How a Socialist Won

Everybody knows you have to accept corporate money and work within the corporate-dominated two-party system to get elected, right? Not so with Kshama Sawant. In November, nearly 100,000 voters elected her to Seattle City Council – as an open socialist – and she didn’t take a dime in corporate cash!

In a huge political upset, Sawant’s victory sent shockwaves through the political establishment and even around the globe. Sawant is the first independent socialist elected in a major U.S. city in decades. Her historic breakthrough was covered by every major newspaper in the country, major TV stations, and newspapers around the world.

Now she and her Socialist Alternative political party are leading a movement to implement her main campaign pledge: raising Seattle’s minimum wage to the highest in the country – $15/hour – and the movement is spreading nationally.

How did Sawant and Socialist Alternative succeed in unseating a well-connected Democrat, an established 16-year incumbent? Is Seattle just a Mecca of progressive politics?

“Our campaign is not an isolated event,” claims Kshama Sawant. “In fact, it’s the bellweather for what’s going to happen in the future.”

Sounds nice. But is she dreaming?

The Times Have Changed

The success of other progressives in November suggests that this isn’t just a dream. Bill de Blasio was elected by a landslide as New York City mayor by promising to fight inequality and racist police brutality – much like Sawant, although he is by no means a socialist. Ty Moore, another Socialist Alternative candidate, ran for Minneapolis City Council and came within only 230 votes of being elected. The labor movement in Lorain County, Ohio got fed up with the Democrats’ betrayals and succeeded in electing two dozen “independent labor” candidates (though some maintained ties with the Democratic Party).

It’s a sign of the times,” argues Kshama Sawant. “The Great Recession has provoked a backlash from the 99%. People are fed up with losing jobs, homes, and pensions.”

A new study found that the richest 1% captured 95% of the income gains of the economic “recovery” while working-class people saw their incomes decline. Student debt has surpassed $1 trillion, more than the total accumulated credit card debt in the country.

As a result, a groundswell of resistance from working-class people keeps erupting across the globe: revolutions in the Middle East, general strikes across Europe, a labor uprising in Wisconsin, Occupy Wall Street, Turkey, Brazil… It’s only a matter of time before the next mass struggle breaks out.

Transitional Method

Everyone is talking about inequality – and lots of people are eager to do something about it – but only a few activist movements in the U.S. have been able to give a popular expression to this burning desire.

Occupy Wall Street thrust the issue of inequality into the mainstream, but eventually the movement began dwindling, with no clear way forward. As Occupy activists got drawn into the 2012 corporate-controlled elections, Socialist Alternative argued that Occupy could rebuild the movement by running 200 independent Occupy candidates across the country. Unfortunately, very few activists took up this call, and discussions about challenging inequality were drowned out by the corporate media, which refocused political debates around Obama, Romney, and other corporate politicians’ agendas.

One exception was the tremendous response Occupy activist Kshama Sawant received in her first election campaign in 2012, when she won 29% of the vote against the Washington State House Speaker. This demonstrated the potential Occupy could have had by running independent candidates.

Around the same time, fast-food and Walmart workers captured people’s imaginations by organizing rolling one-day strikes across the country demanding a $15/hour minimum wage and decent working conditions. In 2013, Sawant’s next campaign linked up with the strikers in Seattle, and we in Socialist Alternative recognized that the demand for a $15 minimum wage was gaining a tremendous resonance. We decided to focus our campaign around a call to “Make Seattle Affordable for All” and three specific, concrete demands: rent control and affordable housing, a tax on the super-rich to fund mass transit and education and, above all, a $15 minimum wage.

Socialist Alternative used what we call “the transitional method”: We connect with the consciousness of everyday people, meet them where they are at, and point a way forward to help social justice movements achieve victory. The transitional method also entails linking demands for basic improvements in workers’ day-to-day lives with the need for a fundamental restructuring of wealth and power in society along socialist lines.

Growing Openness to Socialism

Despite universal demonization of socialism by the corporate media and the political establishment, the Sawant and Moore campaigns demonstrated that “socialism” is no longer a dirty word. Multiple polls, including this Gallup poll, have found that a third of Americans react positively to the idea of “socialism” – a historic increase from decades ago and a 3% increase from 2010 to 2012.  Among both African Americans and young people (ages 18-29) there is more support for “socialism” than “capitalism” – a sign of things to come.

