Seattle and the Socialist Surge in the U.S.
Photo by Clay Showalter
Kshama Sawant’s second re-election battle is on track to be the most expensive, hard-fought city council race in Seattle’s history. The race pits the richest man in the world, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, against one of the U.S.’s most prominent Marxists.
Bezos aims to tighten Amazon’s grip over his home city’s political future by flooding the election with cash. Through Political Action Committees (PACs), there are no limits for corporate spending on elections. Two big business PACs have already raised well over $1 million, with $250,000 of that from Amazon alone. On top of that, most of Amazon’s top executives around the world have given personal donations directly to Kshama’s opponents, indicating a coordinated effort from the very top of Amazon’s global empire.
With the November 5 general election more than three months away, already PAC spendingalmost equals the total spent in 2015, which set the all-time record. At this rate, by November PAC spending will more than triple the 2015 numbers! Amazon and big business are spending big in all seven of the city’s council races this year, but no one is surprised that their most aggressive cash infusion is in the District 3 race to defeat Kshama Sawant.
This all-out drive by big business to defeat Kshama is spurring a sharp reaction by working people, who have stepped up in record numbers to defend their seat on the City Council. Already our campaign to defend Sawant has assembled the biggest, most sophisticated door-knocking operation in modern Seattle history. Kshama’s call for rent control, taxing Amazon and big business to fund a massive expansion of public housing, and a Green New Deal for working people have got an excellent echo.
With over 3,000 individual donors – a majority of them from within Seattle – Kshama’s campaign has nearly triple the number of our nearest competitor. We’ve raised over $250,000 so far, more than double what any other candidate in the city has raised (excluding corporate PAC money), without taking a dime from big business. The campaign is on track to raise $500,000, which would shatter all previous council campaign fundraising records.
The corporate cash lined up against Sawant, alongside the working-class dollars donated in her defense, testifies to the real impact Socialist Alternative has had in bending Seattle politics toward the needs and aspirations of working people since Kshama was elected in 2013.
Kshama has now served nearly six years in office, and more than anywhere else in the U.S., Seattle has been a living test for the program and class-struggle strategy of Marxism and independent working class politics. Alongside her impressive list of legislative victories won through building grassroots campaigns, Kshama has shaped popular debate in Seattle more than any other figure in city politics.
A careful study of this experience should be of interest to every serious socialist around the world, but in the coming weeks and months Seattle voters will also be asked to pass judgement on the record of Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant in City Hall.
“Seattle is a live demonstration of how class struggle works.”
On the eve of 4th of July Independence Day celebrations, the top front page headline in the Seattle Times read “Socialism Faces a Key Test in Seattle City Council Elections.” While the Seattle Times has, predictably, joined Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce in endorsing Egan Orion against Sawant, the article nonetheless had to acknowledge Socialist Alternative’s successes:
When Sawant upset an incumbent in 2013 by pushing for a higher minimum wage, she became perhaps the country’s leading socialist. Her success pressured then-Mayor Ed Murray to broker a deal on a path to $15 per hour, putting Seattle ahead of the curve. The rest of the country began to catch up when other cities adopted wage hikes and when Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, surged as a 2016 presidential candidate…
…Backed by red-shirted Socialist Alternative activists, who packed City Hall to cheer, Sawant worked to halt rent hikes and block a pricey new police precinct, among other causes, winning praise from some clergy members, social-justice activists and community leaders. She won re-election in 2015, despite the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce backing her opponent.
Over the last two years, Amazon has taken center stage in Seattle politics. In 2017, they spent $350,000 to buy the mayoral election for Jenny Durkan, who quickly repaid Bezos by orchestrating the City Council’s repeal of the “Amazon Tax” three months after she took office. Kshama and Socialist Alternative played a central role in winning this tax on the largest 3% of businesses in Seattle, to pay for permanently affordable public housing and desperately needed homeless services. The unanimous passage of the tax in March 2018 was a hard-fought victory, the product of a big campaign including a tent encampment inside City Hall and repeated protests at Amazon’s headquarters.
