Progressive Incoherence in “Radical” Berkeley

Aerial view of Berkeley, including the UC Berkeley stadium (Wikimedia Commons)

In the fall of 2011 Occupy caught the world by surprise, as tens of thousands of Americans, led by youth no less, took to the streets demanding economic justice. In Berkeley, California, Occupy upset expectations of a different sort. That city, my home for thirty-three of the past forty-six years, is widely regarded as a prime redoubt of the American left. But in the East Bay and, for a few weeks, the entire country, the epicenter of Occupy materialized in front of Oakland’s, not Berkeley’s, city hall.

To hear the media tell it, Berkeley’s default came out of the blue. “The Occupy movement,” wrote Carolyn Jones in the San Francisco Chronicle, “has been surprisingly quiet in Berkeley, which prides itself on a long history of rabble-rousing.” The quiescence surprised the alternative press as well. “[W]hy,” wondered Zaineb Mohammed in a piece posted on the New America Media website, “is [sic] the city and college that ignited the mass protests of the ’60s barely a blip on the radar now?”

Media puzzlement at Berkeley’s truancy was predictable. For decades the press has disseminated the myth of radical—or leftist or liberal or progressive—Berkeley; take your pick, the terms are used interchangeably. With few exceptions, reporters cite sporadic “rabble-rousing” as evidence of a tenacious civic activism while disregarding numerous signs of a rightward turn within city hall, political disengagement outside it, and ideological disarray all around.

But Berkeley’s enduring radical image is not simply the creation of an unobservant media. It’s also the work of the city’s political class and its constituents. Not that twenty-first-century Berkeley politicos call themselves radical or leftist or even liberal; their label of choice is “progressive,” a contested term embraced by political actors with diametrically opposed views.

The rival claims to that label reflect confounding aspects of contemporary progressivism: Berkeley politics flesh out uncertainties if not downright disagreements on the left over “growth,” environmentalism, U.S. manufacturing, homelessness, and public employee compensation. In any serious political alignment, the positions taken on these subjects are crucial, yet their ambiguous formulation on the left has gone unremarked. To grasp the political realities of today’s Berkeley is not only to dispel an antiquated myth about an iconic place; it’s also to begin to grapple with major incoherence in progressivism at large.


Dissent has hardly disappeared from Berkeley civic life. In recent years the city saw two of the most flamboyant protests in its history: the 2006-8 tree sit-in against the University of California’s plans to raze a venerable oak grove that blocked the expansion of the school’s football stadium, and the 2007-8 effort to shut down a Marine recruiting office. During the nearly two-year-long arboreal demonstration, the press regaled the public with images of the dozen or so protesters perched in the threatened oaks, the nude photo shoot staged in their support, UC police being pelted from above by urine and feces, and the campus police chief negotiating with the tree-sitters from a metal basket suspended from a crane. The coverage of the anti-Marine campaign was only slightly less sensational, featuring Code Pink members dressed in their signature color chanting and waving flags outside the disputed office, fellow protesters who’d chained themselves to the office doorway, and some two thousand Marine supporters and opponents facing off across the street from city hall.

Boisterous protest makes for spectacle, and spectacle makes the news. But as far as civic participation goes, in today’s Berkeley concerted dissent of any sort is the exception, not the rule. Most residents limit their involvement to voting in local elections, and they usually vote for incumbents. Since 2002, when Tom Bates became mayor (disclosure: I ran against Bates in 2006), the electorate has opted for a council dominated by Berkeley-style urban neoliberals who call themselves progressives.

It may be hard to imagine that a term identified with the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher—deregulation, privatization, union-busting—could apply to Berkeley city hall. Unfortunately, the neoliberal tag is all too apt, with one exception: the Bates council has habitually deferred to unions representing the city’s workers, though whether that deference should be considered progressive is arguable.

In the face of recurring multi-million dollar shortfalls in the city budget, the mayor and his allies have cut social services and neglected Berkeley’s crumbling infrastructure while repeatedly approving generous salaries and benefits (pension plus health insurance) for city employees. Thanks to that munificence, and to Berkeleyans’ willingness to pay some of the highest taxes in California, as of February 2013 the city employed 1,295 men and women, one-third of whom—almost all of them police, firefighters, or managerial staff—had salaries over $100,000. Current police and firefighters are eligible for retirement at fifty, all other employees and new police hires at fifty-five. Pension costs for employees hired before 2013 are directly or effectively billed to Berkeley taxpayers. Staff can boost their pensions by adding unused sick leave to their years of service. In 2011 the then-city manager retired with a starting pension of $249,000 a year, joining seventy-five other former city of Berkeley workers receiving annual pensions over $100,000.

