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Attention political progressives: Kiss your favorite city good-bye.
In what can only be classified as a shamefully belated attempt to map its future, the City of San Francisco recently eyeballed a host of data about city residents and businesses. And while no one’s saying this specifically, the survey – formally known as the “Economic Performance Review of April, 2006 – points to trends that are going to create a more politically conservative city.
It may take a few years – fewer than we think, I’m betting – but San Francisco isn’t going to be the reliable bastion of cookie-cutter Liberalism it has been for much of the past decade. The “get the man” culture that so many of the city’s politicians like to embrace is – like the union movement that has fueled it for the past century – on the wane.
This is a sea change and not just for San Francisco. A peek at some of the trends outlined by San Francisco planners underline how very blind the country’s political leadership is – on both sides – when it comes to two important economic issues: Immigration and self-employment. (And throw out all the newspaper stories bemoaning the economic disparity between the city’s wealthy whites and its minority citizens. That’s not news and it’s not unique. Why do you think San Francisco’s represented by old-line Democratic Liberals like Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer – residents of the area’s toniest neighborhoods?)
Since immigration is on everyone’s mind, let’s start there. According to surveys done by San Francisco planners using 2004 data (which means the numbers have changed but probably not by very much) almost 40 percent of the city’s residents weren’t born here in the U.S. And, no, we’re not talking about Mexico, which provides the city’s second largest immigrant group. San Francisco’s immigrants come – as they have for much of the last century – from China.
Immigrants are notorious conservative, fiscally and socially; that’s why the Republican party is so hot to court them. Already, San Francisco’s immigrant community – with its higher birth rates – is starting to demand more from city schools. Which means that San Francisco’s School Board – the launching pad for more than one political career – will start to see fewer Green Party candidate-sponsored debates about anti-war rallies and genetically-altered snacks and a lot more talk about books and desks and leaking roofs.
Combine the immigration trend with another: The increase in people who work for themselves or who are starting businesses that employ others. Independent contractors and start-ups, in other words. Here’s the important part (my emphasis):

Small business has been growing in importance as an employer nationally and internationally. In San Francisco, this shift has been particularly pronounced and important. In 1977, companies with
more than 1,000 workers employed 22% of San Francisco’s total workforce. By 2003, that proportion had declined to only 12%. In 2003, the proportion of workers in companies with between one and 50 employees was 45%. Moreover, in 2003, over 122,000 San Franciscans are self-employed, representing 18% of all private sector employment in the city. San Francisco’s very high reliance on small business and self-employment is typical of other dynamic, fast-growing, high-technology areas across the country.

These folks don’t want to get the man. They are the man. For the most part, they are also members of a growing but still not well organized political group – the folks I call Progressive libertarians – who are business-minded, socially liberal but anxious to see that that government is efficiently run with minimal taxes and lots and lots of encouragement instead of what are wrongly dismissed as “hand-outs.” Topping their list of most-hated organizations? The California Teachers Union. That’s right, we’re back to the schools.
For now, this class of entrepreneurs are held within the Democratic party. The Republican’s social conservativism, not to mention the party’s ugly immigration policies, the Iraqi war and the wacked-out economic policies of the Bush administration – are keeping their votes safely D, not R. These folks voted for Gavin Newsom for mayor but many of them also supported Arnold Schwarzenegger in the state’s recall election; they’re supporters of moderate Democrat Steve Westly, not “honest Liberal” Phil Angelides. They’d have elected L.A. Mayor Richard Riorden governor if they’d had the chance.
Those aren’t the only party splits. At the same time you can see a move to the right with these Democrats, we’re starting to see a split in San Francisco’s staunchly anti-Communist pro-Republican Chinese community (mostly centered on human rights abuses in China). And Mexican-Americans have trended Democrat in most elections but in some Southwestern states, they’re starting to vote Republican, pushed hard by the Catholic Church on social issues like abortion. After 2,000 years in the business, the Church knows its politics: They’re pushing hard for amnesty for immigrants – now you know why. So are Progressive libertarians who could care less about social issues but think that having a source of well-trained, well-educated labor – schools again! – is a key part of the U.S.’s ability to participate in the global economy. As the San Francisco surveys show, it’s a lot easier to be self-employed if you’ve got a graduate degree and a set of skills that are in demand regardless of where you were born.
There’s a lot that can go wrong here for both parties, neither of whom is speaking to immigrants or to the self-employed entrepreneur. The instability – neither Republicans or Democrats can really count on tried-and-true constituencies for much longer – suggests a pretty profound political realignment and, like many other things, could provide a California-first roadmap for a smart pol with a sharp pencil and a working knowledge of basic economics.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 12:31 PM | Permalink

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