NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio Speaks on State of Democracy

Addressing an at-capacity crowd at the Eastport Arts Center was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Saturday, January 13th. De Blasio covered a variety of topics around the theme of the "state of democracy in America". (Photo by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson


In a wide-ranging public discourse, Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City, addressed an at-capacity crowd at the Eastport Arts Center on Saturday, January 13th. While many topics were raised, the overall theme of de Blasio’s presentation was the state of democracy in the United States. 

Democracy in general is a constant work in progress, de Blasio emphasized. “We think it was something perfect in the past,” he said. “Well, it turns out it wasn’t so perfect. We think it was given to us whole, when in fact we have to earn it, own it, and make it our own. We think it can be taken away from us, when in fact it can’t be taken away from us if we don’t let it be taken away from us.” The participation of the individual is an essential component of democracy that de Blasio continually raised throughout the talk. “[Democracy] comes down to every one of us.”

There are many threats to democracy active in our modern society, some of which de Blasio identified directly, including the electoral college. Through the electoral college, which has been part of American elections since 1804, candidates that have won the popular vote – including Al Gore, who, according to the Federal Election Commission, received 500,000 more votes than his competitor, George W. Bush, and Hilary Clinton, who received 2.8 million more votes than Donald Trump, according to the same source – have been unable to take office. Other threats to democracy that de Blasio noted include the “growing power of corporations, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the one percent, or the concentration of media ownership.” Later, he referenced the “culture of fear” being created – at times deliberately – by mainstream media and Russia’s overt attempts to undermine elections as substantial threats to democratic society.

Having identified that which is imperiling democracy, de Blasio also offered optimism regarding that which is keeping it stronger and intact, including communities like those of Eastern Maine. “There is something so powerful in the notion that a community is someplace where whenever you’re challenged, people are there for you and you’re there for them,” de Blasio said. “That happens every day here, and it is, again, an underpinning of what a strong and healthy society and a strong and healthy democracy are… The more people feel a communal sense to each other, the stronger a democracy is.”

As a student of history, de Blasio said that “this American moment” is different than situations in the past that have challenged democracy, such as the 1968 elections, which occurred on the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and in the throes of the domestically volatile Vietnam War. “In many ways, that was a more devastating reality for a lot of people,” de Blasio said. “We are not the first to travel this road.” As in that era, modern public protests have been an essential method of voicing dissent. Unlike that era, societal laws and shifting opinion have enabled the emergence of widely successful grassroots movements that include progressives, African Americans, and women. 

One example that de Blasio offered to support his claim that popular opinions have shifted is the recent election of a Democrat in Alabama, a situation that would have once been relegated to “fairy tales and mythology.” While de Blasio acknowledged the mainstream media’s focus on Republican candidate Roy Moore’s “disgusting acts and hateful ideas”, he said that the real impetus for the Democratic win was the people’s support of Democratic candidate Doug Jones. Jones had previously successfully tried the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that caused the death of four young girls. “He did something that created justice… as a result, progressives and African Americans came out in record numbers.”

A second example of the effective, national organization of grassroots movements that de Blasio cited was the Women’s March that originally took place on January 21st, 2017 in Washington, D.C. and communities across the world. Domestically, the combined protests were the largest that have ever taken place in the history of the country with an estimated 4 million participants. “What we saw in that moment was… a form of protest so perfectly national, so large, so complete, so vast, so replicable, that it indicated the opposite of what you’ve seen in other situations where democracy is imperiled.”

The importance of public input

Among the topics raised by audience members was the frustration of not being able to communicate to appointed and elected officials, such as in Eastport where public participation is not allowed during city and school committee meetings. De Blasio said that while he did not know the specifics of that situation, and that he understood that some things needed to be dealt with in private, “There always has to be a venue for rigorous public feedback and input.” De Blasio added that he has held more than 50 town hall meetings around New York City and that, while not always pleasant, they give people the opportunity to put their ideas forward. “When those ideas are right – which is not always, I guarantee – when they see that something they raised can have an impact, it does foster better democracy… I think it is really important to be open to the fact that at any given point, any citizen may have the best solution.” 

