Friday, May 25, 2018

Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the most progressive of us all? (Installment II of III)

Mega-sized campaign mailers from San Diego’s current crop of would-be reformers reach practically to the ceiling.  I’m sure it’s a boon to the US Postal Service but I feel punch drunk from the senseless beatings so many of our “change-makers” are inflicting on one another.

The bloodshed is really puzzling, since all of our good-guys identify themselves with the same label – Progressive.  So here’s a question: what does “progressive” actually mean? 

This much I remember from my Urban Planning classes: Way back, starting in the late 1880s and lasting for about three decades till the end of World War I, a social movement arose to confront the negative consequences of the great industrial revolution of the 19th century, and this social movement grew into a political movement, and it became known as “progressivism.”  

Progressivism was a big umbrella.  Under it, a wide swath of players agitated to reform innumerable societal ills – ruthless business practices, corporate greed, robber barons, government corruption, anti-immigrant venom, anti-black venom, discrimination against women, class warfare, and other fallout from a Golden Age of unprecedented industrialization and rapid economic growth.    

But they did more than agitate.  They created reform measures to tackle child labor abuses, sweatshops, factory working conditions, efficiency in municipal governance (San Diego’s city manager system, recently replaced by a strong mayor system, was created at this time), monopolistic corporations, and corrupt political machines.  

Their bipartisan efforts led to a federal income tax, voting rights for women, direct election of US senators, federal control of the banking system, the initiative/ referendum/ recall process, unionization, public health standards, anti-trust laws, minimum wages, neighborhood settlement houses, public education – you get the gist.  

Fast forward a century for the spectacle of modern-day reformers in San Diego and across the country rallying alongside Occupy Wall Street activists in peaceful rebellion against a resurgence of corporate abuse, bank fraud, mega-money control of elections, income inequality, a rigged economy… could this auger a revival of the historic Progressive Era? 

Not likely.  Times have changed.  Today’s “progressive” movement deviates in significant ways from old-time progressivism.  
  • Back then, the movement and its achievements were the result of vigorous bipartisan efforts.  Nowadays, the movement is exclusively owned by “left-leaning” groups and individuals.
  • Back then, progressivism drilled-down on ways to create better-functioning bureaucracies and rebuild government institutions.  Nowadays, most energy is directed toward social issues of gender equality, ethnic diversity, economic justice, #MeToo dynamics – with less interest in fine-tuning the (wonky but pivotal) managerial, bureaucratic, and structural components of local and federal government.
  • Back then, progressivism took a pragmatic approach to change and reform. Societal problems were dealt with through concrete legislative action.  Nowadays –  given the cold war freeze between polarized political parties – we get more aspirational and inspirational pronouncements and fewer practical steps to achieve them.

Do you ever wonder, are YOU a real progressive?  Test yourself with this cheat sheet of progressive values and goals, garnered from public statements by self-branded progressive groups, spokespeople, and progressive-labeled candidates.   
A progressive:
  1. chooses the “public interest” or “common good” over rampant self-seeking individualism
  2. is a strong proponent of workplace regulations and a living wage
  3. undertakes environmental stewardship, promotes renewable energy and other programs to deal with climate change
  4. promotes equality and civil rights for all citizens without regard for race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, lifestyle choice
  5. demands police reform regarding minorities
  6. signs on to policies to increase housing construction in urban areas and believes that densification will lower housing costs, relieve homelessness, and make housing more affordable
  7. backs marriage rights for gay/lesbian couples
  8. works to elect more women to office
  9. supports hand-up programs for struggling families, including paid family leave and Social Security expansion
  10. defends women’s rights to full, autonomous control of their bodies and supports Planned Parenthood...  Wait! there’s more!  A progressive:
  11. agrees with legalizing recreational marijuana
  12. wants to expand automatic voter registration
  13. values investment in our country’s infrastructure and opposes international trade agreements that send jobs overseas
  14. agitates for a single payer healthcare system
  15. champions free community colleges and expanded preschool programs
  16. advocates for tighter gun regulations
  17. pushes for net neutrality for free and open internet
  18. wishes to increase rights and obligations for Wall Street shareholders to undercut corporate dominance
  19. is repelled by the influence and control of corporate money, bundlers, super-PACS and TV ads in political campaigns 
To sum up: Progressives have an all-inclusive agenda advocating social, racial, economic, and gender justice; and a simple policy platform to tax the rich, end wars, and create honest and effective government for all.

 Don't worry – nobody’s asking a progressive candidate to be a saint.  But something’s missing from our progressive litmus test.  Where’s the bullet point for personal integrity… honesty… truthfulness… dependability… past performance… ethical core… consistent voting record?  
Where are the demerits for vituperativeness? obfuscation? distortion? arm-twisting? coercion? false witness? creating one's past out of whole cloth?
Did you pass the test?  I did - but, I admit, not with a perfect score.  What about the bevy of local candidates who sport the big-P?  I predict they'd all get an A.  There’s nary a hair’s breadth of difference in their campaign platforms.  
Except, perhaps, when it comes to #19 – campaign money.  

