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After ten years on the record, the San Francisco experiment in progressive in local candidate electoral politics is over. That which began as a mobilizing reaction to development gone wild and political corruption has been coopted and neutralized by developers and corrupt interests. Identifying and playing off of structural weaknesses in those “professional progressives,” nonprofits employees with connections to City funding and organized labor, corporate power has enlisted progressive allies in the grounding of progressive energies. As a result, voter turnout is down, corporate elites appear to have won almost all contested candidate races over the past two years, and progressive power to elect candidates in all but the most progressive districts appears over.
In 2000, a perfect storm formed over San Francisco politics that allowed for community organizing to achieve unprecedented levels of political power. The elements of this storm were a return to district elections from at large, the afterglow from Tom Ammiano’s mobilizing write-in candidacy in 1999, a campaign that fell short but provided an opportunity for organizing and building capacity, and the corrupt overreach of Mayor Willie Brown which fueled the 1999 challenge as well as the 2000 election of eight out of eleven neighborhood-friendly supervisors.
For five years, this working majority was able to implement solid liberal and progressive policy advances. Brakes were put on profitable luxury live work loft development in formerly industrial areas. Measures to reform the land use and Police Commissions passed. Voters approved an inflation indexed living wage, mandated sick time be provided to low income workers. Plastic bags were phased out of retail sales. San Francisco established the first universal health care access program of any major city. Public financing for candidate campaigns was expanded and strengthened.
But by late 2005, the elites were having no more of it and began to organize to fight back. After progressives moved a measure to cap the amount of profitable parking that downtown high rises could provide in order to encourage trips on transit, the late Donald Fisher, Gap magnate, old growth redwood clearcutter, and parking aficionado, called a meeting and read then-Mayor Gavin Newsom the riot act. Until then, Newsom had been minimally accommodationist to his political opponents. But after being told that his philandering drunken coke head ass would be tossed overboard, he got the memo and began to govern like a real prick.
As the Empire Struck Back, they devised a multi-pronged long term plan to disarm the popular democratic bomb in their midst. The primary mode of attack was to define the agenda and force liberals and progressives to expend resources contesting privatization in parks, the expansion of luxury condo residential development envelopes near freeways in existing economically diverse communities on the east side that further snarled an anemic transit system and a grab bag of other corporate policy perks.
Former Mayor Willie Brown played a major role in coordinating this response behind the scenes. In 2003, polls showed Brown hard pressed to win a third terms had term limits allowed, so he took a low profile. But in a city as itinerant as San Francisco, people come and go all the time, and Brown’s corruption began to fade into the mists of history. As brilliant as he is corrupt, Brown is a force to be reckoned with. With ample resources at hand, a plan and patience, Brown identified the weak points in the progressive coalition and set to work patiently exploiting each one. Elected progressives, nonprofits and labor were those weak links. Brown and his entourage took care to court aspiring politicos, to seek friendly nonprofits that could be flipped.
San Francisco is the city where Tom Wolfe wrote “Radical Chic: Mau-Mauing the Flack Catchers” that describes the plantation model of nonprofits in political coalitions as a means of providing political control and the illusion of broad support for a political regime. In the intervening decades, little has changed except that during the Clinton years, radicals exhausted with fighting the Republicans sought refuge in the nonprofit service provider and advocacy sector. And there they would be flipped. In this instance, in an eerie echo of current trade and workplace debates, the Chinatown Community Development Corporation effectively undercut existing non-Chinese nonprofits by lowering the price at which they would sell legitimacy signals. Everyday low prices now available at San Francisco’s political WalMart.
Acquiescence to this agenda was achieved over the years by conditioning the receipt of public funding and access to City staff by nonprofits on playing ball politically with the elites. Many activists go into the nonprofit sector to try to make a better world, fair enough. But with a paycheck comes strings. In San Francisco local politics, these strings were tied together to hang a movement. In addition to funding, an advocacy nonprofit’s effectiveness is largely measured by grassroots mobilized organization or by access to power and the City bureaucracy. Unable or unwilling to organize and mobilize communities, power comes through access. By adroit manipulation of access to public resources and decision-making staff, corporate power was able to hamstring progressives.
Realizing that they’d effectively sunk the ship, some progressive activists in nonprofits jumped ship onto the corporate vessel. The San Francisco Rising Action Fund, yet another nonprofit coalition of nonprofits, was formed earlier this year. Like so many leftist nonprofit activists, the focus was on a very narrow coalition of poor people and people of color, “the most vulnerable.” Poor people and people of color have been traditionally excluded from the political process and need affirmative action to rectify power imbalances. But the dominance on the progressive side of nonprofits cannot be overstated. These nonprofits have dominated progressive electoral politics because most paid activists work for nonprofits and because politicians use nonprofits as a short hand for signaling that they care for a community that the nonprofits claim to represent. This is often in exchange for political support by the nonprofit, formally and often illegally or by nonprofit workers independently for the candidate during campaigns.
The arrangement with power has been that activists get paid to claim to represent but not organize a given community. This is clear in that the nonprofits cannot fill a City Hall hearing room with members of communities that number in the tens of thousands to demand justice. But they can fill a hearing room to argue for a profitable developer if they are provided resources, such as food, to bribe people into taking the time. And they can fill a hearing room when their funding is threatened. These communities are thus not the legitimate constituencies of these nonprofits.
