Why Progressives Ruin Cities
by michael shellenberger
harper, 416 pages, $28.99
I’ve spent my entire life in or in near-orbit of what I think it’s safe to call America’s four most important cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. Whether by coincidence or providence, my time in and around these metropolises overlapped with their worst of times, their best, and now—it appears—back to their worst.
I was born just after the beginning of what left-wing San Franciscophile David Talbot has described as that city’s “Season of the Witch”: the decade-and-a-half of insanity that began (more or less) with the Summer of Love and carried through the early days of the AIDS epidemic. In between saw the Zodiac murders, the Zebra murders, the Moscone-Milk murders, Jonestown, the Hearst kidnapping, innumerable other acts of New Left violence, plus several attempts at revolution, some serious, most LARPy, but all disruptive—and meant to be—of ordinary civic life.
I also happen to have made my first trip to New York in 1977, that city’s widely-acknowledged nadir (the only competitor for the honor might be 1990, the peak of the crack wars, when the five boroughs logged an astounding 2,245 homicides). Granted, I didn’t see much—we stayed at the Plaza, about as insulated from mayhem as one could get—but just having been there in that poisoned year remains a perverse point of pride, like I was, however peripherally, a part of something big.
I actually lived in Manhattan when David Dinkins was mayor and in the District of Columbia when Marion Barry was. I was up north during the L.A. riots, but family was there, and—having spent part of every year in the Southland for more than a decade—I knew enough to be worried for them. Two years later, I would move down myself.
But by then everything had begun to change. Not just in L.A., and not just in the other three cities mentioned above, but throughout urban America. Or at least those parts of it that the ruling class cares about (i.e., not Detroit). City-dwellers, apparently, had finally had enough. They elected crime-fighting mayors across the land—Rudy Giuliani, above all, but also Richard Daley in Chicago, Richard Riordan in L.A., and Anthony Williams in D.C. Even San Franciscans got so fed up with a semi-permanent homeless encampment on Civic Center Plaza that they threw out the dopey liberal mayor Art Agnos (who years before had actually been shot by one of the Zebra killers and apparently learned nothing from the experience) and replaced him with the police chief.
The great American political and policy story of the 1990s was the spectacular drop in crime and concomitant rise of urban order. Cities and neighborhoods long considered ungovernable came back to life. People moved in, businesses opened (or reopened), property values rose, and the streets were packed—with, I hasten to add, law-abiding folk going about their business.
Another point of pride for me is having played a (very) small role in all this, first as a junior staffer at the Manhattan Institute, the think tank that laid the groundwork for the anti-crime revolution and supplied much of the Giuliani Administration’s agenda, and later as an aide to Mayor Giuliani himself.
Those were, I can tell you, glorious times to live in New York. The old sense of menace was almost entirely gone. You could go anywhere, at most any time, and not have to worry. The subway cars were not only safe, they were even clean. ’Twas not always thus. As Manhattan celebrity lawyer Eddie Hayes told me in 1998, “Not so long ago, if you went down there ten days in a row, you were gonna have a problem.” I went down there every day for two years, and then once a week at least for another twelve, and never had a problem.
One by one, the original reformist mayors left the scene. But their successful revolutions took on an expectation of permanence. And their successors—at least the initial ones—seemed not to want to fritter away their hard-won gains. Even San Francisco remained orderly and (mostly) clean through about 2015.
But that expectation proved illusory. A lifelong Manhattanite and former senior aide to Giuliani’s successor Michael Bloomberg told me, on the eve of the 2013 mayoral election, that people forget how much effort it takes to keep the cities in order and how easily things could “slip back.”
New York and the others slipped back, as Hemingway said of going broke, “gradually, then suddenly.” When Bill de Blasio became mayor, I predicted imminent mayhem. That turned out to be wrong. But one could sense subtle changes almost instantly. The police pulled back—either under orders, or intuiting that active enforcement would no longer be backed by City Hall. Order was upheld less, anti-social types took more liberties on the streets, and one began to anticipate, on the subways, that, sooner or later, “you were gonna have a problem.”
