San Francisco's political spectrum: a primer


During yesterday's post-election wrap-up at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, political consultant and analyst David Latterman cited the ideological breakdown of San Francisco voters: 19 percent are progressive, 36 percent are liberal, 39 percent are “moderate,” and 6 percent are conservative. I cited those figures in a post I wrote yesterday on the latest election results, and some people responded by asking me to explain those terms, so let me take a crack at that because I think it's important to understanding the city's political dynamics.

I even discussed the matter with Latterman – who self-identifies as moderate, whereas I and the Guardian have a progressive worldview. “That's a fantastic question and I don't think any of us can give suitable answers,” Latterman said. “These aren't hard lines. It's like: I don't know how to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” Nonetheless, we agreed on the basic outlines and borders between the labels, even though we might frame them and value them a little differently.

In San Francisco, there is general agreement on most social issues among the moderates, liberals, and progressives, although we may disagree on political tactics. We all basically support gay rights, reproductive freedom, the value of diversity, environmentalism, and freedom of expression. That's why most people consider San Francisco to be a famously liberal city, because of our tolerance on social issues, which only that 6 percent who are conservatives don't share.

Yet San Francisco is still a deeply divided city on economic issues, including land use and the role of government. This is where most of the political conflicts and divisions occur, and it is here where our political spectrum is as wide as anywhere – perhaps even wider given the extreme wealth and poverty here, as well as the long history of political activism and the setting of national political trends. And it is in this realm that our labels come from.

A “moderate” in San Francisco – which is a real misnomer despite its widespread usage – is a fiscal conservative: anti-tax, anti-regulation, an almost religious faith in the free market, and a resentment of the poor (particularly the homeless and the jobless) and those who advocate for them. They want bare minimal government and see the role of government as primarily to facilitate economic activity in the private sector and to provide the basic infrastructure that the private sector needs to operate efficiently. They even believe social services should be provided by the private sector, such as nonprofits, rather than by government. On economic issues, they're almost indistinguishable from conservatives, with whom they disagree on social issues.

On the other end of the spectrum are the progressives, who don't trust capitalists and large corporations and believe they need to be heavily regulated and taxed to provide for the common good. We believe in progressive taxation and a redistribution of wealth, particularly from the richest 1 percent, and that government has an important role to play in leveling the economic playing field and playing referee. Progressives generally believe this country has been drifting to the right for at least the last 31 years and that this is a dangerous trend that needs to be addressed with fundamental, systemic reforms. And at this point, we're willing to adopt radical strategies for triggering that change, such as Occupy Wall Street or other forms of civil disobedience.

The liberals of San Francisco are somewhere in the middle. They're Democrats (or DTS) who don't believe in radical change or anything that might disrupt the existing order, preferring incremental reforms over long period of time. They accept the legitimacy of the two-party political system and an economic system governed by Wall Street and powerful corporations, and they believe we need to do what we can within that framework. They use neoliberal economic policies like business tax cuts and incentives to encourage private sector job creation and housing development, and they accept a shrinking public sector, which they expect to operate more like the private sector, and a waning labor movement.

The reactions to the OccupySF movement is an interesting illustration of the dividing lines. Moderates have voiced tepid support for the movement's critique of the growing gap between rich and poor, but they're appalled at the tactic of occupation, believing curfew and anti-camping laws are more important. Progressives have been the most enthusiastic supporters of a movement that echoes their core values and physically challenges the status quo. Liberals basically support the movement, but they've been very uneasy with the tactic of occupation and have been vacillating on how to deal with it.

Latterman and the moderates – as well as many liberals – see ideology as a dirty word, and he was happy that in this election “it was the least ideological race we've seen in a long time.” Mayor Ed Lee and Board President David Chiu – both of whom hover in the liberal to moderate range, depending on the issue – also treat the notion of ideology with disdain, claiming to support practical, pragmatic, or common sense solutions to problems.

But progressives see ideology as the essence of politics. They understand the world in terms of class struggle, and believe that the very rich have been aggressively exploiting the people and the planet for too long, and that the only real way to make progress is to fight them and win. They believe in the Occupy paradigm that the 1 percent – the greedy rich who have corrupted our political and economic systems – are actively hostile to the interests of the 99 percent. We know that's an unsustainable system and we're hopeful that this is the moment when progress – the core of our belief system, that it's possible to devise better economic and political systems than the ones we've inherited – could finally be attainable if we continue to organize and challenge the system.

That's my general analysis of San Francisco's political dynamics. What's yours?