Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Bret Stephens touts Ritchie Torres for NY Governor

I read Bret Stephens' columns in the Times to get a sense of what the establishment, Wall Street-allied conservatives are thinking. So I was very interested in Stephens' piece praising Congressman Ritchie Torres, not AOC, as NYC's real progressive star:

The bigger mystery is why Torres hasn’t yet become a household name in the United States. On the identity-and-background scorecard, he checks every progressive box. Afro-Latino, the son of a single mom who raised three children working as a mechanic’s assistant on a minimum-wage salary of $4.25 an hour, a product of public housing and public schools, a half brother of two former prison inmates, an N.Y.U. dropout, the Bronx’s first openly gay elected official when he won a seat on the City Council in 2013 at the age of 25 and the victor over a gay-bashing Christian minister when he won his House seat last year. 

He’s dazzlingly smart. He sees himself “on a mission to radically reduce racially concentrated poverty in the Bronx and elsewhere in America.”

In other words, Torres is everything a modern-day progressive is supposed to look and be like, except in one respect: Unlike so much of the modern left (including A.O.C., who grew up as an architect’s daughter in the middle-class Westchester town of Yorktown Heights), he really is a child of the working class. He understands what working-class people want, as opposed to what so many of its self-appointed champions claim they want.

“I don’t hire ideologues or zealots,” he tells me on a walk through his district. “Most of the people in the South Bronx are practical rather than ideological. Their concerns are bread and butter, health and housing, schools and jobs.”

What this translates to is a 21st-century civil rights agenda based on pressing working-class needs for affordable housing, better schools, safer streets, good health care. The goals are progressive, but the solutions, for Torres, have to be pragmatic.

That emphatically includes giving children the option to attend “carefully regulated, not-for-profit” charter schools, which his district has in abundance, over fierce opposition from teachers’ unions. “If there are parents in my district who have concluded that the best option for their children is a charter school, then who am I to tell them otherwise?” he asks.

Stephens even suggests that Torres should run for governor. 

Which raises the question of why somebody like Stephens finds somebody like Torres appealing. I guess there is the conservative fondness for people who really raised themselves up out of poverty, rather than blaming others for their problems. Also the lack of interest in some of the issues that make white men uncomfortable, like Me Too and White Fragility. Torres has not been attacking capitalism and supports reducing the barriers to building more housing in cities. (Housing is his biggest issue.) He is skeptical of higher education as a solution for working-class woes and thinks we already send too many people to college. He doesn't hire zealots.

So here you have the sort of progressive that conservatives want to engage with: one not focused on culture war battles but on pragmatic solutions to real world problems. Some of Torres' solutions would be expensive, for example making Federal Section 8 housing vouchers an entitlement, but money can be negotiated. 

Other progressives would say that this sort of focus on "bread and butter issues" means there will never be any real change, so of course Wall Streets supports it; somebody would probably say that this column is partly an attempt to redirect attention away from the sexual politics that recently dominated the state. (Forget Cuomo, forget sexual harassment, let's talk about this working class hero.) I'm not trying to make this a feel good story about bipartisanship; if Stephens lived in most other states he would not be touting any sort of progressive for governor. But I think this is an interesting insight into what Stephens, and I think many others, really fears, and what he might accept if it meant keeping the barbarians from the gate.

1 comment:

David said...

I think establishment conservatives have liked up-by-the-bootstraps minority climbers and activists for a long time. There's an element of "he's a friend to my friends, and an enemy to my enemies" to this, and Stephens indicates that he sees Torres as anti-union, anti-woke, anti-theory, pro-police, pro-hard work, and pro-respectability. For him, Torres is about self-help and not redistribution as a solution to poverty. And I imagine Torres isn't notably anti-Israel. So, for Stephens, what's not to like?

We also see here the divide between establishment conservatism and right-wing populism (i. e., Trumpism). As you say, Trumpism rejects respectability. It also esteems hard work more as a badge of honor status than as a moral value or a path of advancement (honor status in the contradictory sense that for them hard work is both a marker of lower-caste status for minorities and a badge of elevated honor for working-class whites and manly men generally).