San Francisco has real family values: If you want paid parental leave — and other civilized laws — it helps to live in a city

The so-called "Big Sort" might be making us more polarized, but it also feels necessary now for progressive goals

Published April 6, 2016 5:05PM (EDT)

 (<a href=''>EpicStockMedia</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(EpicStockMedia via Shutterstock)

Over the last few years we’ve heard a lot of talk about bringing the nation together. President Obama campaigned on the idea, and it sounds really nice. Pundits have also told us that polarization was the country’s main problem. We’ve read that “The Big Sort” – the movement of Americans into like-minded, homogenous enclaves as a way of responding to cultural and political divisions created by the 1960s – was making us more extreme, less tolerant, and less oriented to a common purpose.

But it’s looking more and more like what we need is for a greater number people to split off and come together in urban and other solidly blue areas. I know that sounds smug, but the engines of progressive change are happening in blue pockets, and that doesn’t seem likely to stop no matter who is elected president in November. The citizens and businesses in big cities and other liberal areas are moving forward, while other parts of the country stall or, in the case of anti-LGBT legislation in particular, go backwards. It’s especially true on social issues.

The latest evidence of this is twofold. First is that San Francisco has passed a family leave law that goes beyond even the state of California’s — legally requiring businesses with more than 20 employees to offer six weeks of fully-paid family leave to new parents. If this came up in Congress, it would have not a chance in hell: Republicans, who used to talk about “family values,” would block it from going anywhere. But what may be the nation’s most liberal city has passed something that will make family life more harmonious and less stressful. (It’s worth mentioning that the law may not be a perfect fit for small business. It may need tweaking.)

And it’s not just the city’s famous progressivism that’s led to the law, but the nearby companies – Google, Netflix, and Twitter, which just expanded its policy – that offer family leave. Tech corporations are doing bad things to San Francisco – helping to push out the middle class, for instance. Their impact on our habits and on professional photography, journalism, and musicianship has been mixed at best. But they also showed that companies could pass family-friendly policies and live to tell about it, and they are, like cities, examples of at least rough political homogeneity.

On the other side of things, it becomes clear what happens when people don’t settle down into a concentrated bloc and assert themselves. The city of Charlotte passed a liberal ordinance earlier this year allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their gender identity. But when North Carolina’s governor signed a law that reversed the ordinance, he not only legalized discrimination, he hurt the state’s economic base; PayPal has already pulled out of a planned expansion. Gerrymandering, big money from conservative businessmen, and short-sighted politicians are so strong that urban tolerance gets trounced. If the state were solidly red, it would have all the usual red-state bigotries. If it were solidly blue, this law never would have passed. It’s the politically purple nature of North Carolina that created the problem here.

It’s not just that cities are the future of social change: That’s always been true. It’s that cities, economic pressures, and concentration of liberals and progressives are essential to tolerance and better quality-of-life legislation. The new minimum wages laws have passed in New York and California: When these see success, minimum-wage reform will spread to other places. It was specifically the polarization that pushed liberal Americans to these states that led to progressive legislation. If every county or state was a mix of points of view, these laws would never have passed.

In an ideal world, the nation would be diverse in all kinds of ways – in terms of race, religious belief, political points of view -- but we could at least agree that LGBT folk should be treated decently and that parents should get a few weeks off when their babies are born. With the nation we live in – with 31 U.S. governors Republicans and both houses of Congress likely to stay in GOP hands -- folks who lean left need to come together and make things happen. If it takes Twitter, too, so be it.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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