Apart from its solicitude for the city’s employees, the Bates claque follows the neoliberal playbook’s top directives: let the market rule and serve big capital. At the local level, this means catering to the real estate industry. In Berkeley that industry’s most powerful representative is also the city’s largest landowner, employer, and developer: the University of California.

Often acclaimed as the finest public university in the world, UC Berkeley now functions more like a profit-driven private entity than a public institution dedicated to higher learning. With the state of California now providing only 12 percent of its budget, UC is seeking to commercialize the scientific research done by its faculty and staff. An article describing that quest appeared in the April 2012 issue of the California Alumni Association’s magazine under the title “Fiat Lucre,” an irony-free pun on the school’s motto, “Fiat Lux.” Cutting-edge research requires lots of high-end lab and office space. That need has been a major driver of the university’s unprecedented physical expansion over the past decade.

Tensions over campus growth erupted in 2004, when UC revealed plans for 2.2 million square feet of new administrative space, including 1.2 million square feet in downtown Berkeley, and a future enrollment of 34,450—7,000 more students than the maximum size that the California’s Master Plan for Higher Education specifies for UC’s largest campuses. Though property owned or leased by UC is exempt from property taxes, the university makes extensive use of city firefighters, police, sewers, and storm drains. A study commissioned by the city found that servicing the proposed new development would add $1.6 million to Berkeley taxpayers’ existing $11.4 million annual subsidy of the California state institution. The city’s planning department issued a scathing assessment of the university’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR), citing vagueness about specific projects and failure to lessen the impact on surrounding neighborhoods. UC proceeded to announce plans for a $100-$120 million academic building and the football stadium renovation mentioned above. In February 2005 the city sued the university under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Mindful of the mayor’s predisposition toward both UC and big development, neighborhood leaders cautiously welcomed the lawsuit. Even they were shocked by the terms of the settlement that the city council secretly approved on a 6-3 vote in May. The lawsuit ended up facilitating the development it had ostensibly been intended to restrain: the city acceded to the university’s plans for new construction and agreed in advance that over the next fifteen years UC would not be required to mitigate that construction’s harm to the larger community; capped payments for city services at $800,000 a year through 2020; and committed the city to producing a new downtown plan whose contents and release to the public would be controlled by the UC Board of Regents. The settlement agreement exempted the campus from following the new downtown plan, stating that “as a dynamic research university, its [sic] needs may change.” The agreement did not mention possible changes in the city’s needs.

The council also promised “to encourage private spin-off businesses that might result from UC-related research to locate in Berkeley.” Efforts to keep that promise have threatened the city’s industrial sector. People think of Berkeley as a college town, but manufacturing has been here since the 1850s, even longer than the university. Today the city’s industry is entirely located in the 1.8-square-mile bayside area known as West Berkeley. The district houses about 10,000 residents and a mixed economy composed of retail, offices, R&D, and 300 industrial businesses—manufacturers, wholesalers, and warehousers—as well as a thousand artists and artisans, also classified as industrial by city law. The majority of these businesses are small and medium-size firms that rent their space; like industrial tenants everywhere, they cannot afford high rents.

Berkeley sits on extremely valuable land. In the 1980s intense community pressure moved the council to enact zoning that would prevent land speculation. The chief motive was to protect the jobs that industrial and artisanal activity provide to an educationally and socially diverse workforce. Since 2005 the Bates council has sought to dismantle this far-sighted public policy. The mayor and his allies have called for “flexible zoning” (code for the deregulation of land use) in West Berkeley that would facilitate “growth” (code for high-rent development)—specifically many more offices, labs, and apartment buildings. Vigorously opposed by numerous West Berkeley residents and businesses, the push to deregulate and deindustrialize the neighborhood has received vocal support from UC’s Office of Technology Transfer (code for the commercialization of university research). Zoning “flexibility” has also elicited enthusiasm from private developers, big landowners, and real estate brokers who would all profit handsomely from lucrative construction contracts and inflated property values. In July 2012 the council voted 6-3 to place a proposal on the November 2012 ballot, Measure T, that would allow multi-block office parks in every West Berkeley area zoned for industrial uses.