The first big jolt came in the mid-teens, after the initial wave of Black Lives Matter protests. De Blasio took it upon himself to denounce all police as inveterate racists from whom his own children had to fear for their very lives. Two NYPD officers were assassinated in their patrol car by an assailant hell-bent on killing cops. Crime spiked. The mayor doubled down on his ideological posturing. Everything got worse. I left—for unrelated reasons but, in hindsight, in the nick of time.
Similar trends were gripping cities all over the country—including the one to which I had moved. Then, suddenly, what had felt like a long slide became a plunge. My natural pessimism always prevented me from believing that the millennial urban renaissance would last forever. But even I was shocked at how, and how quickly, it crashed.
Since at least the Trayvon Martin case, and arguably before that, the media and most of the political class had been doing their level best to foment race war by blowing up ordinary local-crime blotter news into national hysterias about innocent blacks being hunted down by malevolent whites. The middle of that decade saw several fresh examples, most notably Michael Brown, all of them not merely wrenched out of context but actively lied about (e.g., “Hands up, don’t shoot!,” which Brown was widely reported to have said, even though he never did).
With so much kindling assiduously piled up, perhaps it should not have been surprising when, in the spring of 2020, yet another ordinarily depressing story was blown up into national news and several American cities erupted into riots. What did take me aback, however, was how eagerly and heedlessly America’s elites egged on the violence, arson, looting, and destruction. Hitherto, at least in this century, most “mostly peaceful protests” had been visited upon locales well outside the elite circuit: Baltimore, Oakland, Ferguson. Now, suddenly, it was Midtown Manhattan, the Chicago Loop, West L.A., and Lafayette Square in front of the White House being ransacked. These are the very citadels not just of American but of global power and wealth, home to multinational companies and billionaires from all over the world. Yet as they were being smashed, burned, and pillaged, the elites who spend tens of millions for the privilege of living and working in them couldn’t spare the slightest twang of their vocal cords to speak out against the destruction. Indeed, most of them actively encouraged it.
Eighteen months later, the situation in the cities is in some respects better (though in many others, worse) than the trough of 2020—but by no means back to the pre-sacking status quo. I’m reminded of Machiavelli’s remark that the Venetians, at the Battle of Vailà in 1509, “lost in one day what they had acquired with such trouble and toil over 800 years.” The restoration of public safety, order, cleanliness, and economic and cultural life in urban America took “only” twenty or thirty years. But all those gains were deliberately cast down in a matter of weeks.
Nor does it appear that, this time, the cavalry is coming to get them back. There are no Giulianis or Riordans or Jordans, or even Browns or Williams on the horizon. Today, the only way to have any kind of standing in urban politics is to out-left the person to the left of you. Unless, perhaps, you represent one of urban America’s few remaining blue-collar, middle-class neighborhoods, the strength of which propelled those earlier reformers to city hall, but which are now too few and too small to do anything but elect the occasional dissident to a districted council seat.
Why is this? One answer is that the cities, having been made safe, attracted generations who had never known them any other way. If liberalism is a luxury ideology best indulged in peace and comfort, wokeism is triply so. It’s easy to believe that “over-incarceration” and paternalism toward drug users and the mentally ill are both morally outrageous and the foremost problems of our time when you can board the Uptown D after midnight without a second thought.
But what about when you can’t? This is where the above explanation, undoubtedly true though it is, ultimately falls short. Commitment to left-wing orthodoxy has, thus far, trumped considerations of personal safety. Upscale urbanites used to have no problem with hypocrisy. Disorder for Ferguson but not for Manhattan! Today they are much more consistent, “principled”—and self-destructive.
Why this is so is explained in the new(ish) book San Fransicko, by Michael Shellenberger. The author is a “progressive” (his preferred term) activist from the Bay Area (from what he writes, I assume he lives in Berkeley) who focuses on the environment. He recounts having long held conventionally lefty opinions on issues such as crime, homelessness, mental health, and drug addiction. The experience of the last decade has given him second thoughts.
In the far-off 1960s, someone like Shellenberger might have become a “neoconservative,” in Irving Kristol’s original formulation: a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. Years of dodging feces and needles, stepping over derelicts and drunks, being accosted by raving homeless, and enduring property (and other) crimes have worn Shellenberger down to the point where he has begun to question some of his progressive convictions.
