How Ed Koch Remade Liberalism

Matthew Cooper

Much is being made about the grim New York that Ed Koch inherited when he was elected in 1977, the year of the blackout, Son of Sam, and Howard Cosell’s famous line during the World Series about how “the Bronx is burning.”

Hizzoner is gone now and the reflections on his style (pure chutzpah), his sexuality (quite ambiguous), and his political acumen (awfully adroit) are everywhere. Koch, who died Friday at the age of 88, should also be remembered for how he reflected changes in American liberalism and accelerated those changes himself. His shifting alliances and fights over foreign policy often were telling. Because of Israel, he embraced the most conservative Democratic candidate for president in 1988, Al Gore, and despised Jimmy Carter. He supported Hillary, but not John Kerry. He wrote a whole book, Giuliani: Nasty Man

On issues of race, national security, and crime, Koch had a gut instinct for the revulsion many Democrats often felt about their party. If you look at New York City’s portrayal in movies in the 1970s, it was a grim one. There was The French Connection and Panic in Needle Park about the heroin trade. The Out of Towners was about a Midwestern couple that comes to Gotham and is mugged and beaten up—and that was a comedy.

Whenever films offered a more cheerful view of the nation’s most populous city (Annie Hall, for instance), most presented a crime-ridden, almost post-apocalyptic landscape like the one seen in Fort Apache, the Bronx. For the citizens of the outer boroughs, once loyal Democrats, the crime, drugs, welfare, and government bloat had become too much. Whether it was the subjects of Jonathan Rieder’s sociology classic, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism, or All in the Family, the anger wasn’t hard to find, and Koch tapped it. 

He called himself a “liberal with sanity,” which wasn’t too much different than Geraldine Ferraro’s first campaign slogan: “Finally, a tough liberal.” Koch took on unions and crime and a city budget that needed reining in, but it was as a liberal out to save liberalism. Giuliani began life as a Democrat but never really was one. Koch had come of age in Bob Dylan’s Greenwich Village, stumped for Adlai Stevenson, and the cosmopolitanism of the city and the benefits of government were never lost on him. 

I doubt a young Columbia transfer student named Barack Obama would have voted for Ed Koch when he ran for reelection in 1981. Liberals clung to a little known assemblyman named Frank Barbaro. Having been a year behind the president at Columbia and having spent election night with the beleaguered Barbaro backers, I can attest to that.

But Koch was an enthusiastic Obama backer in 2008 after backing Hillary Clinton in the primaries and Bush-Cheney in 2004 because of national security. The kind of racially charged politics that had roiled New York in the 1970s and '80s and the social conditions — welfare, street crime — were a distant memory by the time an African-American Columbia student had become president and Koch was an octogenarian.

The term gentrification first emerged during the Koch years and in the 21st century, in post-9/11 New York, the city was a very different place. The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn were in retreat from hipsters and new immigrants. The racially charged world of 1989’s Do the Right Thing or the Bensonhurst attack on a young black man named Yusef Hawkins had given way to a gentler tableau. In no small measure because of Ed Koch, New York liberalism was different, and so was American liberalism.