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Why Progressives Ruin Cities – OpEd


I am pleased to officially announce that on October 12, 2021, HarperCollins will publish my new book, San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin CitiesAt nearly 400 pages, and with 1,100 end notes, the book is equal to Apocalypse Never. It is based on over 200 interviews, including with leading experts, advocates, and elected officials, over the last two years, original data analysis, and a review of the best-available research on crime, drugs, and homelessness. I wrote it because I love San Francisco and am upset and ashamed of what has happened to it and to other progressive cities in the name of progress. Please consider pre-ordering copies now.


The subtitle will make some people defensive but I not suggesting that progressives only ruin cities, nor that they never save them. Nor am I suggesting that conservatives never ruin them. But I am saying that when progressives do ruin cities, they do so in similar ways, and for similar reasons. And while the crisis of disorder I am describing is strongest in progressive West Coast cities, it is spreading east, like many trends in America do.

In San Fransicko I explore how the conversation around how to use law and order to advance civil rights gave way to a debate over whether law and order is an obstacle to social justice. The question used to be carrots versus sticks. Do you reward people for not committing crimes, or do you punish them when they do? But that’s been superseded by a question from progressives: what if it’s a form of victimization to try to influence people’s behavior at all?

The governing majority in some of America’s cities seems to believe that the only real public policy problem is how to pay for letting people do whatever they want, from turning public parks into open-air drug encampments, to using sidewalks as toilets, to handing over whole neighborhoods to people who are heavily armed and purposefully unaccountable.

Progressives have been in charge of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, as well as California and Washington, during most of the decades in which the problems I describe here have grown worse. On the fundamental policies relating to mental illness, addiction, and housing for the homeless, moderate Democrats, conservatives, and Republicans have either gone along with the liberal and progressive agenda or been powerless to prevent it since the 1960s. And it was Democrats, not Republicans, who played the primary role in creating the dominant neoliberal model of government contracting to fragmented and often unaccountable non-profit service providers that have proven financially, structurally, and legally incapable of addressing the crisis.

Not long after I began my research, I read what I felt then, and still feel now, were the three best books on homelessness, all published in the early 1990s, and all authored by liberals or progressives. At first the books inspired me. I felt as though three wise elders had reached forward through time to pass along essential truths. But then it dawned on me that, despite those three books having been widely reviewed and well received, including by America’s most influential newspapers, the crisis of untreated mental illness and addiction, as well as what we call homelessness, had grown worse, not better. What would prevent San Fransicko from suffering a similar fate?


That night, I confessed to my wife, Helen, that all I might be able to do was write a book that warned other places what not to do. She grew quiet and looked away. After I asked her what was the matter, she said, “We live here.” I needed to be as constructive as I was critical, she felt. And so at the heart of San Fransicko is a positive proposal for how to restore human dignity, not just law and order, to progressive West Coast cities. At both philosophical and policy levels it will, I hope and believe, resonate with the heads, hearts, and guts of reasonable conservatives and reasonable progressives.

So far it appears to have done so. San Fransicko has received positive reviews from leading scholars and thinkers. Joe Rogan has invited me to appear on his podcast and there will be several public book events, including in Washington D.C. at American Enterprise Institute, and in New York with New York Times columnist John McWhorter, to discuss San Fransicko as well as his book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.

I wrote San Fransicko without giving much thought about what connected it to Apocalypse Never, but in recent weeks have started to write about the relationship. Neither book is conservative, but both describe why progressive policies have made environmental and “social” problems (drugs, crime, homelessness) worse. Behind apocalyptic environmentalism and progressivism is, I conclude, a religion, victimology, one that divides the world into victims and oppressors, promotes learned helplessness, and promotes anxiety, depression, and polarization.

The good news is that the backlash against the excesses of progressivism is already underway. We are still in the early stages of it, but the signs are everywhere. There are recall efforts against San Francisco school board members, San Francisco’s District Attorney, and California’s governor. There is growing resistance by students and parents to the obsession with race in schools. And there is a blossoming of world-class journalism on Substack. My hope is that San Fransicko will contribute to making the backlash, and what comes after it, positive, constructive, and humanistic.

Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.

One thought on “Why Progressives Ruin Cities – OpEd

  • November 22, 2021 at 4:19 pm

    It’s a great book and needs to circulated to anyone who is interested in civic politics and appalled by the homeless mess and the woke idiot ideology that ensures that our cities turn into the shitholes they’ve become.


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