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California’s progressives are in retreat Failed experiments now haunt the Democrats

It was the future once (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)


March 22, 2022   5 mins

“I’m asking myself, ‘What the hell is going on?’” said Gavin Newsom to the assembled cameras, “It looked like a third-world country.” California’s progressive governor was in his state’s largest city because of a piece of viral content: images of railway tracks in East Los Angeles strewn with thousands of emptied Amazon packages.

It’s easy to see why the images of the debris, a very pandemic-era combination of online shopping and urban lawlessness, received heavy play on local news and spread far and wide across the web. So bad was the litter problem — caused by systematic robbery, with criminal groups pilfering packages, ripping them open and running off with the most valuable goods — that a cargo train had derailed just a few days before Newsom’s late-January visit. And so here was the state governor, in jeans and a t-shirt (and a cloth mask outdoors) in a litter-picking photo-op: an irresistible visual to add to the thick dossier on Democratic misrule in California.

But the bluntness of Newsom’s reaction — as well as comparing his own state to a third-world country, he explicitly blamed organised criminals — was a revealing sign of this safely Democratic state’s changed political landscape.

Put simply, such statements might have been a political headache for a California Democrat only 18 months earlier. With the country in the throes of its post-George Floyd “reckoning” — dominated by a mood of hypersensitivity around anything relating to crime, policing, race and any combination of the three — references to the third world, as well as daring to be seen to be tough on crime, might not have gone down well. But Newsom received only fringe pushback.

In California’s two biggest cities, the signs of progressive retreat are everywhere. The extent of that retreat, and the question of exactly what comes after years of Leftwards shift, will define the political future of America’s most populous state.

In the past two years, London Breed, the Mayor of San Francisco, has performed a dramatic about-turn on crime and policing. In 2020, the city chief cut $120 million from the budget of the San Francisco police department. Yet a year later, she asked for emergency extra funding for the police and announced a crackdown on crime in the Tenderloin, the city’s most lawless neighborhood which operates as an open-air drug market. It was time, said Breed, to end the “bullshit”. Now she is doing battle with the city’s progressive forces to deliver on what, anywhere other than San Francisco, would be considered a reasonably common-sense clampdown given the scale of the city’s drug overdose and crime problems.

And she is far from alone. The campaign to recall Chesa Boudin, the city’s progressive prosecutor whose short time in office has been a disaster, was started by a group of local activists and quickly developed serious momentum. Campaigners secured enough signatures to force a citywide vote, which is scheduled for June, and look increasingly likely to triumph. A mid-February survey found that 68% of San Francisco voters planned to vote Boudin out of office. (That in a city where just 6.7% are registered Republicans.)

Campaigners in another recall push in the city found success last month when voters ousted three members of San Francisco’s school board. 70% of voters opted to ditch officials who seemed more interested in what to rename the city’s schools than figuring out how to reopen safely during the pandemic. (Among the names they hoped to erase from the San Francisco schools: George Washington, sitting Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and author Robert Louis Stevenson.) As part of her tack towards the center, Breed has supported the recall campaign.

A few hundred miles to the south, a group of Angelenos have taken inspiration from the anti-Boudin campaign and hope to oust LA’s head prosecutor. The move to recall George Gascón is in its early stages, with campaigners recently given the all-clear to start collecting signatures. But things don’t look good for Gascón, who is cut from a similar, hyperprogessive cloth to Boudin. Like Boudin, he has overseen a lethal slide towards lawlessness. And, like Boudin, he faces a furious internal revolt from his prosecutors. In a recently published internal survey by Los Angeles Association for Deputy District Attorneys, nine in ten prosecutors supported the recall effort. “Over a year ago, Gascón began a massive social experiment by redirecting prosecutorial resources away from enforcing the law while simultaneously ignoring large portions of the legal code,” said its vice-president Eric Siddall. “The result is an emboldened criminal element that knows the DA will not hold criminals accountable. This experiment needs to end.”

Even before a single vote has been counted, the anti-GascĂłn campaign has already changed policy in the city. In an effort to fend off the backlash, he has reversed two of his landmark policies: a ban on trying juveniles as adults and on seeking life without parole.

Meanwhile, in the crowded race to replace Eric Garcetti as the mayor of Los Angeles — Joe Biden has appointed him as the US ambassador to India — the mood is unmistakably moderate. Homelessness, crime and the cost of living dominate the debate. Karen Bass, a former congresswoman and the pick of the city’s Democratic machine, has swerved Rightwards, with a policy platform that features clearing homeless encampments as a prominent promise. This has dismayed the city’s progressives, who complain that she is “pandering to affluent Westside and Valley voters at the expense of black, Latinx and working-class ones”, as two Black Lives Matter activists put it in a recent column. (Needless to say, LA’s working-class voters, whatever their race, are by no means as on board with a far-Left approach to criminal justice as the authors claim.)

