Dissent of the Majority

Wriston, Walter B.


I appreciate immensely the generous recognition that has been given this evening to the things Citibank has tried to do to improve our city. Being singled out for the acclaim of the Regional Plan Association is a heartening tribute and on behalf of the institution I serve, I am most grateful.

All of you familiar with RPA's "Choices for '76" are well aware that metropolitan New York now consists of over 1,600 distinct and separate kinds of political units. Each of them, as Bob Wood, former Undersecretary of HUD, has noted, has its own power to raise and spend the public treasure. Each operates in a jurisdiction determined more by chance than by design.

Such Balkanization, with its premium on dissent and discord, has produced an excess of Utopian solutions -- all the way from giving New York back to the Indians to making it the fifty-first state.

The sheer size of metropolitan New York itself and the scope of its problems, from crime and corruption to poverty and pollution, have also produced a high tide of powerful rhetoric. The trouble is that many people, with the noblest intentions, have concentrated on symptoms of the sickness afflicting this city while overlooking the underlying cause. Reduced to its simplest terms, the great problem of New York City is that we no longer enjoy majority rule. The political system has evolved to a point where the smallest pockets of dissent are in a position to frustrate the will of the majority, not just for days or for weeks but for years.

Although the air is full of speeches -- and vice versa -- in this election year, no politician has addressed himself primarily to this fundamental issue. If we accept Dr. Johnson' s chilling observation that "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully," we can only assume that today's candidates are much too sanguine. Many, indeed, appear oblivious to the reality that majority rule in New York is now more fantasy than fact. The Hudson Institute has described the urban scene in America as a classic example of the "powerlessness of the powerful." The lack of authentic power in this city certainly makes the most responsible of institutions vulnerable to the strident demands of the stubborn few.

In addition to the hecklers and the protest groups, there is naturally great diversity in the political arena. The three million voters in New York City have always represented a multiplicity of economic, racial, religious and geographic groups. But they were usually either Democrats or Republicans. Today, however, we have not only Democrats and Republicans, but also Conservatives and Liberals, Fusion and Reform candidates, and so-called independents, all battling and bickering among themselves for the support of what they perceive to be a highly fragmented electorate. Years ago, we used to take pride in the faith that America was and is a melting pot. Aside from the Indian tribes, there are no native Americans, and we are still a nation of immigrants.

We revered our lands of origin, but we became Americans. Indeed immigrants were so eager to become Americans that there was fear that they would forget the cultures from which they came, and efforts were made to stimulate remembrances.

Our country was founded by men and women seeking in a new land relief from the tyranny of a privileged minority. We based our society on majority rule and from the babel of many nations, we chose English as a common language.

This common language, whatever its ethnic accents, helped to give our vast and diverse democracy a sense of unity. Our early politicians did not succumb to the demand that Polish or Gaelic or German become an official language of New York City: In doing this, they followed an old American custom which dates back to early times when French was turned down as a second language. The unifying qualities of a single tongue were spread across the land.

Today, in this city, the unification based on individual freedom and a common language is being undermined. The political structure, in an effort to cater to individual dissent, has turned its back on the needs of the majority. What was once a common language in the city has now become two "official" languages.

This breakdown of majority rule has now placed this city on the path to anarchy. Learned Hand once observed, "No Utopia, nothing but Bedlam will automatically emerge from a regime of unbridled individualism, be it ever so rugged."

Majority rule is what has built the greatest democracy in the world, and our refusal as a people to permit the fragmentation of our political process is what continues to sustain us as a nation. In our great city, however, the process has gone the other way, until we have now arrived at a point where the ability to get something done within a meaningful time frame is virtually impossible.

We spawn a protest group for every cause, and we permit them to block any given project from now to eternity. There are literally multitudes of one-issue blocs with specific concerns ranging from curbing our canines to the racial composition of a school in Canarsie. If the power to paralyze government continues to be left with these groups, nothing can save our city.

History reminds us what the outcome can be when majority rule is frustrated. In a larger political context, one of the principal reasons for the breakdown of the Weimar Republic was the fragmentation of political power. In those days the Social Democrats, the Communists, the Nationalist and the Centre Parties all struggled for control of the Reichstag. The theory of proportional representation was pushed to its ultimate conclusion which is, and always has been, the burial ground of democracy. One German party, for example, consisted of but a single candidate who ran on a ticket calling for a law requiring a loaf of bread to have a uniform length, and he was elected. There are times when it seems that New York has become almost as fragmented.

