Why would affluent, middle class citizens give an electoral mandate to leftist radicals? Why should privileged, middle class youth seek a radical mandate? What can middle class citizens and radical politicians do to implement a radical agenda in one U.S. city and promote it nationwide? And what does the merging of "middle class" and "radicalism" mean for our understanding of these concepts and for the future of American politics? These are some of the questions raised by recent events in what local bumperstickers proclaim as "The People's Republic of Santa Monica, California."
Santa Monica is a prosperous oceanside city just west of Los Angeles. Beginning in the early 1970s, it hosted a growing grassroots movement that struggled to protect and enhance the local quality of life against business interests promoting growth and development. By 1979, the movement had garnered enough citizen support to pass one of the most radical rent control laws in the United States. In 1981, activists moved from rent control to political control when Santa Monicans elected a radical city council majority that started to experiment with building a "human scale community" founded on principles of "participatory democracy" and priorities putting "people ahead of profits." The next year, residents reaffirmed their support for the leftist agenda by sending Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED) leader Tom Hayden to the California State Assembly. Clearly, the radicals were in power.
Santa Monica activists believed that they were constructing a model of leftwing government that would install radical democracy in their municipality and also be emulated by leftists in other cities. According to several scenarios, widespread urban radicalism would help to build the base for an enduring national movement that would change the Democratic party and have considerable influence in Washington, D.C. The opposition saw the Santa Monica experiment either as a CED conspiracy against basic American values and institutions or as an adolescent politics that was transforming the city into what one gentleman called "Santa Moronica." Meanwhile, journalists from the national media descended on Santa Monica to report on its odd marriage between affluent middle class citizens and young radical politicians.
In one sense, the union was unusual. Cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, or San Antonio, Texas, or Berkeley, California, had experimented with radical governments. But their experiments were infused with the working class, minority, or student politics that traditionally are the base for radical movements. Santa Monica stood out because its grassroots base . . .