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The Weather Above Ground

What used to be radicalism is now the reigning ideology of America's major cities.

The urban disorder that became manifest during the 2020 summer riots has indirectly spawned two impressive books: Michael Shellenberger’s San Fransicko, written from the perspective of chastened progressivism, and Seth Barron’s more avowedly conservative The Last Days of New York. Iconic New York and incomparably beautiful San Francisco, both endowed with a surfeit of wealth as well as entrepreneurial and artistic talent, seem to be veering towards ungovernability. Comparable books could be written about Seattle, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia.

After American urban life seemed to improve year over year for two decades, the gains have halted, in some cases even reversed. Crime rates, trending in a bad direction for nearly a decade, have risen sharply in the last two years. Deference to Black Lives Matter and its key tenet, contempt for policing, has become the default stance of the governing and opinion-shaping class that rules most American cities. 

Seth Barron takes as his pivot the two mayoral terms of Bill de Blasio, the city’s recently departed progressive mayor. For many, de Blasio’s election, and then coast to reelection, was difficult to fathom. Unlike many liberals, de Blasio never seemed knowledgeable or much interested in city government. His résumé, after a youthful stint in Sandinista solidarity work, consisted of campaign and political staff jobs where he made few good impressions. Neither veteran congressman Charles Rangel nor ex-mayor David Dinkins, his previous employers, endorsed his mayoral bid in 2013.

But de Blasio worked hard to create a political persona viable for New York elections. The son of a man with establishment political connections who came under loyalty suspicions during the McCarthy era, de Blasio dropped his father’s surname Wilhelm in his twenties for his mother’s, the more ethnic-friendly de Blasio. His courtship of black lesbian Chirlane McCray, a fellow staffer in David Dinkins’s City Hall, led to marriage, a honeymoon in Castro’s Cuba, and children whom the couple has never been embarrassed about using as political props. His son’s flamboyant afro and de Blasio’s public musings about the potential dangers he faced from racist police violence helped separate him from the pack of like-minded progressives in his first mayoral primary. Barron cites several black lawmakers who called him out for insincerity: using flyers touting his family in black neighborhoods, stand-alone photos in white ones. Nevertheless, the formulas worked, and de Blasio took the reins of a prosperous and well-run city in 2014. 

The 2008 recession had let New York off easy—much of Washington’s emergency stimulus packages went to Wall Street—and the recovery transformed into a decade-long bull market stampede. De Blasio loved to sneer at the city’s rich, but Wall Street salaries accounted for 20 percent of private-sector wages. The ultra-rich, the 3,500 individuals who make up the top 0.1 percent of the city’s earners, pay about a quarter of the city’s income tax. The boom allowed the progressive mayor and city council to engage in spending galore, a 28 percent rise during his mayoralty, three times the rate of inflation. New initiatives ranged from the lavish (costs to run the city hospital system increased by a factor of four) to the ridiculous (a videographer to record the achievements of Chirlane McCray, resulting in a video of her dancing to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” in front of Gracie Mansion). 

De Blasio’s signature policy in his first term was bestowing a City Hall blessing on the burgeoning anti-police movement inspired by Black Lives Matter. One of his first acts as mayor was to surrender the city’s appeal of a dubious lower court ruling against “Stop, Question, and Frisk,” a policy that had proved outstandingly effective at getting illegal guns off the street. As a result, New York cops faced federal monitoring. De Blasio doubled down on his stance on policing after the death of Eric Garner, a morbidly obese man out on bail who died while resisting arrest for a minor crime. The mayor convened a public roundtable, to which he invited Al Sharpton, famous for decades of incendiary race-baiting, and gave him equal billing with police commissioner Bill Bratton, who had presided over the most extraordinary reduction of crime in the city’s history.  

