In a polarized political climate where the word “socialist” carries heavily negative connotations, Kshama Sawant embraces the term and its ideology enthusiastically and unapologetically.
Sawant -- trained as a computer engineer in her native India and now a professor of economics -- is running for a seat on the City Council of Seattle under an unambiguously far-left banner. Even in this liberal bastion of the Northwest, Sawant’s political views stand out.
Having gained sufficient electoral support in the August primary (44,000 votes, or about 35 percent of the total, finishing second in a three-way race), Sawant is now challenging the entrenched 16-year Democratic incumbent Richard Conlin for a council seat in the November general election.
A veteran of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Sawant espouses an explicitly anti-capitalist creed that champions the rights of the poor, low-wage workers, women, immigrants, the homeless, the disabled, homosexuals and other marginalized segments of the population. Her current political campaign rests on three principal platforms: a $15-per-hour minimum wage; higher taxes on millionaires to fund mass transit and education; and rent control.
”A majority of workers and young people face an increasingly unaffordable city,” she told local media. “Most are disgusted by the endless parade of politicians who play with progressive rhetoric at election time, then pander to big corporations and the super-rich while in office.”
The Stranger, a Seattle area newspaper that has endorsed Sawant (along with six labor unions), said she is the only element of the campaign season that is providing any excitement or interest.
After Sawant performed well in the August primary, John Halle wrote in the North Star, a Socialist newspaper, that her success should not have come as a surprise.
”Recent polls have indicated a widespread sympathy to socialism, a sign that the many years of indoctrination equating ‘free markets and free people,’ capitalism and democracy, and of there being ‘no alternative’ to neo-liberal austerity are finally losing their power to convince,” Halle wrote. “Sawant’s candidacy is the first to give a concrete indication that these attitudes are beginning to find expression in terms of real political power.”
The Socialist Alternative newspaper called Sawant’s showing in the run-off “stunning” and a “breakthrough.”
A well-known political commentator in Seattle, Tom Barnard, wrote of Sawant’s campaign: “What happened conceptually was even more revolutionary. … For what Kshama did was to simply overturn the common wisdom of how to succeed in local elections in general and City Council races in particular. She took what were viewed as two immutable political laws [the need for big money and Democratic Party endorsements] and essentially threw them out the window… It’s nothing short of an earthquake… Kshama has shown a new path for independent candidates who directly advance working people’s interests and issues.”
Sawant is trying to translate her activism into practical terms – for example, she has vowed that if she wins election, she will not accept the full $120,000 annual salary awarded to City Council members. Instead, she will take the average salary for city workers and hand over the rest to social movements.
In an interview with International Business Times, Sawant laid out some of her vision and her disappointment with the administration of President Barack Obama.
”I don’t support the Democrats because they are largely financed by corporate interests, [just] like the Republicans,” she said. “After the initial campaign of ‘Hope and Change’ in 2008, disillusion has set in among much of the electorate. The hopes of progressive people have been dashed after five years of Obama.”
Sawant cited such issues as the government’s treatment of Wikileaks’ source Bradley Manning, the saber-rattling over Syria, the assault on public schools, drone missile attacks in Pakistan and the deportation of thousands of immigrants, among others, for the disillusionment with Obama.
”I think in the current environment, the appeal of independent and alternative candidates has greatly increased," she noted. "And I don’t think my embrace of socialism has much stigma as it might have had in the past.”
Sawant is quick to point out that she embodies the principles of democratic socialism, not the repressive, bureaucratic nature of the former Soviet Union.
She also suggests that after the devastation of the housing market collapse, the huge government bailouts of banks and large corporations, and the emergence of a whole new generation of debt-strapped college graduates with bleak job prospects, many members of the American public may simply be “sick of capitalism.”
“I think many Americans, particularly the youth, feel demoralized, dejected and disenfranchised by corporate-driven politics,” she said.
Indeed, with respect to Seattle, the economy is weakening. After driving the bulk (70 percent) of the state of Washington’s job growth since 2010, in August of this year, the Seattle area (which includes Bellevue and Everett) shed 4,300 jobs, including 1,600 manufacturing jobs, pushing up the local jobless rate to 5.2 percent. For the state as a whole, the jobless rate edged up to 7.0 percent. Still, these figures represent a much brighter picture than the rest of the country, particularly California (which is suffering under a nearly 9 percent jobless rate).
Even if Seattle has a much healthier economy than other parts of the nation, the cost of living is rising and wages are stagnant. Sawant, a professional economist, contends that one of her fundamental campaign proposals – a $15/hour minimum wage – makes sense, citing that if consumers don’t have enough money to buys goods and services, small businesses will collapse.
“Some corporate executives make more in one day than their lowest-paid employees make in a whole year,” she said. “Many companies could easily increase employee salaries. And even at $15/hour, that’s hardly an income that one can easily live on.”
Sawant’s proposal even has the support of some local capitalists. Nick Hanauer, founder of Second Avenue Partners, a Seattle venture capital fund, wrote in Bloomberg that the widening wealth gap in the U.S. presents some difficult challenges for the economy. Hanauer noted that low-wage jobs are quickly replacing middle-class jobs in the U.S. economy.
“Sixty percent of the jobs lost in the last recession were middle-income, while 59 percent of the new positions during the past two years of recovery were in low-wage industries that continue to expand such as retail, food services, cleaning and health care support,” he wrote.
“By 2020, 48 percent of jobs will be in those service sectors.”
Hanauer also indicated that if the federal minimum wage had simply tracked the rate of U.S. productivity gains since 1968, it would now be $21.72 an hour -- three times the current wage. He also estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would inject about $450 billion into the economy each year.
“That would give more purchasing power to millions of poor and lower-middle-class Americans, and would stimulate buying, production and hiring,” he declared.
Separately, as an Indian-American, Sawant presents a rather unusual alternative for most voters. Indeed, the two most famous and prominent Indian-American politicians – Govs. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana – are both right-wing Republicans, the polar opposite of Sawant's decidedly leftist ideology.
Sawant suggests that Jindal and Haley, as well as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, represent attempts at window-dressing by the Republican Party in order to appeal to ethnic minorities.
“These minority politicians are outliers,” she stated. “Most ethnic minority people in the U.S. do not support the Republican Party.”
She also points out that in defiance of the “model minority” image of Indian-Americans earning high salaries, there are many in the Seattle area who receive low wages, including taxi drivers, who support her candidacy.
Also, Sawant’s embrace of some social issues, namely abortion, gay rights and marriage equality, might strike observers as rather odd, given the deep conservatism and traditional values inherent in Indian culture. But Sawant counters that many Indians in U.S., particularly among the young, support such issues as gay rights. “It might be more of a problem if I was running for office in India itself,” she conceded.
The Seattle election will be held on Nov. 5.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.