To bully City Council into submission, Amazon shut down construction on one of its downtown towers, threatening thousands of jobs, and funded a ferocious media campaign to repeal the tax. Facing the threat of a business-backed referendum, all but one of the Democratic Party councilmembers capitulated, repealing the tax just a month after passing it. Kshama voted against the repeal, and sharply condemned the betrayal of the housing rights movement by even the so-called progressive wing of the City Council.
Responding to Amazon’s hard-knuckled tactics, the July 1 Seattle Times article quotes Kshama:
“Seattle is a live demonstration of how class struggle works,” [Kshama] said, describing the target on her back as proof socialists now wield serious power. “The billionaire capitalist class is not going to take this lying down.”
Wishing for a return to the veneer of class consensus in city politics before Kshama’s 2013 election, our opponents accuse Kshama of being “too divisive” and refusing to “listen to all sides.” This narrative, relentlessly pumped out by the corporate media and establishment politicians over the last four years, has seeped into the consciousness of many working- and middle-class residents in Seattle.
In thousands of conversations at the doorsteps of District 3, Socialist Alternative members and campaign volunteers answer by pointing to the massive inequality in a region where two of the three richest men in the world live alongside a severe housing crisis. Half of renters are considered “rent burdened,” paying over a third of their income on housing. As Seattle rents have risen over 70% since 2010, tens of thousands have been forced out of the city or into homelessness. Despite ongoing police sweeps, sprawling tent cities continuously spring up in every neighborhood. Scenes of extreme human degradation and desperation are now the backdrop to daily life in Seattle, prompting a new upsurge of racist, right-wing populism in the city.
The class battles that have shaped Seattle politics since Sawant’s 2013 election should be seen, in many respects, as a microcosm for national U.S. politics. Especially since Seattle was, in many respects, “ahead of the curve,” our local experience is rich with lessons for the burgeoning socialist movement nationally.
After four decades of decline, socialist ideas are suddenly ascendant in the U.S. Many of the central policy demands of the U.S. left now enjoy majority support, including Medicare-for-All, a Green New Deal, a living minimum wage, cancelling student debt, and ending the billionaires’ control over politics. Four-in-ten Americans now prefer socialism to capitalism, including 55% of women aged 18-55.
Popular understanding of what socialism means remains varied and widely debated, though the social democratic ideas embodied by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) remain the most influential. However, for Marxists, the most important feature is the direction of things: Tens of millions of working-class people, especially young people, are beginning to understand that capitalism offers no way forward and are consciously looking for a path to win fundamental social change.
For the still small but growing forces on the socialist left, many of whom are gathered around Bernie’s campaign or the 60,000 strong Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the central question is this: How can we transform this still loose, disorganized, but broad support for socialist ideas into a cohesive mass movement capable of breaking the power of big business. Our experience over the last six years in Seattle has some lessons.
Illustration courtesy Truthout.org
Elections and Movement Building
At present, the growing mood to fight back and support for socialist ideas in the U.S. is still mainly reflected in the electoral arena. While Socialist Alternative’s 2013 campaigns in Seattle and Minneapolis first proved the potential for rebuilding mass support for socialist candidates, Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign should be credited with galvanizing the mass revival of socialist ideas. This was followed by the dramatic rise of DSA’s membership and DSA-backed candidates like AOC and Rashida Tlaib, among others.
As the Seattle Times commented in January, “When voters here elected our first socialist five years ago, it was so unusual it made national news. But in November , 43 socialists won around the country, including two in Congress.” Trump’s rise and his right-wing rhetoric also played a central role in radicalizing millions, especially young people. The 2020 elections remain the main tool most people are looking toward to defeat Trump and his agenda.
Yet for Marxists, elections are not the most favorable terrain for working-class struggle or the central tool for changing society. Voting remains a mostly atomized act, heavily influenced by the corporate media, whereas the dynamic mass social movements, strikes and demonstrations, allow working people to better feel their collective power, educate one-another, and come to understand their distinct class interests.