Another signature of de Blasio’s tenure was the amping of racial rhetoric around the school system. He appointed Richard Carranza as schools chancellor, who notably picked a fight with white and Asian parents over access to the city’s sterling exam-entry public high schools. It became common for progressive politicians to throw around the term “apartheid schools” to describe those with few white students. It was never explained how whites, who comprised 15 percent of students in the public-school system, could be distributed around the vast city to avoid “apartheid” or indeed why they were necessary for black and Latino students to learn at expected grade levels. 

Barron makes clear that de Blasio was more a cog in the progressive system than an innovator, as much pushed by a left-wing city council majority as setting its agenda. One of the more depressing arguments of his often sardonically amusing book is Barron’s claim that New York City politics has become effectively a one-party system, not simply a preserve of Democrats, where the primary is the only electoral contest that counts, but one where progressives like de Blasio are the only ones able to survive in an environment dominated by left-wing non-profit groups, labor union political-action committees, and progressive-controlled political clubs. These institutions have combined to form a sort of progressive “deep state.” Those who don’t like this kind of government will leave, leaving progressives more firmly in control. City elections, once spirited and ideologically intense, have become desultory low-turnout affairs. 

San Fransicko is a well-researched and entertaining book by Michael Shellenberger, a former progressive environmental activist who recently announced his candidacy for governor. He is eloquent and knowledgeable, especially on the now salient issue of homelessness. Running in a state with a history of opening a path to non-professional politicians, he could well emerge from the non-party June primary as a contender against Gavin Newsom. He describes a city whose problems are less dire and less structural than New York’s. Though car thefts and smash-and-grab robberies have surged in recent months, San Francisco still has a relatively low violent-crime rate (though Oakland, its neighbor across the bay and the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, does not). 

But San Francisco has become known nationally for its homeless problem. Unlike New York, which over the last forty years has built shelters with beds for tens of thousands, the California city has built few. Advocates have argued that the homeless deserve full-fledged housing, not a shelter bed. But it costs $500,000 or more to build an apartment for a homeless person in San Francisco, and though the city and state have built thousands of them, it has never come close to satisfying demand. San Francisco gives out generous cash benefits to the homeless, and its relatively warm climate and tolerant culture have resulted in a lot of them moving there. 

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless people live on the city’s streets or parks in encampments. Drug use is open and widespread. San Fransicko opens with a vignette of mayor London Breed, who grew up in San Francisco public housing, observing that the level of human feces in the street was like nothing she had ever seen. Any visitor to the city is struck by encounters with these people, some clearly mentally ill, others addicted to drugs. 

None of this is new. San Francisco has been engaging in a tug of war for nearly two generations between the city’s businesses and voters, and occasionally its political leaders, and the progressive advocates who think it cruel and reactionary to prevent the homeless from dominating a growing share of the city’s space. Because San Francisco has always been liberal, it’s been a kind of standoff: dismay at disorder arises, a mayor cracks down, the issue loses saliency, and the homeless return in greater numbers.

The current debate hinges on to what degree the city and state ought to require enforced psychiatric treatment or monitored drug abstinence in return for concrete assistance, whether cash benefits or state-provided housing. The existing consensus is that neither California nor the city have the right to demand anything at all. Shellenberger demonstrates conclusively that present policies of laissez-faire plus handouts do not help the city’s homeless. His proposed alternative is based on the experience of European cities, including famously tolerant Amsterdam, where once-thriving open-air drug markets have been suppressed. As a veteran Dutch drug policy expert told him, “For every homeless person we make a plan. We made tens of thousands of these plans.” 

Frankly, it seems a stretch to imagine an American city government effectively coordinating such a comprehensive package of carrots and sticks, involving drug treatment specialists, the police, and service providers, but it does seem San Francisco is approaching the moment when tolerance of public squalor has once again reached a limit.

San Francisco has been at the progressive edge of the American spectrum for generations. It was the birthplace of hippiedom and before that of beat culture. Shellenberger relates how in the 1970s much of the city’s political elite treated the “apostolic Marxist” Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones as a moral paragon. Jones’s reputation diminished only after he decamped for Guyana and ordered his followers to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid. 

