Market Street, San Francisco. Photograph by Alfonso Jimenez.
The rich being—as Aristotle noted 2,500 years ago—everywhere few in contrast to the many poor, they are always in need of some rationale to justify their privilege. In ancient times, the argument was superior virtue, above all wisdom; in the Middle Ages, a willingness to fight and die to protect vulnerable peasants; during and after the Industrial Revolution, rising living standards for all. None of these (to say nothing of others) holds much truck any more. Yet wealth endures and must assert a fresh claim—which it has found in an improbable alliance with the Left. Even more improbable are the terms.
Contemporary liberalism exists to redistribute wealth, which in turn has, historically, sought to fend off, mock, and discredit liberalism. In the rare cases when these tactics fail, wealth makes the minimum necessary concessions to ensure its own survival against the Left’s relentless envy and resentment.
But for a decade or two now, the rich haven’t needed to make much of an effort because they’ve managed to beguile liberals in much the same way that Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into whitewashing the fence. Rather than clamoring to redistribute wealth, liberalism now gratefully accepts whatever crumbs wealth deigns to bestow—and in return treats wealth with the obsequious deference of a court eunuch.
How this happened—and especially its San Francisco pedigree—I hope to explain. It’s long been a truism that California is the political and cultural bellwether for the nation. But this particular export remains underappreciated.
For the moment, though, it’s enough to recognize that both the rich and the Left—and above all the rich Left—have a clear interest in obscuring and even denying their arrangement: the Left because they need the culture’s rhetorical guns trained rightward in order to maintain their grip on power; the rich to deflect scrutiny and envy from themselves. Politicians decline to stoke populist outrage against this partnership because the rich pay them not to and because, in a democracy, they must court the Left for reasons not dissimilar to Willie Sutton’s rationale for robbing banks. Sutton, though, couldn’t count bankers as backers or allies. Today’s Democratic Party, by contrast, enjoys near universal support not just from Wall Street but from the 1% in every industry, save Big Oil and Big Pharma.
The former abandoned Market Street when Chevron—a successor company to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil—decamped for Contra Costa County in 2001 (and continues to send jobs to Houston). The latter never had any presence at all. Finance, law, technology, and media (especially social media), however, dominate the scene more completely than the Harvey Milk Club controls the San Francisco Democratic Party. They didn’t invent San Francisco Values, but they’ve effectively bought off those who did, who have proven to be surprisingly cheap dates.