Wednesday, February 16, 2022

What To Draw from the San Francisco Recall

A recall election targeting three progressive members of the San Francisco school board has succeeding by a thumping margin, with the pro-recall side taking around 70% of the vote. I was following this saga semi-closely (I never lived in San Francisco, but being just across the Bay I still paid some amount of attention). And while everyone is going to have their hot takes on this, I'll provide the hottest take of all by serving mine at room temperature.

I will say that I'm going to try to avoid a normative assessment about whether the decision by the voters here was good or bad. You're going to get a lot of either (a) "Even in liberal San Francisco...." or (b) "San Francisco views itself as so liberal, but when push comes to shove...."; you don't need me to adjudicate that for you.

Anyway, when you read stories about the recall, the narrative seems to focus primarily on three things: (1) the failure of the Board to prioritize reopening schools; (2) the Board's insistence on renaming a huge swath of schools whose namesakes were deemed historically problematic; and (3) the Board instituting a "lottery" for admission to an elite public high school which had previously used a competitive, test-based admissions regime (this reportedly aroused the anger of the city's Asian-American community, which had a large presence at the school that it thought would be reduced under the lottery system).

Of course, everyone wants to tell the story in such a way that it fits their political priors. If you are fulminating about the excesses of "wokeness", then the renaming controversy is going to loom large. If you are excited about the new flexing of Asian-American political muscle, the controversy over Lowell HS admissions will be a major factor. And so on.

My lukewarm take is that one should not read too much into this because it's really the confluence of factors, taken together, which was a bit of a perfect storm. For example, there are plenty of school renamings that go off without a hitch, but here the board's buzzsaw like approach targeting dozens of schools (often on thin-to-nonexistent research) really smacked of performance over substance (and we could ask -- performance for who? Who, exactly, wanted this -- or more accurately, this much of this?). The Board just clearly got too far in front of its shoes here; it wildly overestimated the demand and the appetite for this sort of endeavor (noting that "overestimated" is not the same thing as saying there is no appetite at all).

But even that would have been probably overlooked for the most part except that it was occupying much of the Board's attention instead of the seemingly more pressing matter of figuring out how to reopen schools. I have some amount of sympathy here because "reopening the schools" is a genuinely difficult problem and it's not something the Board could have just fiated into existence with a finger snap. That said, if you seem to ignore the most pressing public education issue of the year for the sake of a comparatively lower priority and you appear manifestly incompetent at addressing the thing which you've (wrongly) decided to make agenda item #1, yeah, that's going to piss people off. That reopening the schools is hard is a compelling argument that one needs to very clearly and publicly exert all your effort on figuring out how to make it happen; the worst thing you can do is appear to shrug your shoulders at the whole endeavor and say "you know what seems like a lot more fun than trying to get kids back into the classroom? Figuring out whether Dianne Feinstein should have her name on a building!"

So for me, the lesson to be learned is not "San Francisco voters reject wokeness", but it is very much that competence matters and San Francisco voters are not going to just blindly accept anything its elected pols do just because they drape themselves in the cloak of "wokeness". It has to be about substance, not symbolism. That goes for the school renamings too -- if one thinks it's all about symbolism and "sending a message", then maybe the execution doesn't matter so much. By contrast, if one actually views this issue as one of substantive import, then one should be willing to do the hard work of doing research and consensus-building and line-drawing. Arguably, one could say than San Franciscans want actual, good, thought out "wokeness", which they do not define (contra the semi-strawman version) as just pulling out a flamethrower and torching everything in sight.

But more fundamentally, the takeaway is that the basic, often dull, but bread-and-butter policy work of making sure the schools function has to come first. That's my big conclusion (and if one wants to say this is me just promoting my political priors, I don't judge you). A lot of good politics is the dry endeavor of just competently insuring that things work. The best political leaders do that and can innovate and inspire and push the ball forward. But the fundamentals have to be in place before one can build flair on top.

Get the foundation down, and you can do great work building on top of it. But if you elect people who aren't interested in the foundational work because they're mostly excited about some high-level ideological vision -- well, that can work if the underlying structure is strong enough that the system can manage itself on autopilot. But if you enter a time of stress or strain, like we are now in COVID, you need people at the helm who are both capable and committed to doing the slow boring work of making government work.


matthewtheunhumbled said...

We don't need empty pageantry right now. We need real solutions.
Let us never forget the time that leaders in the most progressive and bluest city on the earth, turned their backs from the exploding housing crisis, COVID, education gaps, wealth inequality, drug problems, unhoused people's, a crashing economy, police violence and instead decided to go renaming a bunch of t schools
(with massive associated costs) and crown themselves saintly anti-racist royalty while the house burned down."
The reaction we're witnessing in San Francisco from the electorate is a sea change from people tired of the namby-pamby clean gloved psuedo-progressive politics of the gentry that result in the very asymmetries they were meant to nominally oppose.
In San Francisco, if you say anything racist or chauvinist, you will be canceled but if you do something racist (like NIMBY your town into a giant homelessness and drug abuse crisis) you're a hero.
People are tired of empty pageantry and in the face of this crisis they are correct to full throatedly reject it.
If we want real solutions to growing inequality that's a mirror we're going to have look in. We have to address the glaring failure of our internal politics but, I agree, not in a way that drowns out the structural problems.

Jeff said...

I don't see how you can address the recall effort without addressing Alison Collins comment on twitter referring to Asian Americans as "House N----s" and subsequent lawsuit against the city institutions when they removed her from position as vice president. That certainly positioned 2/3 of the recalled board members far out of the mainstream when it came to acceptable discourse and general competence.