This column has been updated to reflect news developments.
Is a decade of destructive progressive ideology finally coming to an end?
That San Franciscans, some of America’s most reliably liberal voters, chose on Tuesday to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin, one of America’s most leftward D.A.s, is a sign of hope.
Voter patience for what Mayor London Breed of San Francisco calls “all the bullshit that has destroyed our city” — aggressive shoplifting, rampant car burglaries, open-air drug use, filthy homeless encampments, sidewalks turned into toilets — is finally running thin.
Progressive overreach has its price. Even for progressives.
What’s going on in San Francisco is happening nationwide, and not just in matters of criminal justice and urban governance. In one area after another, the left is being mugged by reality, to borrow Irving Kristol’s famous phrase. Consider a few examples:
Inflation. For over a decade, progressives insisted that inflation was a right-wing chimera, ignoring the huge increase in asset prices. Then, last year, they insisted inflation was temporary — a “red herring,” to quote the economist Joseph Stiglitz. Later, as it became clear that inflation was sticking, some took a bolder tack: Inflation is good. As a piece in The Intercept put it last November, “Inflation is bad for the 1 percent but helps out almost everyone else.”
Really? Usually, it’s the 1 percent who can afford to shield their wealth through inflation-protected assets — a rare violin, a vacation house — while the less fortunate struggle with triple-digit grocery bills. The left’s combination of nonchalance about inflation (it will erase debts!), along with a reluctance to tackle it forcefully, is why the left so often ends up losing working-class voters to the right.
Energy. It wasn’t long ago that progressives bemoaned low gas prices, on the theory that deterring driving would help the climate. Maybe House Democrats should try running on $7 a gallon as an environmental good and see what happens to their majority. Maybe, too, the Biden administration should tell the Saudis where they can stuff their oil, as opposed to beseeching them to pump more.
Or maybe not. The one form of nature progressives reliably fail to understand is human nature. If they ever wonder why their climate fervor hasn’t translated into more policy victories, they should grapple with the fact that the rapid decarbonization of the economy is not something for which most people are prepared to pay a high price, at least from their own pocketbooks.
How about working on a different message, one that is measured, adaptive and meliorative, rather than draconian, grim and doomsaying?
The culture. How did progressives come out on the losing end of the culture wars? How did they become the butt of jokes for our era’s sharpest comedians, from Bill Maher to Dave Chappelle? Why are lifelong liberals at universities, newspapers and publishing houses constantly whispering under their breath about the rank Maoism of their younger colleagues?
Simple: Progressives went from being all about liberation to being all about imposition. When a trans collegiate swimmer such as Lia Thomas identifies as a woman, that’s liberation — a decision that surely required courage and is worthy of respect.
But when Thomas is allowed to compete in women’s races, that’s a blatantly unfair act that has given Thomas one victory after another while diminishing the legacy of female athletes. That it has become difficult to even say this out loud merely underscores the point.
Minorities. Remember when the future of American politics was Democratic because the future of American demography would be less white?
That comforting prediction is failing because members of minority groups don’t necessarily like being stuffed into the back end of progressive acronyms like BIPOC or being stymied by progressive policies, such as efforts to do away with entrance exams for selective public schools, or neglecting law-and-order priorities in poorer communities that often need them most, including those on the southern border.
The world. Progressives (aided by isolationist Republicans) spent a decade demanding that America disentangle itself from faraway military commitments, particularly in Afghanistan, so that we could do more nation-building at home. Joe Biden made the mistake of believing it, and his presidency hasn’t recovered from the strategic and moral debacle of withdrawal.
Nor has the world. The perception of American diffidence and incompetence, which the administration has labored so hard to counteract in Ukraine, is part of what tempted the Kremlin to invade in the first place.
The list goes on, but the message is the same. When Kristol talked about liberals getting mugged by reality, he said it turned them into neoconservatives. It will be enough if today’s progressives, in the second mugging, find their way back to liberalism.