For much of the last decade, journalists have described “the California model” of high taxes, strong regulations, and aggressive action on climate change as the progressive template for the rest of the United States. After voters elected Donald Trump president in 2016, they elevated California as the leader of the national resistance to his administration and agenda. And in January reporters noted that “California is emerging as the de facto policy think tank of the Biden-Harris administration and of a Congress soon to be under Democratic control.”
But with growing evidence that California voters may recall California Governor Gavin Newsom from office next month, the tenor of news media coverage is starting to change. CNN yesterday aired a segment headlined, “Democratic Support for California Gov. Gavin Newsom Is Dwindling.” In it, three lifelong Democratic women in Los Angeles said they were leaning toward voting for the recall because of rising crime and homelessness.
The recall is by no means assured to happen. The most recent fundraising numbers showed that Governor Newsom had ten times more money to spend than the top-polling Republican in the race, conservative radio show host Larry Elder. Forty-six percent of voters are Democrats and just 24 percent are Republicans. And Elder’s opposition to abortion, the minimum wage, and laws banning gender discrimination, is viewed as fringe by most California voters.
But when you interview Democrats in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, it is striking how many of them say they are leaning toward voting yes on the recall. “Homelessness is making progressive voters moderate,” a Democratic strategist told CNN, “because they’re so upset.” On Tuesday, Michelle Tandler, a San Francisco native who is one of the city’s most influential moderate Democrats, surveyed 2,600 of her Twitter followers and found 43 percent thought Newsom would be recalled compared to 33 percent who thought he wouldn’t be.
Alll of this has come a shock to many Democrats nationally. “I think a lot of left-of-center people are confused as to why Republicans might be within distance of winning the election in California when most Californians aren’t conservative,” tweeted influential center-left commentator Zaid Jilani earlier this week. “It’s because incumbents aren’t entitled to the job forever if they are not performing well.”
The possibility of a political earthquake as large as Brexit and the election of Trump in 2016 may lead CNN and other news media to increasingly acknowledge that what we call “homelessness” stems less from poverty and high rents and more from drug addiction and untreated mental illness. “Let me work. Let me pay my taxes,” said one of the women CNN interviewed. “But provide me with safety and not be accosted by two homeless people within the matter of 15 minutes.”
While cost of living plays a role in homelessness, rents rose in many American cities, such as Chicago and Miami, over the last 15 years, even as homelessness declined. What determines whether there are large numbers of unsheltered people in the streets is whether or not cities have built sufficient homeless shelters, and required people to use them. “New York [City] has made the decision that everyone should have an exit from the street,” moderate San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman told me last year. “San Francisco has consciously chosen not to make that commitment. And the conditions on New York’s streets versus San Francisco streets are somewhat reflective of what that means.”
I heard from many Democrats inside and outside of California, including friends and family, after I endorsed the recall of Newsom, and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer as his replacement, earlier this week. Some accused me of being hyperbolic for claiming that our civilization and humanity are at stake. Others pointed out that, if the recall passes, Elder was more likely to win than Faulconer, who is a liberal Republican, and thus threaten abortion rights, the minimum wage, and higher fuel economy standards. And others worried that Senator Diane Feinstein, who is widely rumored to be suffering from dementia, could leave office before her term ends, leaving it to a Republican governor to select her replacement.
But these concerns are overblown and fail to address the urgency of the humanitarian and public safety crisis in California. What’s hyperbolic is the idea that a Governor Elder could override a supermajority of Democrats in the legislature to undo decades of employment, abortion, and other laws in the nine months before he is up for re-election, or that he would choose to use his highly limited political capital on culture war rather than addressing homelessness. As for Feinstein, there is little reason to think she is more likely to step down in the next eight months than she was during the last eight months, and will likely remain in office through next spring, by when Democrats will have passed their agenda through Congress and turned to the 2022 mid-term elections.
While much of the concern among Democrats is routine partisan tribalism, many betray the same confusion toward “homelessness” that has characterized the party’s response for 30 years. Democrats who don’t have to confront the crisis of untreated mental illness and addiction directly, either because they don’t live in California or because they don’t live in its biggest cities, still haven’t come to grips with just how terrible the situation has become. They are thus more worried about symbolic concerns, like culture war issues, than about skyrocketing deaths from drugs, and the sexual assault, arson, and homicide occurring in open drug scenes referred to euphemistically as “homeless encampments.”
As for California’s other much-hyped progressive successes, they are largely illusory. The only accurate way to calculate the poverty rate is by factoring in the cost of living, and when demographers do so, they find that California has the highest poverty rate in the nation. The state’s official anti-racist religion masks atrocious racial disparities. Sixty-nine percent of San Francisco’s white public school students are proficient in math compared to 14 percent and 22 percent of its black and Latino students. And California’s effort to substitute solar panels for nuclear and natural gas plants has resulted in electricity shortages, prices rising eight times more than in the rest of the U.S., and the growing use of diesel generators.
