Saturday, August 11, 2007

The intellectual failure of SF's left














Even the city's leftists---they call themselves "progressives" to distinguish themselves from mere Democratic Party liberals like me---admit that San Francisco's left-wing is fractured and fractious. So what's the problem? Why can't progressives manage to unify behind a sensible agenda to do battle with the devilish Mayor Newsom and the wicked Downtown Interests?

The answer: Because there is no widely agreed on agenda on the left, in spite of all the huffing and puffing by the city's leftist writers. Indeed, the main problem of the city's left is an intellectual failure to come to grips with the issues facing San Francisco, from homelessness to Muni to traffic.

Some examples taken almost at random from recent leftist writing in SF:

BeyondChron's Paul Hogarth on the Muni and parking initiative ballot measures: "Most importantly, the [Muni]Charter Amendment saves us from an unspeakable risk---letting a wealthy developer who has bankrolled a draconian parking measure take away our basic tools to fight global warming." 

Permitting developers to provide adequate parking for new housing units for Hogarth is too terrible to contemplate---an "unspeakable risk"! Note too that Hogarth thinks traffic in the city is about fighting global warming. The bike people make a similar argument---We are the Good People because we don't use fossil fuel, unlike those who drive those wicked automobiles. One wonders what the argument is going to be when---as is beginning to happen---the motor vehicles on our streets have electric and/or hybrid engines that burn little or no fossil fuel. Traffic in the city is, first of all, about the traffic itself and the sheer volume of cars on our streets, especially during commute hours, which makes it more difficult for Muni to move its 600,000 passengers a day. Making it hard for people to park is not necessarily helpful in dealing with our traffic problems, since much of that traffic consists of people looking for a parking space.

Randy Shaw, also of BeyondChron, takes a look at "where San Francisco has gone since Newsom took office. And let's ignore who deserves credit for making things happen, but instead look only at the outcomes." But ignoring who takes credit or blame for what's happened in the city since 2003 empties our recent history of political content, since credit/blame is often what politics is about. Shaw lists homelessness, health care, the environment, workers rights, the city's budget, police procedures, tenant power, and childrens services. There has presumably been progress on all these issues, and Shaw claims, with some reason, that "activists have driven the debate."

Even assuming that's true, I don't see a single item on the list that's opposed by Mayor Newsom. Even if he wasn't in the lead on the issues Shaw cites, Newsom hasn't opposed any of it. Progressives have been pushing on an open door to the mayor's office on almost all the issues listed.

The big exception on Shaw's list---along with "police procedures," aka gun violence/foot patrols---is homelessness, about which the city's left has been essentially MIA ever since city voters passed Care Not Cash in 2002. Progressives have watched in sullen silence since that time, as Mayor Newsom has put Care Not Cash into effect, instituted Homeward Bound, emphasized supportive housing, and more outreach to the homeless with Project Homeless Connect.

Shaw's comments on homelessness are particularly interesting, since that's the issue that got Mayor Newsom elected in 2003: "More homeless adults have been housed than in any comparable period in San Francisco history, or in the history of any US city. San Francisco is also spending $3.5 million annually on a family rent subsidy program that is successfully moving families with children from shelters and SRO's into quality apartments."

Though he hasn't emphasized his apostasy on the homeless issue, Shaw broke early with the progressive party line way back in May, 2005:

When Mayor Newsom opened the door for gay marriages, progressives lauded the move despite their differences with the mayor on other issues. Yet when it comes to Care Not Cash, many progressives continue to ignore or downplay the program's success while reinventing an imaginary "good old days" for city welfare recipients. But it is no longer credible to argue that such recipients are not much better off with housing rather than with an all-cash grant...But after a year, 803 welfare recipients have gained permanent housing through Care Not Cash. The program has enabled San Francisco to dramatically increase its affordable housing stock at a time when the state government is broke and the Bush Adminstration is slashing housing aid to the poor (BeyondChron, May 4, 2005).

Shaw was right about Care Not Cash, and he wrote the above before Newsom started Homeward Bound and Project Homeless Connect, both of which have been successful in helping SF cope with homelessness.

Savannah Blackwell nicely summarizes the progressive view of the city's well-being:

But seven years after the slate of neighborhood activists and hardcore progressives swept the city's freshly implemented district elections, and at a time when the murder rate is soaring, Muni is a mess, the homeless problem clearly is not solved and Newsom's personal problems nearly have cost him the support of some very key and high-ranked leaders in the Democratic Party...it just seemed unbelievable---ridiculous even, that there would be no serious challenge from the left. That's not good for "the movement," and it's not good for the city.

