The Dangerous Rise of ‘Front-Yard Politics’

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Several months ago, while walking through my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., I noticed an impressive number of front-lawn placards celebrating and welcoming refugees. The signs made me proud. I like living in a place where people openly celebrate tolerance and diversity.

Several days later, my pride curdled into bitterness. As part of some reporting on housing policy, I found a State Department page offering advice to Afghans and Iraqis resettling in the U.S. The upshot: Stay away from D.C. “The Washington, D.C., metro area including northern Virginia and some cities in California are very expensive places to live, and it can be difficult to find reasonable housing,” the website warns. “Any resettlement benefits you receive may not comfortably cover the cost of living in these areas.”

My city’s prohibitive housing costs flow, in part, from the district’s infamous war against new construction. Much of D.C. is off-limits for new development, thanks to widespread single-family zoning, berserk historical-preservation rules, and a long-standing aversion to taller buildings, which stems from both federal law and local rules. If the city’s housing policies are so broken that the federal government has to explicitly tell immigrants to find somewhere else to live, then signage welcoming refugees is both futile and hypocritical. The same neighborhoods saying yes to refugees in their front yard are supporting policies in their backyard that say no to refugees.

This dynamic—front-yard proclamations contradicted by backyard policies—extends well beyond refugee policy, and helps explain American 21st-century dysfunction.

The front yard is the realm of language. It is the space for messaging and talking to be seen. Social media and the internet are a kind of global front lawn, where we get to know a thousand strangers by their signage, even when we don’t know a thing about their private lives and virtues. The backyard is the seat of private behavior. This is where the real action lives, where the values of the family—and by extension, the nation—make contact with the real world.

Let’s stick with housing for a moment to see the front yard/backyard divide play out. The 2020 Democratic Party platform called housing a “right and not a privilege” and a “basic need … at the center of the American Dream.” Right on. But the U.S. has a severe housing-affordability crisis that is worst in blue states, where lawmakers have erected obstacle courses of zoning rules and regulations to block construction. In an interview with Slate, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat, took aim at his own side, saying progressives are “living in the contradiction that they are nominally liberal [but they] do not want other people to live next to them” if their neighbors are low-income workers. The five states with the highest rates of homelessness are New York, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington; all are run by Democrats. Something very strange is going on when the zip codes with the best housing signs have some of the worst housing outcomes.

Housing scarcity pinches other Democratic priorities. Some people convincingly argue that it constricts all of them. High housing costs pervert “just about every facet of American life,” as The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey has written, including what we eat, how many friends we keep, how many children we bear. “In much of San Francisco, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal,” the New York Times columnist Ezra Klein wrote. But in part because those signs sit in front yards “zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes,” the city has built just one home for every eight new jobs in the past decade.

We find a similar discrepancy between stated virtues and outcomes in the realm of green energy. As I wrote last year, liberals own all the backpack buttons denouncing the oil-and-gas industry. But Texas produces more renewable energy than deep-blue California, and Oklahoma and Iowa produce more renewable energy than New York. Yes, wind is abundant in the Midwest, and the Great Plains have lots of space that’s sunny and empty. But the biosphere counts carbon, not excuses. Progressives betray their goals by supporting onerous rules that delay the construction of solar farms and transmission lines that would reduce our dependence on oil and gas.

Granted, although the hypocrisy of NIMBY environmentalists is an irresistibly delicious subject for some writers, it is hardly the only obstacle to building an abundance of clean electricity. Many of the country’s most powerful energy providers play their own word games by loudly advertising their commitment to decarbonization even as they quietly use their political power to block the transition to new energy sources. Here, as in housing, it’s easy to playact as a public crusader, screaming “Everything has to change!” to the world while remaining a private reactionary who whispers, within the back rooms of true power, “But let’s not change anything that matters.”

More broadly, a super-emphasis on language has distracted some Americans from focusing on actual outcomes and working toward material progress.