But not enough for a full-scale conversion. This is not a conservative book, and for Shellenberger’s sake, I hesitate to say anything friendly about it. As Michael Isikoff, the reporter who broke the Monica Lewinsky story, said at the height of that frenzy, “Rightwing praise, I do not need.” I suspect that Shellenberger neither wants nor needs any either, so I’ll try to be critical.
San Fransicko is Shellenberger’s attempt to persuade progressives like himself that they’ve gone too far, that they can combine compassion with sanity in ways that are neither heartless nor racist, and that this will be effective in both helping those who need it and in making cities more livable for everyone else. His basic formula is: Enforce the law, and expand services for addicts, the homeless, and the mentally ill. One may be tempted to cackle “Good luck!” and leave him and his fellow urban-progressives to their utopias, but anyone who’s ever enjoyed time in an American city at its best, or at least not at its worst, will wish the project every success.
The book’s greatest strength is the wealth of interviews that Shellenberger conducted with activists, advocates, addicts (recovered and not), current and former politicians, the homeless and formerly homeless, and many others. People speak candidly to him and many of them come off very well—well enough, in some cases, to force me to revise an opinion. To cite just one example, San Francisco Mayor London Breed is still not my idea of a Giuliani at his peak, but neither does she now seem to me as quite the dippy-lib caricature I imagined her to be. Indeed, weeks after I drafted this review, Breed became the first progressive mayor of a leftist city openly to break with progressive orthodoxy and announce a crackdown on the worst excesses described in San Fransicko. As an erstwhile San Franciscophile myself, I wish her project every success as well.
Many, however, do not come off so well—particularly the various activists whom, to his credit, Shellenberger challenges directly, but politely. Their answers are invariably shrill, unyielding, and absurd. One wonders why they talked to him. Likely they were convinced by his progressive bona fides that he’d go easy on them. And he does, in a sense: He simply lets them speak and self-discredit.
San Fransicko focuses mostly on homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness. On these three topics, Shellenberger’s challenge to progressive orthodoxy is direct. The progressive policies not only don’t work, he shows, but make the problems they intend to address worse. Often the culprit is the age-old insistence that the perfect be the enemy of the good. For example, the progressive activists Shellenberger interviews are adamantly against homeless shelters because they believe every person has a right to a home, provided by the government if necessary. Anything less is a denial of basic humanity. Therefore, stop-gap measures to get people off the streets, short of the free gift of an apartment, are not merely counterproductive but wicked. So goes “progressive” logic, at any rate. Hence no shelters—hence thousands living on the street awaiting that free studio, which, to date, hasn’t come. Will it? All I can say to that is, if anyone were to make a fresh run at repealing the laws of economics, it would be San Francisco progressives.
Another problem is the increasingly narrow progressive conception of rights. As Shellenberger sketches their logic, progressives believe that “rights” exist only or above all for designated victim groups. The mentally ill, drug addicts, the chronically homeless: These people, and others, have “rights” because they are victims. Their neighbors, local school kids, small business owners, taxpayers, and run-of-the-mill citizens? They may have rights—but if so, their rights end precisely where the “rights” of a designated victim to shoot up in the open air, leave his used needle on the street, and then relieve himself afterward, begin.
By the time Shellenberger gets around to crime, his fortitude in taking on progressive orthodoxy falters. He feels compelled to spend several pages endorsing the now-unassailable (in mainstream circles) narrative of black victimology at the hands of the police, before gently questioning it. I’m no expert (though I do regularly read Heather Mac Donald; so should you), but I noticed a few things wrong here. To mention one, Shellenberger repeats the talking point that blacks are shot by police at higher rates than whites. But those who read Mac Donald may recall her debunking this, among other places, in the Wall Street Journal, citing a meticulous study—whose own author withdrew it from a scholarly database one step ahead of a woke mob! But, as Mac Donald also pointed out, he forgot to pull a similar paper from the year before that had come to the same conclusion. If anything, whites are slightly more likely to be shot by police, controlling for crime rates.
But perhaps it’s too much to expect a committed progressive like Shellenberger to jettison his entire worldview ad uno tratto. He certainly deserves credit for going as far as he has, even though for any conservative it’s not far enough. A more serious weakness of the book, in my opinion, is its reluctance to connect crime with the other forms of pathology Shellenberger analyzes. The first two-thirds of the book flow smoothly from homelessness to drugs to mental illness. The essential connectivity of the three is unmistakably established.
