Californians start to reject progressive policies—but not fast enough
For two decades California politicians have promised to spend more money on mental health care, drug rehabilitation and housing, but the problem has only grown worse. Between 2010 and 2020, California’s homeless population increased 31% even as it has declined 18% in the rest of the US.
One reason Californians have not demanded change is because many of us are able to escape the chaos in the cities by living in hilly neighborhoods in a manner similar to the rich in the 2013 sci-fi movie, “Elysium,” where the wealthy leave Earth to dwell in a satellite in space, while the poor persist in violent shanty towns back on our planet.
I am one of those Californians. I am based in the Berkeley Hills and, like everyone who lives on a hill, I can go about my days without ever coming across somebody screaming psychotically at invisible enemies, overdosing on drugs or defecating on the sidewalk.
Over the last two years, when I would tell my neighbors I was writing a book on the homeless crisis, several wrinkled their faces and whispered, “That’s why I don’t go downtown.” On Twitter, many people who claim to be progressive believe they have successfully debunked our documentation of human depravity in downtown San Francisco by posting selfies of themselves in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, or atop Lombard Street, where there aren’t homeless encampments.
But one of the biggest and least discussed reasons that Californians don’t demand change is what one might call the “Big Lebowski Syndrome,” or BLS, for short. In the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic, the main character, Jeffrey Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges), calls himself “the Dude.” The Dude captures the liberal slacker energy of many Californians when it comes to homelessness.
When you raise the issue of, say, people camping on sidewalks, many progressive Californians say, “Take it easy, man,” one of the Dude’s aphorisms. When you point out that it is neither compassionate nor safe to let mentally ill people and addicts sleep on sidewalks, many progressives just shake their heads. Take it easy, man. But even the Dude loses his cool when things become too chaotic, as has happened in California’s cities of late.
Nearly three weeks ago, California voters seemed to finally be saying “no more” to rampant crime and homelessness. On June 7, San Francisco’s uber-liberal voters recalled the city’s progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin for no longer prosecuting many crimes, including open air drug use and dealing. And, in the race for Los Angeles mayor, more voters initially seemed to have chosen Rick Caruso, a Republican-turned-Democrat developer over Rep. Karen Bass, a longtime leader of the state’s progressive Democratic machine.
But with the mail-in votes now being tallied, it’s clear that California’s future still remains on a political knife edge. The recall of DA Boudin was 55% in favor and 45% opposed, a far smaller margin of victory than the landslide 61% that advocates claimed on election night. And while Caruso first celebrated a primary win after vote counts showed him leading Bass 42% to 37%, that tally has since reversed, with Bass leading Caruso 43% to 36%. The final winner will be declared in a November run-off.
What’s more, LA voters elected members to the city council who are even more radical than the already progressive incumbents they defeated. Two of them advocate defunding the police while one advocates abolishing the force outright. All support maintaining, rather than removing, homeless encampments. The same is true for two of the candidates headed for November run-off elections for controller and city attorney.
Still, the backlash to crime and homelessness is slowly gaining steam in America’s most populous and liberal state. It is rare for voters anywhere to recall a sitting politician from office for his policies, much less a progressive politician in San Francisco.
And it is remarkable that liberal LA voters chose a white, male billionaire to compete in the mayoral run-off. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ super-progressive District Attorney George Gascon is facing backlash after two police officers were fatally shot while responding to a possible stabbing at a motel earlier this month. A total of 35 cities in the Golden State have now issued a vote of “no confidence” against Gascon, who is now also facing a possible recall.
Political identity remains a powerful mental shortcut for California’s voters, most of whom identify as Democrats. Most people don’t think very long or hard about who they vote for, especially in the 2022 primary elections. In 2020, 71% of people in the city of Los Angeles and 85% of people in San Francisco voted for Joe Biden. And Governor Gavin Newsom is a shoe-in for re-election, and will likely defeat his Republican opponent by the same 62-38 vote margin that he won in 2018.
LA’s liberal voters put a high premium on Bass being a black woman, while Caruso’s status as a rich white billionaire elicits a more mixed response, with his success earning him respect but also suspicion. Of the 18 political races in California that involved affluent candidates who self-financed their own campaigns, just one of them, mega-star Arnold Schwarzenegger, won. The most spectacular defeat belonged to eBay CEO Meg Whitman who spent $150 million of her own money in 2014 losing to Gov. Jerry Brown.
Both Bass and Caruso are warm, intelligent, and well-liked. An actress in Venice Beach summarized a widely-held attitude, telling me, “When Bass came here for a campaign event, everybody liked her and nobody thought she would change anything.” Peter Savodnik, an LA voter and political journalist, said, “This thing is wide open. The fundamentals look good for Caruso for all the obvious reasons: crime, homelessness, the economy, housing and so forth.” Even so, if he is to win, he needs a sharper message on
homelessness and crime.
Whatever the electoral outcome, California is gradually changing. Gov. Newsom has promised a whole new court system to deal with mentally ill homeless people, while Bass has called for a new psychiatric hospital — and FEMA involvement — in sheltering LA’s 44,000 homeless people.
California’s cities need thousands more police officers and beds in shelters, rehab clinics and mental hospitals. It will take years to solve its problems. But, if Gascon is recalled, and Caruso is elected, California will get new leaders who at least recognize them.
Michael Shellenberger came in third as an independent candidate in California’s June 7 gubernatorial primary election and is the author of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.”