A common misconception has neoliberals opposed to government per se. In fact, they’re only opposed to government that challenges the prerogatives of capital. They’re happy to use the state to extend those prerogatives and at the same time to weaken the public sector and democratic rule. When these ends can be best achieved by relaxing state control, deregulation is the order of the day; when they’re better accomplished by tightening that control, neoliberal governments readily intervene.

Case in point: the property-based improvement district, or PBID, a variant of the business improvement district that since the 1970s has proliferated throughout urban America. According to their proponents, PBIDs are public-private partnerships that revitalize faded commercial areas by providing otherwise unavailable monies for beautification, sanitation, hospitality, and security. Governed by state and city law and administered by cities, PBIDs get their funding from the owners of property in each district, who have agreed to pay extra taxes for services that benefit only their property. Tenants or residents, including homeowners, in a PBID area have no say. In the election to establish a PBID, votes are weighted according to the assessed value of the business or land; the higher the assessment, the more the vote counts—so much for one person, one vote. The rationale for this undemocratic procedure is that the greater a property’s value, the more it benefits from the services, and thus the more those services are worth to the property owner.

Berkeley has three PBIDs. The largest and most active is located downtown and encompasses 325 commercial parcels and 186 landowners. The three biggest landowners in the district are, in descending order, the city of Berkeley, the University of California, and Equity Residential Corporation, the largest apartment owner in Berkeley and one of the largest in the United States. In the June 2011 election that established the downtown PBID, properties held by the big three represented 26 percent of the $859,560 PBID taxes levied on the 176 parcels whose owners cast ballots. The city, UC, and Equity all favored the PBID, whose establishment was approved by a weighted vote of 71 percent.

Business improvement districts further weaken the public realm by funneling their revenues to private contractors. In its first year, the downtown Berkeley PBID allocated $765,000 of its $1.2 million annual budget to Block by Block, a private corporation headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, that provides services to sixty-five business improvement districts in fifty-three U.S. cities, including New York, Santa Monica, and Oakland. Block by Block employees are not protected by civil service laws or union contracts; the company has aggressively resisted efforts to organize its workers. Block by Block employs fifteen “Ambassadors” to clean downtown Berkeley’s sidewalks, water and weed its plantings, and interact with its visitors. The Ambassadors make $13.50 an hour, or $27,000 a year—46 percent less than the starting salary of a Berkeley groundskeeper.

The council’s support of the downtown PBID sparked major controversy. But rather than protest the exploitation of labor or the hijacking of electoral democracy, critics assailed the Bates cohort for sanctioning the PBID’s attempt to privatize public space, criminalize the homeless, and suppress civil liberties in an effort to make downtown more palatable to what the PBID branding consultant called “the right kind of folks.”

Blocking doorways, streets, and sidewalks; aggressive panhandling; lying on commercial sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. except on Sunday; and having more than two stationary dogs in any ten-foot area are all illegal in Berkeley. In June 2012 Mayor Bates proposed expanding the definition of illegal street behavior to include sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts during business hours. At a rancorous council meeting in July, a hundred members of the public sang “We Shall Not be Moved” as the mayor and his five stalwarts voted to place his “Civil Sidewalks” proposal, Measure S, on the November ballot.


How has “this bastion of populist politics,” as Berkeley was characterized in a New York Times story last October, come to be governed by apologists for property capital?

The paradox begins to disappear once you recognize that the city’s famous grassroots activism is mostly history. Today no group can marshal Berkeley’s democratic energies the way progressive organizations did in the 1970s and 1980s, electing mayors and council majorities and instituting district elections, municipal campaign finance reform, the police review commission, and rent control. Opposition to today’s neoliberal city hall is ad hoc, reactive, and fragmentary, its weakness painfully evident at the polls.

The decisive electoral power in town is exercised through endorsements made by the Sierra Club and by the local Democratic Party machine, which is controlled by Bates, who represented Berkeley for twenty years in the state assembly before he became mayor; his wife State Senator Loni Hancock, herself a former Berkeley mayor and state assemblymember; and their protegée, Assemblymember Nancy Skinner. When these figures speak with a united voice, their will, usually underwritten by real estate interests, is insurmountable. Even when they are divided, only an exceptionally well-run campaign has a chance of thwarting their dictates.

