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New York Values Are at the Heart of the American Political Divide

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have challenged their parties by embodying two sides of the Big Apple.

Christopher Furlong and Alex Wong/Getty Images

New York City is playing an unexpectedly outsized role in the presidential race, with both of the two major parties being sharply divided by candidates who embody very different sides of the city. It’s perhaps not surprising in an age of economic inequality that New York, itself a city where the enormous gap between the 1 percent and the working class is greater than that found in Brazil, would produce two such starkly contrasting figures as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump, the boastful, putative billionaire with his gaudy skyscrapers, is the perfect representative of the Manhattan uber-rich, just as Sanders is the voice of the New York of the trade-union movement and the once-thriving Jewish socialist culture that Irving Howe captured in his 1976 book, World of Our Fathers. 

The two men both have husky outer-borough accents, leading them to pronounce words like huge (“yuge”) alike even as they shout starkly different messages. Yet as the results from the Iowa caucuses make clear, the two parties have responded quite differently to the rival versions of New York being offered. Trump’s undeniable saturation in New York values is turning out to be a liability among Republicans, even as midwestern Democrats have shown a surprising affinity for Sanders’s version of New York socialism. 

Speaking to ABC News last night, Ted Cruz credited his win in Iowa to how he successfully stuck the label of “New York values” on Donald Trump. “As I travel the country here in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, everyone knows what New York values are,” Cruz said

When Cruz first attacked “New York values,” many pundits thought he’d made a mistake, especially after Trump delivered a moving invocation to the city’s heroic response to 9/11 in the Republican debate in mid-January. But there is every reason to think that the attack was key to Cruz’s success. Forty-two percent of Iowa Republicans told entrance pollsters at the caucuses that the most important quality in a candidate was that he or she “shares my values.” Of that large block, 38 percent supported Ted Cruz, and 5 percent were for Trump. Simply put, Iowa Republicans accepted the idea that Trump was a cultural alien. Meanwhile, Trump’s own attempts to portray Cruz as an alien—by calling attention to his Canadian birth and loans from Goldman Sachs—fell flat. 

Trump is not the first New York Republican to find that voters in his party just can’t stomach his origins in a city that many conservatives see as a modern Sodom and Gomorrah. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani looked on paper like a great candidate, widely admired in the GOP as a hero of 9/11. Yet Giuliani’s campaign floundered in the fields of Iowa, where his cultural liberalism, including a record of supporting reproductive freedom and LGBT rights, hurt him. In Iowa in 2008, came in 6th with 3 percent of the vote. (Admittedly, Giuliani avoided campaigning there because he knew he would do so poorly, but his campaign never picked up steam afterward). Given the track record of Trump and Giuliani, it seems unlikely that a strong New York personality, even one tied to foreign-policy hawkishness or hostility towards immigrants, can win over heartland conservatives. 

The opposite is true of the Democrats. Sanders finished a very close second in Iowa, within a hair’s breadth of winning—an impressive achievement won against long odds given Clinton’s advantages in funding, name recognition, and endorsements. It’s notable that Clinton did not attack Sanders for his New York values, or even for his professed socialism. Her line of attack was that his policies, like universal healthcare, were politically infeasible—not that they were undesirable. 

Instead, in her speech expressing “relief” over the Iowa results (which weren’t yet final), Clinton adopted a conciliatory stance and tried to appropriate Sanders’s politics by claiming to bea progressive who gets things done for people.” Clinton sounded positively Sanders-esque in declaring that, as president, she would “protect our rights, women’s rights, gay rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, workers’ rights.” 

Among the Republicans, association with New York is a political millstone around the neck that can sink a candidate. But if the New York values that Republicans dread are cosmopolitanism and egalitarianism, then among the Democrats, there’s no controversy around them, only disagreement as to how best to achieve them. In American politics, New York values has now become a shorthand for progressivity. That’s something both parties agree on, even as New York values lie at the fault lines of American politics.