At the core of Kshama Sawant’s message, repeated in every campaign speech, is that change can only be achieved by building social movements of working people and oppressed communities. The greatest power working people have is their ability to withhold their labor, to strike, and shut down the profit-making operations of capitalist society. The impressive wave of teachers strikes, which also featured the crucial role of newly radicalized socialist union activists, points toward a potential revitalization of the U.S. labor movement.
For Marxists, the central role of socialist election campaigns and elected offices, is to use their positions as a platform to build movements. The legitimacy and access to the media that comes with elected office, alongside our ability to influence legislation and expose the back-room machinations of other politicians, should be used by socialists to help raise working-class consciousness, self-organization, and confidence to collectively fightback.
Before Socialist Alternative ran Kshama Sawant for City Council in 2013, nobody in Seattle City Hall was talking about a $15 minimum wage in Seattle. But by linking our election campaign to the spreading strikes of fast food workers demanding $15 in their workplaces, a citywide minimum wage movement was born. After the election we launched 15 Now, a campaigning organization with neighborhood chapters, open to all, which then spread across the country. In the space of one year, total opposition from Seattle’s political establishment was transformed into a unanimous passage of $15 in June 2014, transferring $3 billion from big business into the pockets of Seattle’s multi-racial low-wage workforce over the following decade.
The victory of $15 in Seattle spread across the U.S., with workers in many cities and states winning increased minimum wages. In Canada, millions of workers have won significant increases in their minimum wage including $15 in Alberta, $14 in Ontario and a path to $15 in BC by 2021. The fight for $15 continues to inspire workers around the world.
Following the historic $15 victory, Kshama continued to use her office as an organizing center for numerous struggles, from the fight to block 400% rent hikes and the privatization of public housing in Seattle to teaming up with the growing urban Indigenous movement to make Seattle among the first major cities to recognize “Indigenous Peoples Day.”
In a public letter to their fellow Seattle Democrats urging support for Kshama’s re-election, nineteen grassroots Democratic Party activists painted a clear picture of how Kshama has used her office as an organizing center:
…in 2016 Kshama’s office led the way to winning two landmark renters rights laws — a limit on move-in fees and a ban on rent increases in buildings with code violations … This was despite the big landlord lobby group RHA spending $52,000 to oppose these vital protections for Seattle renters. Referring to their failed efforts, now-retired RHA lobbyist Jamie Durkan (yes, he’s the Mayor’s brother) bitterly complained that, “Anybody who spends a dollar lobbying the Seattle City Council is wasting a dollar.” Durkan said other Councilmembers would “say all the right things in their offices, then they get out on the podium and it all goes south.” The lobbyist chalks up his failure to “Sawant’s army,” referring to the organized renters, working people, and community members who worked with Kshama’s office to finally have their voices heard and rights respected in City Hall.
At the center of Kshama’s 2019 re-election campaign is the fight for universal rent control. At street tables across Capitol Hill, and on every doorstep in the District, our army of volunteer canvassers open conversations with: “Do you support rent control?” The response has been excellent. Within a few weeks over 10,000 signed a petition for rent control circulated by Kshama’s council office, and over 300 attended a rally and organizing meeting on July 20. Just as we used our 2013 campaign to mobilize mass support for $15, Socialist Alternative aims to transform the 2019 District 3 race into a referendum on rent control and taxing the rich to fund a massive expansion of public housing.
Building an Alternative to the Democratic Party
Distinct among virtually all the newly-elected socialists across the U.S., Kshama Sawant has used her campaigns to promote building a broad working class and socialist political alternative to the Democratic Party. Despite the growth of left challengers within the Democrats, the party remains dominated by big business interests. Given the lack of a real working class alternative, Democratic leaders succeed in fostering some positive illusions in their party, and the successes of Sanders in 2016 and DSA candidates since is opening a fresh debate over whether the Democrats can be transformed. Still, most working people see the Democrats mainly as a “lesser evil” to the Republicans, and polls consistently show a majority in the U.S. want a new party.
Our experience in Seattle underscores that this is possible to win mass support for independent socialist candidates. Kshama’s office has helped build fighting campaigns completely independent from the business-backed Democratic establishment, which has proven vital to consistently represent the needs of working people and win victories.
