Can Michael Shellenberger’s Centrism Save California?
Despite nearly half of Californians now disapproving of Governor Gavin Newsom, there has lacked a viable alternative to one-party Democratic rule. Now Newsom, who only narrowly defeated conservative challenger Larry Elder, is the most vulnerable statewide Democratic incumbent since Governor Gray Davis was recalled. Running to challenge Newsom is Michael Shellenberger, a former progressive running as an independent. Shellenberger is best known as the author of the book, San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, and proclaims that he can save California with a platform primarily focused on practical issues such as education, crime, homelessness, and infrastructure.
Mellissa Chen, a journalist and free speech advocate who is infamous for proclaiming that “Bukkake is infrastructure,” tweeted that “What's remarkable about @ShellenbergerMD 's campaign for Governor of CA is that he is uniting Bernie Bros, MAGA, Never Trumpers & liberals in a broad coalition. He's exciting Moms too. Californians are desperate to reverse the decline that Newsom and his admin have presided over.” Shellenberger’s campaign is gaining traction with a big-tent coalition of groups that usually don’t see eye to eye, including dissident centrists, neoliberals, neocons, family oriented moderate voters, libertarians, Trump supporters, Yang-gang, and non-woke Bernie Sanders supporters.
Shellenberger has positions that align with the left, including support for “abortion rights, gun safety regulation, the $15 minimum wage, universal health care, collective bargaining rights, and alternatives to incarceration for drug-related violations of the law.” He is also fairly liberal on immigration, an issue which many populists blame for California’s inequality. However, he has been outspoken against the influence of leftwing activists on Governor Newsom’s handling of education, homelessness, and crime, and opposes Wokeism, which he calls a religion. As a Maverick, he has been described as a Radical Centrist, a term I also use to describe my viewpoints, and declared that “true conservatives protect civilization; true liberals care for the vulnerable; true libertarians fight for freedom. As governor, I will do all three, and stand up to unbalanced extremists.” As a rationalist, he fits under the umbrella of the grey tribe rather than the blue or red tribes. In many ways he is just an old school liberal who places faith in liberal institutions and believes that the progressive left’s objective is now “aimed at fundamentally dismantling institutions.” However, I would say that the woke left wants hegemony over institutions rather than to dismantle them.
Shellenberger is often associated with the Intellectual Dark Web, a sphere which gets its share of legitimate criticisms. For instance the IDW has a reputation for gatekeeping, as so far as presenting themselves as the respectable alternative to the mainstream, at the expense of other dissident viewpoints. My impression is that a lot of IDW types are wannabe elite technocrats and frankly, they would do a much better job in that role than those currently in power. Shellenberger does come across as a bit of a technocrat, in the sense of being a policy wonk dedicated to implementing his policy objectives. Andrew Yang was also called a technocrat for wanting a more efficient government and Shellenberger has come out in favor of UBI stating that “We need transaction (government)-free stimulus, not the inefficient pork of the past.” This especially rings true in California where state revenue is wasted on inefficient bureaucracy and woke pork while Newsom excluded a large swath of low income Californians from stimulus checks.
There is a huge backlash against the woke left, where even in ultra-liberal San Francisco, leftwing schoolboard members were recently recalled. Shellenberger’s strongest appeal is to the significant demographic that detests woke culture but also dislikes Trump, or who are turned off by the optics and decorum of the right for social and class reasons. Newsom’s policies and woke culture have even alienated a large portion of affluent voters who previously leaned democrat. Even California’s wealthy, who have long lived in a bubble, are now feeling the negative impacts of woke education policy and urban decay. Shellenberger’s decorum and polices can successfully appeal to the disaffected elements of the educated well off SWPL demographic, while getting the best of liberal elites who stand in the way of change. He also has support from the business community and Silicon Valley, including “WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, who have contributed the legal maximum to his campaign.” Some populists may be skeptical of this elite support but the reality is that you need a segment of elite support to win.
Shellenberger may be a moderate but he is willing to tackle crucial issues that have long been neglected. Like, Andrew Yang, he is putting psychological issues front and center in politics. For instance in a talk about self-help culture on Brain Bar, Shellenberger discussed how the mental health crisis of alienation, anxiety, and depression, is a byproduct of a broader social shift away from community based societies to individualism, and that people are generally much happier in communities. California is one of the most individualistic places, in perhaps the world, and is where a lot of self-help culture originated, which Shellenberger acknowledges deserves its share of criticisms. Even Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, who is about as establishment as it gets, declared loneliness a public health crisis.
