Here in Seattle, our Trotskyist city councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, announced that she will step down in December 2023. She will have been in office for ten years, having been supported by voters four times.
Seattle is a capitalist city. Amazon was founded here in the 1990s and now has more than 50,000 employees in the city. Other tech company operations here include Tableau, F5 Networks, SAP Concur, Cray, Meta, Google, Adobe, Zulily, Redfin, Dell, and Getty Images. Starbucks is based here. In the suburbs are the headquarters of Microsoft and Costco Wholesale. Boeing, which was founded here, has most of its commercial airplane operations within 15 miles of the city.
How many people today could define what a Trotskyist is? One in a hundred?
Last year, the median household income in Seattle was $110,800. That’s higher than New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. It’s 57% above the national average. The median house here costs about $800,000. In 2020, the Seattle-Tacoma area was ranked No. 2 among US urban areas, after San Francisco-San Jose, in the ownership of Teslas. There is one on my block.
Why would such a city vote a Trotskyist into public office?
She never ran as a Trotskyist, but she didn’t cover it up, either. Seattle City Council is a nonpartisan position, but right from the start she proudly called herself a member of Socialist Alternative. If you looked up the party’s web page, or its entry in Wikipedia, you would find what kind of party it was. But how many people did that? How many people today could define what a Trotskyist is? One in a hundred?
It was the media’s job to explain it. In Seattle, that would be the job of our TV stations — but on second thought, forget them — and our daily newspaper, the Seattle Times. After I wrote about Sawant for a web page called Post Alley, I had an email exchange with one of the Times reporters who had written about Sawant for years. Sawant had always called herself a socialist, and that’s what this reporter had called her. He admitted to me that he had heard her called a Trotskyist, but that he really didn’t know what that was.
You might think: really? Couldn’t he look it up?
The city hall people in Seattle were all good progressive Democrats, and they weren’t about to redbait a member of the city council.
For many years, I worked for city newspapers, including that one, and I can guess the answer. Newspapers are not interested in the details of ideologies. To them, political ideologies are religions. Rhetorical black holes. Noise in people’s heads. The media will cover what religious people do, especially if they are causing trouble, but beyond the most superficial statements, they avoid examining the actual beliefs. You will have heard references to Shia and Sunni Muslims, but have you ever seen on TV, or read in the mainstream press, clear descriptions of what Shias and Sunnis believe? Probably not.
With “Trotskyist,” there is a reluctance even to use the term. Trotskyism is a subset of communism, and in America today, if you call someone a communist who doesn’t welcome that label, you’re engaging in McCarthyism and (to use leftist terminology) redbaiting. You will be accused of these sins even if you are right.
At newspapers — at least the city dailies I’ve worked for — the rule is that you can label someone a socialist, a communist, or a Trotskyist, only if that’s how he labels himself. Otherwise, you can’t say it.
If you’re a writer for a daily newspaper, and, for example, you want to sneak the c-word past your editor, you can drop hints. In a feature story on Kshama Sawant published in the Seattle Times in 2014, the political reporter noted that she had two dogs, named “Che” and “Rosa.” I saw right away what he was doing; I was interested in ideologies, and knew what Trotskyism was, and I had danced around the same taboo myself. In 1999 I had written a feature story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about a woman who led protests against the World Trade Organization. She told me “off the record” that she was a socialist. “I could say that in Canada, but I can’t say it here,” she said. (This was 23 years ago.) My story never called her a socialist, but it included the odd fact that on her wall she had a print of a Diego Rivera mural of industrial workers. That was the hint I sneaked by my editor. Probably it had no more meaning to 97% of readers than the names of Sawant’s dogs. (If you don’t get the joke, google each of those hints with “AND communist.”)
Sawant was not the only Marxist who ran for office here, but she stood head and shoulders above the rest of them in her political skills.
I know, I know — expecting the average reader to pick up hints like this is like expecting them to play Beatles songs backwards and listen for secret messages. Well, sometimes we play games.
That Kshama Sawant was a Trotskyist was never a secret at city hall. The political people all knew. One of them told me, “I thought I was left, but she’s really left.” But the city hall people in Seattle were all good progressive Democrats, and they weren’t about to redbait a member of the city council. That wouldn’t be Seattle Nice. (It would be different for a right-winger, I think, but there haven’t been any of those at city hall since sometime deep in the past century.) And so Sawant stayed and stayed on the council, eventually becoming the longest-serving member.
She was not the only Marxist who ran for office here, but she stood head and shoulders above the rest of them in her political skills. She knew how to define an issue and when to confront an opponent with a pointed question. She cared nothing for the unwritten rules of Seattle Nice. She would pack council meetings with her acolytes to shout down the progressives who were too chicken to go all the way. She got away with this partly because she was on the left, like them, only further out, but mainly because they had more inhibitions than she did. They were more civilized. They also had a natural respect for a politician who had won her seat, as they had.
