Kshama Sawant is unlike almost any other elected politician in the United States, with the exception of Bernie Sanders: She calls herself a "socialist."
In 2013, Sawant stunned Seattle's political class by running an explicitly left-wing campaign for city council, demanding a US$15 an hour minimum wage, rent control in one of the country's least affordable cities, and increased taxes on the rich to fund increased services for the poor and working class – and then actually winning, not as a Democrat but as a member of Socialist Alternative, a third party that believes in bottom-up democratic socialism. In 2015, she did it again, increasing her margin of victory from a squeaky 1 percent two years before to a decisive 18 percent over the establishment's offering.
Voters, it seems, rather like a politician who isn't afraid to give voice to some common sense class-consciousness, like: Why not take from hyper-rich – Amazon is based in Seattle and Microsoft's headquarters is in neighboring Redmond – to lift up the dirt poor? She speaks for the average worker, not their landlord or boss, and insists on being paid accordingly, taking home just US$40,000 of her $117,000 a year salary and donating the remainder to a "solidarity fund" that supports social justice movements.
"I am using my position to help build, unite, and give political voice to the struggles of low-paid workers, youth, people of color, and all those who are shut out by the political machine tailored to protect the interests of the big corporations and the wealthy elite," Sawant writes on her website. "Another world is both possible and necessary."
Despite her opposition to two-party "democracy," Sawant nonetheless sees Bernie Sanders' insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination as an important step toward building this better world, and an encouraging sign that democratic socialism – not the ugly, right-wing revanchism of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz – is capturing the hearts and minds of the young and working class.
On the eve of the Washington state caucus, Sawant opened for Sanders before a crowd of some 15,000 people at Safeco Field in Seattle. He won the next day, grabbing just under 73 percent of the vote to just 27 percent for his establishment rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Sawant spoke to teleSUR about building socialism in a capitalist country, her critical support for the Sanders campaign, and why she believes change will ultimately have to come from outside the Democratic party.
How have you been able to be a successful socialist politician in the United States when so many others have tried to win elected office and have failed?
I think the fundamental fact to recognize for the left in the United States and in the entire world is that times have dramatically shifted in terms of not only the opening for an organized left to build, but the fact that there is a deep hunger among a mass of working people, young people, for a real alternative to a corporate-dominated society. We are in a fundamentally new period – a period that is going to shape up to be a period of resistance; a period of insurgent mass movements. But none of that is going to be automatic. We have to build towards it.
When we launched our first campaign for city council in 2013, as you know we ran openly as a socialist – as an alternative to the Democratic party establishment, which controls the political domain of Seattle. And we ran taking not a penny from corporations, from big business, and we ran a defiant challenge to corporate politics. When we launched our campaign the corporate media pundits had already written our political obituaries. You know, that it can’t work. You can’t run a campaign that is so in defiance of the status quo and expect to win.
"I think the left, in order to build its power against the capitalist class, has to look to build its power anywhere and any way it can."
And that’s exactly where they’re wrong and that is where the real answer to your question lies, which is that: the conventional logic that you can build for social change and win progress in the interests of ordinary working people, but you shouldn’t rock the boat too much, you should go along to get along and that’s how you make incremental change, is exactly the wrong logic. As a matter of fact, the reason 95,000 people in Seattle voted for me in 2013 is not because they know exactly what I mean when I say I am a socialist, but what they were voting for was a fighting challenge to the domination of big developers in this city who have made this city unaffordable, with skyrocketing rents and only upscale condos and apartments being built and the rest of us being pushed out. They voted for us because they are fed up with social services and mass transit being deeply underfunded while we have an increasing number of millionaires and billionaires in this city. They want to tax the wealthy, and that was one of our messages: tax the wealthy to fund mass transit and social services. They’re fed up with the underfunding of public education.
They’re fed up with being told that the only alternative to the right wing and the Republican Party is corporate Democrats, who are different than the right wing but are essentially as much as a loyal servant of Wall Street, of big business, as the Republicans are. They’re fed up with being told that there is no alternative to that and they want a fighting challenge, and that is why we run. That is the same reason why Bernie’s message of a political revolution against the billionaire class has caught the imagination of tens of millions of young people all across America. He has proven what we have always said in Socialist Alternative: that this is not just a Seattle phenomenon. Working people everywhere across America are eager for a real fight back against Wall Street.