In his new book Eric Hoffer points out: "It is maintained that a society is free only when dissenting minorities have room to throw their weight around. As a matter of fact, a dissenting minority feels free only when it can impose its will on the majority: what it abominates most is the dissent of the majority."

While some people firmly believe that they belong to an Establishment which can get things done in response to the desires of the majority, this is no longer true in New York. There is no group of people in or out of office who can any longer be said to-be in charge. All of us can attack around the perimeters of problems. We can make a positive, constructive impact on a piece of the school system or a city block. We can support the fourth platoon, we can try to expose the financially ruinous public pension plans or, eventually, we may even get a juice bar closed up in our immediate neighborhood.

The citizens of this city were not always so isolated from power. They were better able to achieve change even in the bad old days, when the political machine was the backbone of city government. Tammany Thanksgiving baskets and its political patronage were the framework upon which was built the political structure of the city. Individuals in Tammany paved the streets, dug the sewers, piped the water, built the subways and created a school system which actually taught children to read and write, but they also stole the taxpayer blind. Today our value system makes this trade-off unacceptable, as it should be.

Contrary, however, to some folklore, the political machine gave the average citizen through his block captain and his clubhouse leader a direct access to government services, which he no longer enjoys. In the bad old days, a man with a leaky ceiling, a sick wife, no heat, or a son in trouble with the law had someone to whom he could turn and get action. This lateral incursion into the bureaucratic maze of the municipality kept the bureaucrats on their toes and gave the illusion of serving the citizen.

The political Reformers turned the rascals out and smashed the machine. But instead of replacing that machine with efficient government, the Reformers created a power vacuum with no key decision-makers at the controls.

Today the average citizen no longer has direct access to his government. Even the citizen who fancies he has such direct access can get nothing done.

The city's inability to use the power it actually has is in some ways a perverse by product of the old Reform movement. Civil service, for example, was set up to replace the spoils system. The advent of the civil service brought a lot of highly competent, professional disinterested people to the task of managing our city. As long as the civil service was in competition with the politically appointed surrogates, our government still tended to be responsive to the needs of our citizens. With the collapse of the political machine, civil service came to monopolize the field. This bureaucracy, creating its own power base through the public service unions, now frustrates the efforts of an elected official to be responsive to the will of the majority. Today it is not an exaggeration to say that the unionized civil service bureaucracy maintains as firm a control over the city as the political machine once enjoyed.

This bureaucracy, combined with the rising costs of welfare and debt, has sent the cost of essential city services soaring. Ironically, this system, so wholly unresponsive to the will of the majority, is supported by the taxes imposed on the majority.

As a provider of vital services, city government is highly vulnerable to those who threaten to disrupt it. An impending strike by transportation workers, sanitation men, teachers, firemen or police has always caused the city to capitulate in "the public interest." When this happens, as we all know, the big unions tend to engage in games of oneupmanship, leapfrogging over one another to escalate their demands. There is, of course, no simple or obvious solution, but the city must begin to eliminate some of the bureaucratic rigidity and waste that make the majority of citizens so susceptible to the often unreasonable demands of any raucous minority.

Throughout the nation, city and state, taxpayers are becoming evermore disenchanted with the idea of paying more and more for less and less. So, increasingly in many urban areas, city governments are turning to private enterprise for police protection, garbage collection, fire fighting, education, the distribution of welfare checks and food stamps and the processing of income tax returns. Discipline imposed by the profit motive often enables private companies to perform these functions more cheaply and efficiently. If they do not measure up, they cannot impose themselves on the body politic in perpetuity; they cannot even hold the city captive by going on strike; they are simply replaced.

The Reformer of yesterday has lost touch with the majority and expresses amazement whenever a poll shows that the majority of our people want reasonable service at an acceptable cost. The city pension plan is a case in point. With trends going the way they are now, the majority of us are going to have to pick up the tab for an estimated two billion dollars in 1980 for the city's retirement programs unless the recommendations of the Kinzel Report are passed by the legislature.

In addition, this unsound pension plan, which pays many people more to be retired than to be at work, drives jobs out of the city because no private company can compete with such largess. This is merely a rerun of an old movie that some of us saw in Uruguay in the fifties and sixties. In that country, 20 percent of the citizens ended up supporting 80 percent of the populace.