In the past few years, many employees have encouraged their companies to launch diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. These programs address a real problem: the stubborn gaps in pay and responsibility between white men and their nonwhite and non-male colleagues, which are sometimes borne from prejudice in hiring or promotion processes.

But after an initial burst of enthusiasm, follow-up analyses of DEI programs have found that many of them are worse than useless. First, they sometimes rely on pseudoscience, such as unconscious-bias training, which rarely reduces racism and may accidentally reify existing biases. Second, corporations that hold DEI workshops may use them as an excuse not to pursue real corporate change. In the past few years, as corporate diversity programs have proliferated, the share of Black and Asian workers who “trust their employer to do what is right in response to racism” has actually declined. According to one Bloomberg survey, the person with the least credibility on racism within the company is the person in charge of DEI.

All of the appropriate terms for this state of affairs—whitewashing, window dressing, a facade—capture the essence of front-yardism. The problem with these diversity programs isn’t that they’re “woke,” as in “doing too much to help nonwhite Americans.” The problem is that, keeping with this common if dubious definition, they aren’t nearly woke enough. Full of sound and fury signifying nothing, many DEI initiatives are conservative in nature, preserving the status quo and the power of white-male leadership while advertising a politics of radical change. They are the equivalent of a thousand REFUGEES ARE WELCOME signs in a neighborhood where the residents’ policy preferences make local refugee resettlement impossible.

San Francisco public schools offer another lesson in how an obsession with language can cloud a rightful focus on material outcomes. In 2021, the city’s board of education voted to rename more than 40 schools to scrub out racism. Their dragnet caught such not-quite-famous racists as Abraham Lincoln and Senator Dianne Feinstein. (Paul Revere was added to the list, because one committee member misread a article about his role in the Revolutionary War.) At the same time that the district was putting together its list of names, its schools suffered declines in enrollment, attendance, and learning. Math scores fell sharply and, by 2022, only 9 percent of the district’s Black students met or exceeded math standards.

The renaming committee was obviously not exclusively responsible for pandemic-era learning loss. Learning loss was a national trend, and San Francisco didn’t even experience the worst of it. But if, like the San Francisco Unified School District, you’re a school district with a big math-proficiency problem and your policies include discouraging eighth-grade algebra and holding meetings about nomenclature, you might end up with failing students in well-named schools.

Even the American Medical Association has descended into front-yardism. The AMA recently published a 54-page guide on how doctors should talk with patients, called “Advancing Health Equity,” which urges medical professionals to make their language more inclusive. One particularly silly example: It advises doctors to replace the simple phrase low-income people with new terminology that acknowledges “root causes,” such as people underpaid and forced into poverty as a result of banking policies, real-estate developers gentrifying neighborhoods, and corporations weakening the power of labor movements.

I celebrate any emphasis on “root causes.” So let’s talk about the real root causes of dysfunction in America’s expensive and inequitable health-care system. Why is the U.S. one of the only countries in the developed world without universal insurance? A complete analysis might include the AMA’s “explicit, long-standing opposition to single-payer health care.”  Why does the U.S. health system struggle to provide access in rural and low-income areas? One causal factor is the AMA’s steadfast resistance to expanding nurse practitioners’ scope of care. Why does the U.S. have fewer general practitioners per capita than almost any other rich country? It might have something to do with the AMA’s refusal to expand medical-residency slots and other efforts to constrain the number of doctors in America.

Even in science, where empiricism ought to reign, I’ve seen troubling signs of word worship. In 2020, the prestigious journal Nature published its first-ever presidential endorsement, on behalf of Joe Biden. When a group of researchers studied the effect of that endorsement, they found it did nothing to persuade moderate voters and actually made conservatives less trusting of scientific institutions. “The endorsement message caused large reductions in stated trust in Nature among Trump supporters,” the paper concluded. “This distrust lowered the demand for COVID-related information provided by Nature.”

