The political ground may be starting to shift in America’s bluest cities. While San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver remain reliable Democratic strongholds, a divide is opening between the cities’ activist political elite and a liberal, but more pragmatic, majority of voters.
In Denver, voters recently rejected Initiative 300, the “right-to-survive” ballot measure that would have legalized homeless encampments in public spaces. The city’s activist class—progressive politicians, social-justice organizations, and nonprofit service providers—claimed that the city’s camping ban, in place since 2012, is unconstitutional and inhumane. They argued that, since society forces the homeless onto the streets, it must afford them the “right to exist,” which would include living on public property, without interference from law enforcement. Citizens, businesses, and neighborhood groups—led by the Downtown Denver Partnership, National Association of Realtors, and Colorado Concern—rose up in opposition to the initiative, raising more than $2.3 million to fight it. Voters rejected Initiative 300 by an 81 percent to 19 percent margin.
The public sentiment behind the Denver vote has been growing in cities up and down the West Coast, where rampant homelessness has led to deterioration in the quality of life for many residents. In Washington State, progressive lawmakers and activists tried to pass a similar “survival crimes” bill through the state legislature, but it died in committee after a barrage of public opposition. Even in hyper-progressive Seattle, 68 percent of voters don’t trust the mayor and city council to make progress on homelessness, and 53 percent support a “zero-tolerance” policy on encampments.
In San Diego, Mayor Kevin Faulconer—a Republican in a city with a Democratic majority—plans to reinstate a ban on sleeping in cars and RVs in residential neighborhoods and parking lots. He argued that the city must balance compassion with the enforcement of public-safety laws. “If you are living out of your vehicle because you have nowhere else to go, we want to help you,” Faulconer told reporters. “At the same time, residents and businesses have a right to clean and safe neighborhoods. We will not allow conduct that takes advantage of San Diego’s generosity and destroys the quality of life in our communities.”
The rift between progressive elites and the broader electorate might signal the beginning of a political realignment focused on quality-of-life issues. It’s not a traditional left–right division but more of a top–bottom cleavage, between an elite activist class and a popular majority with wide-ranging political views that has run out of patience with social-justice policymaking. Citizens in these left-leaning enclaves understand that homelessness deserves greater public attention, but they oppose decriminalization of public camping, open-air drug consumption, and low-level property crimes, which has led to a breakdown in public order. Whether they can build the political infrastructure to shape a new governing reality is the question.