The Hunt for Red November: Third-Party, Working-Class Politics Get a Boost with Socialist Victory

Michael Orion Powell I Politics & Government I Commentary I November 20th, 2013

Something incredible happened in the Seattle area during the off-year 2013 election cycle. Most of the races, while significant enough for city residents, were relegated to localized importance. However, there was one exception.

Kshama Sawant, a candidate for City Council as a Socialist (as in the Socialist Alternative Party, not a descriptive term), was victorious. Sawant not only won a seat on the City Council, but also won prestige - she is well beyond another lower level academic (she teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College) - she is now a force to be reckoned with in Seattle-area politics and a trailblazer for a political brand that has largely remained dormant in the U.S. for the better half of a century.

Sawant's victory, while seemingly coming out of nowhere, was actually buoyed by widespread support. The Stranger, a local newspaper enjoying over twenty years of influence in the city, ran nearly once-a-week editorials endorsing Sawant from many of its most influential writers, among them Charles Mudede.

For people seeking policy alternatives, Sawant's victory is a good sign in a world that is increasingly deranged. Sawant was running on advocacy of a $15-an-hour minimum wage - in fact, most of her campaign signs had that promise advertised. While her victory was drawn out - it took over a week for the results to really tilt in Sawant's favor[1] - it took over a week for all the ballots to be counted and for the city of Seatac to pass an initiative for a $15 minimum wage [2].

Your opinion of "third party" political candidates will likely tell a lot about your general orientation on politics and whether or not you are capable of thinking and seeing outside the box. While working for Campaign for Liberty, Ron Paul's political advocacy group, it was common to overhear establishment Republicans say "I hate that Ron Paul, he wants us to surrender!" The opposition to Paul (even from Republicans) was pretty fierce - confirmation that broader horizons aren't really welcome amongst people who have been in the same political circle for a long time. Conversely, the fact that Paul had done more for legitimizing anti-war sentiment and civil liberties is often lost on the left.

It was the same back in 2000 for progressives dissatisfied with their options. Ralph Nader is still viewed by many progressives as the primary reason for Al Gore's defeat. The fact that Gore had an indistinguishable foreign policy (it's usually difficult to see new ideas in foreign policy among the "two" parties) from Bush and was running on a campaign of entertainment censorship with the urging of his wife, Tipper (creator of the "Parental Advisory" sticker), is often forgotten.

Contrary to the view of them as spoilers, independent candidates represent perhaps the only hope for positive change in electoral politics. The Democratic and Republican parties are machines comprised of a laundry list of interest groups - from the AFL-CIO bureaucracy on the left to evangelical organizations on the right to defense contractors and drug manufacturers on both the left and right. Normal people are often forgotten when it comes to political agendas, and it's inconceivable that anyone could penetrate the larger sphere of national politics without having income and assets nearing or over 7 digits. The cold, hard truth is that politicians of both major parties work for groups who want war, crony capitalism, and a police state.

The "outsiders" that often end up running as third-party candidates represent issues that are important to people outside the mainstream political sphere - in other words, not special interests pushed by the corporate power structure. Prior to his entrance in national politics, Nader had been a consumer advocate for years - he helped make mandatory seatbelts a reality. Car safety was largely ignored by the car companies themselves, and implementation likely never would have occurred if it weren't for grassroots advocacy. Despite this, the automobile manufacturing conglomerates were still awarded the privilege of shaping such policy - something they never wanted to begin with.

For Sawant, the issue of a minimum wage increase was basically abandoned by major politicians from both sides of the aisle. Bailouts and other forms of corporate welfare at the expense of taxpayers are accepted by both parties, and the orthodoxy that mandating a living wage to people working for a company will only "hurt business" has remained constant. Because of this, the idea of setting a standard and fair living wage for the workforce has significant opposition - for example, the recently re-elected Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, is very much opposed to it. [3]

Beyond her importance as a third-party candidate, Sawant's status as a socialist is very significant. While many popular U.S. Presidents from Jefferson to Roosevelt to Eisenhower were best known for their public works, the Reagan Revolution was very critical in establishing a negative connotation for public service and distributive justice. Sawant's ability to appeal to a broad electorate reflects a sea change. She did so by raising only $110,000 compared to her opponent's $238,196[4] - therefore, bucking the trend that candidates who raise the most money usually win.

The website of Socialist Alternative[5], a significant socialist American organization that sponsored Sawant's campaign, credited her success with distaste for the two-party system:

Rooted in the Great Recession and the shallow economic recovery, there is a tremendous distrust of the political establishment, which fueled both campaigns. The government shutdown also stoked a popular rage that allowed the socialist campaigns to strike a real chord with ordinary people. During the government shutdown, the approval rating for Congress slumped to a historic low of 5%. In a Gallup poll, a record-high 60% said that a new party was needed in the U.S., and a record low of only 26% said the two parties were doing an adequate job.

The world is changing fast, and many things that we often held as an immoveable fact of life are radically different now. For electoral politics in America, change seems to be on the horizon. The election of Sawant reflects this. As a springboard for third-party politics on the Left, Sawant's arrival on the political scene threatens the dominance of Republicans and Democrats in the United States. And that is a good thing.


[1] Valdes, Manuel. "Kshama Sawant, Socialist Candidate, Is On The Verge Of Winning Seattle City Council Seat." The Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

[2] Smith, Rebecca. "In Seattle, an Election Day Win for Workers." MSNBC. NBC News, n.d. Web.

[3] Clawson, Laura. "New Jersey Votes to Raise Minimum Wage-Despite Christie." Alternet. Alternet, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 07 Nov. 2013.

[4] Koulouris, Bryan. "Election Victories for Socialist Alternative - —Huge Opportunities for Working-Class Politics Must Be Seized." Election Victories for Socialist Alternative—Huge Opportunities for Working-Class Politics Must Be Seized. Socialist Alternative, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 07 Nov. 2013.

[5] Smith, Rebecca. "In Seattle, an Election Day Win for Workers." MSNBC. NBC News, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 07 Nov. 2013.