Shellenberger has addressed the inter-generational wealth gap, tweeting that “If Boomers are going to borrow trillions from Millennials to save an economic system they disproportionately benefit from, aren't Boomers morally obligated to accept more housing in their neighborhoods and cities? Asking as a Gen Xer.” He also admitted a controversial angle of intergenerational warfare to the housing crisis in California in that “Baby Boom NIMBYs were denying Millennials abundant housing long before this crisis Shouldn't Millennials finally get the abundant housing & livable cities they've long wanted in exchange to lending trillions to save the system that Boomers most benefit from?”
Shellenberger is sympathetic to the YIMBY argument that we need to dramatically increase the supply of housing, proclaiming that “All cities around the world grow the same way. All cities add taller buildings near mass transit like subway systems and buses,” and that “We can protect the natural beauty of our state and our communities, and add more housing so young families can afford to live here and stay here.” However a segment of left-YIMBYs dislike him because of his more nuanced approach. For instance his platform also states that “Housing also deeply divides our state and we need the thoughtful deliberation citizens' juries provide on this key issue. We need more housing, but we also need to protect the character of our neighborhoods.” He has also been accused of being a sprawl apologist with his proclamation that Dear Fellow YIMBYS: Urban Density is Wonderful but we also need more suburbs.
As far as allegations that Shellenberger is a sprawl apologist, he did criticize the Bay Area’s “strong urban growth boundaries and extended lucrative “conservation easements” to prevent cattle ranches and farmlands within commuting distances of San Francisco from being converted into housing subdivisions.” He puts forth a comprise of protecting the Bay Area’s wilderness while developing farmland into housing. Schellenberger choses to reside in the Berkeley Hills which is highly sought after because it encapsulates the urban/wilderness convergence. It would be tragic to see the Bay Area’s immense greenbelt system paved over for sub-divisions. Sprawl development in far out exurbs is not ideal either. However, there is strong demand for single family homes and townhouses, not just apartments, and the lot-split bill Sb9 has not generated the amount of new housing permits as anticipated. It is possible to focus most new growth on infill and still build enough family oriented units without sprawl development. However, the problem is not just NIMBYism but also bad urban policies that a lot of Left-YIMBYs support, that exacerbate the demand for sprawl. Shellenberger’s focus is on solving bad urban policy.
On the environment and energy he calls for nuclear energy “to end air pollution and carbon emissions,” and that “abundant and cheap energy means we can have abundant and cheap water,” with “water storage, water recycling, and cutting-edge desalination.” He also calls out “Governor Gavin Newsom, who owes his career to the Getty Oil fortune” for “trying to replace our last nuclear plants with fossil fuels,” and blames Newsom for the rolling blackouts due to “being “in the pocket of Pacific Gas and Electric.” Shellenberger has also been at odds with much of the leftwing environmental movement with his book, the Death of Global Warming in a Post-Environmental World. However, he is far from being a climate denier and describes his vision as pro-human environmentalism, and is also a proponent of bright green environmentalism which calls for technology and innovation as the solution to environmental problems. I’d say that depends upon a case by case basis but he is definitely right about nuclear energy.
California’s public school system is a total failure, which according to Shellenberger “just 30% of children proficient in math and 50% proficient in reading.’ His platform on educations calls for “school choice,” and the “personalization of education,” which includes “vocational education, while also teaching children the basics.” We especially need more school choice and a personalization and specialization based approach to education. However, Shellenberger is misguided for calling for that “The school day should be longer,” and that “The school year must be longer than nine months.” The purpose of public education is not just education, but schools also function as daycare for working parents and as a mechanism to maintain mass society. When I was in high school, I benefited from certain classes but felt that the overall structure and timeframe was excessive and unproductive. There needs to be specialization and flexibility that takes into account different students’ and demographic groups’ specific needs in regards to the timeframe and built environment.
