not really for anyone, even Assange. He suffers from fears that the sushi he eats might be poisoned; he knows that everything he does is monitored by large intelligence agencies; he believes that women he had sex with may have been in cahoots with spies. From the Ecuadoran Embassy come, now and then, these lunging gestures for a connection: The warm letter to Benedict Cumberbatch, praising the actor’s performance while denouncing the film; the doomed attempt to build a political party in Australia while imprisoned halfway around the world; the instinct to take the goodwill of new volunteers on faith, to press thumb drives full of secrets into the palms of strangers. Which leaves Assange as both a prophet and a warning: If his work has proved the dangers of trusting too much, then his life has demonstrated the impossibility of living without any trust at all.

The State of Assange

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The Shutdown Prophet

Illustration by Oliver Munday

In a merciful twist of fate, Juan Linz did not quite live to see his prophecy of the demise of American democracy borne out. Linz, the Spanish political scientist who died last week, argued that the presidential system, with its separate elections for legislature and chief executive, was inherently unstable. In a famous 1990 essay, Linz observed, “All such systems are based on dual democratic legitimacy: No democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the people.” Presidential systems veered ultimately toward collapse everywhere they were tried, as legislators and executives vied for supremacy. There was only one notable exception: the United States of America.

Linz attributed our puzzling, anomalous stability to “the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties.” The Republicans had loads of moderates, and conservative whites in the South still clung to the Democratic Party. At the time he wrote that, the two parties were already sorting themselves into more ideologically pure versions, leaving us where we stand today: with one racially and economically polyglot party of center-left technocracy and one ethnically homogenous reactionary party. The latter is currently attempting to impose its program by threat upon the former. The events in Washington have given us a peek into the Linzian nightmare.

Traditionally, when American politics encountered the problem of divided government—when, say, Nixon and Eisenhower encountered Democratic Congresses, or Bill Clinton a Republican one—one of two things happened. Either both sides found enough incentives to work together despite their differences, or there was what we used to recognize as the only alternative: gridlock. Gridlock is what most of us expected after the last election produced a Democratic president and Republican House. Washington would drudge on; it would be hard to get anything done, but also hard to undo anything. Days after the election, John Boehner, no doubt anticipating things would carry on as always, said, “Obamacare is the law of the land.”

Instead, to the slowly unfolding horror of the Obama administration and even some segments of the Republican Party, the GOP decided that the alternative to finding common ground with the president did not have to be mere gridlock. It could force the president to enact its agenda. In January, Boehner told his colleagues he’d abandon all policy negotiations with the White House. Later that spring, House Republicans extended the freeze-out to the Democratic-­majority Senate, which has since issued (as of press time) eighteen futile pleas for budget negotiations. Their plan has been to carry out their agenda by using what they call “leverage” or “forcing events” to threaten economic and social harm and thereby extract concessions from President Obama without needing to make any policy concessions in return. Paul Ryan offered the most candid admission of his party’s determined use of non-electoral power: “The reason this debt-limit fight is different is we don’t have an election around the corner where we feel we are going to win and fix it ourselves,” he said at the end of September. “We are stuck with this government another three years.”

Last Tuesday, House Republicans shut down the federal government, demanding that Obama abolish his health-care reform in a tactically reckless gamble that most of the party feared but could not prevent. More surreal, perhaps, were the conditions they issued in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling later this month. Lifting the debt ceiling, a vestigial ritual in which Congress votes to approve payment of the debts it has already incurred, is almost a symbolic event, except that not doing it would wreak unpredictable and possibly enormous worldwide economic havoc. (Obama’s Treasury Department has compared the impact of a debt breach to the failure of Lehman Brothers.) The hostage letter House Republicans released brimmed with megalomaniacal ambition. If he wanted to avoid economic ruin, Republicans said, Obama would submit to a delay of health-care reform, plus tax-rate cuts, enactment of offshore drilling, approval of the Keystone pipeline, deregulation of Wall Street, and Medicare cuts, to name but a few demands. Republicans hardly pretended to believe Obama would accede to the entire list (a set of demands that amounted to the retroactive election of Mitt Romney), but the hubris was startling in and of itself.