Not only have the nonprofits been coopted from actually organizing communities into constituencies, but the leftist focus on meeting the needs of “the most vulnerable” first has meant focusing first and exclusively on communities that are seeing their numbers decline as percentages of the City. Why have these communities been dwindling? They are disappearing largely due to the inability of progressives and liberals to effectively contest gentrifying development in communities where “the most vulnerable” tend to reside. Yet these individuals continue to get paid to represent communities that are evaporating before our eyes.
The other major component of the progressive coalition had been organized labor. Labor is much more of a mixed bag, both in the politics of the constituent unions as well as their policy proposals. In many occasions, labor has been there with the communities to pass legislation and ballot measures that shift decimal points from the elites to the people. But labor also depends on remaining in the good graces of power because there is always a new contract coming up for negotiation. And with their decision to focus more on “the movement” than on representing line workers on the job, labor can’t always depend on a mobilized membership base.
Taken together, the progressive coalition has been effectively dominated by entities that have a price point relationship with the City, a price point that can be met under the conditions of standing down from any political contest that challenges the imperatives of corporate power. These entities avoid the organizing and mobilizing required to raise energy and power. This dominance has led the progressive coalition to the brink of extinction because it has tried to rely on an electoral coalition of which the majority is not welcome in the governing coalition.
The narrow focus of the coalition can be termed the coalition of the 31%. 10% labor, 20% “the most vulnerable,” and the 1% with whom they cut deals that are shitty to us but lucrative to the 1%,. These deals are cut with the same 1% that we’re fighting at the Occupy San Francisco encampment.
This coalition of the 31% leaves 69% of voters out of the picture, perhaps half of whom are liberal or progressive. This formulation does not provide any consideration, policy solutions or opportunities for involvement to progressive or liberally minded San Francisco voters who are not plugged into the poverty or labor operations. The presumption is that liberal white guilt will drive progressives and liberals into the progressive electoral camp on election day. The reservoirs of liberal white guilt have long since been exhausted, with middle class folks unable to remain in an increasingly expensive City and who face a deterioration in their own circumstances. To the contrary, progressive prejudice by single issue activists doing “the lord’s work” for “the most vulnerable” have intentionally marginalized communities from the coalition based on presumptions that politics can be determined by identity, ethnicity, class, gender or sexual orientation.
This is how, for instance, gay white men been written off as conservative and hostile to progressive values even though election results indicate that 40% of us are liberal or progressive, 8% of the vote. By leaving communities out of the coalition due to prejudice, professional progressives have whittled down the coalition to a minority and we are seeing that minority become electorally marginalized. Successful politics, electoral or otherwise, are characterized by the mathematics of addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division. Political correctness and prejudice combined to whittle down the coalition to the stalwarts, and nobody wants to be associated out with the stalwarts but other stalwarts.
This is playing out with the nonprofits jumping ship to Ed Lee’s corruption barge. At first he will welcome them. But as the budget situation sharpens and the trade offs must be made, we will see a continued deterioration in the funding levels for the nonprofits, a continued attrition. The upshot will be that for all of the focus on “the most vulnerable,” the nonprofit industrial complex that claims to advocate for “the most vulnerable” will become vulnerable themselves, will see their funding and jobs cut, which will leave the most vulnerable with access to fewer and fewer services and them out in the cold, hungry, the most vulnerable if they stick to their values. Lee and Brown’s corrupt corporate base, on the other hand, will continue to be granted a larger and larger siphon into the public purse.
Thus was the relationship between the nonprofits and unions as paid advocates on one hand and the progressive and liberal electoral voting base was corrupted; they were just using us all along. This is how power coopts popular electoral movements.
Seeing this coming in 2006, I made the case that compared to those who own San Francisco, we are all Very Low Income. But the poverty pimps and professional people of color jumped all over that notion, assailing it as racist and classist, and ignorant of the realities facing “the most vulnerable.” Now they face political extinction themselves while a movement is blossoming around us that posits us all as the 99% facing an unaccountable 1%.
We are left in San Francisco with progressive non-profiteers who studiously avoid any measure of political legitimacy and connection with the communities they claim to represent, as a matter of design. They likewise evade any sort of accountability for their serial failures as measured by both electoral and service delivery outcomes.
Organized labor likewise plays ball with power, fighting a tea party billionaire’s pension reform proposal with a billionaire and corporate power funded pension reform proposal. Labor’s incessant quest for more revenue at any cost, this time a sales tax hike paired with Ed Lee’s Twitter payroll and stock options tax break, went down in flames. Twitter and Zynga, at the forefront of the networked time sponge economic bubble, of course still get their tax breaks
It is time for San Francisco’s professional progressives to submit themselves voluntarily to a truth and reconciliation commission to confess the errors of their ways, their role in quenching progressive political power, before the community and to seek redemption by taking responsibility, by holding themselves accountable and explaining how they’re going to clean up the mess they’ve made and set the stage for a majoritarian populist resurgence.
Marc Salomon has participated in San Francisco progressive electoral politics since 1999 but jumped off of the train in 2010 as it became clear that we were headed off of a cliff.