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New York, once the nation’s dominant political state, holds its presidential primary on Tuesday. Three candidates can claim home state status. But Bernie Sanders, who grew up there, left for Vermont 48 years ago, and Hillary Clinton, who moved in to run for the Senate, has spent most of her life elsewhere. Only Donald Trump, who grew up in Jamaica Estates in Queens and lives in an eponymous Manhattan skyscraper, is an unambiguous hometowner.
He is also a clear favorite to win the Republican primary. He hasn’t gotten 50 percent in any state so far, but he’s gotten at least 49 percent in every New York poll since he started running.
This seems anomalous. New York Republicans have given majorities to “establishment” candidates in every presidential primary since 1996. And if, as I argued in a previous column, Trump runs best in states low in what scholar Robert Putnam calls social connectedness, New York ranks at middle levels on the scale.
So I think there’s something else involved. Call it New York exceptionalism.
This goes back to colonial America. Historian David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed shows how settlers from different parts of the British Isles brought different cultural attitudes and behaviors — folkways — to different British North American colonies. Those folkways, Fischer argues, continue to reverberate and, some contemporary psephologists argue, even explain recent regional political variations.
Fischer notes that his four categories don’t include everyone. African-Americans developed their own folkways. So has New York. Its progenitor, New Netherland, “combined formal toleration, social distance and inequality in high degree,” Fischer writes. “The peculiar texture of life in New York City today still preserves qualities which existed in seventeenth-century New Amsterdam — and Old Amsterdam as well.”
New York City, like Rembrandt’s Amsterdam, values commerce and tolerance, but has little use for principle. You are considered to have old money once you’ve had it for ten minutes. New York was Loyalist during the Revolutionary War (Alexander Hamilton was an exception) and pro-South in the Civil War. Why upset things when there is money to be made?
New York, like Donald Trump, loves winners and disdains losers. The New York Yankees, hated in much of America, are loved in New York. Owner George Steinbrenner may have been boorish and off-and-on manager Billy Martin boisterous but, hey, they won.
For many years, New York was a winner in national politics, too. In the first half of the twentieth century it was politically crucial, the largest state, with as many as 47 electoral votes, and a target state in any close presidential election. Split about equally between Upstate Protestant Republicans and Downstate Catholic Democrats, decisive votes were often cast by the world’s largest Jewish community, which was left of both parties on both economic and cultural issues.
This gave both parties an incentive to champion liberal policies, not just in New York but nationally. New York produced major liberal politicians in both parties: the two Roosevelts, Al Smith, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockfeller. In 1944, the five boroughs of New York City cast 7 percent of the nation’s votes. The two presidential nominees had residences a few blocks apart on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
That dominance ended long ago. In the 1960s, California passed New York as the largest state (Texas and Florida have passed it since) and New York became safe Democratic in close races. But New York would like to be politically great again.
Donald Trump speaks in the accents and cadences of New York. Jamaica Estates is an affluent neighborhood, with winding streets and big houses with lawns, but not posh. People there still refer to Manhattan as “the City,” and Trump’s success in extending his father’s outer borough real estate business there resonates. He talks of people waiting “on line” for his rallies, apparently not aware, as many New Yorkers are not, that Americans beyond the metro area speak of people waiting “in line.”
Trump’s affection for his city is not feigned. When Ted Cruz dissed “New York values” in a debate, Trump responded movingly, recalling New Yorkers’ response to the 9/11 attacks.
That affection seems likely to be returned by about half of the 23 percent of New Yorkers who are registered Republicans. He’ll run likely strongly in Connecticut and New Jersey, as he did in Florida congressional districts with many ex-New Yorkers.
But New York is no longer the fulcrum point of American politics. Even if Trump can win there, he’s still got to win in lots of other places as well.
The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) educational organization and does not take institutional positions on any issues. The views expressed here are those of the author.
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