Time for the Democrats’ Chesa Boudin Moment!
If Not Now, When? If Not Him, Who?
The crushing recall of San Francisco’s stridently progressive District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, crystallizes just how much trouble Democrats are in on the crime issue. When voters in San Francisco—San Francisco!—throw a progressive Democrat out of office for failing to provide public safety, you know Democrats have an urgent need to assure voters that they are in fact determined to crack down on crime and to dissociate the party from approaches that fail to do so.
This is a wave that has been building for some time. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the nationwide movement sparked by it, the climate for police reform was highly favorable. But Democrats blew the opportunity by allowing the party to be associated with unpopular movement slogans like “defund the police” that did not appear to take public safety concerns very seriously.
At the same time, Democrats became associated with a wave of progressive public prosecutors who seemed quite hesitant about keeping criminals off the street, even as a spike in violent crimes like murders and carjacking sweeps the nation. This was twinned to a climate of tolerance and non-prosecution for lesser crimes that degraded the quality of life in many cities under Democratic control. San Francisco became practically a poster child for the latter problem under Chesa Boudin’s “leadership”.
So the voters kicked him out by a wide 60 percent to 40 percent margin. According to one analysis, about 40 percent of the votes for recall came from majority white areas of the city while 60 percent came from majority nonwhite areas. Based on the neighborhood pattern of voting and pre-election polling data, it seems clear that Asian voter support for the recall was particularly strong.
Nonwhite support for cashiering Boudin shouldn’t be surprising. The most enthusiastic supporters of a Boudin-style approach to policing tend to be white college-educated liberals. Nonwhite and working class voters approach the issue of crime quite differently. Think of Eric Adams’ support in his successful run for the New York mayoralty.
Adams wasn’t afraid to put public safety front and center in his political appeals and called out affluent professionals who think nonwhite and working class communities can do with less policing. He believed that this was what his constituencies wanted.
He wasn’t wrong about that, as suggested by his very strong working class and nonwhite support in the New York City mayoral primary. Indeed, these sentiments are dominant in urban areas all over the country. In heavily black Detroit, a USA Today/Suffolk University//Detroit Free Press poll found:
Amid a jump in violent crime in this and other cities nationwide, Detroit residents report being much more worried about public safety than about police misconduct…By an overwhelming 9-1, they would feel safer with more cops on the street, not fewer.
Or consider what happened in Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder took place. Here the closest thing to defunding the police actually got on the ballot (Question 2)…and was soundly defeated, especially by black working class voters.
These sentiments in pro-Democratic nonwhite and working class urban areas should not be puzzling. These voters tend to live in areas that have more crime and are therefore unlikely to look kindly on any approach that threatens public safety. A recent Pew poll found that black and Hispanic Democrats—who are far more urban and working class—are significantly more likely than white Democrats to favor more police funding in their area.
In this context, it’s worth dwelling on the leading role of Asian voters in the recall for a moment. I wrote a while ago about The Democrats’ Coming Asian Voter Problem. What happened in San Francisco is a near-perfect illustration of this emerging problem.
Start with the fact that Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in the country and Democrats have viewed their vote as an uncomplicated and burgeoning asset for them.
However, starting in 2020 there were troubling signs of attrition in Asian support for Democrats. The Asian vote for Democratic Congressional candidates weakened in some key races, particularly in California. And in Presidential voting in New York City, the very fast-growing Asian population in Queens swung strongly toward Trump. Matthew Thomas on his substack analyzed the data:
Precincts where at least 50% of residents are Asian swung 12 points toward Trump, the second-largest shift among racial enclaves in Queens. Again, the movement was larger in areas that are even more homogenous: precincts where at least 75% of residents are Asian had a pro-Trump swing of 16 points, with over a third of voters now backing the Republican nominee.
Since 2020, the danger signs have increased significantly, of which the Boudin recall is the latest example. According to Pew, Biden last year lost support twice as fast among Asian voters as among whites. And in the November Virginia gubernatorial election, results from the AP-NORC VoteCast survey (more reliable than the highly flawed exit polls) indicated that Virginia’s heavily Asian “other race” category, which gave Biden a strong 19 point advantage in 2020, slipped to a mere 6 point advantage for Democrat Terry McAuliffe in 2021. Republican Glenn Youngkin carried 46 percent of these voters in his upset victory.
The reasons for this slippage track perfectly with the results in San Francisco. One problem has been that Asians are worried about public safety and leery of a Democratic party that has become associated with “defund the police” and a soft approach to containing crime. Another has been that Asians, like Hispanics, are a constituency that does not harbor particularly radical views on the nature of American society and how it must be remade to cleanse it of intrinsic racism and white supremacy, a viewpoint increasingly identified with Democrats. They are far more interested in how they and their families can get ahead in actually-existing American society.
Finally, there is perhaps the key issue for many Asian voters: education. It is difficult to overestimate how important education is to Asian voters, who see it as the key tool for upward mobility—a tool that even the poorest Asian parents can take advantage of. But Democrats have become increasingly associated with an approach to schooling that seems anti-meritocratic, oriented away from standardized tests, gifted and talented programs and test-in elite schools—all areas where Asian children have excelled.
This of course was a huge issue in San Francisco, where the School Board pushed this approach up to and including replacing the rigorous entrance test for the famed Lowell School with a lottery. That move, combined with the School Board’s bizarre obsession with an “anti-racist” school renaming project even as schools remained closed and students suffered, angered Asian parents and others so much that they took the lead in successfully recalling three of the ringleaders of this approach, a clear precursor to the current recall.
So Democrats are hemorrhaging support among Asian voters, alienating other nonwhite voters with their lax approach to public safety and losing many formerly loyal white liberals and moderates who are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore”. What to do?
The answer seems clear to me. It’s time for Democrats to adopt former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s felicitous slogan: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Conservative outlets like Fox News may exaggerate but voters really do want law and order—done fairly and humanely, but law and order just the same. Democrats still seem reluctant to highlight their commitment to cracking down on crime and criminals because that is something that, well, Fox News would say.
This has got to stop. Weakness on crime damages the Democrats’ brand and especially hurts some of their most vulnerable constituents. As London Breed, the Democratic mayor of San Francisco who will appoint Boudin’s successor, put it:
It’s time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end. And it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement. More aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.
Breed is definitely onto something. Normie voters hate crime and want something done about it. They’re not particularly impressed by disembodied talk about the availability of guns that does not include enforcing the law against the criminals who actually use these guns. Nor do they respond well to assurances that progressive approaches to law enforcement that include less law enforcement will—eventually—work even as crime surges and the quality of life deteriorates. Boudin tried exactly that line of argument and it didn’t work.
Biden (or some other leading Democrat) should say something like this, as recommended by Charlie Sykes at The Bulwark:
We must continue the fight for social justice, but it should not come at the price of public safety. In some of our biggest cities we have folks who think that we shouldn’t put criminals in jail or downplay the dangers of violent crime. They are wrong. We have to protect our families and our neighborhoods.
And then name some names. I think you know who I have in mind. It’s time for the Democrats’ Chesa Boudin Moment!