"When City Elections Were Fun": or Why Political Nostalgia Is Fucking Idiotic

09/03/2013 12:28 PM |

Norman Mailer in his totally serious bid for public office.
  • Norman Mailer in his totally serious bid for public office.

Remember when New York City was mired in the depths of a crippling financial crisis, middle class residents fled the city in droves (not because they were being priced out but because of skyrocketing crime rates), race riots were a not infrequent occurrence, and striking sanitation workers turned New York into a putrid place covered in piles of trash that occasionally caught fire, cementing the city’s reputation as a stinking hellhole for decades to come? Remember how great that was? Maybe you don’t remember, because maybe it was before you were born, but, man, that was when New York really was fun city. And you know what made it especially fun? Political candidates who didn’t take the offices they were running for seriously but just wanted to have their egos (and maybe other things?) stroked. Oh, wait. Maybe it wasn’t so fun after all?

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Lee Siegel wrote an Op-Ed for the Times this weekend, “When City Elections Were Fun,” in which the candidacies of Norman Mailer, Jimmy Breslin, and, uh, Rudy Giuliani were remembered with the sort of fondness usually only seen in Buzzfeed lists about the 90s. In this editorial, Siegel laments that we now live in a “hyper-rational New York,” where boring candidates reign and “technocratic micromanagement and passive-aggressive triangulation [have become] the norm.” Siegel admits that it would “be obscene to pine for the urban agony that fomented Mailer’s run,” but wishes that there were more people following in the footsteps of the “pugilistic writer…[who] made a quixotic bid for mayor of New York [and] columnist Jimmy Breslin [who] campaigned alongside him for City Council president. Far from being a gimmick, the pair electrified the electorate with bold plans and even bolder political theatrics.”

Wait. What? “Far from being a gimmick?” What was not gimmicky about Mailer’s suggestion that the city stage “medieval jousts in parks, to alleviate juvenile delinquency?” Or Mailer’s “platform’s central plank [which] was making New York the 51st state?” Desirable as it may sometimes seem to make New York City its own state, that idea is nothing more than a showy play for publicity. And, in fact, none of Mailer’s ideas are so dissimilar from what you might hear coming out of the mouth of any inebriated regular at your neighborhood dive bar. Seriously, I’m pretty sure I once heard a guy at Rhythm & Booze suggest holding a Grand Prix race in Central Park, just like Mailer did.

Siegel seems to think that the energy that Mailer and other unorthodox candidates bring to local politics is the only thing that can save New York from a fate worse than death, by which he means, he doesn’t want New York to be “boring.” And I understand what Siegel is saying, I really do. Outsized personalities are generally more fun to observe, and off-the-wall ideas for city policy are more interesting to entertain. But the thing is, we haveoutsize personalities involved in local politics this year. We have candidates who have—at various points in this electoral cycle—turned their respective races into circuses. And those candidates—namely, Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner—can be said to have some pretty interesting ideas, but you know what? It’s not enough. The New York of today is fortunate enough not to be facing the same kind of doom that seemed imminent in the late 60s, but it is dealing with many other significant problems, including environmental crises due to global warming, a shrinking middle class, and an overwhelmed public school system. So, no, I don’t care about having big personalities running quixotic campaigns that distract from the very real issues that New Yorkers are facing. This type of political nostalgia serves nobody except older generations who like to think things were always better in prior decades. Who cares if good and innovative ideas come from the most boring candidate in the city? We should only care about getting the best candidate elected. And who cares if our new mayor gives great sound bites? There will never be a shortage of New Yorkers who will offer great quotes. What we need now and what we should care about noware smart and capable candidates who are more interested in running the city than in being on the cover of the Post.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen