Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Liberals

Categories: Politics

liberal.jpgBy Will Harper

Last week the Chronicle offended the delicate sensibilities of the Bay Guardian by referring to the supe candidates they back as “ultra-liberal.”

Ultra-liberal Guardian editor Tim Redmond predictably saw a conspiracy between the mayor’s political strategists and the Chron to deprive good folk like Chris Daly of the term “progressive.” Without any actual evidence of such a conspiracy, Redmond gave us his best guess:

“[H]ere's what I think is happening: Newsom's political operatives are mad that the progressives have seized control of the term ‘progressive’ ... They'd like to call Newsom a progressive mayor — which is inaccurate and historically invalid. But since they can't get away with that, they've pushed the Chron to use another term for people like Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin, and the best the editors could come up with is ultra-liberal.’”

OK, since we’re playing the guessing game, here’s my guess as to the sudden introduction of the word “ultra-liberal” into the Chron’s local political coverage: The paper has a new City Hall reporter, Heather Knight, who probably wondered—as many of us in SF do—what the hell does “progressive” mean? (“Historically” speaking, wasn’t Teddy Roosevelt a progressive?) So Knight used something that might actually mean something to more readers-- i.e. “ultra-liberal”—and her editor must’ve thought it made sense.

Even if somehow there is a top-down conspiracy in the Chron’s Balkanized bureaucracy to use “ultra-liberal,” it doesn’t change the fact that “progressive” is an imperfect and imprecise term. I suspect a lot of regular San Franciscans would consider Guardian bogeyman Gavin Newsom--the guy who made gay marriage legal in the city five years ago--“progressive.” That’s the thing, politicians in San Francisco range from left to lefter and I doubt most people can appreciate the fine distinctions made by the Guardian et al.

Redmond contends that real San Francisco progressives do more than take liberal stands on social issues--they take liberal stands on economic matters. But even this parsed definition doesn’t exactly work. Newsom, for instance, championed the city’s universal healthcare program, Healthy San Francisco, which was adamantly opposed by the Restaurant Association for its economic impact on local eateries (which now remind us of that impact with fees noted on our restaurant checks).

In a one-party town like San Francisco, these kinds of fights over labels are to be expected. I covered Berkeley politics for many years and struggled to find the right language to describe the factions on the City Council. When I started writing for the Berkeley Voice in the early ‘90s, I called the council’s leftist members “liberals.” But they didn’t like that because it was the liberals—in the Hubert Humphrey sense of the word--who were actually the conservatives on the council. Then I started calling the liberals “conservatives,” and they understandably didn’t like that either because outside of Berkeley they’d be considered flaming lefties. (Got all that?) I think I just ended up calling each side them by their preferred terms—progressives and moderates—but never felt satisfied by either.

So it is in San Francisco. At the Weekly, we don’t have a style policy when it comes to describing the city’s political factions. In fact, our writers often use “progressive” because, for all its flaws, the word is convenient shorthand.

I’ll grant Tim this: “Ultra-liberal” is perhaps not the best word. It does have a derogatory ring to it. But it is more descriptive for the typical reader with limited knowledge of city politics than the labels preferred by insiders.

But I think I may have a solution to this label dilemma. Actually, it’s a term Heather Knight used in one of her first City Hall stories. See, folks, contrary to what Redmond wrote in the Guardian last week, Aug. 15 wasn’t the first time Knight used the word “ultra-liberal.” Actually, she’d used it three weeks earlier when reporting the outcome of the race for local Democratic Party chair in which she described Aaron Peskin as a member of San Francisco's ultra-liberal progressive faction.”

Funny, but the Guardian and its ilk didn’t squawk at “ultra-liberal progressive.”

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