Socialist in Seattle

By Sunkara, Bhaskar; Uetricht, Micah | In These Times, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Socialist in Seattle


Sunkara, Bhaskar, Uetricht, Micah, In These Times


INDIAN-ORIGIN KSHAMA SAWANT is first elected socialist in U.S.," read a headline from The Times of India, the world's most widely circulated English-language daily. This was testament to the attention Sawant's campaign for Seattle City Council has generated- and to how much of America's socialist heritage has been forgotten.

Sawant isn't even the thousandth elected socialist in the United States, much less the first. At its peak a century ago, the Socialist Party of America polled at 6 percent nationally and had two representatives in Congress and hundreds of state and local legislators.

But for more than a generation, socialism has been virtually invisible on the American scene. Its return in several high-profile local city council races-Sawant's in Seattle, Ty Moore's in Minneapolis and Seamus Whelan's in Boston-has been surprising. Especially given the genesis of this push: not just widespread dissatisfaction with the economy and growing social inequity, but the efforts of a small Trotskyist party called Socialist Alternative.

Socialist Alternative first emerged as "Labor Militant" in 1986. Its activists were inspired by the example of the U.K. socialist group "Militant tendency," which sought to enter the British Labour Party in order to radicalize its rank-and-file. A decade later it would use its position on the Liverpool City Council and elsewhere to lead an aggressive campaign against the Thatcher administration's cuts to social programs.

The American militants adapted their tactics to the conditions in their own country. Without a mass socialdemocratic party to enter into, Socialist Alternative used its early influence in the now-defunct U.S. Labor Party of the late 1990s to advocate for electoral opposition to Democratic Party politicians. In the coming years the organization would be active in social movements, but it wasn't much of a presence even by the slim standards of the American Left. It had neither the clout of the Democratic Socialists of America nor the number of activists of the largest American bastion of Trotskyism, the International Socialist Organization.

That all changed with the latest election cycle, when Socialist Alternative decided to run openly socialist candidates in just the right races.

The results, particularly for Sawant and Moore, were impressive. Sawant defeated longtime Democratic incumbent Richard Conlin by more than 1.000 votes. Moore lost, but by a narrow margin of 229 votes out of more than 4.000 cast, despite running against Democratic candidate Alondra Cano, who attracted last-minute support from prominent Minnesota Democrats like Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Progressive Congressional Caucus, and Sen. Al Franken, as well as corporate interests such as the National Association of Realtors.

Sawant s victory and Moores close race have been labeled by some progressives as Cinderella tales of sorts: scrappy first-time politicians backed by a marginal socialist party battling against the Democratic Party. There's something appealing about the narrative. Yet the reality on the ground was different.

Sawant and Moore had the backing of the local housing and immigrant rights movements, as well as labor. Sawant drew official endorsements from four different union locals, including her own, the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789. Moore attracted the support of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Minnesota State Council.

Javier Morillo, president of SEIU Local 26, one of the council's three member locals, says the union saw an opportunity to shift debate in the city to the left by supporting Moore.

"Progressive governance needs left flanks," Morillo says. The union's "goal is always to move the ball forward as far as we can on progressive issues. That's what we did in this race."

Both candidates out-fundraised their opponents and had access to labor and community activists willing to put in long hours to support their campaigns, creating a vastly superior ground game to the Democrats. …

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