The name Kshama Sawant may not roll easily off the tongue, and it doesn't have household familiarity. But it's a name increasing numbers of people may soon learn.
Sawant is a part-time economics professor and former software engineer who just won election to the Seattle City Council, defeating a 16-year council veteran. Nothing too earth-changing in that description. But Sawant is a member of the Socialist Alternative, the current incarnation of organized socialist party politics in America, and she campaigned on an avowedly socialist political platform, including a $15-per-hour minimum wage, rent control, which Seattle does not have, and perhaps most provocatively, a tax on incomes over one million to be used to fund public transportation.
With the Socialist Alternative, she supports organizing working-class people against what the party calls exploitation and injustice, meaning control of the political process by those with wealth who use it to their advantage at the expense of the middle class and especially the poor.
The Socialist Alternative was founded in 1986 in New York City and was active in the Occupy Wall Street movement there and nationally, and before that, the anti-WTO protests in Seattle. In 2004 the party formed Youth Against War and Racism which staged walk-outs on college and high school campuses in a number of cities to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore lost election to the Minneapolis City Council on November 5 this year by just 229 votes; his campaign slogan was "People over Profits."
What the election of Sawant in Seattle signifies is the strength of popular unrest over galloping income inequality in America and the sense among wide segments of the general public that American democracy has been hijacked by wealth and corporate power.
It's been 100 years since a socialist party candidate won a municipal election in Seattle, and the broad unease with mainstream political organization in the U.S. today is reminiscent of the socialist movement of the Progressive Era. In the 1912 presidential election, Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs won 6% of the popular vote, nearly a million votes of 15 million cast, a showing that pushed national politics left, and encouraged President Wilson to push through Congress the women's suffrage amendment, the progressive income tax, creation of the Federal Reserve, and new anti-trust legislation, as A. Scott Berg explains in his new Wilson biography.
The Socialist Party of America lasted from 1901 to 1972, running its last presidential candidate in 1956. Before Cold War legislation outlawing the Communist Party, socialist politics were vigorous and visible in the U.S. American liberalism nearly destroyed itself by its failure to recognize and condemn Stalinism, as distinct from any substantive socialist political program. That helped generate the 1954 Communist Control Act. But in the Progressive Era, American socialist politics were lively and significant.
Alaska was heavily if somewhat ineffectually unionized in the Progressive period, both the mines in Juneau and Fairbanks, and the railroad construction north and south of Anchorage. Union organizers and socialist political operatives were very active across the territory. Former UAA Provost and historian Beverly Beeton has reconstructed the Alaska work of Lena Morris Lewis, Socialist Party organizer, lecturer and journalist, and Eugene Debs' 1912 campaign manager for the Pacific Northwest. She helped orchestrate the suffragist campaign in Alaska in 1912 and 1913, resulting in the first law passed by the first Alaska legislature: the enfranchisement of women.
Social democrat parties have been a mainstay of European politics in the postwar era, offering an alternative to American-style capitalist politics, endorsing instead a capitalism highly regulated by the government in the name of equality, and closely tied to a working class base. Today's discomfiture of millions of Americans with political business as usual, with the steadily growing wealth of the top 1 percent over the last two decades measured against the stagnation and loss of ground among the middle and lower middle class, coupled with pervasive mistrust of corporate-controlled media, has created fertile ground for an alternative politics in the U.S.
Sawant's victory in Seattle could indicate that we are once again witnessing a significant leftward shift in the American political center, one much more radical than most Alaska voters have imagined.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.