Despite plenty of lip service from San Diego's candidates about campaign finance reform, the brutal combat zones in some of our primary races (e.g., District Attorney, County Supervisor D4, Congressional D49 & D50) are fueled by big money from super-PACs and fabulously wealthy donors.  Even the San Diego County Democratic Party is tilting the primary scales with heavy bundles of cash for one anointed candidate above all others.
What’s crazy about this picture is the wild-west mashup of progressive candidates endorsed and financed by odd-fellow combos of unions, PACs, and rich individuals.  There are too many hidden agendas.
I have a contrarian friend whose opinions I appreciate.  He points out that life in San Diego isn’t as bad as all that, at least not when compared to the near-fascistic forces manipulating today's White House and Congress.  True. 
Then again, even in a city as placid as San Diego, seasoned veterans of political wars readily recognize the alternate political reality hidden under high stacks of glossy campaign sloganeering and progressive rhetoric. 
In this era of extreme partisanship, smug convictions, fierce rivalries, smoldering grudges, and #KnowNothing #MeFirst mindsets, even the good guys are not immune to infection.  
San Diego looks good on the outside but:
↠ if we don’t master good governance at the local level
↠ if we don’t challenge those who bear responsibility for what goes wrong in our region
↠ if we keep giving passing grades to mediocre politicians 
↠ if we fail to confront our change-agent superheroes when they start behaving like the bad guys, then all progressive bets are off.

More on these issues, players, and candidates next time…

Progressive agenda

Thursday, May 17, 2018

San Diego – the exceptional city (Installment I of III)

Never before in human history have ordinary people – you and me – been able to peer into the quirky, submicroscopic genomic particles that direct traffic within our mortal bodies (hooray for our tenacious medical researchers) while simultaneously scanning the vast cosmos for the daunting mysteries of black holes (posthumous homage to Stephen Hawkings).  ­­­­­­­­­­

By contrast, tackling the routine challenges of daily existence ­– love, work, family, politics – should be a piece of cake.  Alas, not so.  The scientific method, the intellect of experts... these tools are woefully inadequate in the realm of social and political affairs.  

To illustrate, let’s look at our own city of San Diego.  
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that despite huge population growth over the decades… despite a leftish tilt in political party registration... despite city charter reforms to give us district elections, term limits, a strong mayor government, and a new “minority/majority” council district... 

... despite the increasing number of female and lgbt and ethnic candidates elected to office… despite project/labor agreements and living wage resolutions… despite rivers of craft beer flowing through our neighborhoods… 

... despite downtown rallies and marches and declarations of #MeToo… despite new trolley lines and colorful bikes and scooters… despite sprouting cannabis dispensaries... despite the promising winds of change in recent decades... despite it all... 

San Diego has stood its ground as a city that defies the natural laws of nature.  We've mastered the secret of self-cloning to routinely reproduce generations of complacent, lackluster, interchangeable political leaders.  We're stunted by a fossilized political mentality, hobbled by a stubborn disregard for the public good, yet successful at resisting change.  

San Diego is, perhaps, the only place on earth where evolution has been observed to move backwards. 

We also have an exceptional gift for pulling the wool over the eyes of insiders and outsiders, alike.  Take a look at this east coast perspective of our city: 
Like its urban rival Los Angeles, San Diego is not so much a city as a loose collection of overlapping (and sometimes colliding) communities bound by arterial, life-giving freeways: it’s a military town in Coronado; a surf town in funky, eclectic Ocean Beach; and a border town in the historic Mexican-American neighborhood of Barrio Logan. If San Diego has a cohesive identity at all, it’s a shared embrace of an easy, breezy Southern California casualness. With its lack of pretension, the city is often seen by outsiders as a kind of Pleasantville — a bland, happy place with an exceptional amount of sunshine. Depending on how deep you look, that may be all you see. But there are, after all, worse things than Spanish tiles, palm trees, tropical blooms, year-round flip-flops, fresh fish tacos and bonfires on the beach.
 Yes, it’s recognizably us.  

But missing from view is a rendering of the heart, the soul, the driving force of our city – our relentless zeal to pander to land speculators, developers, and the venerable "hospitality" industry.  

Also overlooked is San Diego's well-honed art of seducing, manipulating, and ultimately neutralizing (and eviscerating) would-be reformers as they attempt to turn the political tide toward a more enlightened, equitable city.

But cheer up!  There may still be a future in our future.  A new contingent of ambitious “change-makers” is on the horizon, girded for the battle to redirect San Diego’s historic trajectory.  It's a welcome undertaking but a risky one in a city like ours.   

So here's a useful reminder: our city’s previous brave reformers helped dig their own black holes by resisting the necessity for comprehensive planning and strong coalition-building (think of it as a pragmatic version of "intersectionality").  

What caused them to resist?  Let's just say that inflated egos and personal political goals are equal opportunity afflictions that cut across all political persuasions.  Even “good guys” in pursuit of power for a just cause can succumb to underhanded, undemocratic, and vindictive tactics that eventually poison the well.  

It may not be fair that the “bad guys” don’t have to be encumbered by attributes like honesty, integrity, and ethics while the “good guys” do.  But like it or not, if our new reformers are to be effective advocates for the public good, then higher standards are a sine qua non.  And right now, a brutally honest assessment of San Diego's newest warriors suggests a very mixed score.
Next installment we’ll take a tour of the political aspirations and maneuverings of San Diego’s current crop of change-makers.