In city elections, Sawant’s zealots provided a winning “ground game” of signs and knocking on doors. In elections, which here are all by mail, her cadres registered voters up to the last day and took their votes on the spot. That’s legal here, though there were dark rumors that many of the new voters weren’t. As far as I know, nothing was ever proved. In every election, the ballot count would start out with Sawant four, five, or six points behind her bland and hapless opponent, and every time she would squeeze over the line a few days later. Every time, her people seemed to vote at the last minute. In her last election — a recall attempt, set up by her opponents — she squeaked by with 50.4% of the vote.
In November 2023, she would have faced a stronger opponent than she had ever had — an opponent who has already announced — and almost certainly she would have lost. Instead of facing that opponent, she has decided not to run.
The unions shut down the city for five days. For them it was a disaster, and it wasn’t until the New Deal years that they recovered.
Still, the question persists: why did people in this capitalist city vote for any kind of a socialist again and again? Part of the answer is that they are already on the left. A 2022 survey of Seattle voters found that 7% identify as socialist — Sawant’s carefully cultivated fanbase — and 61% identify as Democrats. Seattle Democrats are predominantly Bernie Sanders Democrats (unlike most suburban Democrats). Only 12% of Seattle voters identify as Republicans. The rest are independents.
The left has a long history in Seattle. A radical heritage tends to replicate itself; people learn from parents and teachers. Like-minded people on the outside are attracted and move in. I know of several of those, and also of others who gave up on Seattle’s politics and moved out. In the past 30 years there has been a political sorting-out all over America, and nowhere more than right here.
Socialism was brought to Washington Territory in the 19th century by the Germans and Scandinavians. In the depression of the 1890s, the new state (admitted in 1889) elected a governor of the People’s Party, a left-wing party against bankers, bondholders, and the gold standard. In 1912, the high point of the Socialist Party in national elections, Washington gave 12% of its votes — twice the national average — to quasi-communist Eugene Debs.
In February 1919, three months after the end of World War I, labor unions in Seattle reacted to pay cuts in the shipyards by staging the first and largest general strike in US history. The unions shut down the city for five days. For them it was a disaster, and it wasn’t until the New Deal years that they recovered. In the past 65 years, unions have declined in Washington as elsewhere, but at 18% in 2022, union membership in Washington is third highest among the states. (Hawaii and New York are No. 1 and No. 2.) And the center of union strength in Washington is Seattle.
After 1932, Washington has had only three Republican governors. All were moderates — what would today be called RINOs.
In the 1930s, the “Red Decade,” the Democratic Party’s national chairman, Jim Farley, was quoted as saying, “There are 47 states of the Union and the Soviet of Washington.” The “Soviet of Washington” was a reference to the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a group inspired by socialist Upton Sinclair, who ran for governor of California as a Democrat in 1934. All through the last half of the 1930s, the Commonwealth Federation sent a band of supporters to the legislature to push state policy to the left.
Within two years of its founding, the Commonwealth Federation was a Communist front. One of its leaders, the pro-Soviet leftist Hugh DeLacy, was elected to the Seattle City Council in 1937. In 1939 he refused to criticize Stalin for his alliance with Hitler, and in 1940 he lost his seat. In 1944, when Stalin was Uncle Joe, DeLacy was elected as a Democrat to Seattle’s seat in Congress. That’s the seat now held by Pramila Jayapal, who heads the Progressive Caucus.
Over the decades, most of the radical left’s gains in the Evergreen State were reversed. The People’s Party of the 1890s died out. The General Strike of 1919 failed, and was a disaster for the unions. In 1946, with the alliance with Stalin over, Hugh DeLacy lost his Congressional seat to a Republican. The more moderate left made permanent gains. With the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, formerly Republican Washington became a Democratic state, which it has been, for the most part, during the 90 years since. After 1932, Washington has had only three Republican governors. All were moderates — what would today be called RINOs. The last of them, John Spellman, left office in 1985. The last time Washington voted for a Republican president was for Ronald Reagan in 1984.
In 1972, Washington was one of the two states that placed the new Libertarian Party’s presidential ticket, John Hospers and Tonie Nathan, on the ballot.
In Seattle the radical left revived for a while during the Vietnam War. In May 1970, protesters blocked Interstate 5, the freeway through the city. In 1999, the left came back riotously for the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, along with tens of thousands of AFL-CIO protesters. In 2011, there were the Occupy protests, and in 2020, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.
Libertarians have a history here, too, though a lesser one. In 1972, Washington was one of the two states that placed the new Libertarian Party’s presidential ticket, John Hospers and Tonie Nathan, on the ballot. The other state was Colorado. Much of the reason was the ballot access laws, but part was also the relative strength of libertarian ideas in the West. Forty years later, in 2012, Washington and Colorado were the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana.
