At 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s, if you listened real hard, you could almost hear the teeth of an entire nation grinding. Well, at least of those watching coverage from New York City as Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioTeen charged in alleged attack on BMW in cell phone video New York City declares 3/14/21 a day of remembrance for COVID victims De Blasio says New York City to hit 1 million vaccinations by end of January MORE danced with his wife in a virtually empty Times Square. Millions watched as de Blasio dipped his wife in a romantic flourish to the playing of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” At least Nero made his own music.
The scene drew angry rebukes, even from the usually compliant CNN, where host Adam Cohen said it made him feel sick: “I did not need to see that at the beginning of 2021. Do something with this city! Honestly, get it together!”
In fairness to de Blasio, it probably seemed harmless — who would object to a guy dancing with his wife? But sometimes a predicable photo op turns into a cursed image. Just ask 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis after he took a spin in an army tank. The image captured what many considered as his faux commitment to a strong defense. He and his campaign failed to see how driving around looking like Mickey Mouse on a 68-ton M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank would only drive home the criticism of his defense policies.
For de Blasio, dancing in a nearly empty Times Square came across not as amorous but as delirious in a locked-down city with a collapsing economy and soaring crime rates. For many, it reinforced the crisis of leadership facing us in both parties. We have become a nation that seems untethered from economic or political reality.
In one of the most liberal cities on Earth, de Blasio cannot break 40 percent in popularity. However, he, like many other leaders, continues to play to the most extreme elements of his party. As crime raged in New York, de Blasio pushed to cut the police budget by $1 billion and eliminated the NYPD’s plain clothes division. In 2020 the city experienced a roughly 50 increase in homicides and almost a 100 percent increase in shootings.
Similarly, de Blasio closed the city’s public schools despite overwhelming scientific evidence of little risk for COVID-19 exposure, particularly for elementary students. He finally caved to pressure from parents and experts, admitting there was little risk in having the schools reopen.
He supported the closing of restaurants — dooming many to insolvency — despite the fact that such businesses contribute to less than 2 percent of reported infections. With the city hemorrhaging money, he said the federal government could bail out City Hall and local businesses by simply printing more money — a statement both politically and economically delusional. As highly taxed residents moved out of the city and the state, de Blasio continued to voice his “tax the hell out of the wealthy” policy. Recently, he declared that the purpose of public schools is the redistribution of wealth.
The eerie image of de Blasio dancing in a virtually dead Times Square captures what could await us in 2021. Even if the pandemic is curtailed with vaccines, cities like New York have been devastated by long lockdowns. There is no possibility that the federal government can bail out every business and landlord in one city, let alone the entire country.
At the same time, the year ended much as it had continued for months: In Portland and Philadelphia, federal buildings again were attacked by rioters and looters. In Washington, both parties remained virtually deadlocked and, regardless of what happens in Georgia’s Senate runoffs, that political division is likely to continue. There are calls by President-elect Biden and others for massive new spending in a country already $27 trillion in debt, with an increase of $8 trillion since 2017 alone. Yet, politicians in Washington continue a type of ghostly dance, oblivious to the costs and hazards ahead.
Meanwhile, reporters are unlikely to return to prior standards of objectivity and independence after years of open bias against President Trump. Indeed, journalism professors now reject the very concept of objectivity in journalism, in favor of open advocacy. Columbia University journalism dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll has denounced what he says is the First Amendment’s freedom of speech being “weaponized” to protect disinformation.
Many reporters are now invested in the Biden administration, including downplaying or ignoring scandalous allegations against Hunter Biden and Eric Swalwell. Networks now actively tailor their coverage to offer their viewers “safe spaces” free of opposing facts or stories.
It is not just politicians and the press who have not changed. The reason 2021 will not be much different than 2020 is because we, as a nation, have not changed. We continue to be divided right down the middle and the space between each side is filled with blind, poisonous rage. Democratic leaders have called for blacklists, disbarments and other actions against those deemed “complicit” in the Trump years; over 70 percent of Republicans believe the presidential election was rigged and that Biden did not lawfully win.
Sadly, many among us do not want any of this to change. Rage, it seems, can be addictive. It becomes a license to hate. While few will admit it, the Trump years were a type of release from decency and civility. We have become a nation of conflict junkies. Worse still, we all increasingly live in artificial spaces which are, in reality, a dangerous delusion, because we face a looming economic crisis, emerging international conflicts and rising violence in our cities.
That is why Mayor de Blasio’s dance could prove the ultimate embodiment not of 2020 but of 2021. Unless the American middle can reemerge, we all will be dancing with de Blasio in a dead space where a country once thrived.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.