Once San Fransicko turns to crime, however, it feels like we’ve begun a different book, one less confident and more hesitant. It’s not just that Shellenberger hesitates to challenge orthodoxy on this most sensitive of topics. It’s that, at least in the book, he appears not to see how all these issues of public order are inseparable. Those old, reformist mayors, by contrast, knew that small crimes beget larger ones, unenforced laws breed contempt for the law, and unchecked disorder grows and spreads. This insight was the basis of arguably the most consequential magazine article of all time—“Broken Windows,” by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling—and the foundation of the restoration of public order in urban America from the 1990s up until our present progressive elites decided to chuck all that real progress into the gutter.
That Shellenberger is aware of this is evident from his Twitter feed, where he regularly posts about the shocking decay of San Francisco. As I write, it’s Christmas shopping season, usually a time when Union Square—the country’s second biggest concentration of retailers, after Midtown Manhattan—is thronged with people. It’s a place I’ve been visiting in the days before Christmas since I was old enough to walk—and walking was always tricky because of the immense crowds. Not this year. The whole district is boarded up and deserted, all but abandoned, in part owing to large-scale flash-mob looting, but also because, until the mayor’s recent epiphany, official San Francisco’s refusal to do anything about “quality of life” crimes made downtown unbearable. Even when and where it isn’t dangerous, it’s dirty and disgusting. People are voting with their feet and staying away in droves.
As for Shellenberger’s prescriptions, they may be described as an attempt to find a mean between enforcement and services: Enforce the laws and maintain order, while using proven, field-tested methods to treat addiction and mental illness, and provide shelter, both temporary and longer-term. When it comes to services, Shellenberger favors “tough love,” a rightish phrase he is not afraid to use, perhaps because so many recovered addicts use it themselves to describe techniques that actually helped them get clean.
Like a good progressive, Shellenberger also proposes a new government department for his home state. “Cal-Psych” would address the three above problems in a coordinated way and have the power to overrule officials in locales where progressive activists currently make reform impossible. Conservatives may balk at calls for still more “services,” but we should also admit that Shellenberger’s approach, if enacted, would be a far sight better than what’s happening now, and also that any overtly conservative approach has no chance of adoption in America’s far-left cities. To denizens of the blue metros, even the 1990s Giuliani agenda—which many Republican revolutionaries of that time denounced as liberal and RINO—is today so far to the right as to be invisible on the urban political spectrum.
Two points stand out about Shellenberger’s agenda, especially his proposal for a powerful new state agency. First, and most obvious, it doesn’t address crime. For this, the old agencies—above all the police and the district attorneys—will have to step up and perform their traditional functions, which means they’ll need both leadership from above and support from the voters. They clearly don’t have the former now, and the latter is at best tenuous. Can they get them? Voters seem more likely to demand greater safety than politicians are to provide it. But even if the pols could be convinced—and Shellenberger shows them to be less dogmatically opposed than I thought—he also shows that politicians aren’t really in charge of the blue cities. The real rulers are the progressive activists, who have the final say on everything and whom politicians cross at their peril.
Which points to the other question. “Cal-Psych,” as Shellenberger envisions it, would have the power to override local ordinances, which means local voters. It would thus be, formally at least, anti-democratic. In reality, however, if duly enacted by the state legislature and signed by a governor (fat chance!), it would be the opposite. But in progressive blutopias no less than at the national level, “democracy” and “democratic” have been redefined to mean “in complete accord with progressive orthodoxy.” A state agency butting in and telling San Francisco to close down open-air drug markets would thus be “anti-democratic”—even if said agency were established by a supermajority vote in the state legislature and supported by 75 percent of San Franciscans.
Which, incidentally, it never will be. Things don’t have to be as bad as they are now, but neither does there seem to be any realistic hope of convincing progressives that their convictions are delusional and their enthusiasms misguided. And that’s the true answer to the question posed above—why did the left not merely countenance but encourage the destruction of their citadels in summer 2020, and why are they still doing so now?
