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On Tuesday evening voters recalled three members of the San Francisco school board. Even though I live all the way over in Franklin, Tennessee, I cheered. The reason isn’t because I want to have a voice in San Francisco’s curriculum. I want San Franciscans to govern San Francisco. As a matter of governance, Tuesday’s recall was an example of local citizens asserting local control.
As a matter of precedent, however, the recall had a greater meaning. It represented the triumph of reason over radicalism. It provided an example not of how the right can beat the left, but rather of how the left can regulate and reform the left—an example that can and should be emulated on the right.
I spent much of yesterday diving into the dispute, including by reaching out to folks who were engaged on the ground, and I know that the backstory is more complicated than the simple narrative that the recalled board members were too “woke” even for America’s most progressive city.
It’s a story instead of incompetence, indifference, ideology, and intimidation. It wasn’t just that San Francisco schools were slow to open; it’s that the board didn’t seem to possess any sense of urgency at all. And it’s important to provide context. The complaint wasn’t that San Francisco schools opened slowly compared with, say, Alabama or Tennessee schools; it’s that they opened slowly compared with private schools and public schools in school districts nearby.
In other words, even in a state that opened more slowly and cautiously than most, San Francisco lagged behind.
And then, while schools remained closed, the board voted 6–1 to rename 44 schools, including schools named after Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Dianne Feinstein. The decision not only demonstrated misplaced priorities; it was embarrassing on its own terms.
When The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner interviewed Gabriela López, the head of the San Francisco Board of Education, he exposed a series of rather sloppy historical errors. A sampling:
The reason I bring this up is that some of the historical reasoning behind these decisions has been contested—not so much how we should view the fact that George Washington was a founder of the country and a slave holder but, rather, factual things like Paul Revere’s name being removed for the Penobscot Expedition, which was not actually about the colonization of Native American lands. And so there were questions about whether historians should have been involved to check these things.
I see what you’re saying. So, for me, I guess it’s just the criteria was created to show if there were ties to these specific themes, right? White supremacy, racism, colonization, ties to slavery, the killing of indigenous people, or any symbols that embodied that. And the committee shared that these are the names that have these ties. And so, for me, at this moment, I have the understanding we have to do the teaching, but also I do agree that we shouldn’t have these ties, and this is a way of showing it.
O.K. Well, I just mentioned the Paul Revere thing. I know there was a question about James Russell Lowell and whether he wanted Black people to vote, which he was actually in favor of. The name of this businessman, James Lick, was ordered removed because his foundation funded an installation that didn’t go up until almost two decades after he died.
Right, I see what you mean.
But that’s not something you’re concerned about?
No. I mean, I wouldn’t phrase it that way, either. I think it would just require more dialogue. I know the committee is still meeting, and they’re still open to that. So it’s not that it’s not a concern. I think it’s something that’s missing without a dialogue.
I could continue with more about the underlying controversies, including more about school reopenings and more about hard-left ideology. I recommend reading Clara Jeffery’s comprehensive report in Mother Jones, and her framing of the recall as a “vote to put performance over performativeness” is helpful. But I want to move on to something else, the true matter of national importance—the courage that it took to mount reasonable objections to unreasonable policies.
Concerned parents endured an extraordinary backlash. Critics of the school board reported being publicly shamed. They were called racist, faced doxing (public exposure of private information), and were bombarded with accusations of “white-momming.” They were called “angry professional women” for demanding a plan to reopen schools and for desperately seeking alternatives when schools remained closed.
Even to this day—even after their landslide win—some dissenting parents are hesitant to disclose their identities. The political atmosphere was (and is) that toxic.
While San Francisco’s educational issues are largely unique to San Francisco (on reopening, it was an outlier among outliers), the pattern of extremism and intimidation is not. That’s now the norm in American political discourse. In deep-blue districts, dissent from the far left is all too often deemed “racist.”
In fact, a group calling itself SF Progressives tweeted yesterday, “Of course we knew it already, but white supremacy is alive & very well in San Francisco.”
There’s a mirror image of this extremism and intimidation in deep-red America, except the accusations change. Dissent from the far right isn’t “racist.” Instead it’s “woke” or it’s “weak.” Even worse, just this week Reuters reported on escalating right-wing threats against school officials, threats that in many ways mirror the campaign of harassment and intimidation directed toward election officials nationwide.
These extremist attacks on reasonable dissent are endemic in a political culture that is too often ruled by radicalized wings. This fundamental dynamic was perhaps best described by a study called Hidden Tribes, a project that posited that American political culture is far more complex and nuanced than the red-blue binary implies.
In fact, the study found, America is populated by a number of groups or tribes that defy neat red/blue distinctions. These different groups run from “progressive activists” on the far left to “devoted conservatives” on the far right. These “wings” represent a mere 14 percent of the population (33 percent when combined with less intense “traditional conservatives”), yet they dominate American political discourse.
Between them exists the “exhausted majority.” They’re not all moderates. They’re the two-thirds of Americans on the right, left, and center who are described as fed up with polarization, feel forgotten in public discourse, and are flexible enough in their views that they’re willing to compromise.
This is the group that has the potential to save America from escalating animosity and polarization. It has the numbers and the latent power to transform American politics. But so long as it remains “exhausted” or perhaps “intimidated,” then the wings will reign.
In fact, the voices of this group have already been heard in different places and different contexts. Indeed, Joe Biden’s primary victory in 2020 was a repudiation of more radical Democratic voices. So was Eric Adams’s victory in the 2021 New York mayoral contest. Far-left concepts like “defunding the police” are rapidly receding from American discourse.
On the right there are signs of a thaw, most notably in the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention. The nation’s largest Protestant denomination turned back a fundamentalist takeover and instead narrowly elected a leader known far more for pastoral care and racial reconciliation than for political partisanship.
In an interesting way, two groups of “fed up” Americans are squaring off, confronting each other from within their own partisan tribes. There are Americans who are fed up with normal and want a revolution, and there are Americans who are fed up with revolution and want something more normal. The latter voice is the majority voice, but it is all too often bullied into silence.
So that’s why San Francisco matters. Not because its eighth-grade math curriculum is relevant to me in Tennessee—and not because I particularly care what it calls its schools—but because when the exhausted majority stood up, it demonstrated that reason can, in fact, triumph over radicalism. America’s political future does not necessarily belong to its angry extremes.