There is an enormous amount of nonsense around about the nature of power which has been escalated into a constitutional crisis by the national media. In the so-called great debate about the power of the President and the power of Congress, and about the relative roles of the federal government and of urban governments, we display the eminently human tendency to blame the other guy. Many of our self-appointed interpreters of the national interest who view the role of the majority with the greatest alarm are unable to comprehend reality. The facts of the matter are that the Congress has all the power it needs to stop the sale of the handguns which are killing Americans at a frightening rate. The Congress has all the power it needs to balance the federal budget. The Congress has the power it needs to set national priorities. What the Congress has not demonstrated is that it can organize its power to achieve these ends.

In a similar manner, we have within this town all the power we need to organize our government in such a way that we can pick up the garbage, fill the potholes, operate a school system which teaches people to read and write, and to deliver the other essential services which are desired by our citizens.

There is nothing the matter with our city that cannot be fixed but, in the same way that Germany fell apart under the Weimar Republic, we are falling apart in the city through the lack of having the majority's will reflected in the political process. A couple of examples might bring this home.

There is a general feeling that the city needs some adequate housing for its citizens. The Waterside apartment complex, now rising on steel piles over the East River, opposite Bellevue Hospital, displaced not a single human being from a former dwelling and indeed made no use of previously used land. Before the first hopper of cement was poured, ten years went by as the program inched its way through the political labyrinth and financing was arranged. During that decade, the price of construction almost doubled, forcing up the rents to cover the costs. While the red tape was being unraveled, countless articles were written about bad housing in New York, and endless editorials vehemently denounced the lack of action.

Another example of pointless procrastination involves the East Side which embraces New York Hospital, Cornell Medical School, Rockefeller University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, the Hospital for Special Surgery and Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. In an effort to improve the delivery of medical care to the citizens of the city, this great complex of medical competence has been attempting to build a new facility out over the East River Drive. To date, this medical center has met with more than 20 neighborhood groups, all demanding ironclad guarantees that no one will ever be dispossessed of an apartment from now to the end of the world. Their final approvals often hinged on what amounts to ransom -- one wanted an agreement to build a park on stilts over the drive at a cost of a million dollars. The will of the majority in the city, aware of the urgent need for a high quality medical center, has now been frustrated for more than two years by the Byzantine power deals made in City Hall on behalf of fringe special interests.

It is time for our city to use its power to govern in the interest of the majority. Power to the people should mean what it has always meant -- the power of the majority to govern and the power of the minority to be heard, to be the change agent and to attempt to build themselves into a political majority.

Since the lack of majority rule is the underlying cause of New York's decline, we should concentrate on this issue and not let ourselves be distracted by symptoms of the city's sickness. These symptoms are not new, and the various cures being advanced are surely familiar to anyone who has read the history of urban civilization. Congestion in the streets of ancient Rome was so bad that Julius Caesar banned the use of chariots during daylight hours and issued a decree that women under 40 years of age could not be borne crosstown on lifters. Crime in the streets of New York in the days of the Dutch settlers led the well-to-do to hire private guards to patrol their neighborhoods. All of this is familiar to anyone who would read the history of the world.

Today, we have at our command modern technology and a wealth undreamed of in former times to cope with our urban ills. Expending resources on symptoms, however, will produce no enduring improvements. We must devise a way to give this city back to its people. This is central to progress.

It has become fashionable in recent years to say that New York is ungovernable. This was one of the most popular arguments for decentralization. But, merely decentralizing the city does not solve the problem, and, in Kenneth Clark's words, it may simply turn "centralized inefficiency" into "decentralized inefficiency."

The people of New York will have an opportunity to vote on this issue and various other proposals for restructuring city government in November. Political structure is very important, but more important is political courage. The time has come for the citizens of this city to stand up and demand access to government and to insist that elected officials be responsive to the legitimate needs of the majority.

As John Locke once observed, the great question is "not whether there be power in the world, nor whence it came, but who should have it." There is power in this city and it should come from the majority of the people who exercise their right to vote. The people who bestow power have every right to demand that this power be used to serve the broad needs of the city as a whole, and that the desires of the many not be held hostage to the dissent of the few.

Thank you.

  • The document was created from the speech, "Dissent of the Majority," written by Walter B. Wriston for the Regional Plan Association on 5 April 1973. The original speech is located in MS134.001.002.00020.
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