At last week’s Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting in Washington, D.C., President Obama quipped about the repeated charge that he’s a socialist. “But, no, you’ve got to meet real socialists,” he said. “You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is.” For those who are interested, meet newly elected Seattle Council member Kshama Sawant.
Running as a Socialist Alternative candidate, Sawant turned some heads in mid November by defeating longtime Democratic incumbent Richard Conlin for a seat on the city council. Running on issues such as a $15-per-hour minimum wage, she became the first socialist to win a citywide election in Seattle in nearly a century, thanks to the backing of Occupy Seattle (of which she is an organizer) and local unions. It’s been little more than a week since she claimed victory, but Sawant’s brazen promotion of socialist values is winning her praise and supporters in the progressive movement.
Sawant sees no need to hedge her views as “leaning” toward socialism or as sharing its perspective “on some of the issues.” In fact, even the Democratic-party establishment that has, in her words, “controlled” the Emerald City’s politics for years, is not exempt from her criticism. In a statement following Conlin’s concession on November 15, she thanked him for his public service before taking a piercing jab to say her election proves “a majority of voters are fed up with the corporate politicians.” In 2012, she challenged the Washington state-house speaker, a Democrat, and she managed to garner one-third of the vote. Regarding President Obama, she told Salon that he believes in capitalism and that there is “no basis in reality” to suggest he believes otherwise. The Stranger, a local alt-weekly that endorsed Sawant, credited her “brash style” and “refreshingly blunt rhetoric” with helping propel her to victory.
On the campaign trail and in subsequent interviews, Sawant recited all the themes one would expect from a Socialist Alternative candidate: She rails against corporate greed, calls capitalism “a dirty word” and pans it as an “oppressive” system that consolidates wealth to benefit the rich and perpetuates racism, and hails socialism as a way to “make society work for a vast majority of people.” Her proposals include a minimum-wage hike, taxes on the “super rich,” rent control, increased unionization, and the like. Philip Locker, the campaign’s political director, believes Sawant “has been elected on a very clear mandate” and will be able to pressure her colleagues on the council to enact such ordinances. (On the $15 minimum-wage bump, she already has the mayor-elect’s support.)
She plans to live out her worldview by applying its tenets to Seattle’s most recognized and renowned corporations. She has called for the unionization of Starbucks employees, and she favors the forced collectivization of Amazon as a way of “seizing control of the means of production.” Perhaps her biggest reach, though, came last week upon Boeing’s announcement, following its failure to reach a deal with the local union, that it will explore starting production of a new plane in another state. Sawant called Boeing’s potential move “economic terrorism,” owing to its devastating impact on the area, and urged machinists to “take over the factories, and shut down the profit-making machine” if the company follows through. “The only response we can have if Boeing executives do not agree to keep the plant here is for the machinists to say the machines are here, the workers are here, we will do the job, we don’t need the executives,” she said at a rally. “We can re-tool the [Boeing] machines to produce mass transit like buses, instead of destructive, you know, war machines,” she told a local TV station. (Locker emphasized that Sawant would urge the workers to seize the factory and establish “public ownership” of Boeing’s assets only in the event that the company actually left the state.)
Since her victory, Sawant has been greeted and cheered by the Left. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes welcomed her onto his show the day of her victory. Writing in the Guardian, Ari Paul shared his enthusiasm about Sawant’s victory: “The great hope is not just that Sawant brings about new, progressive policies in Seattle, but that it “inspires others like her; that it allows people to see that being labeled a socialist these days should be taken as a compliment.” John B. Judis of The New Republic said the triumph reflects “the political maturation of an alliance” of various left-leaning constituencies and causes in the United States. Take a quick look at Sawant’s Twitter page and one will see that several supporters are already calling for her to pursue higher office. “Forget about Elizabeth Warren for President. Kshama Sawant 2016!” one ardent fan tweeted. Momentum is in their favor, according to Locker, as evidenced by the campaign’s hundreds of grass-roots volunteers and $120,000 war chest that included no donations from large corporations. He, Sawant, and others with the Socialist Alternative party hope that, when it comes to politics, Seattle will maintain its reputation as a national trendsetter.
“Capitalism has never been more discredited, and there is a huge hunger for something that works for the 99 percent, for working people,” Locker said. “There’s a need to build a new socialist movement across the country. We’re making a start in Seattle.”
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.