“This is just the beginning!” Kshama Sawant promised supporters and voters on behalf of Socialist Alternative at an excited election night party on November 6 in Seattle, WA. While the presidential race was mainly about what to vote against (see article Right Wing Rejected in the Elections), an inspiring campaign in Seattle's 43rd district for Washington state house offered working-class voters a real alternative. The ongoing vote count at the time this article was written has Kshama Sawant winning over 29%, pointing toward a final number of over 20,000 votes.
Socialist Alternative ran against Frank Chopp, Speaker of the House and the most influential Democratic legislator in Washington state. Chopp represents the Washington establishment, a well-deserved target for the anger of frustrated, poor, working-class people, and young people in Seattle. The vote for Sawant marks the strongest opposition by far that Speaker Chopp has faced during his entire 18 years in office.
This record-breaking vote for an independent working-class candidate has raised the confidence of workers, young people, and activists that it is possible to struggle against looming budget cuts from the “fiscal cliff,” attacks on public sector workers, education, and other social programs.
In Washington state, the Democratic Party won the governor’s race and maintained their majority control over both houses in the state legislature. They will likely propose a further round of vicious budget cuts to social services early next year, while they allow corporations such as Boeing, Amazon, and Microsoft to get away without paying barely any taxes. Sawant, a union activist and teacher, commented, "Public sector unions like mine need to prepare for strike action against budget cuts. Workers and youth need to be ready to occupy the Olympia state capitol building against attacks on our living standards.”
Based on this election breakthrough and the links built during the campaign, Socialist Alternative is using the profile and authority it has won to help to build a fight-back against all attacks on working people and oppressed groups in the coming weeks and months.
Sawant and Socialist Alternative are also forming a broad electoral alliance with other left-wing forces to use this result as a launching pad for a far bigger challenge to the Democratic Party. Concretely, Socialist Alternative is organizing for 2013 a slate of independent left-wing candidates to run for mayor and for all the open city council seats, all of which are currently held by Democrats. “We will go after them!” Sawant declared to huge applause of excited supporters on election night.
Election night also saw mass celebrations in the streets of Seattle after the passage of Referendum 74 for marriage equality and the defeat of Mitt Romney. Sawant addressed a crowd of over 2,000 people, saying “If you think that the Democratic Party politicians did this for you, let me tell you it was us that won this! The fight for LGBT rights has just begun - we still need to fight poverty, homelessness, and workplace discrimination!”
Socialist Ideas Gaining Support
“We achieved this election result as an openly Socialist campaign that was largely ignored by the corporate media, with no corporate donations, on a shoe-string budget,” explained Sawant. The campaign had to take the Washington Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and King County to court to allow Sawant's party, Socialist Alternative, to be printed on the ballot.
As Sawant and campaign volunteers knocked on doors all around the district and spoke to union meetings, community forums, neighbors, and friends, they all had experiences that led them to the same conclusion - there is clearly an open audience for socialist ideas among a large section of young people and working-class people. This confirms what opinion polls since the Great Recession have consistently indicated.
After years of attacks by right-wing pundits claiming that any taxes on the rich are “socialist” and denouncing Obama as a “socialist,” a growing number of people are looking to find out more about socialist ideas as a fundamental alternative to the failing capitalist system.
Secret of Success
The anger and distrust towards both corporate parties is reaching a boiling point across the country. In Seattle, as in most large cities across the country, there is deep discontent among progressive workers and youth at the Democratic Party, which has held a virtual monopoly on political power in the city and governed Washington state for years.
Frustration over unemployment, student debt, the healthcare crisis, budget cuts, and the suffocating domination of the super-rich was finally given an organized expression last year by the labor uprising in Wisconsin and the Occupy movement. While the elections in 2012 acted as a safety valve for the ruling class and succeeded in temporarily undermining these movements, that same fury at Wall Street and big business is still palpable and continues to be a key factor in U.S. politics.
Unfortunately, this mood across the country was not able to find a clear expression in the 2012 elections due to the failure of the left and the leaders of the labor movement and other progressive movements to organize a strong working-class political challenge to both parties.
It is in that context that the Sawant campaign starkly stands out. “Sawant nearly topped the combined national votes of all the socialist candidates in a single district! … Make no mistake: Sawant and Socialist Alternative made history in Seattle” (The North Star, 11/8/12). Socialist Alternative’s vote was the highest for an openly socialist candidate, including with union endorsements, in recent memory anywhere in the US. How was this possible?
The basis of the success of the Sawant campaign lay firstly in correctly recognizing the political space that exists for a working-class alternative that could bring the spirit and message of the Occupy movement into the elections. The campaign then moved quite audaciously to make use of the opportunity that this opening presented.
The campaign was able to connect to the mood of workers and young people by advancing concrete demands addressing questions facing ordinary people, such as calling for an increase of the minimum wage to $15/hour, a public jobs program to fight unemployment, a struggle to defend women's rights, and full equality for LGBT people. These immediate demands were linked with the overall need to fight against capitalism and transform society along socialist lines. This approach struck a chord with those searching for a bold alternative to the corrupt, broken political system.