But the reality is that the left has no real solution to the city's homicide rate---foot patrols as a solution seems like wishful thinking---and, as already noted, progressives have been essentially AWOL on homelessness. Blackwell quotes the Guardian's Tim Redmond: "We need to keep Newsom on the defensive, to hold him accountable not just to his donors but to the rest of the city." This is empty rhetoric coming from Redmond, who, as political editor of the Guardian, has failed to provide progressives with any in-depth reporting on homelessness, housing in general, and traffic in the city, not to mention the city's Bicycle Plan, though the Guardian saw fit to single me out for criticism as a party to the litigation forcing the city to do an EIR on the Bicycle Plan.

The city's left thinks the city is in bad shape, but it also wants to take credit for things Newsom has done that it likes. Blackwell again:

Given that recollection of nearly losing to Gonzalez in 2003 likely influenced Newsom's decision to make important progressive moves such as implementing gay marriage and supporting hotel workers as well as Supervisor Tom Ammiano's health care package, a lack of a serious progressive challenge might make Newsom listen only to the Don Fishers of the city. And that would be disastrous.

That is, if Matt Gonzalez hadn't run so well against him in 2003, Mayor Newsom wouldn't have done the gay marriage thing or supported the striking hotel workers by walking the picket line and criticizing hotel management. And Newsom wouldn't have come to an agreement with Ammiano and progressive supervisors on health care. Newsom is seen as nothing but an opportunist who doesn't really have any political principles, who just bends any way the wind blows. Similarly, city progressives still maintain that Newsom doesn't really care about the homeless, in spite of Care Not Cash and the other homeless programs he's initiated since 2003. SF progressives arrogantly assume that only they have decent motives for doing anything.

And then there are the fringe issues in which city progressives invest so much energy:

Healthy Saturdays, where City Hall essentially succumbed to the SF Bicycle Coalition in closing part of Golden Gate Park to autos on Saturdays. This is a pyrrhic victory for the city's left, since voters already rejected the idea decisively in 2000. The so-called compromise on the issue really reflected the well-founded fear that if it went to the ballot again it would lose again. But this has left a residue of bad feeling---and some resentment of the bike people---in the avenues that contributed to the move to recall Supervisor McGoldrick. And recall that city progressives opposed the new garage under the Concourse in Golden Gate Park for various implausible reasons, even though it took 800 parking spaces off park roads and made access to the heart of the park much easier for those who drive. And it didn't cost the city a dime, since Warren Hellman and his friends picked up the $50 million cost. Once the construction bonds are paid off, the garage and the parking revenue will belong to the city.

The Bicycle Plan fiasco: The bicycle is a sacred symbol in SF progressive circles, though its use is mostly reserved for the young and the politically motivated. Only Chris Daly, the most ideologically committed supervisor, regularly rides a bike to work, even though the Bicycle Plan was unanimously waved into the city's General Plan by the Board of Supervisors without a single environmental study beforehand. 

If city voters rejected the Healthy Saturdays concept, can anyone seriously think that the Bicycle Plan would pass muster if it was on the ballot? This is another instance of elitist arrogance on the part of the city's left that doesn't play well in the neighborhoods. Fortunately, the Superior Court seems immune to PC contamination, and Judge Busch has ordered the city to do an EIR on the Bicycle Plan.

The Josh Wolf case: Every progressive politician in town has endorsed Josh Wolf's cause. Exactly why not helping Federal investigators find out who fractured the skull of city cop Peter Shields deserves support is still unexplained. But this is the kind of issue that's not likely to get much support outside of prog enclaves in the city.

Critical Mass: This is a favorite in progressive circles, even though it's a huge imposition on the rest of the city and another fringe activity unlikely to play well if discussed in a citywide election. That Supervisor Mirkarimi, considered a serious candidate for mayor in 2011, endorses Critical Mass shows how politically vulnerable the city's left is when its juvenile political stunts are judged from a citywide perspective. If Critical Mass, like Healthy Saturdays, was put on the ballot, does anyone really think it would get anything but a negative vote?

You can advance a number of reasons to explain why a major city progressive political figure has failed to challenge Mayor Newsom's reelection bid this year. But I suspect one reason is that when these folks look at the type of discussion above---and I haven't even mentioned the progressive failure on the housing issue because Mayor Newsom is too complicit in that failure---they might think twice about how endearing "the progressive agenda" is to a majority of city voters. True, Mayor Newsom was complicit in advancing some of these dubious causes, like the Bicycle Plan and Healthy Saturdays. But it still wouldn't be hard for him to paint Gonzalez, Daly, or Mirkarimi as a fringe-left elitist who is out of touch with the majority of city voters, especially when the SF Bicycle Coalition et al came out of the woodwork to support any serious left-wing opponent of Newsom.

The city's progressive "movement," such as it is, is actually lucky that none of their favorite leaders challenged Newsom, since any one of them would have been buried, while, at the same time, revealing SF progressivism as the fringe political tendency it really is.

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