Witness the failures of Measures S and T. Both were endorsed by Bates, Hancock, Skinner, and the Berkeley Democratic Club. The Alameda County Democratic Party endorsed T but stayed neutral on S. The Sierra Club also stayed neutral on S, whose ban on sidewalk sitting lay outside the club’s purview. But T had dire implications for the local environment. Indeed, the club had asked the council to protect a major park and its wildlife from the massive new development authorized by the measure. That request was denied. Nevertheless, the club remained neutral on T. (When it comes to Berkeley, the Sierra Club usually plays an insider’s game.) In short, the establishment was split.

Opponents of both measures ran strong, media-savvy grassroots campaigns that focused on voter education. The No on S campaign cited independent studies showing that similar ordinances in other California jurisdictions had neither increased retail sales nor connected homeless people to social services. In any case, Measure S, they observed, said nothing about funding for social services of any sort. They called for constructive alternatives: more shelter facilities and expanded outreach by social service professionals.

The Save West Berkeley campaign (which I helped lead) disabused voters of the notion that, to cite a Yes on T circular, the measure’s passage would bring the city “new ‘clean-and green’ businesses and jobs—and more tax revenue.” In fact, opponents argued, the deregulatory measure would benefit just a few big property owners while driving up rents and driving out industry, artists, and artisans. It also betrayed the city’s professed commitment to environmental leadership, as indicated by the EIR’s findings that traffic generated by the allowable new development would unavoidably worsen air pollution and gridlock all major intersections in the neighborhood.

Crucially, both opposition campaigns garnered important endorsements. The National Lawyers Guild and the East Bay Community Law Center joined the ACLU in opposing S; so did the Associated Students of the University of California; numerous religious leaders, most of the local Democratic clubs, and SEIU Local 1021. No on T was endorsed by prominent environmentalists and small business owners; neighborhood associations in the hills; and SEIU Local 1021. The San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Daily Californian, the independent student paper at UC, came out against the two measures.

Despite being grossly outspent, the opponents prevailed. The defeats of these measures were huge, but they merely maintained the status quo. Indeed, the most striking aspect of last November’s election was that the four incumbents who championed S and T—Bates and three of his five allies on the council (council terms are staggered)—were all returned to office with at least 54 percent of the vote.

How could voters oppose controversial ballot measures but support candidates who pushed those measures? Most important, Bates got the Sierra Club’s nod, in keeping with the club’s practice of endorsing incumbents whom it has previously supported. He also raked in campaign contributions, raising $102,160. Donations to Bates’s closest rival, Kriss Worthington, who got 22 percent of the vote, totaled $36,620. Bates received $21,700 from real estate interests; Worthington got nothing.

The real estate industry had an even greater impact on Councilmember Moore’s re-election treasury. Berkeley election law limits individual donations to candidates, including donations from unions and other electoral campaigns, to $250 but perversely allows unlimited contributions from committees formally unaffiliated with a candidate. The Los Angeles–based California Real Estate Independent Committee spent $18,350 on mailers and online ads promoting Moore’s campaign. The councilmember also netted $23,520 from individual donations, of which $6,250 came from real estate interests. Those interests accounted in all for $24,600 or 59 percent of his total funds. Moore’s two opponents raised between them $7,250.

It’s possible to surmount daunting disparities in campaign funds, as the victories over S and T demonstrated. But beating a well-financed incumbent requires something besides an intense grassroots effort and excellent publicity: a popular and adept candidate. No such challenger confronted either Bates or Moore. In fact, for opponents of Berkeley’s neoliberal regime, finding viable candidates is a perennial problem.

The viable candidate shortage is exacerbated by the city’s district elections. District elections arguably bind councilmembers closer to their constituents and reduce the cost of election campaigns. But in a small town (population 112,000) where 32 percent of the residents are college or graduate students, they drastically limit the field of prospective candidates. That said, I know seasoned activists in Moore’s district who would make strong contenders for his seat. I asked some of them to run against him last fall; they all declined. Some cited the measly pay; councilmembers’ salary is about $29,000 (the mayor gets $35,000) for demanding work that, when conscientiously performed, is a full-time job. Not incidentally, all but two members of the current council are either comfortably retired or drawing income from additional employment.

But Berkeleyans’ reluctance to run for office also betrays another motive: a low tolerance for the unpleasantness of political life. Besides blighting electoral ambitions, that attitude makes it hard to find people willing to attend a council meeting, serve on a city commission (a volunteer assignment), or sit on the board of a neighborhood association. Such activities are commonly dismissed as too boring, inconvenient, or contentious. Direct involvement in municipal affairs is scant until a matter strikes close to home, and then participation usually lasts only as long as it takes to address the immediate problem. Disengagement begets ignorance, and ignorance about municipal affairs helps to account for the influence of endorsements and the staying power of incumbents. If you don’t know what’s going on in city hall, you’ll likely mark the names on the ballot that you’ve marked in the past.