Meanwhile, Rick Caruso, a billionaire former Republican, has thrown his hat into the ring. Caruso, a shopping mall developer, is a big beast in LA civic life: he is a trustee at the University of Southern California and has been a member of the city’s Police Commission. In a statement confirming his switch from Independent to Democrat, he said that he “won’t be a typical Democrat
 I’ll be a pro-centrist, pro-jobs, pro-public safety Democrat.” Caruso has backed the Gascón recall campaign. (Bass has not.)

The counterrevolution in California’s cities may seem fairly mild by national standards: a shift in tone among the same class of Democratic politicians. But the backlash on America’s left coast demonstrates the outer limits of tolerance for radical progressivism in American politics. As the novelist Wallace Stegner noted, California is like “America, only more so”.

When it comes to experiments in far-Left urban politics in recent years, that has undoubtedly been the case. Now the question is whether Californian Democrats have learned anything but the most shallow lessons from the last few years. It is one thing to acknowledge that “Defund the Police” is political kryptonite and nudge public safety spending back up. It is another to face up to the grave problems facing your city.

Voters are watching closely as the likes of Breed, or whoever is chosen to replace Garcetti, try to clean things up. A nod to the centre might be enough to spare short-term political disaster. But it will likely take more than that to actually solve the problems that have voters so frustrated.


Oliver Wiseman is the deputy editor of The Spectator World and author of the DC Diary, a daily email from Washington. He is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow

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Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

The trend is false, mainly because it’s the Democrats who are pushing it. They’re simply making a strategic withdrawal to regroup, knowing that even Californians won’t put up with this forever. They still assume themselves to be the anointed, are still determined to shove their BS down peoples’ throats, and still don’t see a thing wrong with any of their actions. It’s the people who are too stupid to understand, so they have to be “managed”.

Last edited 2 years ago by Francis MacGabhann
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

As you say a tactical retreat.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

That could be said of the UK

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

And so goes life on earth, sadly. I’m not aware of a time throughout history when people were NOT too stupid and needed to be managed.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Who by?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Excepting yourself, obvs!

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

You mean certain residents. Hard to believe that the residents at the lower end of the spectrum are benefiting.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

‘Strategic withdrawals to regroup’ are the very essence of liberal democracy. The Tories after 1945 for example. Most Democrats and certainly most of the voters, are not ideologues. We don’t know yet how it will play out, but yours is an ‘essentialist’ argument that says political positions ocan never change, when history shows they constantly do. Conservative parties now support democracy after all, which was largely anathema to them in the 19th century. And ‘socialists’ accept capitalism.

Electoral democracy, which is very vibrant in the US, is a powerful force. The Democrats will lose power if they continue down the far woke Left rabbit hole. Offsetting that, those who support Trump, who to say the least is an extremely divisive figure, as the next Presidential candidate, will do their best to ensure the Republicans lose the next Presidential election as well, but I expect we disagree on that!

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Malvin Marombedza
Malvin Marombedza
2 years ago

This has dismayed the city’s progressives, who complain that she is “pandering to affluent Westside and Valley voters at the expense of black, Latinx and working-class ones”, as two Black Lives Matter activists put it in a recent column.

I have often always wondered: Where do the far left radicals get this idea that a working-class background is one which is a sign of dirtiness, disorder and helplessness? Maybe somebody out in the West can spell it out for me.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago

I think the bien pensants have always had this condescending view of the poor as the “great unwashed” – Orwell had to fight this after writing “The road to Wigan pier”, when he was apparently quizzed on whether the working class were “smelly”.
I also cherish (true) the tale of the matriarch who, the morning of final departure from the family’s terraced house, scrubbed and waxed the doorstep before the bulldozers moved in, because “I’m not having people think we live like pigs”. Importantly, she wasn’t seen as at all odd for doing so.
Money may, as Spike Milligan famously said “buy you a better class of misery”, but it’s not an essential prerequisite of pride and never has been, at least not that I’ve ever noticed.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

When I was a child Saturday mornings, as well as seeing the women of our street cleaning and waxing door-steps, would see them washing the pavements outside; they didn’t have to, but they wanted where their children played to be clean.

John Barclay
John Barclay
2 years ago

Come and visit the council estate near where I live in Victoria. You won’t need anyone to spell it out for you.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  John Barclay

Are you sure you are talking about ‘working class’ people here? In my experience, there is a massive difference between those who work and those who never have (and don’t intend to).

In the UK, a big factor in the swing to Conservatives in Northern towns is the growth of a ‘benefit class’ whose income exceeds that of working families. Many of these are economic migrants attracted to the UK by a profligate welfare state.

I read that homeless people move to California because they receive the most generous benefits and that some are actually put on buses by social workers in other states? The weather also allows for more comfortable street living.

Left wing policies fail because they are idealistic and deny realities in human nature. A small proportion of any population is criminal but a larger group will take advantage of others and contribute as little as possible.