Another example of relative libertarian strength: in the Republican caucuses of 2008 libertarian Republican Ron Paul had the second-best showing in Washington (22%), after Montana (25%) — higher than North Dakota (21%), Maine (18%), Alaska (17%) and Minnesota (16%) — though Paul’s strongholds were the rural areas, not Seattle.
Seattle’s leftist baggage is not a cost businesspeople welcome, but it’s one they have been able to bear.
Almost everywhere the left is stronger in cities, and it is the same in Washington. The cities are where civilization makes most of its progress and also where it makes most of its mistakes. Cities are also where the news and opinion media are, and where we interpret our world.
Consider the words the big city media uses for political outliers. The simplest comparison is with “far right” and “far left,” both of which put their subjects beyond the pale. In the past year (February 4, 2022–February 4, 2023) the Seattle Times has used “far-right” almost eight times as often as “far-left.” It is not a far-left paper; it has never supported Kshama Sawant. The imbalance is standard in American journalism. At the New York Times, which is a center-left but not far-left paper, the ratio of “far-right” to “far-left” during the same period is 9 to 1. The Washington Post, another center-left paper, used the term “far-left” only four times in that period: a ratio of 38 to 1.
Here’s another marker. Seattle has the United States’ only large statue of Vladimir Lenin in a public place. A local businessman rescued it in 1993 from a junkyard in Slovakia, where it was about to be melted down. He brought it to Seattle and installed it in 1995 in the Fremont district, a bohemian outpost that now has the Seattle offices of Adobe.
It’s not that Seattle people celebrate Lenin. They don’t. (Well, maybe Sawant does.) If they think about the statue at all, it is tongue-in-cheek, a jab either at those oh-so-serious Reds or at the anticommunists who took them so seriously. I appreciate the Lenin statue as the road sign of a failed ideology. The notable thing, though, is that the people of Seattle have allowed it to stand. If it were Robert E. Lee, they would not.
Of course, the Lenin statue is dwarfed by Seattle’s monuments of capitalist success. For half a century, including the time of the General Strike and the Red Decade, Seattle had the tallest office building west of the Mississippi — the Smith Tower. (You can see it in the first episode of The Man in the High Castle.) Since 1985 it has had the 76-story Columbia Center. For the past 60 years, Seattle has also had the Space Needle, built alongside the city’s 1962 World’s Fair as an unsubsidized private project on private land. Early Seattle had a strong entrepreneurial culture that was revived in modern times by Microsoft founder Bill Gates — and thousands of people have moved here to work for, and to create, the new companies. Washington has an unusual number of billionaires, partly because of the state’s lack of a personal income tax (though the Democratic legislature has recently passed a capital gains tax.)
Businesspeople don’t often think in terms of political systems. More often they think of costs. Seattle’s leftist baggage is not a cost they welcome, but it’s one they have been able to bear. Like most people, they have political sentiments. Only a few people in this city have a worked-out political theory, and most of those are not libertarians.
Twenty years ago, I was at one of Jeff Friedman’s seminars at Princeton. Jeff was a libertarian, and the seminar I attended was for libertarians, though he gave other ones for the liberal-left. He admonished us not to think of people on the left as evil. “We have a theory that highlights certain facts, which causes those facts to jump out at us,” he said. “They don’t have that theory.”
To a plumb-liner, I’m a libertarian in name only. But compared with an ordinary American, I’m unusually ideological.
Libertarians have a theory. I imbibed it, as did so many others, from reading Ayn Rand, which I did in junior high back in the 1960s. At the University of Washington, half a century ago, I met a cadre of guys who had been introduced to Ludwig von Mises by a public high school teacher in Bellevue, Washington. We all had our theory, sometimes proudly taking it to strange extremes. I backed away from that much theory when I went to work in mainstream journalism, where my job was to find and tell stories of the world around me, not the ones in my head.
At about age 40, I began writing on the side for Liberty, much of the time as a critic of “plumb-line” libertarian radicals. Reduced to a slogan, my philosophy could be summed up in a description Louis Rukeyser of PBS-TV’s Wall Street Week once gave me of his philosophy: “I’m for liberty and what works.” To a plumb-liner, I’m a libertarian in name only. A LINO. But compared with an ordinary American, I’m unusually ideological. Like Jeff Friedman, I “have that theory.” Most people don’t have one. Not being interested in theories, they are slow to recognize an exotic species like a Trotskyist when it confronts them in the woods.
If Kshama Sawant ran again for Seattle City Council, her voters would likely throw her out, because she has irritated them too many times with her shrill rhetoric. It’s tempting to squeeze a big message out of this, and declare that after nine years, the people of Seattle finally recognize what a Trotskyist is, and why such a theory strikes at the root of their wellbeing.
Some of them have a sense of it, I think.