Kshama Sawant, an openly declared socialist, was elected to the city council in a major United States city, Seattle, in November’s ballot.
You need to go back to the first half of the 20th century to find anything similar in the US.
The Indian-born Sawant ran as an activist. She first drew attention as part of the Occupy Seattle protests that included taking over a downtown park and a junior collage campus in 2011.
Occupy has faded as an organised movement, but many of those inspired by it have organised on other fronts. These include opposition to foreclosures, support for strikes and demonstrations by fast food workers, and opposition to coal trains coming through the Seattle area for Asian export.
Sawant has been in the midst of these actions. It was activists from such struggles who formed the backbone of her campaign.
A few days after her victory in the tight race was confirmed, the new city council member stood with Boeing workers rallying against the company. Boeing’s International Association of Machinists workers had voted down a concession’s contract by a large majority.
The Los Angeles Times reported: “The rain was cold, dripping down her blue poncho, but the newly elected city councilwoman’s words sizzled.
“Surrounded by union workers gathered to support Boeing’s machinists, Kshama Sawant denounced the two-party political system, corporate greed, military contracts and the leaders of the aerospace giant …
“‘We don’t need the executives!’ cried Seattle’s first elected Socialist in living memory, as the damp crowd cheered and rush-hour traffic hummed slowly by. ‘We need Boeing to be under democratic public ownership by workers – by the community!’”
Sawant’s campaign centered on a program of immediate demands relevant to the interests of working people, who face deepening inequality, as the capitalists reap huge profits and the stock market reaches historic highs.
The three key demands were: a raise of the minimum wage to US$15 an hour, controls to curb skyrocketing rents in Seattle, and a tax on millionaires to fund a public transit system and other city projects.
Such demands point in the opposite direction of the austerity pathway the Democrats and Republicans are charting.
These demands struck a chord.
So did her denunciation of the Democrats and Republicans. The whole country has seen the two parties of capital fail to address the needs of the “99%” while the “1%” has been coddled during the Great Recession and its aftermath.
At the same time, Sawant did not hide or downplay that she was a socialist. The fact that she won as an open socialist in a city-wide election is important.
It reflects that there is a new openness to socialism, especially among young people. A New York Times article quoted Sawant saying: “I think we have shown the strongest skeptics that the socialist label is not a bad one for a grassroots campaign to succeed.”
Even the man she defeated, 16-year Democratic Party incumbent Richard Conlin, said after the election: “I don’t think socialism makes most people in Seattle afraid.”
Recent polls also show that about 60% in the 18-29 age group favor socialism over capitalism when presented with that alternative.
This should not be overstated. Sawant’s victory and these polls do not mean that socialism is well understood, or that large numbers now consider themselves to be socialists. Socialist groups have been losing members, and the socialist label is anathema to many, especially in less progressive areas of the country.
But it does show socialists can make inroads with concrete proposals, and there is an audience for socialist ideas.
Seattle is a solid Democratic Party city. This meant that Sawant did not face the obstacle of “lesser evilism,” whereby people are cowed into voting Democratic lest a Republican would win.
The race was between a socialist and a Democrat. The Seattle now has a two-party council, without a Republican in sight.
Sawant’s campaign began modestly. She was able to use the fact that Seattle is a one-party town to point out that party must serve the interests of the capitalist who run the place.
She said: “The Democratic Party machines … totally run these cities in the interests of the rich and powerful,” declaring Conlin to be a “corporate-pandering politician”.
As the campaign wore on, this became increasingly obvious. One commentator noted: “Conlin garnered donations from every single corporate real estate interest, downtown law firm, commercial construction magnate, railroad honcho, and so on.”
No corporate funds, but broad support
Sawant rejected such donations. But as her campaign gained steam, her activist base raised a considerable sum of $125,000 (still less than Conlin spent).
Conlin also had the support of the Seattle Times (the major newspaper), the Democratic Party district committees, several unions, mainstream environmental groups, and the other elected officials.
Sawant was initially educated in Mumbai, India, and then in the US. She is an economics teacher at Seattle Community College. The American Federation of Teachers local branch endorsed her, as did a local of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
She was also endorsed by the Stranger, a community newspaper that appeals to youth, radicals and the LGBTI community.
As her momentum grew, there were some interesting defections. Some Democratic officials broke ranks to support Sawant, despite Conlin’s cries of foul.
Then the county central labour council voted 28 to 21 to endorse the socialist. This fell short of the two-thirds needed for formal endorsement, but still made headlines.
Then Conlin came out in support a $15 minimum wage, as did the two Democrats vying for mayor.
Another factor in her support was that Conlin was head of the city council’s land-use committee, and had a pro-developer record. One activist wrote in a letter to the editor, “When ordinary citizens attended land-use meetings in large numbers Conlin ignored our pleas.
“Council members said our ideas were ‘non-starters,’ so we turned to Sawant and discovered that she understood our concerns. She is passionate about empowering people, not corporations.”
Her campaign attracted attention in India. The third largest newspaper in the world, The Times of India, said she “reels off the list of betrayals by both Republicans and Democrats: Guantanamo, drone attacks, Afghanistan, Wall Street pandering, Bradley Manning’s incarceration …”
Sawant ran as the candidate of Socialist Alternative, an affiliate of the Committee for a Workers International based in Britain. The CWI considers itself Trotskyist.
Her campaign was endorsed by the socialist group Solidarity and the International Socialist Organization. It is to be hoped that similar efforts can bring together revolutionary socialists of different backgrounds in the United States in common work and discussion.
[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]