Overly generous benefits systems encourage the growth of a ‘non-working’ class, with entirely predictable results. Every civilised person wants to protect the vulnerable, especially children, but the road to Hell and all


Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

Which is why every commune has failed. Once those who work become disgusted by those who won’t the workers leave. The commune collapses, every time, without fail. CA has become a large industrial scale example of that situation.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

Left wing middle class have never done dirty difficult work in arduous conditions and finished the day exhausted stinking and know tomorrow and the following days will be the same. If one makes it worse by living where there is a lack of water to clean body and clothes, when one does finally wash and place a freshly laundered shirt on, it is a near spiritual experience.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Absolutely. Many so called ‘progressives’ have a veiled but decidedly ‘reactionary’ disdain verging on contempt for actual working class and poor people, and even black people (the latter can’t be expected not to commit crime, be punctual etc etc).

In reality – rather than their empty words – they support some form of neo-feudalism, whereby many ‘woke’ individuals and institutions are extremely wealthy.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Part of me thinks this is an encouraging trend, and part of me thinks it’s too little too late. So long as much of big tech remains headquartered in California the state will have enough tax revenue and job growth to maintain its foolish and wasteful ways. And if big tech leaves then California really will be a third world country.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Big tech are already starting to relocate to Texas. Oracle & Tesla immediately spring to mind.

Alexei A
Alexei A
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

And some Texans are not altogether enthused by the numbers of Californians moving there, as they anticipate the new arrivals will tend to transform Texas politically into the place they left.

Nicolas Jouan
Nicolas Jouan
2 years ago

I always thought that the disaggregated, dirty, grotesquely unequal, multi-cultural, unsustainable dystopian California pictured in Blade Runner was the most consistent and fact-based depiction of what our near future will likely be. It’s well on track.

Rob C
Rob C
1 year ago
Reply to  Nicolas Jouan

Except it won’t be nighttime and rainy all the time and there won’t be Japanese people wearing straw hats riding bicycles around.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Why is it that when Conservatives warn of the impending repercussions of far left policies, which actually come to fruition, they are jeered for being “conspiracy theorists”?
But when the Left conjures up outrageous accusations about Conservatives, which don’t actually come to fruition, it becomes national head line news?

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Because the purveyors of the News are operatives for and enablers of the Democrats.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

Now if only we could build a wall to trap them inside…

Amanda Marks
Amanda Marks
2 years ago

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 30 years and he failure here isn’t JUST liberal policies
 It’s INCOMPETENCE. Our mayor Eric Garcetti had few qualifications for such a huge job when he first got it other than a well-known name (his father was a DA with a name affiliated with the OJ Simpson trial), minor local experience, a handsome, young face, an ability to speak some Spanish, and belief in his own political inevitability. But he has proven a TERRIBLE manager unable to tackle just about any problem I can think of. And IMO it’s not just his ideology that has sent the city spiraling, it’s his suckiness.
He fundraises well for the Dems and I think that he thought he was a shoe-in for a big position in the Biden administration, but fortunately they realized he sucked too and have given him an ambassadorship instead of the cabinet post he clearly wanted.
He cannot leave office soon enough. LA is a really, really hard city to run–it’s physically massive, extremely diverse etc. I’m pretty darn liberal, but taking a serious look at Caruso not because he’s more conservative, but because he is capable of leading an organization that is so huge and complex.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Amanda Marks

Did no-one learn anything from the Arnie experiment. People’s functional memories (or ability to read ) seem shockingly flawed.

John Barclay
John Barclay
2 years ago

Why was Soros funding these hyper-woke officials?

Liz Runciman
Liz Runciman
2 years ago
Reply to  John Barclay

Insidious creep. So weird to use his wealth to undermine the values that underpinned his country’s release from Nazi slavery

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago
Reply to  John Barclay

what is Soros’s role? I didn’t see his name in the article

Regan Best
Regan Best
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

His money has bankrolled the campaigns of many progressive DA’s across the country.

Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago
Reply to  John Barclay

It’s because focusing on identity based issues distracts the Left from focusing on income inequality which is a lot more troublesome.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
– H. L. Mencken

Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago

Yeah, seeing the disastrous state of Switzerland should give everyone shudders who would consider democracy to be a good thing.

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

You know apples? You know oranges?

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

The only way to fix that nightmare is to let Judge Dredd loose on it.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

Southern California is Northern Mexico now. We cannot judge it by First World standards.

Mo Brown
Mo Brown
2 years ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Certain small parts of it come pretty close. Otherwise, no.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

Getting rid of the lawyers and politicos is one thing, but solving the problems created…? Still, first things first.

Mo Brown
Mo Brown
2 years ago

In California’s two biggest cities, the signs of progressive retreat are everywhere.” Not true. San Diego is showing few such signs as it has not gone total apeshit left. San Francisco is the third biggest city in CA if I’m not mistaken.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

It seems the author believes that San Francisco is still the 2nd biggest city in California. It’s not, but rather 4th. LA is 1st, San Diego 2nd, and San Jose 3rd.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tom Krehbiel
Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Krehbiel

Think in terms of metropolitan areas, not incorporated cities.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

Yes, but San Fran isn’t the biggest city in its metro area, the aforementioned San Jose is. Besides, does either LA or SF’s actions really say that much about their respective areas? The other cities and suburbs may have entirely different policies.