United States and World Politics


Funny How Everything’s Gone Left

Out in left field? Seattle politics may seem that way, but it’s really the leading edge.

By Danny Westneat

Originally published October 26, 2013

The election isn’t for 10 days, but we can already declare the big winner in Seattle.

It’s the socialist.

Kshama Sawant, the first socialist to make the finals of a Seattle election in 22 years, probably won’t win election herself. But what’s most notable about Seattle politics this year is that nearly her entire agenda has, over the course of the campaign, been embraced by both candidates for mayor to lead the Northwest’s largest city.

The movement in Sawant’s lefty direction has been so pronounced it has reduced her to making jokes about how she got there first.

“I was for the $15 minimum wage before it was cool,” she has started saying.

Sawant is running for City Council under the socialist Alternative banner. But if you tick through her stances and goals, they are pretty much indistinguishable from those of current Mayor Mike McGinn or his challenger, State Senator Ed Murray.

Against coal trains? Check. For universal preschool? Check. For more transit, bike lanes and compassion for panhandlers? Triple check.

On issues where they haven’t adopted her precise platform—such as levying an income tax on millionaires—they actually wish they could (the city can’t legally impose an income-based tax).

And on other issues, they have begun out-socialisting the socialist. Take the $15-an-hour minimum wage. McGinn says he’d go even higher.

“If the council proposed a higher number, I’d support that,” McGinn declared this month.

OK, this is the moment where you, the reader, have a choice. You can shake your head and scoff at the blinkered, left-wing echo chamber that is Seattle politics. Or you can genuinely wonder: What is going on here?

Something definitely is different. Typically candidates here go hard left for the primary and then tack back ever so slightly toward the reasonable center for the general election. That was the route McGinn traveled to win in 2009.

But this year the candidates keep coming up with new ways to out-liberal the other. About the only socialist ground Sawant has left all to herself is her plan for rent control and unionizing Amazon. (Press releases from the other candidates coming on those on Monday—just kidding?)

So either the politicians are wildly misreading the public. Or something is happening here.

I became intrigued it may be the latter by an essay called “The Rise of the New, New Left,” by former New Republic editor Peter Beinart. He argues that economic insecurity is causing a tectonic shift in politics. Younger voters especially are rejecting the Reagan and Clinton pro-business centrism that has defined U.S. politics for 35 years, and instead urging a more activist, anti-corporate, pro-worker bent.

It’s no accident, Beinart writes, that New York City is set to elect an unabashed leftist as mayor for the first time in decades. He doesn’t mention what’s happening in Seattle, but he easily could have.

If you came of age under Reagan and Clinton, as I did, then Beinart says you likely tend more toward free-market solutions to problems. I realized this is why I’m so leery of the government imposing a $15 minimum wage. Clinton was about government providing equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. So workers can and should agitate for higher wages, including by unionizing. While government, beyond providing educational opportunities and worker health and safety, should mostly butt out.

But that was then. You can’t look at the stagnant pay, declining benefits and third-world levels of income disparity in recent years and conclude this system is working. For Millennials as a group it has been a disaster. Out of the wreckage, left-wing or socialist economic ideas, such as the “livable wage” movement in which government would seek to mandate a form of economic security, are flowering.

Will any of it make it into law? No one knows, and I’m still skeptical it’s the right approach. But at least we’re finally debating the right topics. It was maddening after the economic collapse when the big political movement, the tea party, was fixated on slashing the wages of blameless people like teachers.

As for our mayor’s race? What looks like Seattle out in left field, as usual, may be much bigger news: Seattle as leading indicator.

Seattle Times, November 7, 2013