Across the country and around the world, the last decade of capitalist crisis has severely undermined support for every major capitalist institution. Previously dominant so-called center parties of the left and right, which have carried out neo-liberal policies, have collapsed or experienced deep crisis. As politics polarizes, new parties on both the right and left are emerging. In the U.S., popular anger has created deep divisions within both the Republican and Democratic Parties.
Following the lead of Bernie Sanders, most of the new socialist candidates around DSA are running as Democrats, attempting to upend the corporate domination of the party. The growing rift between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on the one hand, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “The Squad” on the other side has become the most visible example.
These public divisions reflect sharpening divide between the Democratic Party’s mainly working class voting base and the corporate control of the party apparatus. The whole dynamic is creating the conditions for an historic political realignment along class lines including splits in the Democratic Party’s big tent coalition.
The contradiction is illustrated by the fact that despite broad popular support for Sanders, AOC, and other left Democrats, they remain extremely isolated in the halls of power. Big business has always maintained a stranglehold on both the Democrats and Republicans. Reflecting on the completely rigged Democratic Party primaries that denied Bernie Sanders the nomination in 2016, the famed author of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, commented:
hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.
Socialist Alternative has warned that attempts to transform the Democrats will lead the left into a deadend. We urge all socialists and left organizations, especially DSA with its huge growth, to join with us in preparing the ground for a broad, working-class political alternative. Especially if Bernie is again undemocratically blocked in the primaries, the potential will grow to build support for breaking out of the Democratic Party straight-jacket and preparing the ground for a new party for working people.
At the local level, Kshama and Socialist Alternative have campaigned for this idea as well. In a mass-distributed leaflet last summer, we argued that: “After Mayor Durkan and seven of the nine city councilmembers caved in to big business pressure to repeal the Amazon Tax, it is clearer than ever that corporate Democrats won’t reliably stand up for the needs of working people. It’s time to build a new alliance of progressives and socialists in Seattle, independent of corporate cash and the Democratic Party, to kick out the big business politicians in 2019.” While we did not succeed at pulling such an alliance together, the need for it remains at the core of our program.
Fighting Trump and the Right
On the night of Trump’s surprise election, Socialist Alternative issued a call for immediate coordinated mass protests in cities. Kshama’s national prominence as one of the most well-known elected socialists in the U.S. was a vital platform to spread this call. Across the country, over 50,000 answered the call by Socialist Alternative to demonstrate. These events and Kshama’s platform helped turn potential despair at Trump’s election into anger. This fed into the mass protests on Trump’s inauguration, with millions attending the historic “Women’s Marches,” the largest day of protest in U.S. history. There have been waves of resistance ever since.
Even bigger opportunities to build a mass movement against Trump and support for socialist ideas exist today if nationally-prominent socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez took a similar approach. Aiming to whip up his base for the 2020 election, Trump has repeatedly declared that “America will never be a socialist country.” This has been combined with his racist crackdown on refugees and immigrants, attempting to blame them for the rising economic insecurity faced by a growing majority of working- and middle-class people.
Most recently, Trump’s ferociously racist, red-baiting attacks on four new congresswomen of color, known as “The Squad,” has put a huge national spotlight on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Presley. While only AOC and Tlaib identify as socialists and members of DSA, together the four have become the face of the new youthful left, making its mark on U.S. politics since Trump’s rise. The Squad’s forceful rebuttals to Trump’s racist attacks have dominated news headlines. They have used this platform to step up their calls for impeaching the president and shutting down the horrific immigrant detention centers.
Unfortunately, despite anger at Trump reaching a fever-pitch and a clear mood developing to protest and fight back, neither Bernie Sanders nor AOC have used their enormous public platform to campaign for the kind of nationally coordinated mass protests and direct action that would be needed to win their demands. Linking calls for mass protests for immigrant rights to bold demands like a federal $15 an hour minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, and a massive jobs program connected to a Green New Deal – all class demands closely associated with Sanders, AOC, and the new socialist left – would go a long way in undermining Trump’s base and building working class solidarity against racism and bigotry.