Because they believe. Because decades or even centuries of acid wash anti-intellectualism aimed at tearing down every rational argument for virtue, order, morality, decency, and sanity have finally metastasized to the point where progressives are unpersuadable. They utterly lack the mental immunities necessary to say “no” to behaviors long universally understood to be pathological. If you’re shooting up on the street, burning down a city, breaking into a car, beating a senior citizen, charging a pedestrian—add here any violent or antisocial behavior you want—so long as you can be classified as a “victim” or member of a “protected class” or “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged,” well, then saying “no” is absolutely unthinkable. Saying “yes,” by contrast, is a matter of religious fervor. As is attacking anyone who dares whisper “no.”
I once speculated on the origin of this stance:
In 1957, [San Francisco’s] white-glove establishment joined with the Irish-Italian police force and Irish district attorney’s office to mount a desultory counteroffensive against what they considered bridge-too-far cultural corrosion. They probably would have lost no matter what, but they were imprudent in their choice of opponent. History is written not so much by the winners as by the writers of history—and in this case, as in so many others, the two coincided. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl—sold to two undercover juvie cops by one of [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti’s unsuspecting clerks at City Lights [Bookstore]—may not have been great literature (adolescent dreck, if you ask me), but one must go back to republican Rome to find a time when censors weren’t reflexively condemned as puritanical fanatics. Despite the narrowness of the loss—a single judge decided the Howl obscenity trial—the establishment’s self-confidence was shattered. They never stood up for themselves, or against anything, again.
Maybe that wasn’t the beginning of elite retreat from even the pretense of public responsibility. If you have other candidates, let’s hear them. But something happened that destroyed the elites’ confidence and made them not only incapable of saying “no” to virtually anything (save perhaps “deadnaming”), but insistent not merely on approving but subsidizing that to which society used to say “no.” Shellenberger recounts outrageous but all-too-believable instances of progressives providing addicts not just “clean needles” but the drugs to fill them. Activists even erected billboards advertising how to “use responsibly.”
In the final analysis, many—especially on the right—will ask: If people in these cities want them to be this way, why is it my responsibility to stop them? Why, given the immense problems middle-class people are facing in the suburbs, exurbs, and boondocks, should I invest what little social and political capital I have in a futile attempt to fix far-left utopias populated by people with ten times my income, who hate me?
These are reasonable questions to which there are no great answers. One would like to respond “Because we’re all one country, and those are American cities, our showcases and gateways to the world, where people are suffering.” But do the people who live in them see themselves, or their hometowns, that way? In my experience, they’re more likely to scowl and growl and look down on hick interlopers trying to tell them how to run their towns. If anything, the reverse is true. That is, activists and civic leaders in the big blue blobs want to export their model to the rest of the country. It’s not enough for them to defund their own police and let whole neighborhoods get taken over by addicts. They won’t rest until you do as well, and if you don’t want to, they’ll impose their visions at the state and federal levels.
Time past, we might also have worried about the commuters and their spouses, the “independents” and “soccer moms” in the suburbs. But the one-two punch of lockdowns and state-sanctioned riots crushed the commuter ecosystem, possibly forever. Trains and office towers are now empty, or close. Employers don’t seem insistent on getting workers back into the cities, and even if they tried, it’s not clear the workers would comply: The labor market is tight enough that workers have leverage. Besides, most of those suburbs turned blue long ago. How many people formerly on those trains really oppose the urban progressive agenda?
But whatever position one takes on this question—fight for the cities or let them go—the right has zero leverage at this stage through which to mount an effective counter to entrenched progressive urban rule. Which means, in practice, that we’re stuck with the latter option. Therefore a better use of what capital we have, it seems to me, is to fortify the places where we’re still politically in the game against the coming progressive assault, lest San Fransicko end up describing not just a handful of blue dystopias but the entire nation.
As for Shellenberger, I wish him well in his quest to talk progressives out of their self-destructive insanity. I don’t expect much, and I won’t expend any capital on the effort myself. But I hope he succeeds. I wouldn’t mind visiting again someday, for old time’s sake.
Michael Anton is a lecturer in politics and research fellow at Hillsdale College’s Washington, D.C. campus.
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Photo by John Morgan via Creative Commons. Image cropped.