Ignorance also helps to explain the currency of the radical Berkeley myth in Berkeley. I’ve repeatedly watched residents attending their first council meeting express surprise, then consternation, and finally anger at the contempt with which the mayor and his allies address members of the public who cross him. “I thought this was Berkeley,” they mutter.


Such perplexity is compounded by the ambiguity of contemporary progressivism. At a public forum last December, one of Berkeley’s most distinguished residents, food writer Michael Pollan, voiced a sentiment often heard around town. The famous author opined that the city’s “left-wing reactionary phenomenon—the resistance to change—will give up at some point, I hope.” Pollan surely knows it’s the right, not the left, that’s customarily associated with reaction. His transposition of the two terms registers the predicament of the local left: too weak to effect its own programs, it can only defy the neoliberals who control city hall. More disconcerting, however, is Pollan’s wholesale disparagement of that resistance. To censure the dissent of the weak as reactionary is to cede legitimacy to power, while ignoring the ends to which power is being applied.

The fetishization of change provides the mayor and his allies with ideological cover, allowing them to style themselves as forward-looking progressives while casting their opponents as an intransigent rearguard. Critics of development are indiscriminately derided as NIMBYs whose alleged aversion to anything new condemns the city to economic stagnation. During the fight over Measure T, the NIMBY indictment was expanded to include accusations of nostalgia for a bygone, environmentally retrograde industrial economy. The Yes on T website marketed the ballot measure as a “smart growth opportunity that moves Berkeley from industrial zoning of the 1950’s to 21st century uses: green startups and innovative businesses that employ local residents.” The campaign’s mailers featured photos of abandoned, graffiti-scarred factory buildings and the warning that “[t]hings will stay the same if Measure T fails”—an absurd claim that played to Berkeleyans’ fixation on change and ignorance about local “things” (the city’s manufacturing space had a vacancy rate of only 2.9 percent). It almost worked: T lost by only 512 votes.

Such machinations exploit uncertainties about the meaning of progressivism that range far beyond Berkeley. “Nobody knows what the heck it means to be progressive anymore,” Tom Bates told the Daily Californian during the run-up to the 2010 election. Bates might have been exaggerating, but he certainly wasn’t complaining: his four-term mayoralty owes a great deal to the murkiness of the progressive tag, which, his demurral notwithstanding, routinely embellishes his campaign literature. Those who seek a renewal of the democratic left should complain plenty and set about dispelling the murk and exposing the principled disagreements that it obscures. Berkeley politics, with its competition for the city’s progressive mantle, is a fertile field for such a project.

The politics of land use offer an especially rich source of enlightenment. Consider, for example, the underpinnings of “smart growth,” a keyword in the Yes on T campaign, noted above, and in the push for every major development in the city. Ensconced in America’s top planning schools (including UC’s), state and local governments (including California’s and Berkeley’s), the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Protection Agency, smart growth has been the leading movement in American city and regional planning for almost thirty years. Its acumen purportedly derives from its followers’ antipathy to suburban sprawl and their promotion of compact development navigable by walking, biking and mass transit. Its critics find themselves denounced in progressive circles as both NIMBY reactionaries and abettors of global warming, a double charge whose plausibility has been enhanced by the Tea Party’s attacks on smart growth as a UN plot to deprive Americans of their property rights and personal liberty.

But you can believe in government regulation, the need to curb sprawl, and the catastrophic threat of global warming and still have serious doubts about smart growth. For starters, you can take umbrage at progressives allying themselves with the real estate industry. But this is the real estate industry constrained by environmental goals. Not where I live, it isn’t. So, for example, accessibility to transit is a precept of smart growth; West Berkeley is poorly served by transit, and the city’s EIR predicted that new development authorized by Measure T would lead to widespread gridlock. Nevertheless, the measure was endorsed by Livable Berkeley, the locally influential nonprofit that lobbies for smart growth in the city.

