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February 24, 2003


Populism NOW!

Leftists < Progressives < Populists

By Marc Salomon

If the lessons of 2002 are any measure, the left in San Francisco cannot win elections on its own. The case studies of Britt, Adachi, and Hansen make this abundantly clear.

Indeed, over the past few months, The SF Bay Guardian editorially and in quoting Robert Haaland in particular has acknowledged that the ideal progressive posture is to downplay the left and make a broad-based populist appeal to all working San Franciscans, not just the poor or near-poor.

The Adachi race is the touchstone for this political shift, and the lessons learned from it must be taken to heart by progressives this year. A former Brown manager-of-the-year, Adachi campaigned relentlessly for more than a year, wearing out shoe leather talking to all sorts of folks, including those who would never vote for him.

As a result, he blazed a trail for a broad-based, multicultural, citywide winning campaign that will serve as a model for some time.

He won not because Brown appointed Burton, but because he was clearly the most qualified candidate, and because he was a fixture in the neighborhoods.

This conclusion was verified in the December runoff in District 8.

The left has been unable to convince San Franciscans that their policy prescriptions are workable not because most folks disagree on principle, rather because the insular and exclusive nature of the professional activists fighting for those specific policies does not resonate with enough folks to win a citywide election.

There is no reason that a pro-working family populist progressivism cannot win citywide elections by 60% margins if we do more listening and less lecturing. This would mean creating a political space that empowers us as citizens (denizens of The City, practitioners of citizenship, not U.S. passport holders) to weigh in on what we want rather than relying on a cabal of self-ratifying experts to tell us what we need.

We must realize that our strengths are as much in the ethnic diversity of San Francisco as in the political diversity of the full spectrum of progressive voices. All too often, gatekeepers of The Truth, such as the Bay Guardian, censor and promote a limited set of voices as they construct a progressive monologue.

My multiple calls to Tim Redmond to discuss a populist alternative go unreturned, yet we continue to hear from such exhausted windbags as Jeff Sheehy.

This amounts to a privatization of the progressive discourse, whether under the privately held thumb of Bruce Bluster Brugmann or within the closed shop coffee-klatch culture of private nonprofit organizations.

The universe of San Franciscans who believe that our city should serve citizens before corporations is a superset of progressives and progressives are a superset of leftists. The only way that we can check corporate dominance of our city is by building a grand populist coalition of real flesh-and-blood folks, rather than relying on the old school tokenist coalitions that have been realizing diminishing electoral returns.