One of the secrets of our success was our analysis of the various levels of political consciousness of different sections of the population. Although only a small number of people consciously identify as socialists, there is quite a broad section of the population, especially youth, who are very open to socialist ideas. There is an even larger section who question capitalism, and almost everyone is angry at Wall Street and corporate “politics as usual.”

The Need for Political Leadership

Our electoral campaign tapped into the disgust with the political establishment (despite widespread political confusion), and we educated people, raised class consciousness and popularized socialist ideas. For example, Sawant popularized the idea that large corporations such as Boeing should not be run for the profit of a few but should be taken into public ownership and democratically run by workers and the wider community.

However, the working-class anger at corporate politics simmering beneath the surface of society would never have been expressed in Seattle and channeled in a progressive direction if we had not taken a bold electoral initiative. That is why it is vital that labor and other progressive movements not only organize rallies, strikes, etc. but also follow Sawant and the Ohio labor movement’s example of running independent candidates. Otherwise, political discussions and debates throughout society will be controlled and limited by the two corporate parties.

If working-class activists and progressive organizations do not build a strong left-wing political alternative, then the vacuum of growing anger in society will be filled either by right-wing demagogues or by populist Democrats who will attempt to contain our movements within the “safe” channels of the corporate Democratic Party.

To build on the momentum of Sawant’s 29% of the vote in 2012, Socialist Alternative appealed to Occupy, labor, civil rights groups, and left-wing parties to join Sawant in running a slate of vigorous independent progressive candidates for Seattle City Hall the following year. Unfortunately, they failed to see the opportunity that existed, declined our requests, and many continued to bang their heads against the wall of the Democratic Party.

In Minnesota, in contrast, the state council of SEIU unions not only endorsed Ty Moore’s Socialist Alternative campaign but contributed considerable financial and human resources. If more unions and progressive organizations would direct their resources to run and/or support independent candidates like this, there is no doubt we could run many successful independent candidates and begin to build a new political party of the 99%.

Sawant’s tremendous impact demonstrates how candidates and a political leadership are absolutely necessary to give a visible expression to the underlying anger and desire for change in society – and to channel that discontent around a clear agenda.

How much more could be accomplished if we had our own independent political voice: a mass party, fighting for workers and exposing the Republicans’ and Democrats’ corporate agenda? A new political party of workers, people of color, and environmentalists would shift the whole terms of debate in the country, unite various movements together, and significantly raise workers’ consciousness about our real interests. Building such a party is an absolutely essential task today.

The Crucial Role of Socialist Alternative

Many progressive activists have argued that building a party such as Socialist Alternative is “sectarian” and a “distraction” from building a broader movement. Although Socialist Alternative is not yet large enough to fill the vacuum that exists for a broad third party, it’s clear that Sawant would not have won if we had not built up our Socialist Alternative organization in the years before 2013.

It was Socialist Alternative’s political analysis that enabled us to identify the opportunity that existed for independent left-wing candidates. And it was only the existence of our activist organization that allowed us to implement our tactic and test out this perspective in practice. Without an organization, our analysis and ideas would have remained untested, and a historic opportunity would have been lost.

While the Sawant campaign relied on much broader forces than Socialist Alternative alone, Socialist Alternative served as the main backbone of the campaign, politically and organizationally. Without an organized core of experienced, dedicated socialist activists, it would not have been possible to organize a grassroots campaign of over 450 volunteers and pull together a broader alliance of The Stranger newspaper, six union locals, civil rights organizations, immigrant organizations, progressive parties, and many others.

Sawant definitely could not have won if we had not built Socialist Alternative in spite of all the nay-sayers telling us we were utopian dreamers wasting our time. Against all odds, we had to painstakingly build our organization practically from scratch.

For years, we organized and educated workers and young people around Marx’s ideas that the capitalist system is wracked by crises and increasingly unable to meet the basic needs of ordinary people, and that the working class is the revolutionary force which can build a new society. In addition, we benefited immensely from the contemporary Marxist perspectives, ideas, and experience of the Committee for a Workers International, a socialist organization in over 45 countries around the world.

A Bold Class Appeal

Another lesson from Sawant’s success is that the majority of people don’t want bland moderate candidates who compromise with big business. Most people are dying to see something different, a political leadership that will stand firm against the corporate onslaught.