If the socialist left and labor movement fail to offer a clear plan for mass action, working-class anger will remain atomized and largely channeled into the 2020 election. This will mostly take the shape of corporate Democrats facing off against right-wing Republicans, leaving most working people with no real representation, and expanding the space for right-populism to make gains. While Bernie’s campaign and some of the DSA-backed candidates may offer important vehicles to fight back around working-class demands, the potential for these campaigns to win will be greater if they are backed up by mass movements and workplace struggles.
The last few years have seen the rise of Trump-like figures such as Bolsanaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Salvini in Italy and others. At the same time, there is a new left including figures like Corbyn in Britain, Podemos in Spain and Melénchon in France. In Greece, the recent electoral defeat of Syriza (coalition of the radical left) following their ascent to power and subsequent betrayal should be a warning to the left internationally on the impact of limiting our program to reforms within capitalism. The dangers facing the left are also illustrated by Corbyn’s failure to offer a clear class policy in relation to Brexit, resulting in sagging enthusiasm for him, and by Podemos’ dangerous agreement go into coalition government with the former left PSOE despite that party’s record of neo-liberal austerity.
Internationally, there is a searching for ways to defeat the right and build the left. The principled class approach of Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative in Seattle is rich in lessons for socialists everywhere.
Sawant Against the Entire Political Establishment
In our 2013 campaign, big business ignored Kshama’s campaign, believing a socialist could not win a majority of Seattle voters. After our 2013 election win, followed by the historic $15 minimum victory in 2014, Socialist Alternative had tremendous momentum going into the 2015 race.
Kshama received the support from every union that endorsed a candidate in 2015, despite the private grumblings of many conservative union leaders who fiercely oppose genuine class struggle politics. Similarly, many prominent Democratic Party politicians like Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and two sitting city councilmembers felt compelled to endorse Kshama in 2015, despite her calls for building a left political alternative. This also reflected a hope among many in Seattle’s liberal establishment that Kshama, like so many previous radicals elevated into the halls of power, would be tamed and learn to play by their rules.
Kshama’s refusal to tone down her socialist, class-struggle politics, and her refusal to keep political disagreements in the back rooms of City Hall, has meant that the entire Seattle establishment, from big business to many so-called “progressive” elected Democrats, are lined up against us. Fifteen unions have endorsed Kshama, reflecting strong rank-and-file support, but the conservative leaders dominating the regional Labor Council are backing one of Kshama’s opponents.
Kshama has challenged the longstanding alliance between many labor leaders and the Democratic Party establishment, and Socialist Alternative members have helped cultivate rank-and-file opposition to the conservative, top-down approach of some unions. At the same time, our leadership winning the $15 minimum wage, alongside other victories, has given new confidence to workers to fight. In these ways we’ve played a role in helping to crystalize a left activist layer in Seattle unions, which has the potential to grow into a more serious force in the years ahead.
Big business, the Democratic establishment, and the corporate media have also had four years since our last election to wage a relentless smear campaign against Kshama and Socialist Alternative. So more than in any previous election, when voters go to the polls in the District 3 election, they will be making a very conscious vote for or against electing an avowed Marxist onto Seattle City Council.
For this reason, alongside the growing support for socialist ideas, Kshama has emphasized her support for socialism more in this campaign. Even as we use this election to campaign for more immediate reforms within capitalism, it remains vital for socialist candidates to popularize the need for a socialist transformation of society and a democratically planned economy that can meet the needs of everyone and ensure a healthy environment. Prominently on her campaign website, as part of Kshama’s call for a Green New Deal for working people, is our call to bring “the big U.S. energy corporations into democratic public ownership and retool them for clean energy.”
Our campaign platform ends with a clear condemnation of this system: “Capitalism has failed the 99%. Socialists fight for a fundamentally different kind of society, based on democracy, equality, sustainability and solidarity.”
A victory in Seattle, re-electing Sawant, will be a victory for workers and socialists everywhere. It will be one further step toward ending the misrule of capitalism and replacing this system with a truly democratic, socialist society capable of meeting the needs of all people and the planet.
This article originally appeared on SocialistAlternative.ca.