The journal’s article had all the effectiveness of a half-hearted DEI program: a bunch of pretty words doing less than nothing. Nonetheless, in March, the editors of Nature wrote a follow-up essay declaring victory. While they acknowledged that the Biden endorsement had failed to meet every measurable benchmark, they defended their decision on the grounds that “silence was not an option.” “When individuals seeking office” blast science and threaten scientists, they said, “it becomes important to speak up.”

I personally despair of the polarization of science and wish the Nature editorial had, through some magical incantation, depoliticized the vaccine debates. But it didn’t. And that holds an important lesson about the limited ability of words alone to bring about the world that progressives want to live in. The Nature editorial was an experiment, and an independent group of scientists determined that the experiment failed. That’s how science works. For the editors of a science journal to wave it away suggests that the final cause of their politics is to utter the right words, even when those words push them further away from the world they want to build.

Companies hiring DEI consultants to quote Malcolm X in a meeting to cover up a pitiful diversity record; school officials watching math scores plummet for Black kids while they debate whether Lincoln was racist; AMA employees playing word games while limiting the number of physicians; environmentalists buying BEYOND COAL pins while challenging the construction of any clean-energy project that might help the electric grid move beyond coal—what ties these examples together is front-yard theater.

You may have noticed that I’ve mostly focused on progressive causes and left-leaning institutions. This is as deliberate as it is unfair.

It’s deliberate because, to paraphrase Noah Smith, I deeply want progressives to love progress itself, not just the sound of it. When it comes to the virtues of housing affordability, clean-energy abundance, high-quality education, and trustworthy science, I want my political side to turn its signage into signatures, its placards into policies. But my emphasis so far on liberalism is also unfair, because to prattle on about progressive hypocrisy without a similar analysis of the right would profoundly misrepresent the distribution of phoniness in American politics.

When Republicans swept into unified control of the federal government in 2017, Donald Trump promised in his inaugural address to return power to the people, unwind the “American carnage” of previous generations, and restore the manufacturing and coal industries that had been desiccated by decades of neoliberal policies. But once in office, Republicans governed more like plutocrats than populists, trying to slash federal health-insurance coverage (which failed) and to reduce taxes for large corporations by several trillion dollars (which succeeded). On economic and social policy, the Republican Party is a pretzel. The GOP officially opposes “Defund the police” and wants more law enforcement, but Trump is on the record with calls to defund the entire FBI and Department of Justice. Republicans officially seek to “lower the price of housing,” but their pledge to cut appropriated nondefense programs would likely reduce housing assistance, immediately raising the cost of living for millions of low-income renters.

No party claims a monopoly on language theater, either. Many of today’s most influential conservatives are more likely to marinate in indignation over the gender politics of candy, beer, and sneaker commercials than utter anything that might accidentally make contact with poverty, housing, energy, or health-care policy. The most significant GOP leaders, such as Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, hardly talk about economic policy at all, preferring to direct their furious attention at culture-war issues, including elementary-school curricula, drag-queen story hours, and the scourge of managerial wokeness in our corporations and schools. This postmaterial posturing might serve a strategic purpose. Behind all that fulminating about Disney and DEI, DeSantis’s views on Social Security, Medicare, and the welfare state are deeply unpopular.

While language wars escalate on the right, the phenomenon of front-yard politics may be peaking on the left. San Francisco ultimately abandoned its plan to scrub Lincoln and Feinstein from its buildings. California has voted to begin the long process of dismantling its NIMBY housing laws. Last year, President Biden signed historic laws to expand green-energy production in the U.S., even though the translation of historic spending into historic construction remains uncertain. These are small steps in the right direction.

Words matter. It would be absurd—and deeply self-defeating—for any writer to suggest otherwise. My aim is not to uproot kind-hearted yard signs, or reverse efforts to remove racist surnames from government buildings, or to discourage doctors from speaking respectfully to patients. But these linguistic efforts are only as successful as the difference they make in the world. When a politics of progressive language becomes disconnected from progressive outcomes, the movement loses. Front-yard radicalism multiplied by backyard stasis does not equal progress. It equals nothing at all.