In like manner, the rhetoric of sustainability suffuses advertisements for the expansionist entreprenuerial university. As New York University Professor Andrew Ross contends, urban research universities sanctify their unbridled growth with the aura of “public goodness.” Just so, Berkeleyans are told that the colonization of downtown and West Berkeley by high-rent, UC spin-offs is essential to “meeting the global energy challenge.” But as Ross observes, the chief beneficiaries of such expansionism are FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) interests, whose charges are covered by taxes and students’ ever-rising tuition, while skyrocketing rents displace existing residents and businesses.

The struggle over land use in West Berkeley taps into another fissure on the left: a profound disagreement about U.S. manufacturing. On one side are smart growthers and others, including former Secretary of Labor and current UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich, who think domestic manufacturing belongs to a sclerotic “old” economy whose polluting relics should be swept away to make room for “green startups and innovative businesses.” On the opposite side stand MacArthur Foundation fellow and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Joel Rogers and others who observe that, now as ever, a robust manufacturing sector is crucial to technological innovation. They look to production-based ingenuity for an industrial ecology that, eschewing wastefulness for durability and utility, prizes repair, reuse, recycling—in short, sufficiency and resilience. And they see localized green manufacturing as a vehicle of shared prosperity and democratization.

Berkeley politics raise other questions about current left agendas. Last October the president of the Downtown Berkeley Association, John Caner, told a reporter that Berkeley was “the only progressive city on the West Coast” without an ordinance similar to Measure S. Portland, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, and Seattle all have “ugly” laws designed to exclude unsightly persons from commercial areas. What Caner didn’t say was that in all these cities, such laws have provoked bitter controversy. In an op-ed posted online last October, former Santa Cruz mayor Mike Rotkin averred that his city’s “civil sidewalks ordinance” was “a model for Berkeley.” Rotkin recalled that when he introduced that law in 1994, he set off “a storm of protest similar to what recently happened in Berkeley.” “‘Mike,’” asked his customary allies, “‘how could you propose something like this as [a] long standing progressive in our community?’”

At least the sequestering of the homeless and the privatization of the public realm are up for debate on the left. That’s not the case with another issue raised by current Berkeley politics: the appropriate compensation of cities’ unionized employees. I’m not talking about collective bargaining or the right to organize or automatic check-off of union dues. Nor am I referring to public school teachers. I’m talking about the salaries and benefits of municipal civil servants—specifically, the sort of outsized, unsustainable guarantees that Berkeley’s elected officials have granted the city’s unionized workforce, especially public safety and managerial personnel. In California, such guarantees are not uncommon. Question them and you’re likely to be told that “you sound like a Republican,” as if such misgivings could only be a pretense for attacking government spending, unions, and working people per se, or as if public officials were incapable of mismanagement. Fiscal prudence, not to be confused with neoliberal austerity, is a hallmark of democratic accountability. As such, it’s a quality that progressives ought to demand at every level of government.

Making such demands at the local level offers a unique opportunity to practice citizenship. Conventional wisdom associates Berkeley radicalism with the passionate “democracy in the streets” practiced by the New Left. In fact, Berkeley’s super-liberal reputation—and, more important, achievements—were secured by committed activists who pursued democracy beyond the streets and into the halls of municipal power, where they wrested seats away from a entrenched elite. The decline of such activism and the entrenchment of another elite reflects the ever-rising price of local real estate and the town’s concomitant gentrification. But the waning of radical Berkeley also betokens the American left’s neglect of organizing for the long haul, including its inadequate reckoning with politicking’s disagreeable qualities—the boredom, inconvenience, and contentiousness cited by many Berkeleyans—and the exacting terms of democratic leadership. Until that negligence is remedied, progressivism will languish, no matter how righteous or coherent its agenda.


In November 2008 a New York Times reporter interviewing Robert Reich commented, “[Y]ou are known to be an unreconstructed liberal, although that’s probably true of just about everyone in Berkeley.” Reich responded: “Labels mean less and less. Berkeley is wonderful, but here I am on the right of most arguments.” Reich, who endorsed Tom Bates in 2008 and 2012, knew that the Times’ readers, dependably ignorant about Berkeley affairs, would assume that any arguments that put him on the right must be coming from a far-out left.

But Reich also issued a perspicacious caveat: labels mean less and less. It would have been more perspicacious if he’d said the labels we have now, because labels aren’t the problem. As suggested by the current state of Berkeley politics, the problem for progressives is that many of our key labels have so loosened their grip on our circumstances that their use, which should animate our action, hinders it instead. That’s a problem we can fix.


Zelda Bronstein is a Bay Area activist and writer, and a former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission.

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