Chesa Boudin, the most radical of George Soros’s lineup of progressive district attorneys, is a beneficiary of this tradition. Whereas Bill de Blasio is something of an apparatchik, Boudin is genuine progressive royalty. The son of Weather Underground terrorists, raised by Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn while his parents were in prison, the grandson of a famous communist-orbit attorney, a graduate of Yale and its law school, with a stint as a translator and aide to Venezuelan Marxist strongman Hugo Chavez behind him, Boudin probably more than any single individual embodies the hope that the radical left can take power in the United States by normal electoral means. 

San Francisco is a relatively small city, but it has served as the springboard for the careers of Dianne Feinstein, Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi, and Kamala Harris, so the aspiration is not easily dismissed. Boudin’s election night victory party was punctuated by boisterous chants of “F— the POA” (the Police Officer’s Association). As district attorney, Boudin has made reducing the jail population his primary goal, sometimes shocking defense attorneys by seeking lower sentences for convicted criminals than the defense attorneys themselves. San Franciscans did not elect Boudin to be the city’s top law-enforcement official by a wide margin, but they did choose him. 

But there are at least tentative signs that the urban progressive ascendancy might have peaked in both New York and San Francisco. No one would mistake Eric Adams, New York’s new mayor, for Rudy Giuliani, but the former cop’s campaign was the most associated with law and order of all the candidates running in the Democratic primary. In an off-term and low turnout election, San Francisco voted to recall the three most left-wing of nine school board commissioners. Voters were dissatisfied that the board spent more energy on “anti-racism” than keeping the schools functioning during the pandemic. Chesa Boudin faces his own recall election this June. It was no small matter to gather signatures to get the measure on the ballot. It will be a more highly financed and higher turnout contest, and a real sign of the lasting power of the progressive wave.

Candor requires acknowledging the soundness of both Barron and Shellenberger’s analysis. But the question is how impermeable is the power of the new urban progressive deep state. Can it be shifted by normal electoral politics? Here the example of Rudy Giuliani is pertinent. 

After he was elected New York’s mayor in 1993, Giuliani changed the way the city did policing, brought the murder rate down by a factor of five, and changed dramatically the sense of American urban possibility. As Fred Siegel relates in his outstanding book Prince of the City (2005), Giuliani was profoundly wonkish, eager to vacuum up ideas about urban governance from all quarters. He was also a bulldog workaholic, putting in 80 hour weeks and bringing into city government a team—many drawn from the federal prosecutor’s office—ready to match his zeal. He may only have been conservative in his passion for law and order and his disdain for racial double standards, but that in itself was transformational. It is not irrelevant that he doubled his support among black voters when he ran for reelection in 1997.

But Giuliani was also able to surf a national wave with few contemporary parallels: a new movement within the Democratic party, centered in institutions like the Democratic Leadership Council, that pushed a rethinking of Sixties and New Deal liberalism. Bill Clinton was a fellow traveler of this movement, and other Democrats were open to its perspectives. Thus Giuliani had national Democrats ready to engage him and wish him well. 

No one yet knows the name of the person who might be as transformative as Giuliani, but we shouldn’t, therefore, conclude that the progressive ascension depicted by Barron will last forever. It is true that the white ethnic enclaves that once provided an electoral base for law and order no longer count for much demographically. But who does live in America’s cities? The fastest-growing voter group is Asians, disparate by economic class and national origin. They have been a Democratic bloc for the past twenty years. But in last year’s New York mayoral race, the burgeoning new Chinatown in the borough of Queens voted for Curtis Sliwa, a law-and-order Republican with no chance of victory. In San Francisco last February, Asian voters leaned heavily in favor of recalling the left-wing, anti-white school-board members. These may be harbingers of genuine political change. America’s urban future remains open. 

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.