August 11th marked a huge day for equitable representation in American politics. The K Hive finally failed upwards, in a way only American democracy could facilitate, to its long-awaited coronation—or I guess Vice coronation for however long Biden can still remember where he is. This came as virtually no surprise after Amy Klobuchar was disqualified for the position due to her poor criminal justice record, something quite concerning to the Biden administration after the recent uproar at the public executions of members of the Black community. He would have to choose a different prosecutor! Kamala was the most obvious answer. She had name recognition from the primary, a demographic background ready to reflect Biden’s fully hollow commitment to Black liberation, and a relatively similar centrist political instinct to the former VP. So, the lambasted outrage from the left felt premeditated in a frivolous way. Who did you think he was going to pick? Would you have been happier with Susan Rice? Elizabeth Warren? Michelle Obama?
The job offer for Harris does, though, represent a movement relatively close to home for myself: San Francisco’s increasing prominence in the Democratic Party. Nancy Pelosi speaks for the house, Harris is in line to the presidency, Gavin Newsom has become a national figure, and London Breed, the current mayor, is positioning herself for a Biden cabinet nod. In the last several decades, not one city has been ready to cash in so much political capital and, as journalists across the country have started to notice this trend in San Francisco, there have been a couple of baffling interpretations of how this came to be.
The day of the pick Politico published an article, “Kamala Harris and the triumph of ‘San Francisco Democrats’” written by Jeremy White. He poses that before the “.com boom,” residue from summer of love hippies, gay rights activists, and East Bay radical anti-racism, created a political climate of fringe leftism in the Bay Area. That is, until big tech money and a majority-Democrat electorate allowed for bigger-market, more centrist candidates to recruit support within the party, thus creating a divide between older lefties and, what White claims are still quite progressive, mainstream politicians. White sees Harris and her cohort of San Francisco Democrats as a synthesis of these camps, who’ve worked hard to reconcile the history of San Francisco with a more centrist party platform that for whatever reason is still believed to be a winning national electoral strategy. He lauds her center-left credentials in the context of winning several Trump counties in California:
Since winning election to the Senate, and especially since launching her failed presidential run, Harris has become identified with the left. She has become a fiery antagonist of the Trump administration while backing progressive causes like “Medicare for All” and health care for undocumented immigrants. She forcefully argues for prosecuting wayward police officers, including by fortifying the nation’s use-of-force standard.
It’s been pointed out a thousand times, but Kamala Harris is far from a left-wing politician even in the far-right American political context. White mentions her support for “Medicare for All” was walked back in August of 2019 and remains dubious, and her police reformist rhetoric rings hollow considering her history. She, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, prosecuted truancy which rose from a little over 50% to nearly 75% and would not share files on Catholic Church’s sexual assault with victims of specific clergy members. More unfair though than this played-out defense of her past is the way that White situates Harris’s role in the history of San Francisco politics at large.
Post-war Bay Area politics has always been a battle between center-right Democrats and socialists, and it remains this way today. Kamala Harris is not some new, flashy innovation in Bernie-era Democratic politics, she is a milquetoast byproduct of The San Francisco Machine.
It goes without saying, but San Francisco was not devoid of moderate establishmentism 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, as White claims.
Not too long ago, the term “San Francisco Democrat” was shorthand for out-of-touch liberalism, a lefty fringe that was often on the losing end of the seesaw in its own state’s politics, which were dominated by Southern California’s conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats.
From 1968 to 1988, the governor’s office was held by Joseph Alioto, George Moscone, and Diane Feinstein. “Moderate-democrat” would be a generous characterization of these three.
Certainly, there were radicals in SF politics at the time—take Harvey Milk, for example—but they were frequently stifled by their colleagues to the left of them who were, more often than not, in bed with police unions. And, by the way, what ever happened to Harvey Milk? Of course, now he’s become a token for Democrats to raise as his queer-liberation agenda is widely popular and doesn’t challenge capital…
Over time, the radical wing of the party Milk ran in has been passed down by organizers like Harry Britt, a true hero who passed away in July. As socialist organizations like ILWU and DSA have been sustained, now the new guard, headed by Dean Preston, Jackie Fielder, and Chesa Boudin among others, stands in stark contrast to Harris and her confidants. They have come from a completely separate tradition that she’s never been interested in drawing on. Gov. Newsom who is praised over and over in White’s article for supporting gay marriage, comes from what can be described as a four-family political cartel between the Pelosis, Newsoms, Browns, and Gettys. Kamala Harris, it should be noted, is quite close with these families, some more than others. Newer-school figures like Harris and Breed certainly draw a base of support from these same actors who White himself identifies as part of the same movement. You can draw a direct line from San Francisco politicians—who prosecuted the Sixties radicalism White claims inspires Harris—to Harris.
This is all to say, “San Francisco Democrats’” ability to cling to left positions only comes from the political groundwork laid by organizers that a previous generation of Democrats fought tooth and nail for. It’s not just ahistorical and inaccurate to confuse Harris, Newsom, Breed, and Pelosi as part of San Francisco’s leftist history, it is a complete disrespect of the tradition that has actually resulted in some of the biggest national civil liberty wins of the last century.
San Francisco politics has, and always will be an expression of the tension between politically correct liberalism and legitimate social democracy or all that falls left of it. The popularity of “San Francisco Democrats,” then, is a bigger commentary on the nation’s readiness for a “woke” prosecutor. The left-wing culture war has triumphed, but capital is as comfy as usual. San Francisco has led the charge on balancing virtue signaling with systemic eviction of marginalized communities. So, in a failing empire eager to reason away its moral culpability, who better to take the wheel than a San Francisco Democrat.