The debt ceiling turns out to be unexploded ordnance lying around the American form of government. Only custom or moral compunction stops the opposition party from using it to nullify the president’s powers, or, for that matter, the president from using it to nullify Congress’s. (Obama could, theoretically, threaten to veto a debt ceiling hike unless Congress attaches it to the creation of single-payer health insurance.) To weaponize the debt ceiling, you must be willing to inflict harm on millions of innocent people. It is a shockingly powerful self-destruct button built into our very system of government, but only useful for the most ideologically hardened or borderline sociopathic. But it turns out to be the perfect tool for the contemporary GOP: a party large enough to control a chamber of Congress yet too small to win the presidency, and infused with a dangerous, millenarian combination of overheated Randian paranoia and fully justified fear of adverse demographic trends. The only thing that limits the debt ceiling’s potency at the moment is the widespread suspicion that Boehner is too old school, too lacking in the Leninist will to power that fires his newer co-partisans, to actually carry out his threat. (He has suggested as much to some colleagues in private.) Boehner himself is thus the one weak link in the House Republicans’ ability to carry out a kind of rolling coup against the Obama administration. Unfortunately, Boehner’s control of his chamber is tenuous enough that, like the ailing monarch of a crumbling regime, it’s impossible to strike an agreement with him in full security it will be carried out.

The standoff embroiling Washington represents far more than the specifics of the demands on the table, or even the prospect of economic calamity. It is an incipient constitutional crisis. Obama foolishly set the precedent in 2011 that he would let Congress jack him up for a debt-ceiling hike. He now has to crush the practice completely, lest it become ritualized. Obama not only must refuse to trade concessions for a debt-ceiling hike; he has to make it clear that he will endure default before he submits to ransom. To pay a ransom now, even a tiny one, would ensure an endless succession of debt-ceiling ransoms until, eventually, the two sides fail to agree on the correct size of the ransom and default follows.

This is a domestic Cuban Missile Crisis. A single blunder could have unalterable consequences: If Obama buckles his no-ransom stance, the debt-ceiling-hostage genie will be out of the bottle. If Republicans believe he is bluffing, or accept his position but obstinately refuse it, or try to lift the debt ceiling and simply botch the vote count, a second Great Recession could ensue.

When Linz contemplated the sorts of crises endemic to presidential systems, he imagined intractable claims of competing legitimacy—charismatic leaders riding great passionate mobs, insisting they alone represented the will of the people. The present crisis is a variation of that. Republicans insistently point to polls showing disapproval of the Affordable Care Act—a kind of assertion of legitimacy via direct referendum, implicitly rebuking Obama’s counter-argument that the presidential election settled the issue of repealing the Affordable Care Act. But the Republican position rests more heavily on the logic of extortion rather than popular mandate. “No one wants to default, but we are not going to continue to give the president a limitless credit card,” warned Republican representative Jason Chaffetz earlier this year. Obama “will not permit an economic crisis worse than 2008–09,” wrote former Bush administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen, and thus “has no choice but to negotiate with GOP leaders.” Republicans argue that Obama bears all responsibility for avoiding a national catastrophe; Obama argues that both sides bear an equal amount every day—and that this particular mess is not his to clean up.

How to settle this dispute? Here is where Linz’s analysis rings chillingly true: “There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the Constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.” This is a fight with no rules. The power struggle will be resolved as a pure contest of willpower.

In our Founders’ defense, it’s hard to design any political system strong enough to withstand a party as ideologically radical and epistemically closed as the contemporary GOP. (Its proximate casus belli—forestalling the onset of universal health insurance—is alien to every other major conservative party in the industrialized world.) The tea-party insurgents turn out to be right that the Obama era has seen a fundamental challenge to the constitutional order of American government. They were wrong about who was waging it.

The Shutdown Prophet

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