In recent decades, San Francisco has become a major international center of wealth and business in a way that has not been true since the Gold Rush. Global firms like Twitter, Uber and Yelp are headquartered in San Francisco while others, like Facebook and Apple, are just a few miles down the road in Silicon Valley.
This change has led to a rightward shift in local politics for two reasons.
The first is obvious. Wealthy tech people moving in and low-income people of color moving out has given The City a more conservative bent. This is different than the three decades beginning in roughly 1966, when San Francisco drew people from around the US who wanted a more tolerant environment or did not feel comfortable in their conservative hometowns or otherwise wanted to express themselves in unconventional ways.
But since the dawn of the 21st century, people who moved to The City generally came to make money. Naturally, that changes the cultural vibe and politics of San Francisco.
The second reason is less obvious, but also very important. The business community is much stronger now than it was for much of the 20th century.
For most of the 1960s to 1990s, the politics of San Francisco could be understood as a battle between neighborhoods and downtown business interests. That division frequently reinforced left-right political divisions, but there were also liberal business leaders and conservative neighborhood activists. As contentious as those battles were, it was a relatively fair fight, with neighborhoods squaring off primarily against San Francisco-based businesses, firms and developers.
During this century, the balance of that battle has shifted. Now, the business community has financial resources that are all but infinite and the electorate increasingly is made up of people who came to San Francisco precisely because of those powerful businesses.
These factors help explain why 21st-century San Francisco has moved rightward in so many ways. Conservative interests in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s could always outspend progressives, but the scale was different. There were very few people with the money that today’s tech entrepreneurs use to influence outcomes of extremely local races. Nor were there global businesses who could use the constant and implicit threat of leaving town to get what they wanted from city government.
True, there is also a lot of liberal money in San Francisco and The City has emerged as an important source of funding for national progressive causes. But that money has been used less frequently to push for meaningful progressive governance in San Francisco.
The moneyed interests in San Francisco are not always conservative or right-wing, but they have a vision that is distinctly not progressive. The moderate-to-conservative vision of San Francisco is one where businesses and developers are empowered and given incentives to operate more or less however they like, where fear of crime is fetishized, and where homelessness is understood as a problem not of human suffering but as a quality of life issue for the housed. Regardless of whether you support this vision, it is very apparent there is a constituency for it.
In recent years, we have also seen a new generation of political infrastructure develop around this more moderate vision for San Francisco. Organizations like Grow SF, while not right-wing, have taken the more conservative position, in a San Francisco context, on everything from the local recalls to making The City more business friendly. This constituency also supports things like a car-free JFK Drive and closing the Great Highway to traffic. These positions do not fit easily on the left-right spectrum, but they represent the views of the new tech ascendancy. Not surprisingly, Grow SF’s board consists primarily of people who work in tech.
Other organizations like Together SF are also part of this new infrastructure. Together SF does good work mobilizing volunteers throughout The City, but its description of San Francisco as having experienced “(y)ears of politics without progress, of posturing and infighting among elected officials while inequalities festered” is code for progressives have failed.
San Francisco’s place as a radical or uniquely progressive city has never been simple. For much of the middle and early 20th century, it was a strong labor town. Yet other than a few events, like the General Strike of 1934 or the demonstrations at the HUAC traveling road show in 1960, it was not to the left of many other American cities.
The quarter century that began around 1970 could be called the Golden Era of progressive San Francisco, but other than the too brief interregna of the Moscone and Agnos administrations, business leadership always had a firm ally in City Hall. The advances San Francisco made in civil rights, particularly LGBTQ rights, and other social issues during those years were indeed significant, but since that period many cities have caught up with San Francisco.
Here’s some shorthand: The cultural vibe and governance of San Francisco today is much more Obama-Pelosi-Biden than it is Bernie and AOC. And that’s because of tech money.
“Why San Francisco is more conservative than you think” is a four-part Examiner series.
Part I. The era of Republican mayors, 1912-1964
Part II. San Francisco’s progressive image takes shape, 1975-1995
Part III. Other cities have become more progressive than ‘radical’ SF
Author Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles on The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.