This American election marks the fourth time a woman has appeared on a major-party national ticket. The first such woman was Geraldine Ferraro, the New York congresswoman who ran for vice-president in 1984. She was formally nominated in San Francisco at the Democratic National Convention that summer.
A month later, the Republicans rhetorically employed the site as a symbol of a Democratic party that was too liberal for Main Street America. “San Francisco Democrats,” they called them. President Ronald Reagan cruised to a 49-state re-election.
In 2020, the San Francisco Democrats are getting their revenge.
Vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris, who was born in Oakland and raised in ultra-liberal Berkeley, Calif., is the San Francisco Democrat par excellence. The senator she replaced in 2016 was Barbara Boxer, another Bay Area liberal from Marin County, which is connected by the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco.
The centre of gravity for California politics was in the southern part of the state, and the San Francisco Democrats up north were outside the mainstream both locally and nationally. Separated by 700 kilometres on Interstate 5, the two cities were the two poles of American politics.
In 2018, the Democrats, who have made California into a one-party state since the 1990s, swept the remaining Republicans out of their former congressional stronghold in Orange County. The whole state — and much of the country — looks to San Francisco now.
San Francisco Democrats are marked by two things: social liberalism and policies that favour the new global economic class. It is the Silicon Valley agenda. It has not been imposed upon the country by San Francisco, but the country has moved toward it.
In 1992, Bill Clinton and his “new Democrats” proposed social liberalism married to a more business-friendly agenda. Wealthy people who want the government out of their personal lives and out of their wallets were the new core Democrat constituency. It was that same year in which senators Feinstein and Boxer were first elected. It was a demographic and ideological realignment of the political fault lines in the Golden State — two liberal Jewish women from San Francisco elected together. They would remain together in the Senate for 24 years and become a highly effective and influential duo who moved the party to the left and watched the country move toward them.
By 2016, the Republicans had long lost Silicon Valley and Wall Street, but Donald Trump won by winning lower-income households, former union workers in mines and factories and cultural conservatives, while still holding on to legacy places like Orange County. Meanwhile, Democratic dominance of the wealthiest counties in the land — like Marin County — was total.
Now the transformation is complete. When President Trump attacked former vice-president Biden in Thursday’s debate for taking money from Wall Street, it was a sign of that multi-generation shift in the political landscape. Biden likes to boast about his working-class origins in Scranton, Pa., but the Democrats are more at home now in Silicon Valley than struggling cities like Scranton.
Every political success carries within it the seeds of its excess and eventual correction. San Francisco today is a city that does not work. Frightfully expensive to live in, it has a massive homelessness and lawlessness problem. In 1984, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo electrified the Democratic convention with his attack on the “two cities” of Reagan’s America — one rich and one poor.
That’s San Francisco now, and a problem for the future of the San Francisco Democrats. But today belongs to them.
The other California senator, Dianne Feinstein — who’s been elected six times and is still going strong at 87 — is a former mayor of San Francisco. So too is the governor of California, Gavin Newsom. Nancy Pelosi, who, as Speaker of the House, is the most powerful Democrat in the country and the highest-ranking female federal office holder in American history, represents a San Francisco district.
If Joe Biden wins, as I expect he will — but then I expected Hillary Clinton to win four years ago — Harris will be vice-president to a man older at inauguration than Reagan was when he completed both terms. Biden’s mental acuity has declined, and his capacity to campaign is limited.
That is not unprecedented. Exactly 100 years ago, the presidency was effectively exercised by First Lady Edith Wilson after her husband Woodrow suffered a debilitating stroke. If a President Biden’s capacities should greatly diminish, one would expect Vice-President Harris to assume greater prominence and influence.
That, however, is speculation about the future. The present moment — the revenge of the San Francisco Democrats — demonstrates how much American politics have shifted since 1984.
Reagan’s spectacular political rise was anchored in Orange County, a conservative enclave southeast of Los Angeles “where good Republicans go to die,” he would quip. Reagan’s dominance of California politics (governor from 1966-1974) and the subsequent national conservative wave was rooted in southern California. President Richard Nixon, whose 1972 landslide re-election was even more massive than Reagan’s 12 years later, was an Orange County man himself.