Not since St. George fought the dragon has there been a more obvious target than McDonald's in San Francisco. Or plastic bags, or Big Tobacco. (At least the dragon would be supported by animal-rights activists.)

With villains like that to rail against, there's no downside to local politicians going after them. On the contrary: Progressives — and nannying moderates — in San Francisco have found a winning strategy. For all that the Chamber of Commerce and its ilk may complain about "crazy" progressive government, they couldn't unseat Ross Mirkarimi or Chris Daly when it came time for re-election, and they supported Gavin Newsom, who has arguably been the banningist politician of all. The last time a sitting supervisor lost his seat was in the Willie Brown era. Nobody has lost an election in San Francisco by going "too far."

"Too far" can even be a good thing for a politician's reputation. After getting his plastic bag ban, Mirkarimi was a sought-after speaker at environmental conferences around the world. After getting his Happy Meal toy ban, Mar was invited to speak at an obesity conference at Yale. If you're already a politician amenable to intrusive government, there's an incentive to being the most intrusive.

By contrast, substantive legislation even less Sisyphean than improving school lunches is maddeningly difficult and doesn't get you big headlines. If the aim is actually to solve a problem, then it's worth it. But if the goal is to remind voters that you're taking on somebody or something they don't like, why do the extra work? A politician just needs to look busy.

"You have a very attentive political population that has a lot of turnover," USF's Cook notes. "That creates an environment whereby elected officials are constantly being expected to perform." San Francisco politicos "constantly need to remind the voting population about the issues — and that they're working on them. They have to gravitate toward constantly being perceived as being active on an issue."

While conservatives may be thrilled to take away other people's civil liberties, only liberals are enthusiastic about taking away their own. SF State professor Jason McDaniel says as San Franciscans have grown more affluent — with many poorer minorities leaving town — "lifestyle politics issues" have caught on: "I think these kinds of constituents like these kinds of issues — the plastic bag ban, water bottle type issues."

In San Francisco, those are the issues that are left. A lot of the liberal heavy lifting here has already been done. Are there substantive battles to ensure gay rights this city has not yet fought? We already have restrictive zoning laws; we have programs to give homeless people free housing; we're leading the nation in support services for people with HIV. Commission on racism? Got that. Animal Welfare Commission? Done. Peak Oil Task Force? Naturally. Ranked-choice voting, public financing of elections, and an ethics commission? Check. Citywide health care plan? We've got one.

Certainly more can be done, and sometimes what has been done needs drastic improvement — the city has famously sunk billions into helping the homeless, but can't quantifiably say it has made things that much better. Essentially, the low-hanging fruit has been picked. If you want to address progressive priorities meaningfully at the city level at this point, that means toiling away on accurate homeless counts, bus-only lanes, or developing measurable criteria for city-funded nonprofits to meet. These are all necessary incremental steps in complicated issues that are slow to move — which, to many voters, can look like a politician is not working at all.

Going after symbolic targets, on the other hand: People notice that. According to McDaniel, waging war against Big Tobacco, plastic bags, or Happy Meals "is a win-win situation for politicians who advocate these things. You don't have to mobilize large interest groups; you don't have to get a lot of feet on the ground in campaigns; you don't have a lot of money to bear. You don't risk losing votes and you tend to not risk turning off your allies."

Also, and perhaps most importantly, you don't have to solve the problem you're addressing, or even make progress on the issue. You just have to be "active" on it.

Today's San Francisco legislators are not incapable of authoring substantive laws — Supervisor David Campos' spirited defense of the city's sanctuary policies, Tom Ammiano's establishment of Healthy SF, and Ross Mirkarimi's re-entry legislation for ex-offenders are all examples. But the pressure to churn out legislation — to be "proactive" — can lead to the path of least resistance: inconsequential and flashy laws. And in San Francisco, we like flashy.

Until progressives and Mary Poppins moderates know they can be voted out of office for not being substantive enough, we can expect more Happy Meal bans. Even if the most effective step the city could take to fight childhood obesity — improving school lunches — is one that doesn't actually expand the role of government at all.


A government doesn't have to be progressive to pass a largely symbolic law — or a stupid one. Recently, Oklahoma passed a ballot measure banning the use of Islamic Sharia law in court — even though it never has been and, according to the U.S. Constitution, never could be. The state of Arizona's immigration law mandating that police demand possible illegal immigrants' papers is also a case of a jurisdiction supersizing itself.

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