The Green Party has run some good left-wing candidates, but when third parties run middle-of-the-road candidates who are only marginally different from the corrupt establishment, they really limit their appeal. Sawant’s popularity stemmed from her relentless attacks on the Republican and especially the Democratic politicians as tools of big business.

Sawant’s pledge to live on only the average worker’s wage and donate the rest of her salary to building social justice movements made her stand out. She did not straddle the fence between the working class and the ruling elite; she stood completely on the side of the working class.

And she inspired tremendous enthusiasm by not pulling any punches and arguing boldly (though also tactfully) for her principles.

Principled But Not Sectarian

While our campaign argued clearly that social change won’t happen under either Republicans or Democrats, we also took a non-sectarian approach to voters who supported Sawant but had not yet fully broken with the Democratic Party. We welcomed many activists who were excited to volunteer for our campaign but were also volunteering for Democrats in other races. In October 2013, a group even formed called “Democrats for Sawant,” expressing rank-and-file Democrats’ discontent with their party leadership.

Unlike some ultra-left radicals, we did not put up artificial barriers that would obstruct people beginning to move in a positive direction from getting involved with the Sawant campaign. As long as people supported our core demands and our candidate who persistently critiqued the Democratic Party and capitalism, we welcomed their support.

But crucially, we used a friendly, patient tone to explain our positions. A condescending, impatient attitude would have been counterproductive.

At the same time, we did not opportunistically bend to the intense pressure to lower our socialist banner or endorse Democratic candidates.

This transitional approach was essential for convincing a number of unions to endorse our campaign. At first, practically all the labor leaders dismissed our electoral campaigns and endorsed our Democratic opponents – Chopp in 2012 and Conlin in 2013. But eventually our principled non-sectarian approach and our bold class appeal kept winning more and more support among rank-and-file union activists. By October 2013, we won a strong majority for an endorsement in the King County Labor Council. Unfortunately, the 28 to 21 vote fell just shy of the two-thirds required for a formal endorsement.

Mass Fundraising and Outreach

We could not have won without taking a bold, serious approach to fundraising. Richard Conlin raised $242,000, but we built a powerful war chest of $141,000, over half of what Conlin raised. Yet our donations were overwhelmingly from working-class people and activists – 1,400 donors with a median donation of only $40.00.

Without these donations, we could not have afforded crucial necessities such as 140,000 mailers, approximately 50,000 handbills, robocalls, a few newspaper ads, five banners, and over a dozen organizers.

Our campaign inspired 450 volunteers to blanket the city with approximately 7,000 posters and 1,350 yard signs and to knock on over 17,000 doors. We called thousands of voters, tabled at farmer’s markets, and participated in protests and parades. Our staff also worked tirelessly, earning around 150 media articles throughout the campaign.

We were extremely fortunate to have the support of The Stranger, a liberal weekly which is the second-largest newspaper in Seattle. This was partially due to our strategic approach of carefully selecting which seat to run for. Crucially, we picked races where there would likely be only one other opponent, with no Republican in the race, so Democrats couldn’t scare people into voting for “the lesser of two evils.” (In most large cities, the Democratic Party has a monopoly over local politics, and other campaigns can definitely find similar races to run in across the country.) And in both 2012 and 2013 we challenged incumbents who had been in office for at least 16 years – plenty of time to expose their corporate connections and anger their working-class supporters.

Join the Fight

Last but not least, we had Kshama Sawant – an intelligent, eloquent, passionate yet tactful immigrant woman of color running against rich, establishment, stale, white men in both 2012 and 2013.

Sawant is an impressive speaker and a determined fighter, no doubt. But she is also an ordinary person who happened to attend a couple public forums in 2008 and was impressed with the Socialist Alternative speakers’ political clarity. Through discussions with Socialist Alternative, she decided to dedicate her life to fighting for a socialist world.

Most ordinary people gravely underestimate our own potential to play a role in changing the world. We should follow Sawant’s shining example and commit ourselves to this cause for which there is no greater reward. Nothing in life is more meaningful than fighting alongside other working-class people to end inequality, oppression, and environmental devastation. Join Socialist Alternative today.

We intend to publish a slightly longer version of this article as a pamphlet.  Contact if you’d like to order a bundle to distribute.

Leave a comment