[Marxism] SAWANT Campaign Invigorates Socialist Politics

Alan Stewart alan-stewart at progressiveglobalcommons.org
Mon Nov 18 13:54:12 MST 2013

SAWANT Campaign Invigorates Socialist Politics
By Ben Campbell – Nov. 14, 2013 – The North Star


For a left that is used to settling for symbolic victories, most seemed impressed by socialist candidate Kshama Sawant’s 46% election night showing in Seattle. She had “changed the conversation” on topics such as the minimum wage after receiving an unprecedented number of votes in a city-wide race that few had expected her to win. Yet, after a prolonged process of vote-counting in which the Sawant campaign has carried all the momentum, the socialist has emerged with a 400-vote lead. (2,289 and growing)

As ballots continue to be counted the campaign is appealing to volunteers and donors. They hope to avoid an automatic recount, which would be triggered if the vote differential is under 2,000 votes and one-half of one percent. While the campaign is cautious, it appears likely that Sawant is headed for electoral victory and one of nine spots on Seattle’s city council.

The campaign has captured the attention of the US left nationally, which has been looking for something to stir it from its post-Occupy hangover. The unexpected result has led to clamoring for more Sawant-style campaigns—could this be the beginning of a left electoral turn?

Yet socialists have frequently run for office and rarely come close to victory. Was the Sawant campaign simply an isolated incident of, as ABC put it, “left-leaning Seattle, where police recently handed out snacks at a large marijuana festival and politicians often try to out-liberal each other?” The fact that fellow Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore ran a similarly close campaign in Minneapolis would suggest otherwise. 

Despite their party affiliation, it would be a mistake to view the Sawant and Moore campaigns as indicative of a groundswell in support for socialism, however defined. Sawant’s success owes itself to concrete policy proposals, such as a highly popular call for a $15/hour minimum wage—a ballot measure that was too-close-to-call in nearby Seatac. Moore, an organizer for Occupy Homes, focused heavily on the issue of foreclosures.

Instead, what the results indicate is that increasing numbers are open to left electoral alternatives to entrenched Democratic Party politicians. Sawant gained ground throughout the campaign by relentless attacks on the four-term incumbent Richard Conlin, who Sawant claimed represented “big business interests.”

In the post-Citizens United, post-2008 era, the Democratic party’s corporate fealty is difficult to hide from the working class, who are increasingly financially squeezed. A recent poll indicatesthat 60% of voters, including half of Democrats, believe that the two major parties “do such a poor job that a third major party is needed.” With support for Congress at an historic low, much of the disgust at the political establishment can also be seen at state and local levels, making incumbents like Conlin unusually vulnerable. Prior to election, only 28% of Seattle’s votersapproved of city council.

While the Sawant campaign does not necessarily presage a revival of socialism, is does indicate that socialism is not a dirty word—at least in certain parts of the country. 53% of Democratic-leaning voters have a positive view of socialism, compared to 55% for capitalism and 44% for big business.  In a heavily Democratic city like Seattle, to embrace the socialist label thus does a progressive candidate little harm. Not only did the label not harm Sawant, but it may have helped, by foregrounding the issue of class and attracting media attention and national fundraising.

The two campaigns also demonstrate the importance of organization. Socialist Alternative brought a national organization and full-time staffers to concentrate almost exclusively on three local races (including Seamus Whelan’s unsuccessful candidacy in Boston). The Sawant campaign made use of hundreds of volunteers.

Yet despite Socialist Alternative’s organizational strength, their results would not have been achievable in isolation.  Critically, Ty Moore landed the endorsement of the SEIU, while Sawant received the endorsement of several unions. Sawant’s insurgent campaign posed tough questions for local progressive Democrats, with several prominent Democrats ultimatelyendorsing her.

Sawant raised over $100,000,  significantly out-fundraising Conlin in the campaign’s final weeks. This number should give prospective socialist candidates some pause; at roughly a dollar a vote, Sawant’s campaign was on the efficient side. While it is worth noting the large-scale city-wide nature of the race, this is the type of fundraising that serious third-party challengers will require.

Finally, both campaigns benefitted from exceptionally strong candidates, with a history of local activism, Sawant with Occupy Seattle and Moore with Occupy Homes-Minnesota. If Sawant holds on to win, as is likely, she will owe her slim victory to an impressive ability to communicate with voters on everyday issues. It was also to her advantage that she was familiar to Seattle voters, having run unsuccessfully against Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp in 2012.

Following their impressive election night showing, Socialist Alternative called for the formation of “coalitions throughout the country with the potential to come together on a national level to run 100 independent working-class candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections.” 

What Sawant and Moore demonstrate, however, is that the quality of electoral campaigns is far more important than quantity. Socialists should consider what strategic openings exist where they active, and what types of coalitions might possibly be formed out of electoral campaigns.

The North Star


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Alan L. Stewart
Managing Director
Progressive Global Commons
alan-stewart at progressiveglobalcommons.org

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