When somebody claims that San Francisco has been taken over by the progressives or that The City’s politics are far left, the question is: Compared to what? Yes, San Francisco is much to the left of white rural and suburban America, but compared to other major cities, the story is different.
Over the last decade, many American cities have moved leftward while San Francisco has slipped from its status as a progressive beacon or uniquely radical.
Some evidence: While San Francisco has been governed by moderate Democrats close to the business community for at least a quarter century, progressive mayors have been elected in New York (Bill de Blasio), Boston (Michelle Wu), Newark (Ras Baraka), St. Louis (Tishaura Jones) and other cities.
Similarly, while Nancy Pelosi has been an extremely powerful congresswoman whose strategic and tactical abilities are unparalleled, San Francisco does not have a progressive representation in D.C. comparable to New York, Boston, Minneapolis, St. Louis or Los Angeles.
The saga of District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks to how San Francisco is no longer a leading progressive city. While Boudin’s personal story is unique, he is one of several progressive district attorneys around the country. Yet only he faces a well funded police- and billionaire-backed recall. Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s progressive DA, cruised to reelection last year. Similarly, Kim Foxx, Chicago’s progressive DA, was reelected handily in 2020. Only in San Francisco is a progressive DA’s job threatened by a perceived crime wave that is part of a national trend and is worse in many cities.
The evidence that San Francisco is no longer a uniquely left-of-center city goes beyond election outcomes. During the mass demonstrations in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, there were, to be sure, demonstrations in The City, but larger demonstrations occurred elsewhere. Similarly, while Donald Trump is broadly disliked in San Francisco, he is not exactly popular in other big cities either.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, San Francisco was a groundbreaking place for gay rights and gay political power. Today, many cities, including Chicago, Tampa and even Houston, have or have had LGBT mayors. Some smaller towns, most notably South Bend, Indiana, have had LGBT mayors. San Francisco has not.
The City today does have some progressive bona fides. Its minimum wage is one of the highest in the country. Residential rent control is still stronger in San Francisco than in many other cities. Similarly, environmental policies such as banning plastic bags were implemented earlier than in most places around the country. But in other areas, such as guaranteed income and universal Pre-K, San Francisco no longer stands out.
One of the major reasons San Francisco has lost some of its progressive edge is demographic. The decline in The City’s Black population from 12.7% in 1980 to 5.2% per the 2020 census has meant that one of the most reliable Democratic and progressive voting blocks has become much less influential. The lower Black population means fewer voices advocating for progressive economic policies and criminal justice reform. Progressive district attorneys in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago are kept in office in large part by Black voters. Chesa Boudin will have to fight off a recall in a much different demographic.
For most of the last decade, San Francisco’s reputation for progressive politics has been a residue of The City’s history and culture. There is no doubt that the culture and vibe of San Francisco read as left of center. But its politics now reads squarely center, with a pro-business mayor clipping the wings of more progressive elements in The City’s legislature.
Many things about The City, from the now institutionalized LGBT political power structures, to the window signs in affluent neighborhoods signaling liberal virtues, to the ubiquity of tattoos, piercings and “other flamboyant affectations of appearance” (as described in the musical “Hair”), to small things like vegan and non-dairy options at cafes and restaurants — give San Francisco a progressive, some might say limousine liberal, feel.
These cultural traits signal progressive politics, particularly to people who are not from the Bay Area. But oat milk in your latte is not the same as a political system where lower income people have real political power and city government meaningfully pursues redistributive economic programs.
Today San Francisco is a city, like many conservative communities, that largely defines homelessness as a quality of life problem facing the housed and that has implemented very few policies aimed at addressing the economic conditions, specifically the skyrocketing and cost of living and paucity of affordable housing, that have contributed to the problem.
The disconnect between the politics and culture of The City may be puzzling. But if you want to understand San Francisco, take a look where the political power is, not what people eat or wear.
“Why San Francisco is more conservative than you think” is a four-part Examiner series.
Author Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.