In 2017 I directed a documentary called Kill All Normies, which was based on Angela Nagle’s book of the same name. The film, like the book, was about the online origins of the modern far right. At the end of it, Nagle says, “Perhaps it’s time for something new—something other than the endless culture wars and the politics of identity. Time to stop chasing the countercultures, and instead, look to the normies.”
In last week’s midterm election, American voters followed her advice.
The anticipated Big Red Wave never materialized. That’s because, as it turned out, the electorate’s distrust of the woke left, which was supposed to fuel huge Republican gains, was matched by its disdain for the MAGA right. Centrist Democrats like Abigail Spanberger and Elissa Slotkin kept their seats. Trumpist Republicans like Mehmet Oz and Tudor Dixon lost. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Republican Governor whom Trump had been undermining for months, won huge.
Trump’s political collapse is getting most of the media attention, but it’s only part of the story. A fuller picture comes into view when you also look at what happened in deep blue cities like Portland, Oakland, and San Francisco, where the activist left also got pummeled. The election results in these bluest of blue places align with the mood of the electorate at large: nationally and locally, the election was a rejection of ideological zealots, whether they’re Trump MAGA election deniers or radical left police abolitionists. Tired of extremism and chaos, Americans are voting for normal people who think normalcy is a good thing.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Portland reporting on the governor’s race for Common Sense. I interviewed the residents of a “floating home” community on the Columbia River who lived across the street from a nature preserve that had been taken over by the largest of Portland’s 700 homeless encampments. Neighbors told me there were meth labs on the site, an industrial scale chop shop with over 150 stolen cars, and dead bodies buried in the camp’s marshes. The floating homes residents’ cars were getting broken into and stolen on a routine basis. Some neighbors’ dogs had been kidnapped by the camp’s inhabitants and held for ransom. One floating home resident came home to find a homeless person in his shower.
Stories like these abound in Portland, especially downtown, where sidewalks are clogged with tents and open drug use is ubiquitous. Even lifelong progressive Democrats I spoke to complained about the city’s incessant lawlessness and the inability or unwillingness of the police to do anything about it.
During the long, hot summer of Black Lives Matter, downtown Portland was subjected to an entire year of rioting, during which activists smashed windows, threw garbage cans at passing cars, and tried to set fire to the federal courthouse. Some local politicians cheered the protesters on. City Commissioner Jo Anne Hardesty accused the police of “starting the fires themselves.” The current governor-elect, then Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, chastised the police for using tear gas against protesters who were throwing frozen water bottles and rocks at them. Later, her legislative director was arrested for participating in the riots.
The riots are over, but anti-police political criminality continues in Portland. A café owner I recently spoke to had her business’ windows smashed and the inside of her shop spray painted in the middle of the night a few weeks ago by anti-police activists because she had announced she was hosting a “Coffee with a Cop” event at which neighbors could talk to Portland police officers.
Hardesty, who, in addition to leading the charge to defund the Portland police has also opposed the mayor’s public camping ban, became a political symbol of the chaos that has taken over the city. As famous as Portland is for its far-left politics, residents have long been fed up with the disorder that has come to characterize their city. In a survey last year, three-quarters of Portlanders said they opposed defunding the police. In a poll last month, 82 percent of Portlanders expressed support for increasing the police force. Hardesty was challenged this year by a police union-endorsed candidate running on a law-and-order platform. He won by nearly ten points.
Other West Coast cities saw similar electoral outcomes. In Oakland, where I live, it’s likely that City Councilmember Loren Taylor will be the next Mayor. Taylor’s main opponent in the race was Councilmember Sheng Thao. After the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Thao helped lead the effort to current Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposed police budget by $18 million. The only councilmembers to vote against the cut were Taylor, who represents some of the highest-crime areas of the city, and the councilmember representing the even more crime-plagued district to his east.
“The defund movement, those who are calling for it, it is rarely those who are from my district—Deep East Oakland—that is saddled with the highest numbers of gun violence, the highest crimes, the highest number of calls for 911 response,” Taylor told me in an interview last year. He was too polite to say it, but what he meant was that those demands were coming from activist kids who lived in the safer parts of town.
