You have to admit: Kshama Sawant is a good story.
Socialists stare at Big Tech. The gleaming city’s rising inequality and the richest baron on earth are conjured up by lone women with megaphones in the streets.
If the story was out there, it could have been a Hollywood movie. They could have called “American Socialists” and almost did. (It was the tentative title of a book Sawant planned to publish, but it never hit shelves).
Still, our story ends in failure. “The end of an era,” Seattle’s Stranger news site wrote last week, when Sawant announced she would not be running for re-election.
“Good night, Seattle Socialism,” mourned another Stranger writer. (Sawant’s story has been primarily the work of strangers from the start).
what happened? Aside from the fact that everyone is stuck outside—the endless conflict can be exhausting—the reality is that Sawant always tells more story than substance.
Like how she rocked the world by bringing the $15 an hour minimum wage to Seattle? It’s really a union, and almost all of the organizing and hard policy is going on in that union, the Seattle chapter of the Service Employees International Union.
Still, in a classic Sawant move, she put the union under the bus in her retirement announcement at town hall, calling them sycophants of “corporate Democrats” and “afraid of spoiling the boat.”
From Seattle Rep. Pramila Jayapal to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a star Democratic Socialist, to some of her former congressional allies (who, she charged, “embraced the establishment until it failed,” she basically put everyone on the fence. It is said that he betrayed her.)
Other than herself, her only praise was for the House Freedom Caucus of right-wing Republicans. Now that group knows “how to use leverage to force concessions from the establishment,” she said.
oops. My own feeling about this storyline is that, for the most part, Sawant is buoyed by some emerging trend in our politics, not the other way around.
A seminal essay titled “The Rise of the New Left,” published before Sawant was first elected, captured a trend. It argues that traditional Democratic politicians with market-oriented liberalism, such as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, aim for equal opportunity. Fueled by economic insecurity, there has emerged a sweeping progressivism with a more radical goal: equality of outcome in everything from pay to education.
The movement has racked up strong political victories up and down the West Coast — including in cities where there aren’t any socialists advocating. It has pushed for higher wages, reform of the criminal justice system, taxes on the wealthy and new ways of electoral participation, such as ranked choice voting.
After a 10-year run, this stock movement now appears to be stalling. Not because people are still not interested in these ideas. But because voters have some backlash against the deterioration of these cities.
Recent polls reflect this for Sawant. A report last October showed that she had a 25 percent negative approval rating (meaning 25 percentage points more disapproval than approval) in her Seattle district. One in December gave her an incredible 46 points underwater in the city.
“Is the run over?” I asked in a column last summer. Sawant has won election in Seattle four times despite being repeatedly sidelined, no small feat. But it turns out the answer is: yes.
Another regrettable trend in Sawant’s early days: how details, facts, policies, and even objective reality lose their weight and are replaced by purely ideological politics.
Savant seemed to get this new era intuitively. One of the first things she called for after she was elected in 2013 was to get Boeing workers up, “shut down Boeing’s profit machine” and actually take over the jet maker’s factories.
Mechanics could retool factories to make buses instead of “war machines,” she said.
Say what? As angry as Boeing workers are about their pensions being frozen, should they use bricks to storm the factory floor like the old Wobblies did? National publications have a field day: “Socialism gets off to a bad start in Seattle,” scoffed Slate Magazine, a center-left establishment.
It doesn’t matter. This is the first of many wild and unrealistic fantasies Sawant has come up with that in no way threatens her standing. Policy or solving problems is not the point; protests and conflicts are.
Another extreme example: In the 2020 “defund the police” debate, Sawant introduced an amendment that would not just repurpose part of the police budget. At times when crime spikes, it shuts down entire departments.
“central [budget] Staff estimates … SPD may not be able to achieve this reduction without laying off all or nearly all of the staff employed by SPD,” she wrote of her analysis of the proposal. Sawant moved it recklessly. (It didn’t go through, thankfully.)
Sawant was also the sponsor of the Tone Deafness Amendment, which cut the salary of then-police commissioner Carmen Best by 40%. Better to quit. These two moves by Savant effectively undermined Seattle’s defunding police movement. In the name of racial justice, she hit the police as hard as she could, and all she had to do was hit one of the few female black police chiefs in the country.
The other council members who rushed into the breach behind Savant never really recovered. Nor is there a worthy goal of proposing any meaningful alternative to the police. (This will require hard governance work).
After this fiasco, Sawant still won another vote of the people. As Donald Trump demonstrates, the details don’t matter as long as you’re seen as “battled” by dark forces on the other side, and you get up every day and start more squabbles.
This era of constant performance conflict also seems to be in decline. People are tired of it, or maybe crave competence more than drama right now. As far as Seattle is concerned, Big Tech also seems less bossy since it started laying off thousands.
Sawant has a year left in her term on the city council, but she has become a unique politician in the city’s history. Her strongest legacy is that she disrupted Seattle’s cozy liberalism and rallied wealthy barons. She was so authoritarian that she ended up alienating even her allies. With enemies everywhere and relentless demands for purity, the mass movements and revolutions she hopes to unleash have thus far been stubbornly isolated and small-scale.
It was the sold-out “corporate Democrats” who made the legislative achievement.
Sawant’s story is good and important. Broadly speaking, she channeled the conflict of the 2010s, which needs to be told. But stories get stale, lose their thread, and people stop reading. Time for a new one – hopefully with a stronger ending this time.