Kristof: Why West Coast liberals can’t get out of their own way

Politics is part theater, but out West too often we settle for being performative rather than substantive.

By Nicholas Kristof / The New York Times

PORTLAND, Ore. — As Democrats make their case to voters around the country this fall, one challenge is that some of the bluest parts of the country — cities on the West Coast — are a mess.

Centrist voters can reasonably ask: Why put liberals in charge nationally when the places where they have greatest control are plagued by homelessness, crime and dysfunction?

I’ll try to answer that question in a moment, but liberals like me do need to face the painful fact that something has gone badly wrong where we’re in charge, from San Diego to Seattle. I’m an Oregonian who bores people at cocktail parties by singing the praises of the West, but the truth is that too often we offer a version of progressivism that doesn’t result in progress.

We are more likely to believe that “housing is a human right” than conservatives in Florida or Texas, but less likely to actually get people housed. We accept a yawning gulf between our values and our outcomes.

Conservatives argue that the problem is simply the left. Michael Shellenberger wrote a tough book denouncing what he called “San Fransicko” with the subtitle “Why Progressives Ruin Cities.” Yet that doesn’t ring true to me.

Democratic states enjoy a life expectancy two years longer than Republican states. Per capita GDP in Democratic states is 29% higher than in Republican states, and child poverty is lower. Education is generally better in blue states, with more kids graduating from high school and college. The gulf in well-being between blue states and red states is growing wider, not narrower.

So my rejoinder to Republican critiques is: Yes, governance is flawed in some blue parts of America, but overall, liberal places have enjoyed faster economic growth and higher living standards than conservative places. That doesn’t look like failure.

So the problem isn’t with liberalism. It’s with West Coast liberalism.

The two states with the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness are California and Oregon. The three states with the lowest rates of unsheltered homelessness are all blue ones in the Northeast: Vermont, New York and Maine. Liberal Massachusetts has some of the finest public schools in the country, while liberal Washington and Oregon have below-average high school graduation rates.

Oregon ranks dead last for youth mental health services, according to Mental Health America, while Washington, D.C., and Delaware rank best.

Drug overdoses appear to have risen last year in every Democratic state on the West Coast, while they dropped last year in each Democratic state in the Northeast. The homicide rate in Portland last year was more than double that of New York City.

Why does Democratic Party governance seem less effective on the West Coast than on the East Coast?

Sometimes I wonder if the West is less serious about policy than the East and less focused on relying on the most rigorous evidence. There’s some evidence for that. But I’m not sure, for it’s also true that West Coast states have managed to innovate exceptionally well in some domains. Oregon pioneered “death with dignity” through physician-assisted suicide and led the way to vote by mail, an important step for democracy. California has some of the smartest gun safety laws in America, championed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. As a result, California has a firearms death rate 40% below the national average.

So my take is that the West Coast’s central problem is not so much that it’s unserious as that it’s infected with an ideological purity that is focused more on intentions than on oversight and outcomes.

I ran for governor in Oregon two years ago (I was ousted from the ballot by Oregon’s then-secretary of state, who said I didn’t meet the residency requirement). While running, I’d meet groups of liberal donors in Portland, as the city’s problems cast a shadow over all of us; we’d all be wondering nervously if our catalytic converters were in the process of being stolen. The undercurrent in such a liberal gathering would be the failures of Republicans — but Portland was one mess we couldn’t blame on Republicans, because there simply aren’t many Republicans in Portland. This was our liberal mess.

Politics always is part theater, but out West too often we settle for being performative rather than substantive.

For example, as a gesture to support trans kids, Oregon took money from the tight education budget to put tampons in boys’ restrooms in elementary schools — including boys’ restrooms in kindergartens.

“The inability of progressives, particularly in the Portland metro area, to deal with the nitty-gritty of governing and to get something done is just staggering,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat who has been representing and championing Portland for more than half a century, told me. “People are much more interested in ideology than in actual results.”

Consider a volunteer group called the Portland Freedom Fund that was set up to pay bail for people of color. The organization raised money from well-intentioned liberal donors, and the underlying problems were real: Bail requirements hit poor people hard.

