It may come as a surprise to Ted Cruz, but Americans have a rich history of entertaining democratic-socialist responses to economic and political challenges. Tom Paine charted the rough outlines of a social-welfare state in his 1797 pamphlet “Agrarian Justice.” Fanny Wright was campaigning for the labor-linked and essentially social-democratic Workingmen’s Party in 1829. Utopian socialists were regular contributors to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the newspaper that inspired the radical political experiment that came to be known as the Republican Party.
A century ago, members of the Socialist Party served in Congress and state legislatures, they were mayors of big cities and peopled city councils and school boards across the country. The Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912, Eugene Victor Debs, won close to a million votes and polled more than 10 percent of the vote in the states of Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington.
The latter state was a hotbed of radicalism, especially in Seattle, where in 1916 activist Anna Louise Strong was elected to the school board. A militant supporter of left-wing causes and campaigns, she aligned with labor unions during the city’s general strike and famously declared: “They say the Pharaohs built the pyramids. Do you think one Pharaoh dropped one bead of sweat? We built the pyramids for the Pharaohs and we’re building for them yet.”
As a member of the school board, Strong backed the antiwar and civil liberties crusades of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, who is 1924 would seek the presidency as an independent progressive backed by the Socialist Party. La Follette came in third nationally but he finished second in Washington that year, behind Republican Calvin Coolidge but well ahead of Democrat John Davis.
Like San Francisco and Portland, Seattle remains a “Left Coast” city, with strong unions, a history of militant activism and adventurous local politics.
The latest adventure will play out November 5, when Seattle voters will decide whether to add a socialist to their city council. Kshama Sawant, a former software engineer who now teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College, is running a Socialist Alternative “Fund Human Needs, Fight Corporate Greed” campaign that declares: “We live in one of the richest cities in the richest nation on earth. There is no shortage of resources. Capitalism has failed the 99%. Another world is both possible and necessary—a socialist world based on the needs of humanity and the environment.”
A veteran of Occupy protests and organizing drives, Sawant pulls no punches in her platform, which begins with a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 and hour and then promises to
* Seek “A Millionaire’s Tax to fund mass transit, education, and living-wage union jobs providing vital social services.” She proposes to: “End corporate welfare. Tax freeloading corporations. Reduce the unfair tax burden on small businesses, homeowners & workers.
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* Support efforts to “Unionize Amazon, Starbucks & low-paid service workers.”
* Commit to “No layoffs or attacks on public sector unions!”
That’s a message with proven appeal in Seattle, where Sawant won 35 percent of the citywide primary vote and a place on the November 5 ballot challenging sixteen-year-incumbent Richard Conlin. In the officially nonpartisan race, Conlin is backed by most of the Democratic leadership in the very Democratic city of Seattle; he’s also got the support of a number of major environmental groups. But both candidates have obtained endorsements from labor organizations and Sawant has won the enthusiastic support of the city’s politically potent alternative weekly The Stranger.
“An immigrant woman of color, an Occupy Seattle organizer, and an economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction,” argued The Stranger in an editorial that celebrated Sawant’s run. “She is passionate but thoughtful. She speaks comfortably on non-economic issues. She is likable. And most important, she’s winning over voters.”
In August, the Seattle Weekly wrote: “We like her because she’s an honest-to-god socialist who’s willing to throw a few Molotov cocktails into the cloistered hatch-pits of our terribly staid civic ‘debates.’”
Sawant is challenging a long-serving incumbent. She’ll be outspent. That means that by most measures her race is an uphill one—as are those of the other independent and third-party candidates running on the left and the right this fall. The outlines of our electoral politics are, for the most part, drawn to favor the two major parties and a narrow range of ideas. But just as Robert Sarvis’ unexpectedly strong Libertarian campaign for governor of Virginia (now in double digits in some polls) offers an indication that Americans are frustrated by the constraints of traditional two-party politics, Sawant’s democratic-socialist campaign in Seattle is proving that a bold rejection of austerity has significant popular appeal.
“There is nobody in the political leadership of Seattle right now who comes into work every day with a sense of urgency to really fight for people’s standard of living,” says Sawant. “That’s why voters are engaged in our campaign, because they are hearing a voice that they have been wanting to hear for years.”