Contrasting opinions are fundamental to democracy

When an audience member raised the question of how to speak to friends and family members who have contrasting political opinions, de Blasio began by pointing out the media’s role in fostering both polarization and a false perception of how deep that polarization is. He then spoke to the importance of finding common ground, something that happens when opposing viewpoints are allowed to have a civilized discourse. “It’s not every time, but community meetings and town hall meetings can be good times for people to hear alternative views, times when people are challenged to find unity even when there are differences,” de Blasio said. “When I hear that, I think more democracy, not less democracy.” Asserting that such opportunities are part of the solution, de Blasio acknowledged that while it would not be an instantaneous fix, it still had to happen. “If you want to move beyond polarization, it is about fostering more and deeper public dialogue, because sometimes – not always, but sometimes – that leads to a more organic consensus.”

Thinking globally and acting locally

Recalling one of his favorite bumper stickers from the past – “Think Globally and Act Locally” – de Blasio sought to directly address those who felt powerless to affect change on a larger scale. “[Don’t] curse the darkness. Non-participation is a vote for the status quo,” de Blasio said. Instead, by thinking about what impacts could be made locally that would contribute to more change, individuals are able to become examples for those around them. 

In the case of New York City, de Blasio recently enacted a massive divestment from 190 oil companies, to the tune of $5 billion. In addition, he led the way on a lawsuit now being filed against the five largest oil producers for their role in aiding and abetting global warming “in a very cynical and very premeditated way.” The lawsuit and divestment were undertaken despite national policy that now refuses to acknowledge global warming. “We didn’t do it because we thought our action in isolation would change the world,” de Blasio said. “We had to try and play a catalytic role and encourage so many others to do it.”

Upcoming generations and the progressive era

In considering whether America is a conservative or progressive nation in general, de Blasio said that, from his perception, conservativism was becoming outmoded. “I think, when you look issue by issue, there is tremendous evidence that our country is poised to enter a progressive era,” de Blasio said. One of the strongest indicators that he has identified are the younger generations and their tendency toward social tolerance. “I look at the generation coming up with a lot of hope,” de Blasio said. “I look at them rejecting a lot of the things that held a lot of us as a society, our generation, back. The generation coming up is inherently less prejudiced and inherently more distressed and less accepting when they see prejudice.” 

Other indicators that de Blasio provided was the rapid escalation of awareness and acknowledgement amongst the youth and society as a whole of income inequality, global warming, economic instability, the importance of the Affordable Care Act, and marriage equality. Americans’ position on Dreamers, or undocumented Americans that came here at a young age, provide more evidence of openness and acceptance. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 79 percent of Americans support allowing Dreamers to remain in the country rather than being deported to potentially deadly surroundings.

The role of faith communities

In reference to the Civil Rights movements of the late 1960s, de Blasio acknowledges that much of the change that occurred during that era was a result of cooperation between the progressives of the day and faith-based organizations, particularly Southern Baptists under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the modern era, de Blasio expressed that such cooperation is absolutely essential if progressives want to achieve large scale change. “I have seen what an extraordinarily positive and progressive force that faith-based communities can be,” de Blasio said, adding that he has spent time studying Catholic Liberation Theology and its role in Latin American countries. “I think American progressives should maximally engage faith communities and not stand apart from them, even if there are areas of disagreement.” He said that more common ground is emerging with evangelical organizations on issues such as immigration, gun laws, and the environment, and said he is “deeply moved” by Pope Francis’s actions, such as in regard to climate change. “If we reflect on Dr. King, we see that when there is that unity between a social movement and faith communities, it is an extraordinary force, and it is something that progressives should focus on more, in my opinion.”