Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
the national interest

Boudin and the Debacle of Urban Left-wing Politics

Why the left and liberals are fighting in the cities.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The American progressive movement has consciously modeled itself after the conservative movement and possesses many of its characteristic traits: a blueprint for society derived largely from first principles, a focus on maintaining solidarity among the movement’s component specialized activist groups, and an obsession with media bias as the explanation for all critical coverage.

It also mirrors the conservative movement’s conviction that any setback must reflect either a betrayal or a failure of willpower rather than any internal defect. As Rick Perlstein famously said, “Conservatism never fails. It is only failed.” In the wake of Chesa Boudin’s recall in San Francisco, the progressive movement is reflecting the same invincible self-confidence.

By the “progressive movement,” I mean the orthodox left-wing movement that often works within the Democratic Party but harbors deep tensions with its moderate and mainstream liberal wings that play out daily on Twitter and regards Barack Obama and Bill Clinton as failures. Because the progressive movement lacks the popular support to implement its ideas on a national or even statewide scale — states as blue as Vermont and California could not implement a program like single-payer health insurance — cities are the only political units with sufficiently large Democratic supermajorities to allow the left to occasionally gain power.

Cities are thus the main real-life, non-Twitter staging ground for left-versus-liberal combat. For this reason, the string of setbacks by urban progressives has a special significance that has been grasped by both the left and its critics.

The left’s response to Boudin’s recall is instructive. The voters who decided to recall their left-wing prosecutor were simply confused. “Why is recalling a prosecutor supposed to be an answer to homelessness? How is the mythic fusion of CRIMEANDHOMELESSNESS supposed to translate into any sort of ‘stark warning’ on these two separate policy questions?” demanded Tom Scocca. “Perhaps more than anything, Boudin’s recall shows how inchoate anger over the visible symptoms of inequality — homelessness, public drug use, property crime — can crystallize into a renunciation of an individual politician, even as voters broadly desire the policies that politician champions,” concludes Piper French.

The biggest takeaway from Boudin’s decisive defeat, according to the left, is that voters really like Boudin’s policies.

A different explanation is that Boudin made himself the focal point of frustration with lawlessness because he loudly communicated the idea that enforcing the law was not his priority. He vowed “the tough-on-crime policies and rhetoric of the 1990s and early 2000s are on their way out,” criticized Mayor London Breed for cracking down on drug dealers, and promised not to charge quality-of-life offenses like “public camping, offering or soliciting sex, public urination, blocking a sidewalk.”

It may be true that the underlying cause of homelessness lies outside of Boudin’s control. But given that he publicly articulated a change in policy in handling the symptoms of that crisis, it’s hardly a surprise that voters would fault him when the symptoms worsen.

Boudin represents the long tail of a disastrously misconceived response by progressives to the problem of abusive and racist policing. The best available model for effective reform of urban policing could be found in Camden, New Jersey, which dissolved its corrupt and racist police force and reconstituted the department. The Camden model required spending more money for better and more accountable public safety.

This model, however, did not have intrinsic appeal to progressive activists. Instead, activist groups settled on a slogan of defunding the police. The advantage of this approach is that, first, it neatly fudged the difference between activists who favored reducing spending on the police and more radical activists who favored outright police abolition. (Defund can mean either decreasing funds or zeroing them out.) And second, by framing the police problem as one of resources, it avoided the need to discomfit labor by confronting the power of police unions (which make it difficult to fire even the most violent and bigoted cops). Instead, it held out the possibility of redistributing resources from policing to other government agencies, an additional carrot for government employees.

One norm that has taken hold within the progressive movement is a taboo against expressing frontal disagreement with progressive activists, which is disdained as “scolding.” (The activists themselves, of course, are free to castigate liberals and moderates as openly as they wish.) Since every issue on the left has affiliated activists, the practical effect of the anti-scolding norm is to make it difficult to identify and correct misguided ideas on the left, at least openly. Many progressives have quietly backed away from defunding without repudiating its underlying premises.

And so, even as Democratic politicians have fled en masse, progressives continue to frame policing as a resource-allocation problem. In the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, massacre, left-wingers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez circulated misleading statistics about police spending, which has become a progressive trope. Even as the defunding slogan has receded, the implicit or explicit goal of less policing rather than better policing remains.

This stance, however, placed progressive activists in diametric opposition to the desires of the communities they wish (and claim) to represent. A Pew research poll found Black and Hispanic Democrats favored higher levels of police funding than did white Democrats. Boudin’s recall fared best worst in the whitest neighborhoods in San Francisco. Black elected officials have responded to their communities’ desire for better, not less, policing.

Black mayors like Eric Adams, London Breed, and Lori Lightfoot have all drawn the ire of left-wing activists because they are responsive to Black voters’ desire for safety. In Los Angeles, Karen Bass has followed this model, angering the left by promising to put 250 more cops on the beat and remove homeless camps.

The left’s response to these reversals has been to portray voters as the victims of brainwashing by conservative media.

“Congratulations to San Francisco’s hysterically reactionary media for carrying this Koch-funded recall over the finish line, ensuring that reforming America’s brutal criminal justice system drifts ever-further out of reach,” wrote Dave Roberts. “The media, and particularly local television news, tends to cover crime a lot, in part because of the perception that this draws viewers,” wrote Perry Bacon, making a more considered version of the same argument. “And both national and local newspapers tend to be owned and run by more moderate figures, be wary of left-wing causes and find the left to be a useful foil to demonstrate to conservatives that they aren’t too liberal. As a result, news coverage in these races becomes very favorable to politicians like Adams and unfavorable to ones like Boudin.”

Why Black, Latino and Asian American Democrats would be more susceptible to reactionary media propaganda than white Democrats, they have not explained.

The obsession with the media does at least point toward a strategic answer to the problem. If the left could gain the same level of control over mainstream media that conservatives hold over right-wing media, you could at least imagine a world in which voters in blue America could be coaxed away from worrying about crime and instead worry about the things progressives want them to worry about.

A glimpse of how this method might work was seen during the demonstrations against George Floyd’s murder. There was a time when left-wing staffers at mainstream news organizations were able to exert enough internal pressure to make it genuinely difficult for these publications to use clear language to describe the rioting and looting that was springing up around some demonstrations or the effects of the de-policing that took place in some areas in response. Instead, the news media robotically repeated that the demonstrations were “mostly” peaceful, which was true, yet elided the real harm that ensued from small numbers of criminals or extremists exploiting peaceful crowds.

The end point of this strategy would be to create an information environment in which progressives have an echo-chamber equivalent in influence to that controlled by the conservative movement. In a world like that, progressives would have the same ability enjoyed by conservatives to ignore bad news or dismiss it all as the carping of their partisan enemies. Democratic politicians would be able to ignore a spike in crime even if it is killing their own voters, just as Republicans today can ignore COVID even as their own supporters disproportionately perish.

Many progressives would like to emulate the right’s model of imposing movement discipline upon a political party and an affiliated media ecosystem. I won’t deny that this method can be effective, at least in theory, for gaining power. But one thing it can’t do is make the world a better place.

Chesa Boudin and the Debacle of Urban Left-wing Politics