The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion San Francisco just recalled three uber-progressive school board members. Good riddance.

A pedestrian walks past a San Francisco Unified School District office building on Feb. 3. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Progressives often claim they could transform America overnight if only they held the levers of power. Tuesday’s election in San Francisco shows that project suffers from one small flaw: It’s not what voters want.

The city recalled three members of the San Francisco school board, immediately removing them from office. Perhaps it was because they kept schools closed even after the height of the pandemic.

Or perhaps it was because, even as those schools remained shut, they attempted to rename 44 of them because of their purported connections to slavery and oppression, including schools named after Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Fortunately, that order was rescinded. It turns out even ultraliberal San Francisco still reveres those presidents.

Or perhaps it was because of their efforts to change the admissions process at the city’s elite Lowell High School. Like similar efforts in New York City and Fairfax County, Va., the progressives wanted to replace the school’s merit-based testing system, which has resulted in large numbers of White and Asian students enrolling. Instead, they wanted to replace it with a lottery approach in an effort to increase diversity.

No matter the reason, each of the school board members lost their recall elections in a landslide. Between 72 and 79 percent of San Franciscans who voted opted to kick them out. Every region in the city voted against the three board members, including more than 80 percent in heavily Asian districts such as Chinatown, Richmond and Sunset.

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No one can credibly say this was a case of Republicans using imaginary issues to fan voter discontent. The GOP is an afterthought in this one-party town. Only 6.7 percent of voters are registered Republicans, and President Donald Trump received less than 13 percent of the vote in 2020. The recall effort was led and supported by liberals and progressives who saw this level of extremism and tone-deafness was out of bounds.

Still, Republicans can take advantage of these missteps. In Northern Virginia, parents who normally vote for Democrats crossed party lines to vote for now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin — largely motivated by their anger toward school boards. The party-switching was especially heavy in Loudoun County, the commonwealth’s most heavily Asian jurisdiction. Youngkin lost Loudoun by only 11 points, nearly half the margin that GOP nominee Ed Gillespie lost the county by in 2017 and dramatically better than the 25 points that Trump lost it by in 2020. Youngkin also won 53-to-47 among the 24 percent of Virginians who named education as their most important issue, a significant achievement given that Democrats traditionally own the issue.

These facts place even more pressure on Democrats for the coming midterms. Progressives are an important part of the party’s coalition, and they strongly support changing school admissions to increase Black and Hispanic enrollment in elite schools. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case challenging Harvard’s affirmative action policies, which the plaintiffs allege discriminate against Asians, will ensure the touchy subject remains in the national consciousness. Progressive activists will likely pressure the Biden administration, which asked the court not to hear the case, to file an amicus brief opposing the plaintiffs. Doing that would place the Democratic establishment squarely against many Asian parents, which is not where they want to be as they already face strong political head winds.

Progressive overreach extends to crime, as well. In recent years, progressives worked to elect prosecutors friendly to eliminating cash bail and not pursuing certain crimes. But those people often run into resistance when voters realize what they stand for.

Recently elected Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has already had to backtrack on policies that were heavily criticized as being soft on crime. And San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin so angered residents that he is facing his own recall election in June. The dramatic rise in murders over the past two years has made violent crime an important issue for the first time in decades, yet progressive leaders such as Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) refuse to change their “defund the police” ideology. Once again, that forces Democrats to choose between their base and normally left-of-center swing voters.

The same conundrum extends to pandemic restrictions. The most recent Politico-Morning Consult poll finds that 66 percent of liberals think it’s more important to address the spread of the coronavirus than the economy while 53 percent of independents want to address the economy first. Sixty-seven percent of liberals think it’s too early to end state masking mandates, but only 42 percent of independents agree. Democratic leaders must confront the dilemma of angering either side everywhere.

Californians like to pride themselves on being the place where changes that sweep the country happen first. Tuesday’s recall election might be another example of that dogma — to progressive dismay.