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?


The nonprofiteers and labor do not seem willing to expand the coalition because they see that as a threat to their power. They seem willing to accommodate power and appear to see no place in their movement for most San Franciscans. This paper will continue to paint these organizations as representative of progressivism.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 12, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

Thanks for this illuminating post, Steven. I posted the original question about the definition of "liberal" in the last post, and I think this lays it out nicely.

Still, when the average SF voter is polled on the phone about this spectrum, I doubt they have such a fine-grained sense of what each term means here. Therefore I'm skeptical about David Latterman's results, unless he has adequately informed people about what each term means. I'd like to see the full poll results and know more about the methodology.

Finally, it's frustrating that so much of the policy debate in SF is informed by anecdote, emotion, and personal interest, versus good data and studies that show what has actually happened in the past in reasonably similar situations. For instance, it was like Twitter was the first company to ever try to pressure a city into a tax break using a threat! Progressives and liberals (whatever the latter term means) could win a lot more battles if they were able to better educate voters about the issues, because SF voters are smart and will likely grasp why the "moderate" policy is not very good policy at all in most cases.

Posted by SR on Nov. 12, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

That the average voter isn't smart enough to agree with you.

If only you and your kind could coerce into the idiots into being educated correctly.


Posted by matlock on Nov. 12, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

The average voter didn't vote in the previous election (statistically speaking), so I'd say all political camps have some outreach and education to do. Not really much of a contestable point there. You've also just lost any right to complain about negativity in politics, given that belligerent tone and gratuitous potty mouthing.

Posted by SR on Nov. 13, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

And since we can't count them, it's reasonable to regard them as neutral abstainers, rather than people who would have voted for my guy, if only they had shown up.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 13, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

I probably would have voted anyways, but if were raining or I had some free beer I might have thought twice as long as things were going my way.

I wonder how many people didn't vote because they saw things going their way.

This is isn't one of those bad winner or sour grapes posts, but if I was getting killed at the polls or was way ahead.and I had anything better to do, would I vote?

I would guess that Avalos wound get a few more true believers and Lee would get a lot more 'anyone but Avalos" voters, and the rest of the pack would do about the same.

Might have pushed D over.

Posted by matlock on Nov. 13, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

liberal victory but it could have gone either way.

Lee would have won whatever the turnout. The runner up getting 40% was nothing special. It was Avalos because Yee and Herrera got killed for running a dirty campaign - Avalos got rewarded for resisting that.

But Avalos didn't take any votes from Lee and if 60% of SF'ers vote moderate then Avalos can never come close to winning. The fact that he didn't try to engage the center shows he knew he could never win.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 13, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

"The fact that he didn't try to engage the center shows he knew he could never win."

The fact that the strongest, best organized progressive coalition components did not try to engage the center while governing shows that the coalition never intended to be a winning coalition.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 13, 2011 @ 7:00 pm

Prop B was not a liberal initiative, it was a tax and bond measure, debt financed expansion of government economic stimulus, and was carried by Wiener who is an economic moderate. The campaign was financed by road construction firms who expect contracts.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 13, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

Only a liberal could conclude $6.8 billion is not enough to fill potholes let alone paying $190 million in interest for $230 million in standard operating maintenance.

The City is going to go off a financial cliff - the only issue is when.

Posted by Guest on Nov. 13, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

Who cares if it is liberal or conservative when the city can't pay for basic depreciation as it goes but has to let shit deteriorate and then float bonds to pay contractors who finance a ballot measure. We agree but it is a win for incompetence at best malicious corruption at worst by all involved.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 13, 2011 @ 10:22 pm
Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 14, 2011 @ 5:49 am

So when the federal government issues bonds, guvmint debt, to pay for Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and whatever other wars they have up their sleeves, that is inherently liberal?

Posted by marcos on Nov. 14, 2011 @ 8:07 am

the Tea Party are pretty damned angry at the GOP as well as the Dem's.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 14, 2011 @ 9:33 am

The Tea Party is angry with the GOP for funding the wars? Really? They sure have a funny way of demonstrating that. Why then did the tea party caucus most all vote to continue with war funding when they went on the warpath against Social Security and Medicare?

Scott Wiener is not a liberal by any means past supporting same sex marriage. We agree that bond financing for basic capital needs is a bad idea. That is neither a liberal nor conservative position.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 14, 2011 @ 10:09 am

being part of the cause (along with the Dem's, of course) for increasing the deficit. What that excess spending was on is less important than that it is too much.

Now, of course, those TP'ers who got elected are subjected to poticial forces and their votes have been partly compromised. But the TP is much more clearly opposed to excess spending than the GOP.

Getting back to Prop B, the streets should be fixed because that is a core function of the city. But it should be paid for by cutting non-core functions and not be borrowing more and/or raising taxes.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 14, 2011 @ 10:26 am

You remind me of the Revolutionary Communist Party that has fashioned an ideology and spends time trying to cram everyone else into your ideological straitjacket.

Ronald Reagan, the conservative hero, ballooned the debt. Alan Greenspan, the Ayn Rand acolyte, the Stalin of libertarian capitalism, ballooned the debt by loosening credit.

Are these two paragons of conservative political economy really not conservative?

Posted by marcos on Nov. 14, 2011 @ 10:15 am

work because of the disaters in places like Rumania and Cambodia.

GOP have been decent at lowering taxes but, yes, you're right, they should have also cut spending so there was no mismatch.

That doesn't mean the Dem's aren't worse though.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 14, 2011 @ 10:30 am

Fair enough.

Posted by Guest on Nov. 14, 2011 @ 9:43 am

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Posted by Dave Vanwassenhove on May. 10, 2012 @ 1:31 pm