The greening of the left

Matt Smith has a long and meandering look inside some efforts to build progressive infrastructure in today’s SF Weekly. This is a critical storyline and it is fantastic to see so much ink on it! But he didn’t talk to us, and if he had, he might’ve come to some different conclusions. Click to read more…

Here’s the crux of his argument:

There’s a devastating phenomenon that’s choking off these vast-liberal-conspiracy dreams that nobody seems to pay much mind to. It’s called urban sprawl.
America has been turning rightward for the past half-century not because of Cato Institute policy monographs.
America’s becoming more conservative, and Republicans have seized power, because the real $300 million conservative message machine is America’s expanding suburbs and exurbs. They’ve been growing as Democratic heartland cities have stagnated for 50 years.

The next few dozen inches are mostly devoted to chatting with a few folks from various New Progressive Coalition funded groups, but he gets back to the original “they don’t get land use” line towards the end…

All the talk of animating young voters, of creating a progressive idea infrastructure, or of applying the virtues of the high-tech investment business to leftist political entrepreneurialism is at best a sideshow compared to this. It’s a phenomenon nobody in the world of multimillionaire-funded liberal activism seems interested in addressing.
For these reasons it’s foolish for rich liberals and their followers to explain away America’s growing tide of conservatism as the result of a vast, well-financed propaganda ploy. America’s growing legion of conservative exurbanites isn’t comprised of rubes duped by Fox News. These people vote their interests. Facing up to that fact, and building a political movement to grow Americas cities, is a task at least as complicated and difficult as politically proselytizing America’s youth. And it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.

This is wrong for so many reasons.
First, there are progressive people and groups that are thinking very hard indeed about this issue. The Sierra Club, the Planning and Conversation League and many other statewide and national groups are doing excellent anti-sprawl work. I wrote about this issue precisely enough last October that I wasn’t sure whether to feel flattered, plagiarized or in the presence of a similarly great mind while reading Mr Smith’s story, and I’ve touched on it in other posts like this one and this one. Furthermore, land-use is one of the top issues listed in our platform. It is an outright mistake to say that land use isn’t foremost in the minds of at least some progressives, if not the ones that he talked to.
Now it is true that the groups doing this work are currently very badly outgunned by monetized forces in this state, but a) that wasn’t the argument he made and b) part of the progressive movement is to fix the interrelated problems like this. Clean money has to be part of the solution, and even already we’ve made progress on that.
Second, Mr Smith has made a number of reductionist mistakes, such as assuming that the sexy new groups with lots of money are all there is of the progressive movement. But the reduction that stands out the most is the way he slices the electorate into two categories – suburban conservatives and progressive city folk. While there’s no doubt that land use and political persuasion are interrelated, if he’d talked to anyone who had walked even a couple precincts they would have told him that voter behavior isn’t nearly so cut and dried. I recommend Stan Greenberg’s The Two Americas for a detailed, data-rich and often suprising survey of what motivates voters in various demographics.
A third, related mistake is the assumption that suburban voters are unpersuadable. I doubt Mr Smith meant to argue that organizations like Fox News and the assorted $300 million the right spends on infrastructure are having no effect at all, but that’s what it sounds like.
Last, it will so be fun. Land use is a fascinating issue once you get into it, and the whole point of a representative democracy like ours is that not everyone who gets handed a flyer at a concert has to become an expert. If we had a real democracy, free from undue corporate influence, we would see better land use decisions happening. This whole project is fun! We’re talking about building a society that works for everyone – about a real, positive vision for the future where the world ends up more like Star Trek and less like a nuclear conflagration or the end of a Margaret Atwood novel. Survival is the most fun you can have.
And these land use issues are far from an unsolveable problem. There is absolutely a potential deal to be struck here. The demand on cities is overwhelming right now. If we build more, it will save park land and open space, but it will also preserve the existing suburban neighborhoods. With the right leadership, this state could move forward on this kind of a grand bargain.
Americans, whether they live in the suburbs or in the city, all want pretty much the same thing. They want to be safe from terrorism and natural disasters, and they want to be able to afford to live and still have time for friends and family. Young people are slowly waking up and turning progressive because they see that the right is failing rather spectacularly to deliver on both of those fronts. Having fun is a perfectly valid tactic for accelerating that process and a perfectly valid part of the cause to be spending money on.
Even so, it’s possible that the Rappaport funded groups don’t get it. Maybe a few indivdual projects are overcapitalized (a hidden but very real danger with startups), or maybe it’s just going to take a while. Think tanks don’t get built in a day. It took the conservatives the better part of a century.
But the movement is a lot bigger than the half dozen folks Mr Smith talked to. I’ve seen a fair share of vaporware as well, and nothing could be less like the flimflammery of the boom than the massive re-engagement of this generation with the democracy they live in – a process that Mr Smith observed and yet failed to notice.