In November, Seattleites will vote again on the constitution of their City Council. Few cities in the United States, likely, will witness the same level of intensity and acrimony regarding what many outside this particular city will no doubt deem “just a local” issue. Most closely watched will be the elections for Seattle’s District Three, in which Kshama Sawant faces Egan Orion. Despite what many might think, the outcome will have reverberations far outside Seattle.
Sawant has been on the City Council for six years now, while Orion is a newcomer to the City Council fray. There is a fair tendency amongst some voters to wish for “fresh blood” and to have anti-incumbent bias while others are like to vote for “known quantities.”
Certainly Sawant is a known quantity. For many Seattleites, she is known as a tireless advocate for social justice and internationalism; for others, she is known as a strident rabble-rouser. For many Seattleites she is seen as a hyper-articulate leader, in solidarity with working and disadvantaged people; for others, she is seen as a reflexively anti-corporate Socialist.
There is much to discern from these interpretations. For those who support her- and this author is one such person—her work speaks for itself- from victories on minimum wage to support of local communities, from tireless work on climate change to her defense of venerable Seattle institutions, we see Sawant as an indefatigable force that has irrevocably changed the “Seattle Conversation” for the better. Such sentiments are called “preaching to the choir” so we can dispense with them at this point in this short piece.
What’s perhaps more interesting is to understand the critique of Sawant and her methods. Those who believe Sawant has had a detrimental effect on the Seattle Conversation point to 5 themes about Sawant: Her stridence, unremitting socialism, anti-Businesses stances, militancy, and constant voice. There are also a variety of ad hominem and outlandish, even calumnious insults but they are not worth discussing other than with the proviso that they are an obvious threat to her personal safety.
These five areas are worth examining for a variety of reasons; perhaps the most important of which is that each of them is, in a real sense, actually a massive compliment in a working democracy. Only in an Orwellian system can these be seen as demerits.
Let’s look at each one:
- Stridence- When it comes to radicals like Sawant, stridence is seen as a negative but that characterization is, indeed, curious. In most spheres of life- sports, business, religion, work, and other areas, “sticking to one’s guns” and “fighting hard” are seen as clear positives. We celebrate stridence in everything and love the quality in those who agree with us but somehow find it an insult when it comes to Sawant. Go figure.
Socialism- Americans react reflexively to that term but let’s once again examine the fairness and substance of that reaction. What family (that unit that all Americans claim is the most important) runs in any manner other than Socialistic? Do all members of the family earn the same? Do those who earn more eat more than those who earn less or wear warmer clothes in the winter? No, families run according to the essences of Socialism. Think of two other pillars of American life: Business and Sports. Aren’t “teams”- that unit that we glorify in these two areas –really Socialist entities in which “leadership” is about raising everyone to a good standard and giving what you can in order to maximize a collective outcome? Further, the fact that Sawant is consistent in her Socialism, is seen as rigidity by her detractors but these very people suggest that moral consistency is a good thing when it comes to their candidates.
Anti-Business- The strength of the American institutional structure is a function of checks and balances, of the countervailing institutions that check untrammeled power. In an era in which Business has assumed such incredible power over all aspects of civil life, don’t all citizens, irrespective of party affiliations or political bent, want to ensure that elected officials are indeed bulwarks against the enormous power and influence wielded by Business and the gilded classes?
Militancy- Since when has feeling incredibly strongly about one’s convictions and being willing to go to the mat in their defense been considered a bad or derogatory quality? We celebrate militarism but not militancy? Is this not a double standard that even the most conservative amongst us should avoid?
Constant Din- Sawant is no doubt vocal about many issues and has a voice that never ceases. Once again, what more do we want from elected officials? Do we want silence? Do we want backroom deals or open positions?
No public official is above scrutiny or above criticism? No doubt, Kshama Sawant has her share of detractors. What is curious, though, is that the qualities for which she is the object of derision are precisely the qualities that are needed if we are to repair our political processes and through them, our society.
Much will be revealed by the Sawant versus Orion election in November. Seattle citizens will decide if they want a consistent voice of fairness and a person who represents a fundamental check on the untrammeled power of Big Business or something or someone else. In the contest for Seattle’s District Three, Sawant’s opposition candidate is not the relevant factor; what is relevant is whether the collective and well-oiled opposition to Sawant can see past differences with her to protect not only the Voltairian Standard but also the very nature of healthy Democracy.
Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist