Pub date September 3, 2008
WriterRich DeLeon
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION It appears the San Francisco Chronicle‘s editors have chopped "progressive" from the paper’s approved lexicon for local political reporting, replacing the term with "ultra-liberal" and "far left" to characterize politicians whose views they don’t share. Should we care? After all, the terms of political discourse have been so twisted, warped, and debased in recent years, one might be forgiven for not telling right from left or conservative from liberal. For most Americans, it’s all one big Babel of ideological tongues — confusing to be sure, but increasingly irrelevant.

But I think words do matter. Years ago, in Left Coast City, I took a stab at defining the city’s progressivism as "a system of values, beliefs, and ideas that encourages an expanded role for local government in achieving distributive justice, limits on growth, neighborhood preservation, and ethnic-cultural diversity under conditions of public accountability and direct citizen participation." The major problem with this working definition is that it’s local in scope and closely tied to San Francisco’s unique political culture, history, and setting.

We all know the ideological spectrum is left-shifted in San Francisco, and local politicians labeled as "liberals" or even "radicals" in faraway Washington, DC are often pilloried as moderates or even conservatives back here. Indeed, a major reason driving the use of "progressive" in the city’s local political discourse was precisely to differentiate anti-establishment political leaders from pro-establishment ones who were happy to serve and support a corrupt capitalist system while promising to reform it from within.

San Francisco is the nation’s vanguard city of political reform and social change. It is a working model of progressive community that leads all others in fusing the agendas of economic growth, social justice, and environmental protection.

All great movements must begin and radiate from some place. As Robert Wuthnow put it in his Communities of Discourse, a study of the origins and spread of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European Socialism: "None of these ideologies sprang into bloom on a thousand hilltops as if scattered there by the wind. They grew under the careful cultivation of particular movements that arose in specific places and that bore specific relations to their surroundings."

San Francisco activists must find a way to free their homegrown progressive ideology from its local context and scale it up to reach and persuade other Americans. Ironically, most of that scaling up is taking place now under the rubric of "San Francisco values," a derisive epithet originally coined by right-wing pundits but now proudly brandished by some city leaders and opportunistically embraced by others to fuel their political ambitions. By whatever name ("Sanfrancisoism"?), the city’s values have noisily infiltrated national political discourse and have pulled the ideological spectrum back toward the left. Gay civil unions, for example, suddenly seemed acceptable to national politicians, even George W. Bush, after Mayor Newsom began issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

So the term "progressive," although contested, works well in San Francisco. Don’t suppress it or throw it away. Outside the city, scale up with another term that average Americans can relate to and understand.

Rich DeLeon

Rich DeLeon is professor emeritus of political science at San Francisco State University.