Let’s talk about Bernie. After your re-election last fall one of your aides, Joshua Koritz, drew a connection to Bernie Sanders. He said that, like the senator, your campaign is “a demonstration of the huge potential for working class politics in the U.S.” But he noted that the key to your success was “an organized socialist movement in Seattle.” It doesn’t seem that Bernie is the product of an organized socialist movement.
What do you think that portends for the future of his supporters? Beyond just the election, can the people currently supporting Bernie Sanders become an organized socialist movement, and can he have success if he’s not running with that organized movement behind him?
First of all, let’s recognize fully how clear it is that a mass of working people and young people are looking for something close to what Bernie’s message has been. They’re looking for a real struggle against billionaires, against the status quo, against racism and sexism. They are looking for a real alternative to Trump and they recognize that corporate politicians like Hillary Clinton aren’t really the alternative. The alternative is to build the left, so Bernie’s campaign really electrifying so many people shows that potential.
But you’re exactly right, in relation to what Josh was saying, that is why in Socialist Alternative we believe the paramount thing that the left needs to do is to build our organized forces. As a matter of fact, we won this election campaign in Seattle only because we had Socialist Alternative as an organized force in Seattle, and we are building nationwide. And that is precisely why we are calling for the labor movement, for working people, to break from the stranglehold of the Democratic and Republican party duopoly, so to say. That will require building mass movements that openly challenge the domination of Democrats and Republicans, and those movements, while fighting for tangible reforms and victories – like US$15 an hour, like single-payer health care – have to build our own political strength as well.
That is why Socialist Alternative has been calling for the building of an independent party for the 99 percent. Our conception of a political party is completely different than what’s on offer from the Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic party is not a political party in the sense that you can go and have a membership and have regular meetings and have a real participation in determining the political agenda of that party. The Democratic party is simply influential candidates running for office and the only role that is ascribed to ordinary people is to vote one way or another.
That is not our conception of politics. In Socialist Alternative, we are a democratically organized force where every member has a vote. Every campaign is decided based on discussion and debate. Whether to run an electoral campaign is a decision that is democratically taken; who the candidate should be is a democratic decision. That’s the kind of model we need to work toward for a larger, independent banner for the 99 percent, and that independent party has to make it very clear what does independence mean. Independence means independent of corporate money, so the candidates that we run have to be purely funded by working people, and independence from the Democratic and Republican party establishment. We have to run challengers to the hegemony of the Democrats and Republicans.
"The people who are voting for Trump hate the establishment. So how do you counter that? You provide a real alternative."
That’s why we’re extremely engaged in the presidential discussions. As you know, Socialist Alternative has launched a campaign called, “Movement for Bernie,” in many different cities and we’ve organized many marches for Bernie which have had thousands of people. Our message has been: Look at how even though Bernie’s message is resonating so deeply, Hillary is still getting the majority of pledged delegates, not to mention the superdelegates, and let’s observe how the Democratic primary has been engineered, in a very conscious way, to quash grassroots challenges and that the Democratic party is not the vehicle to actually build the political revolution against the billionaires. And that is why we not only need to have mass movements, not just electoral efforts, but we have to have a real political challenge to the Democrats.
Kshama Sawant speaks at a rally for Bernie Sanders in Seattle, March 25, 2016. | Photo: Reuters
It seems to me that you and Bernie kind of represent different ends of the spectrum when it comes to how the left approaches electoral politics. I’m sure you’re familiar with the age-old debate over whether you bother running for president, and use the platform that gives you to get out the message, or focus on local races and use grassroots movements to gain power. You’ve done the latter in Seattle, while Bernie represents the idea of working within the Democratic party at the national level.
Is it your belief that what he is doing is complementary to what you are doing? That it can serve, at the very least, as a lesson for people who still have hope that the Democratic party can be a vehicle for change?
I think the dichotomy is not between whether we run local campaigns or a presidential campaign; that one is better than the other. I don’t think there is such a dichotomy – it’s an artificial line to draw. I think the left, in order to build its power against the capitalist class, has to look to build its power anywhere and any way it can. I’m absolutely for both local and national challenges to corporate politics. The question is not local vs. national. The question is: What is the current basis on which to run campaigns, whether we win or not – that question aside – are we sowing the seeds in a way that will bear fruit to build serious challenges? Not just to win victories in terms of reforms, but to begin to develop an understanding of how we can actually challenge capitalism itself.