Given how badly California has performed on social justice and environmental metrics, it’s remarkable how long it’s taken the news media to report basic facts. “Problems grow,” reported CNN correspondent Kyung Lah, in her report yesterday. “Wildfires. Crime. Cost of living. But the worst for [voters]: homelessness, which expanded through the pandemic into neighborhoods in middle class Los Angeles.”
Why is that? Why does it take political earthquakes, from Brexit and Trump in 2016 to the Yellow Vests in France in 2018, to the recall election in California in 2021, for mainstream journalists to report on the public’s discontent with progressive policies?
“Crime don’t climb”
When it comes to homelessness, part of the problem is that journalists have relied on progressive advocates and experts, who have been misleading them for decades. “We’ve always known that most homelessness is a result, pure and simple, of poverty,” University of California, San Francisco, homelessness researcher Margot Kushel told The New York Times last year. One of the biggest myths is that it is “caused by mental health and substance use problems,” Kushel explained. “We know that most homelessness is driven by economic forces.”
But reporters didn’t have to take Kushel’s word for it. They could have read one of the most important books ever written on homelessness in San Francisco, the 2010 Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders, by sociologist Teresa Gowan, for an alternative view. “Ain’t no homelessness problem in my opinion,” one homeless man tells her. “The problem is addiction, period. Even those people that have schizophrenia or something else like that, generally you find they have a big problem with addiction as well.”
Part of the problem is that progressive journalists, like progressives generally, are out-of-touch with what life is like in downtown neighborhoods. Things don’t seem so bad if you live in hilltop neighborhoods like the Berkeley Hills, Bernal Heights, and Noe Valley. There is an ugly expression in San Francisco: “Crime don’t climb.” Said a San Francisco native to me recently, “The richer people are, the higher they go.”
Another problem is that progressive consumers of the news demand fake news from reporters. On Twitter, many progressives complained that the women CNN’s Kyung Lah had interviewed weren’t representative. “Congratulations, you found three outliers to do a story about,” said one. “They were never Democrats,” said another. “Not EVER.” One person claimed, “None of women gave any concrete reason as to why they would vote yes,” even though they explicitly said they were voting yes because of the threat to public safety posed by homeless people in psychotic states.
Psychologists find that most of us seek to confirm our existing biases. It is hard on our pride to confront disconfirmatory information. If you believe that “homelessness is a result, pure and simple, of poverty,” you’ll go looking for experts to explain away the obvious signs of addiction and mental illness. If you believe that renewables are the future, you’ll look for experts to explain away California’s eight-fold higher increases in electricity prices and increasingly frequent blackouts. And if you believe that Republicans are evil incarnate, you’ll look for reasons to justify the status quo, even though the status quo killed 93,000 Americans, including many children, last year.
Expressions like “Crime don’t climb” betray some awareness among progressives that they live in a bubble, but for many it reinforces their prior views. The more aware many progressives become of the worsening chaos the more social pressure they feel to signal their virtue, whether by putting a Black Lives Matter sign in their window, declaring climate change a threat to civilization, or voting against the recall. Many progressives react to information that challenges their prior beliefs by seeking news media coverage that reassures rather than challenges them.
“California Democratic recall messaging seems to almost entirely be based on fear tactics,” observed Jilani. “All of them are talking about what voters should fear from Republicans, not talking about what they’d promise to do with their Democratic supermajority+Governor in the next year…. If Republicans had mounted a well-funded campaign against Newsom, they would maybe even be in the lead now.”
But if Newsom is recalled, the entire progressive Democratic project will be called into question, and not just in California. After all, California has explicitly been the model for what progressives and Democrats, including Biden and Harris, have been trying to do nationally. If voters reject that model in California, then what claim to legitimacy could it possibly have in battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania?
If the recall passes, Democrats will have no choice but to change course on homelessness, drugs, and crime. The shift is already underway in New York, where Democrats elected a moderate, Eric Adams, a former police officer who ran on a tough-on-crime agenda. If Newsom survives the recall, he will be forced to change course, or face defeat in 2022. And if a Democrat is elected California’s governor in November 2022, she or he won’t be the same kind of Democrat as Gavin Newsom has been.
As such, the California model is dead, no matter what happens in the recall, and thus so too is the progressive agenda. This is partly because Democrats have succeeded in implementing so much of it, including tens of billions to reduce child poverty and subsidize renewables. But it is also because the progressive agenda has so manifestly failed in the state that has implemented it the most.
California has long been the harbinger of national change, and may be that once again. Whatever happens in the recall, Democrats must start taking open air drug scenes, untreated mental illness, and addiction seriously. That should start with the recognition that addressing the 93,000 annual drug deaths must come before fuel economy standards, long-dead culture war issues, and who will replace Diane Feinstein.