The Sawant campaign also stood out as an energetic activist campaign. The district was plastered with campaign posters, and “Stop Chopp - Vote Sawant” yard signs were seen everywhere. The Sawant campaign tabled and leafleted in various neighborhoods, engaging thousands of people in political conversations. The campaign also systematically reached out to progressive organizations and unions, while also actively participating and helping promote various protests and community struggles taking place.
On numerous occasions, the campaign’s enthusiasm and determination overcame various obstacles. A significant mid-campaign victory was the legal struggle to get Sawant's party listed on the ballot. This battle was also used to expose the undemocratic and rigged nature of corporate politics that imposes enormous hurdles against independent candidates.
When Sawant's employer, Seattle Central Community College, refused to rehire her in the middle of the election campaign in a blatant act of retaliation and political discrimination, a campaign was launched to defend her job and improve the appalling working conditions for adjunct community college teachers at her college and beyond. Not only did the campaign succeed in forcing the college administration to reinstate Sawant for the next academic quarter, but it also was able to reverse their previous policy of imposing a right-wing “free market” economics textbook in her classes.
There were also particularly favorable conditions for Sawant’s campaign that not all independent left candidates will be able to immediately replicate. Frank Chopp was particularly vulnerable as a leading Democrat whose policies, despite his liberal rhetoric, are substantially to the right of the voters of the left-wing Seattle district he “represents.” In this “safe” Democratic district, Seattle’s main alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger broke with its general policy of supporting Democrats and endorsed Sawant, which helped the campaign reach a much larger audience. But The Stranger's endorsement was itself symptomatic of the growing discontent and ferment among the Democrats’ base at their corporate policies.
Independent Working-Class Politics
As a prominent figure in Occupy Seattle, Sawant brought the spirit of this uprising against Wall Street into the election year. One of the main slogans in the Vote Sawant campaign was “A voice for the 99%,” pointing towards the need for a new force, a real activist political party of workers, the poor, and young people.
Socialist Alternative used the terrain of the 2012 elections to stimulate a debate about the need to break from the Democratic Party, popularize socialist ideas, and help prepare the ground for future working-class battles. Outlined in “Imagine 200 Occupy Candidates This Year,” Socialist Alternative argued there was a real opportunity to challenge the corporate duopoly if credible working-class campaigns were organized – and was able to set an impressive example with its own campaign in Seattle.
Despite all the special circumstances in Seattle's 43rd district, who could deny the power of this argument now? Unfortunately the call to Occupy activists to run a whole number of independent candidates across the country - as a tool to systematically reach out to the hundreds of thousands of workers and fight against corporate politics - was not heeded despite a few notable exceptions. The leaders of labor, civil rights, anti-war and environmental organizations overwhelmingly rejected all attempts to support independent left candidates. Instead of endorsing and actively campaigning for independent, working-class-based candidates, enormous sums were spent to support a big-business party.
Even in Seattle, where the “lesser evil” argument did not even apply since no Republican ran in the race, the main union leaders refused to support Sawant, a union activist running on an uncompromising working-class agenda against a big-business Democrat. They did not dare cross the powerful Speaker of the House, believing that they would somehow be rewarded for their endorsement of Chopp despite his long track record against working people. Of course, this “pragmatic” approach of supporting our class enemies is exactly what has led to the catastrophic decline of the labor movement, and only emboldens politicians like Chopp to carry out an even more blatant anti-worker agenda.
The 29% vote for Sawant is quite a rebuke to this timid strategy of the union leadership. If they had actually put their weight behind Sawant’s campaign - actively promoting it to all union households in the district, mobilizing volunteers, and putting money behind the campaign – it is entirely conceivable that Frank Chopp would have been defeated, and a genuine fighter for working people would have been elected Speaker of the House.
The message is clear: The unions have to break with the Democrats and use their resources and influence to build a voice for workers and the 99%. Rank-and-file union members will need to lead the way in demanding their organizations take up such an approach.
The Sawant campaign is also an example for Occupy and union activists of how to link together protests and social movements and elections. Although the electoral system is rigged in favor of the corporate elite, the Sawant campaign shows how we can resist capitalism not only in the streets but also in the elections and reach a broader audience.
This is now an urgent task. Since Obama’s re-election, he has signaled he is prepared to move even further to the right with offers to the Republicans to carry out major attacks on Medicare, Medicaid, and other social services as part of the negotiations to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” These are just some of the battles to come.
That is the “beginning” spoken of by Kshama Sawant. Socialist Alternative will do everything in its power to make sure that the agenda of the 1% will meet a determined working-class and community resistance. As part of this process, Socialist Alternative is working to organize left-wing independent challenges for mayor and every city council seat in Seattle’s 2013 elections, together with activists from Occupy, unions, and other social movements.
On a national level, Socialist Alternative is appealing to prominent figures in progressive politics, along with left-wing, Occupy, and working-class activists, to organize a joint speaking tour around the country with Kshama Sawant. This speaking tour is an opportunity to provoke discussion and debate on building mass struggles against Obama and the corporate agenda as well as the need to build towards working-class political representation, a new mass force of resistance, and as an immediate step putting forward left electoral challenges to the two parties of Wall Street in 2013 and beyond.
[Editor's Note: This article was updated on 11/19/12 to reflect the growth in the election percentage that Sawant won from 28% to 29%.]