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Seattle’s Revolt of the Elites

With residents fed up by the homelessness crisis, city leaders and their allies coordinate a PR campaign to convince them that everything is fine. Originally published at City Journal

In Seattle, people are losing patience with city leadership over the homelessness crisis, but the frustration is running in both directions: the city’s political, cultural, and academic elites are conducting their own revolt — against the people.

Since the release of Eric Johnson’s documentary Seattle Is Dying, which depicts an epidemic of street homelessness, addiction, crime, and disorder, city elites have launched a coordinated information campaign targeted at voters frustrated with the city’s response to homelessness. Earlier this month, leaked documents revealed that a group of prominent nonprofits — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Campion Advocacy Fund, the Raikes Foundation, and the Ballmer Group — hired a PR firm, Pyramid Communications, to conduct polling, create messaging, and disseminate the resulting content through a network of silent partners in academia, the press, government, and the nonprofit sector. The campaign, #SeattleForAll, is a case study in what writer James Lindsay calls “idea laundering” — creating misinformation and legitimizing it as objective truth through repetition in sympathetic media.

The key messages of the campaign include a number of misleading claims, including: “Seattle is making progress to end homelessness,” “1 in 4 people experiencing homelessness in our community struggle with drug or alcohol abuse,” and “[62 percent of Seattle voters believe] we are not spending enough to address homelessness.” All three contentions fail to meet basic scrutiny: street homelessness has increased 131 percent over the past five years; King County’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma admits that “the majority of the homeless population is addicted to or uses opioids” (not one in four); and 62 percent of Seattle voters agree to the statement “we are not spending enough” only when it is directly prefaced in the polling questionnaire by the phrase “other cities of the same size are spending 2 to 3 times the amount that Seattle is and are seeing significant reductions in homelessness” — itself an unsubstantiated claim. (When the same question is presented neutrally, without the framing, support for “we are not spending enough” drops to 7 percent).

Nonetheless, the media have widely circulated or echoed Pyramid’s talking points. “New poll shows the majority in Seattle say we have a moral obligation to help homeless people, and we need to spend more,” declared Seattle Timesdata journalist Gene Balk. Catherine Hinrichsen, director of Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness, published “6 reasons why KOMO’s [Seattle’s ABC affiliate, which broadcast Seattle Is Dying] take on homelessness is the wrong one” in the local magazine Crosscut, arguing that the documentary “conflates homelessness with drug use, mental illness, and crime.” And Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan told reporters that “we have made a lot of progress” and dismissed the documentary as “an opinion piece.” Her office pushed the #SeattleForAll messaging on government social media channels.

Many of the authors and news outlets that published the #SeattleForAll messaging failed to disclose that their work is funded by the same group of foundations that hired Pyramid Communications, and that their content is distributed in direct coordination with Pyramid and the City of Seattle. For example, in her story, Hinrichsen neglects to mention that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the sole funder of her work at the Project on Family Homelessness; the publisher, Crosscut, does not reveal that the Gates and Raikes foundations are major funders of their operations and their homelessness coverage.

In its own widely circulated story on the polling data, the Seattle Times does disclose that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Campion Advocacy Fund, and the Raikes Foundation support their homelessness coverage — but not that Pyramid commissioned the polling and coordinated the campaign with the city and the mayor’s office. (Pyramid’s Chris Nelson confirmed via email that the #SeattleForAll coalition works in tandem with “City and County advisors working in the homelessness space,” but he refused to answer whether the coalition deliberately withheld this information from the Seattle Times and other media.)

The inner workings of the #SeattleForAll campaign tell a clear story: a group of well-funded philanthropies hired a PR firm to produce misleading polling results, distributed them through the city’s main newspaper and other media outlets (many of which enjoy generous donations from those same philanthropies), and then concealed the fact that the messaging was part of a broader campaign coordinated with the city. The “counter-narrative” to the Seattle Is Dying documentary was not a spontaneous reaction of a diverse group of experts; it was a planned effort by Seattle’s philanthropic, academic, media, and governmental elites to steamroll critics. Seattle’s institutional powers, in other words, attempted to quash the emerging public consensus that the city’s approach to homelessness is failing.

A quarter-century ago, social critic Christopher Lasch observed the beginnings of this kind of phenomenon, arguing that America’s political and cultural elites were starting to revolt against the people. While during Lasch’s time this elite contempt was directed against “middle America” — an early iteration of today’s “deplorables” — coastal progressivism has now reached the point that the new elites have gone into revolt against themselves. In Seattle, the emerging activist class — billionaire philanthropists, multimillionaire politicians, and likeminded commentators in academia and prestige media — has begun an information offensive against the liberal, wealthy, educated residents of a city that gave Hillary Clinton 92 percent of its votes. Scolding the public to be more “compassionate,” this new hyper-elite has shown only contempt for middle-class residents in Seattle’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.

The biggest problem with such top-down management of public knowledge is that it prevents honest debate — which Seattle desperately needs. The gap between elite rhetoric and on-the-ground reality continues to widen. In the most recent polling, 68 percent of Seattle voters say that they don’t trust the mayor and city council to solve the homelessness crisis — yet the foundations, the communications firms, and the mayor’s office keep lashing out at dissenters. In The Revolt of the Elites, Lasch revealed the danger of ignoring public opinion and limiting debate to elite influencers: “Since political debate is restricted, most of the time, to the ‘talking classes,’ as they have been aptly characterized, it becomes increasingly ingrown and formulaic. Ideas circulate and recirculate in the form of buzzwords and conditioned reflex.”

The #SeattleForAll campaign is destined to fail. The more that majority opinion gets muzzled, the stronger the eventual backlash will be. Seattle Is Dying spoke to the anger of hundreds of thousands of residents whose voices haven’t been heard. City leaders would be wise to give the PR efforts a rest and do some listening. The residents of Seattle are demanding change.

Christopher Rufo

Research Fellow, Center on Wealth, Poverty & Morality
Christopher Rufo is Discovery Institute Research Fellow, filmmaker, and writer focused on cities, inequality, and social capital. He’s directed four documentaries for PBS and has appeared on NPR, CNN, ABC, CBS, HLN, and FOX News. Christopher is the Executive Director of the Documentary Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to producing and distributing documentaries about the American experience. Christopher is active in Washington State public policy, both as a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the City of Seattle’s income tax and as a board member for the Washington Policy Center Young Professionals. His writing has appeared in National Review, The Federalist, Seattle Times, Crosscut, Puget Sound Business Journal, Filmmaker, and Indiewire.