A few days after the vote, on Independence Day, Oakland experienced what Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong described as “12 hours of nonstop chaos.” Along a stretch of about 3 ½ miles of the city there were seven separate shootings, two of them fatal.
In the midst of this surge in homicides, defunding the police started to lose its edgy political appeal in Oakland. The following April, the council gave $10 million back to the police department.
By the time of the mayoral campaign this year, Thao, trailing Taylor, was singing a wildly different tune, presenting herself as the candidate who “improved officer recruitment” and disparaging Taylor as “ineffective and indecisive on public safety.” It was a head-spinning reversal from the politics of just two years ago in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. But surging crime rates can have that effect.
Across the Bay, in San Francisco, a similar political sea change was underway. Last June, Chesa Boudin, the infamously lenient former District Attorney, was ousted in a recall election just a year and a half into his tenure. On his watch, public camping, open drug use and property crime had become so endemic that merchants in the Castro District, who had suffered $135,000 worth of damage in smashed windows even while struggling with decreased revenues due to COVID, threatened a tax strike. The Tenderloin neighborhood in downtown San Francisco had long been an open-air drug market, but with the emptying of city streets due to the pandemic, drug dealers and users spilled out across Market Street, deep into SoMa. Sidewalks were congested with passed-out addicts sprawled out on the concrete, next to shifty-eyed dealers hawking methamphetamines and fentanyl out in the open, in broad daylight. SoMa residents were organizing themselves into committees for self-protection. Residents of one apartment building organized a Slack channel to warn each other of when the drug dealers outside were carrying machetes or shooting at each other.
In last week’s election, every candidate in a viably contested race who had opposed Boudin’s recall either lost or are on their way to losing.
That included Gordon Mar, a Chinese supervisor in a heavily Chinese district, who was defeated by a white candidate who campaigned on a public safety platform and who made Mar’s support for Boudin a central campaign issue. It included Honey Mahogany, who challenged Matt Dorsey, the appointed supervisor of the district that includes SoMa. During the summer of BLM, Mahogany had expressed support for “defunding the police, even abolishing the police,” though, following public opinion, she did an about face from her anti-police politics during the campaign. Dorsey, on the other hand, is a former communications director for the San Francisco Police Department, and he ran on arresting drug dealers and pushing addicts into treatment. He won by 15 points.
Most importantly, Brooke Jenkins, a former Assistant District Attorney under Boudin who had quit and become one of the public faces of the recall, won by 14 points over her closest rival. In September, Jenkins pledged her support for charging fentanyl dealers whose sales could be connected to fatal overdoses with murder. She was attacked by the Public Defender and his allies for that statement, but 69 percent of San Francisco’s famously liberal voters agree with her.
There are, admittedly, several significant exceptions to this defeat of the woke left in West Coast cities. As of this writing, Pamela Price, a progressive candidate in the mold of Chesa Boudin who is running for Alameda County District Attorney in the East Bay, is slightly ahead of her rival in the vote count, though the election is still too close to call. And in Los Angeles, a self-styled “revolutionary” who supports defunding the LAPD is the city’s new Controller, and a police abolitionist just won a City Council seat, joining another abolitionist who won in a primary election earlier this year. L.A. seems to be moving to the left as other cities have pivoted to the center, in part due to the organizing prowess of the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
The electoral outcomes this year in Oakland, San Francisco and Portland, and last year in Seattle, where a law-and-order Republican became City Attorney, were all years in the making. They were the long-awaited corrections to the hysterical excesses of the summer of 2020. If voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire checked the hubris of the election-denying MAGA right, voters in San Francisco, Oakland, and Portland ended the short reign of the nihilistic left.
In the run-up to the election, Democrats were fond of saying that democracy was on the ballot. But what was really on the ballot was sanity. For the last several years, on both the left and the right, politics had been hijacked by the activist base of each party. Governing had come to be defined, in Nagle’s words, by “endless culture wars and the politics of identity.” It resulted in school closures and prolonged lockdowns, spiraling inflation, violence and mayhem in our cities, cosplaying “insurrectionists” and election conspiracy theories. Biden had promised normalcy but had never delivered it. So voters took it for themselves. Let’s hope they can keep it.