Becoming Seattle

A radical past, to be sure, and perhaps another step in that direction awaits us, with the election of Socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council. She’s determined to thwart corporatism on behalf of the Rest of Us, one rhetorical lashing at a time, whether or not anyone’s listening. That was one takeaway from this insightful piece by Ellis Conklin in the Seattle Weekly

Conklin came to Seattle via Los Angeles in 1989 to report for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He describes a largely laid-back cityscape, marked by Boeing booms and busts. That was before Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks emerged as economic juggernauts. He writes:

There were coffee houses on every corner. Residents flocked to Frederick & Nelson dressed in Eddie Bauer fleece. The air was cleaner above snow-capped mountain ranges, and the grunge scene was in full bloom. Nirvana was two years old and Pearl Jam was about to form. Microsoft was on the verge of launching Windows 3.0. In a few years, Newsweek would put then-Slate magazine editor Michael Kinsley on its cover. Remember that one? He was clad in a yellow raincoat next to an open-mouthed salmon, with the headline: “Swimming to Seattle: Everybody else is moving there. Should You?”

Times have changed. Seattle has morphed into a major metropolitan headache, with a tiny sliver of the population doing quite well, thank you very much, while everyone else struggles to make ends meet. Conklin:

The beat went on, and the tug-a-war continues between old Seattle and a new urbanized Seattle. The old maritime and industrial economy, replete with dark taverns, dive bars and famous greasy spoons like the former Dog House, yields to globalization, to a high-tech new order.

Can you say expensive? Buying a new home in the city is nearly impossible, unless you can pay a million or more in cash. A one-bedroom apartment will set you back $1,300 a month. On a minimum wage of $15 an hour, a full-time worker would be spending nearly half her income for a roof over her head. 

And it’s almost as impossible to commute into and out of the city, as the main freeway, I-5, is perpetually clogged with hundreds of thousands of cars. There is no public transportation to speak of.

On to this scene of Haves vs. Havenots arrives Ms. Sawant, who deposed long-time incumbent Richard Conlin with fiery words that resonated with enough voters to propel her onto the council. Here’s a sample:

Last year, a cold late-November rain spilled down the blue poncho of Kshama Sawant. The dark-haired socialist, having only days before been elected to the City Council, stood before union workers assembled in support of Boeing machinists and declared, “The workers should take over the factories and shut down Boeing’s profit-making machine…We don’t need executives! We need Boeing to be under democratic public ownership by workers—by the community!” She’d later exclaim that Boeing was making war machines (she meant drones), and ought to devote its giant assembly plants to pumping out buses.

Bracing. Unapologetic. And good luck with that.

If socialism is to reign in Seattle, Sawant will need others on the council and elsewhere. There are few signs that a revolution is taking hold. But a new demographic could affect future electoral outcomes: Conklin:

In Seattle, says Sandeep Kaushik, the main architect of Ed Murray’s mayoral campaign, there are two kinds of candidates these days. “There is what I call the communitarian populists who solve problems, who build consensus and are incremental in their approach. And then there are the populist progressives. They are filled with righteous indignation, unwilling to compromise and will fight the good fight.”


This latter group, believes Kaushik, is growing in number. “They are younger, more impatient and believe in confrontational politics,” adds Kaushik. “Even though both sides embrace the social welfare agenda, there is a battle going on between the two factions, the more radical political agenda versus older-style incrementalists—and that right now is the battle for Seattle’s soul.

Oscar Wilde reportedly said that “the trouble with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings.” We’ll see if enough young Seattleites don’t mind.

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