(Flyer for Sawant/ Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Natalie Woo)

It’s true. Seattle elected a socialist candidate to its City Council. Kshama Sawant, a 40-year-old community college instructor and immigrant, is the kind of socialist spiritual progressives can feel delighted about. She ran on an Occupy platform of raising the minimum wage a hefty $5 to $15/hour, instituting rent control, public ownership of utilities, expanding paid sick leave, increasing citizen oversight of police, and taxing millionaires. She even said, under prodding, that one could make a case for nationalizing Amazon and Boeing; it wouldn’t happen, and she wasn’t running on it, but one could make an argument. And she was still elected.

How did she do it?

It certainly wasn’t money. Her opponent, Richard Conlin, a four-term incumbent, outspent her by many thousands. Even so, individual donors contributed $110,000 to Sawant’s campaign. So who supported a socialist? In a word, grass roots. A broad, indeed an amazing and inspiring coalition of grassroots organizations stood up for her. Her prominent role in the Seattle Occupy movement mattered greatly. On her endorsements page, we find not only the expected labor organizations – teachers, postal workers, electrical workers – but progressive associations such as the Transit Riders Union (not a union in the usual sense), and Seattle 350, an environmental organization. And not only that, immigrant organizations of Somalis, Filipinos, and Eritreans endorsed her. Numerous faculty and students from two-year colleges to law schools, the local head of Physicians for a National Health Program, the local National Lawyers Guild. So did a rock band, Hey Marseilles, and a Methodist church. Because she is an immigrant, people from as far away as the UK and Ireland offered support. Many endorsers simply listed themselves as “antiwar activist” or “environmental activist” or “Subway worker who got fired from his job for leading Fast Food Worker strikes” or “Occupy activist who got maced by the police.” And many surnames were Asian and Spanish.

Perhaps Most Impressive? Lefties Working Together!

Sawant not only drew support from individual progressives but other progressive parties stood behind her. Those of us who’ve at times been disheartened by leftist in-fighting and unrealistic platforms have to be pleased and impressed that the Green Party, The Freedom Socialist Party, the International Socialist Organization, the Justice Party, and the Progressive Party all supported Sawant.

The alternative press in Seattle also definitely played a role. The Stranger, Seattle’s free weekly, made a clear and cogent argument, not for socialist candidates generally, but for this particular one, Sawant. The founding director of Real Change, a homeless newspaper, also signed on with his support.

(Sarah Scott endorsing Kshama/ Credit: Endorsements- VoteSawant.org)

Youth Aren’t Afraid of the “S” Word

A recent Pew poll showed that Americans between the age of 19 and 25 feel more favorable towards socialism than capitalism. They seem to have agreed with Sawant that “capitalism has failed the 99%” and we need an alternative to the two-party system. As Sawant pointed out, “young people of color are feeling a deep sense of betrayal.” And youth of color, partly because of immigration, are a growing percentage of youth. They often come from countries where socialism is not a scare-word, but a respectable and practical alternative. Sawant’s campaign spoke directly to those who can’t afford rent, have no sick leave, and work for minimum wage. And because of the growing chasm between rich and poor, that’s a lot of people.

Reason for Hope and Wonder: Venture Capitalist Supports $15/Hour

But that is not all. Oh no, that is not all. A second wonderful item on the ballot was a proposition to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour (Votes were so close that it has not been called). This increase would be the nation’s highest (Washington DC at $12.50/hour and San Francisco at $12/hour are next in line). That increase boasted support from a venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, who said it was a great “solution to the death spiral of falling demand.” Add him to the one percenter featured in the recent Robert Reich film, Inequality For All who said no matter how rich you are, you just don’t need more than a few pillows, and thus, bolstering the bottom would provide markets for his company’s products: pillows and comforters – and one can see hope for a very broad, common-sense movement for stability and justice.

What Does It Mean?

When I read about Sawant’s win, I assumed she represented Seattle’s most leftwing neighborhoods, but to my surprise, the election was a citywide, at-large campaign! I think this election and the election of Bill de Blasio (whom opponents called “a democratic socialist” in hopes of diminishing support) demonstrate that a sizable part of the public is far more liberal and ready for change than either the mainstream media or the dominant powers believe. Even the liberal New Yorker magazine and the Seattle political establishment thought until the last minute that de Blasio and Sawant respectively, had no realistic chance. But consider that besides these votes, Minneapolis also came close to electing a socialist from the Socialist Alternative party, the same party as Sawant, and I think there is reason to believe that connection is powerful and now is absolutely a time for activism.

The People vs. Money

Sadly, we will have to sustain that activism through heartbreaks like the failed recall of Scott Walker in Wisconsin. People on the left are not the only activists right now. Note the Forbes online article, “Why is Seattle Socialist Sawant Allowed to Teach Economics?” (The writer, unlike Sawant who has a Ph.D. in Economics, has no degree in economics at all.)

Passive, individualist floating on the status quo will let the those who are doing fine at the top and those who want to turn public benefits into private gain (like ALEC and the Tea Party) sink American democracy. I do not say that hyperbolically. I truly believe we have to decide which side we are on and look beyond our personal lives to the communities around us if we are to retain any shred of public life. The good news is that our commitment to any justice movement – whether for the environment, gay rights, a living wage, or peace – produces powerful and unforeseen benefits if we connect with others on the same path. If we exercise every democratic right we possess and reach out for allies, I think we can hold back and turn back what is unmistakably a tide of latter-day fascism.


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