Elections in Novembers without any candidates for national office are usually pretty dull affairs. Where I live, it’s the fire protection district, the school board, a community college district trustee, and a school bond measure. Not trivial, but pretty light stuff.
Not so in the cities of Seattle and Minneapolis. Two candidates- Seattle Community College instructor Kshama Sawant and anti-foreclosure activist Ty Moore are poised to upset the political order. Both are dominated by the Democratic party machine, and tend to produce candidates with solid credentials but a dearth of ideas. So are Sawant and Moore Republicans? A new brand of Democrat?
No, they are socialists.
Both are members of Socialist Alternative, which aims to provide a challenge from the left of the Democratic Party. While Republicans are pressured to move to the right due to the Tea Party, no such dynamic exists for Democrats. However, on Tuesday both will stand for a position on the city council. And both may very well win.
How has this happened? A credible socialist movement hasn’t existed in American cities since before the Second World War. But 2013 is a strange time in America. Unemployment is stubbornly high, and the new jobs that being created are inferior to those that existed before. Income inequality is the highest it’s been since 1929. The labor movement desperately needs a shot in the arm to reverse a long period of decline. In other words, the climate of the early 20th century is returning. The same climate that gave way to the CIO, Eugene V. Debs, socialist congressmen, and cities run by socialist councilmen and socialist mayors.
This change is not just climate, but about candidates and the issues they value. The Stranger, Seattle’s second largest newspaper, gave a forceful and compelling endorsement of Sawant. They point out that she’s not “the stereotypically dour, rhetoric-spewing Socialist Workers Party candidate.” Instead she advocates for issues that affect regular working people. The centerpiece of her campaign (sharing her name on all her signs) is a $15/hr minimum wage. This idea, considered silly a year ago, has been forced into the political mainstream by Sawant and Moore. Now both candidates in the mayoral run-off in Seattle are on record supporting the idea. Democratic politics involves a lot of issues that are off the table. Single-payer healthcare. Substantially higher taxes for the wealthy. Aggressive movements to limit pollution and halt climate change. Socialist Alternative does what its name promises- a different view of things. And it puts these issues back on the table, where they belong.
And it is causing parts of the Democratic party to question where they stand. Do they choose party, or issues? The large number of union endorsements speaks to this conflict. The Minnesota State Council (SEIU) has endorsed Moore. The King County Labor Council, which had originally voted to back Sawant’s Democratic opponent, long-time Councilman Richard Conlin, held a revote where the majority backed the socialist. Moore has raised over $60,000 through the grassroots, out-raising his opponent since late August.
While both seem in a strong position, neither race has been polled, and it is difficult to know if either are headed to victory or defeat. But the statement has been made, and activists from all over the country are looking at these races. When Sawant finished second in a three-person primary, she shocked the establishment by winning 35% of the vote. The runoff exists because of the strength of Sawant’s campaign volunteers and the power of her message- Conlin didn’t poll the 50% required to win outright.
However, the enthusiasm shows that the American left is not quite dead. They can offer a real alternative. And choice is how a democracy can sustain itself, and create a better society.