California has the worst homeless crisis in the nation and in the State’s history. Shellenberger calls for a “"Shelter First" policy and a ban on illegal camping,” a statewide psychiatric and addiction care system, Cal-Psych, because the county-based system is expensive and wasteful and counties are overwhelmed,” and “to enforce laws to save our cities and get addicts and the mentally ill the help they need.” His approach isn’t “bootstraps” Reaganism but rather a carrot-stick approach using incentive structures. The potential costs and civil liberties concerns will likely be brought up but his proposals would be a vast improvement over the status quo. Not to mention ending the corruption from state revenue for the homeless being sucked up by private individuals, firms, and nonprofits. Looking at how cities deal with the homeless crisis, there are more conservative cities in the Sunbelt that have a zero tolerance approach to homelessness while New York City has been successful in housing the homeless. The problem with LA and the Bay Area is a kind of left-libertarian approach where encampments are tolerated while there isn’t any serious effort to house the homeless.
On crime Shellenberger states that “We don't have to choose between mass incarceration and mass crime but that means we need the Three Key P's: more police, more probation, and more psychiatry for addicts and the mentally ill,” that “Liberal European nations spend more money on police and have more police than we do in the U.S,” and that “I'm going to make sure that cities hire more of them, and that they are trained well, so as to prevent violence, corruption, and abuse.” This balanced approach to crime is reasonable as there is rising crime due to leftwing policies but there were abuses during the tough on crime era and mass incarceration is unsustainable.
It is naïve to believe that there is the perfect candidate who can save California, just as MAGA was naïve to believe that Trump could take back America. Shellenberger is no Trump supporter and his decorum and politics couldn’t be more different. However, like Trump was symbolic of the last gasp of Americanism, Shellenberger symbolizes the last gasp of California values that were pro-diversity and socially tolerant but where there was some semblance of meritocracy, economic opportunities, and a strong middle class. There are parallels to the critique that Bill Maher and IDW types such as Sam Harris and Bari Weiss, are just reactionaries for 90s liberalism. This politics also applies to Joel Kotkin, who writes about the end of the California Dream and the incoming neo-feudalism, but who is also very rigid, insisting that only the model of suburban single family living and liberal capitalist meritocracy can save the California Dream. To be fair, there is more depth to Shellenberger’s campaign than reactionary California 90s liberalism. For instance he puts forth the Netherlands as a model for policy rather than either blue or red State America.
Shellenberger may not be the savior of California but he can put the brakes on the decline and mass exodus out of the State. This gives California more time to build a new paradigm, as there is a narrow window, as far as salvaging California. This is especially pertinent if dissident intellectuals and innovators, plus a large portion of the youth of the middle to upper class leave the State. Accelerationism, “worse is better”, might make some sense in the context of national politics but not in California due to the exodus. I predict that the exodus will accelerate if Newsom is re-elected and Newsom benefits from the exodus, as it functions as a safety valve for discontent. It is easy to virtue signal that Californians want and deserve better from their leaders, but at the end of the day, who a state elects reflects upon the caliber of the citizens.
The other main selling point for Shellenberger is electability. Newsom lucked out because the recall was dominated by conservatives. Newsom took his governorship for granted after he defeated the recall election, even if by a slim margin against a conservative candidate. Newsom is so confident of democratic political hegemony that he has hardly even tried to secure votes other than the gas rebates. Newsom is more focused on battling culture war issues in red states and fundraising for the national Democratic Party, than on California issues, which have been totally neglected. The anti-democratic mentality and sense of entitlement from Democrat partisans is encapsulated by the LA Times lumping Shellenberger in with “long-shot candidates” that are “hoping to deny the Democratic governor a second term in November.”
California has had a lot of anti-establishment candidates who had interesting ideas but were longshots. Shellenberger represents a type of centrist who is electable. He is harder to smear than Larry Elder, though I expect really stupid smears, such as he was a guest on Joe Rogan, and “therefore is a fascist.” Since the June election is a jungle primary, Shellenberger only needs to come in second place and will likely make it to the general election. To get elected he just needs the recall voters, and then enough voters who don’t like Newsom but voted against the recall because they found Larry Elder too extreme, to put him over edge. He can win with a coalition of Independents, Republicans, and disaffected Democrats, with the two demographics that can help put him over the edge, being upper middle class moderate families and the growing segment of Latino voters who are now souring on Biden and the Democratic Party.
I endorse Michael Shellenberger for governor and plan on voting for him. While Shellenberger has flaws and there is no one who matches my views completely, I expect him to take care of the practical issues that are needed to fix, in order to maintain some semblance of civilization. He could face obstructionism from partisan Democrats in the legislature but I expect his success to come from working with mayors who are open to his ideas. There is a sense that California is a lost cause and electing him would be a morale boost for California.