In 2022, the Portland Freedom Fund helped a Black man named Mohamed Adan who had been arrested after allegedly strangling his former girlfriend, holding a gun to her head and then — in violation of a restraining order — cutting off his GPS monitor and entering her building. “He told me that he would kill me,” the former girlfriend, Rachael Abraham, warned.

The Freedom Fund paid Adan’s bail, and he walked out of jail. A week later, Adan allegedly removed his GPS monitor again and entered Abraham’s home. The police found Abraham’s body drenched in blood with a large knife nearby; three children were also in the house.

Adan was charged with murder — no bail this time — and the incident prompted soul-searching in Portland. But perhaps not enough. A well-meaning effort to help people of color may have cost the life of a woman of color.

One of the passions of the left, drawing partly on Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” has been that if a policy leads to racial inequity, then it’s racist even if it wasn’t meant to be. But by that standard, West Coast progressivism abounds in racism.

We in the West impeded home construction in ways that made cities unaffordable, especially for people of color. We let increasing numbers of people struggle with homelessness, particularly Black and brown people. Black people in Portland are also murdered at higher rates than in cities more notorious for violence, and Seattle and Portland have some of the greatest racial disparities in arrests in the country.

I don’t actually agree with Kendi. I think intentions and framing can matter, but it’s absolutely true that good intentions are not enough. What matters is improving opportunities and quality of life, and the best path to do that is a relentless empiricism — which clashes with the West Coast’s indifference to the laws of economics.

The basic reason for homelessness on the West Coast is an enormous shortage of housing that drives up rents. California lacks about three million housing units, in part because it’s difficult to get permission to build.

As long as there is such a vast shortage, housing is like musical chairs. Move one family into housing, and another won’t get a home.

Public sector efforts to build housing are often ruinously expensive, with “affordable housing” sometimes costing more than $1 million per unit, so the private sector is critical. Yet one element of progressive purity is suspicion of the private sector, and this hobbles efforts to make businesses part of the solution. Business owners who earn an income from their company are effectively barred from serving on the Portland City Council.

Perhaps on the West Coast we have ideological purity because there isn’t much political competition. Republicans are irrelevant in much of the Far West, so they can’t hold Democrats’ feet to the fire — leading Democrats in turn to wander unchecked farther to the left. That’s not so true in the Northeast: A Republican, Charlie Baker, was until recently governor of Massachusetts, and Republicans are competitive statewide in Maine, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey.

Maybe a healthy Republican Party keeps the Democratic Party healthy, and vice versa.

Without opposition party oversight, problems aren’t always fixed expeditiously. For example, some blue states have well-intentioned laws meant to protect citizens from involuntary commitment to mental institutions — but these days, with drugs and untreated mental illness interacting to produce psychosis, such laws can crush the people they’re supposed to help.

One of my school friends in my hometown, Yamhill, Ore., Stacy, struggled with alcoholism and mental illness. She became homeless and lived in a tent in a park, but it is almost impossible in such cases to move someone involuntarily into an institution. So she froze to death one winter night.

I think of Stacy suffering and dying unnecessarily, and I believe that instead of protecting her, our liberalism failed her.

One encouraging sign is that the West Coast may be self-correcting. I’ve been on a book tour in recent weeks, and in my talks in California, Oregon and Washington I’ve been struck by the way nearly everyone frankly acknowledges this gulf between our values and our outcomes, and welcomes more pragmatic approaches. California and Oregon have taken steps to boost housing supply, and Oregon ended an experiment in drug decriminalization. Homelessness seems a bit better in San Francisco and other cities, and homicides have dropped.

I’m still a believer in the West Coast. Partly it’s the physical beauty of the region and the outdoor opportunities, and partly it’s that the West has a history of reinventing itself. I remember Seattle’s struggles in the 1970s, when a billboard near the airport read, “Will the last person leaving Seattle — turn out the lights.” The West Coast has always rescued itself by seizing new ideas, from personal computers to the internet, and building on them. The Bay Area may be doing that again today with artificial intelligence.

On a visit to San Francisco in May, I took a Waymo self-driving taxi. It eerily stopped in front of me, unlocked itself and then drove me smoothly to my destination. That did feel like a futuristic journey in a futuristic city.

We need to get our act together. Less purity and more pragmatism would go a long way. But perhaps the first step must be the humility to acknowledge our failures.

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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