"If we are to build a terrain that is favorable to building our power then it has to be outside the Democratic party."
For that to happen, the question is not, “Does the message of socialism, the message of fighting against the ruling elite – the question is not whether that message resonates with people, because Bernie has proven that. That’s what I’m saying: Bernie’s campaign has been extremely valuable in demonstrating that all across America there’s a hunger for a real fight back against the status quo. That question can be laid to rest now given how phenomenally his message has galvanized people who never used to be political ever before. So many young people thought, “I never paid much attention to politics because I’m disgusted by it, and deservedly so, and here comes along a campaign that is speaking to my heart and lighting a fire inside of me.” That is absolutely decisive.
But we, from the very beginning, even before Bernie officially launched his campaign, have been urging him to run as an independent for precisely the reasons that have unfolded the last several weeks. We can see that even though people are fed up and disgusted with Clinton-style politics she is still gaining the upper edge because the party is not a friend to the agenda of the working class, but not only that: it is actively hostile to the agenda of the working class. If we are to build a terrain that is favorable to building our power then it has to be outside the Democratic party.
There are many people, if Bernie does not win the nomination, who are going to want to, because they are so disgusted by Trump, simply say, "Okay, let's just work for Hillary Clinton because I'm afraid of Trump." But there's going to be millions of people whose expectations have been raised because of Bernie's campaign, so whether he agrees or not about taking on the Democratic Party, that question has now been raised precisely because of the obstacles his campaign is facing – they're there for everyone to see.
I'm meeting so many young people right now who are asking the question, "Look, I want to know: What are we going to do if Bernie does not get the nomination? Is that it? What should we do?" The question that haunts us right now is, "Are we going to let everything dissolve into a wave of demoralization or lesser evilism?" Absolutely not. We know that lesser evilism will be in the air, and we are sympathetic to people's fears about Trump. But the precise reason why the right wing is having any echo is because the U.S. left has left a huge chasm that needs to be filled. And that's our job. In the coming months and years, we have to fill that void so that those who are looking for alternatives and answers are not drawn to the right but are drawn to the left – are drawn to a genuine working class agenda and a real strategy for fighting against capitalism.
I was wondering if you could expand a little bit upon what you think is the attraction for people to the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. You alluded to the fact that this is a failure of the left – that we haven't had a strong left being able to say that the whole system is corrupt and that capitalism is making everything worse for everyone but the top 1 percent.
Are you fearful that the Trump and Cruz phenomenon represents a new, dangerous future of right-wing politics in the United States? Or, alternatively, is this the last, dying gasp of the "angry white male"?
I am fearful of the Trump and Cruz agenda. I think it would not be rational on our part not to be. But it's also important to analyze its origins and that will help us figure out how to conquer it, because that's the most important thing. That's where the debate is; I don't think there's so much a debate among people on the left that this actually a dangerous phenomenon.
Essentially what I'd say is it's nothing new. It's been there for many, many decades. The question in my mind is not whether it existed in the past or not; the question is what is the combination of social and political factors, and economic factors, that allow a right-wing ideology to start gaining an echo among working people. That is the question for us. And if you look at the support that Trump's message is getting, it's not corporate lobbyists or millionaires who are drawn to him. As a matter of fact, he is an anathema for the Republican party establishment and he has become a veritable nightmare for them.
His ascendancy represents the complete chaos and crisis for the Republican party finds itself in because its base is furious at their betrayals to their interests. They have cultivated this base of working people on the questions of divisive social issues: let's ban gay people; let's have misogynist ideas about women; let's have anti-immigrant sentiments; all of that. The people who are the audience for the Republican party are also, primarily, working people who are angry at the corporate agenda and when they go and support Trump, they are supporting an anti-establishment figure of the right with a similar motivation to people on the left who are drawn towards Bernie as the anti-establishment voice of the left.
Now can we be complacent about the fact that a misogynist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic ideology might be resonating with working people? No, we can't be complacent about it, but we also have to understand that it's complex in the sense that what people are responding to primarily is the need to defy the establishment; to make a statement against a hated Wall Street, billionaire class. And that Wall Street, billionaire class is universally hated across working America, regardless of social ideas or other issues. The only way to counter that is to provide a real alternative to the Wall Street, billionaire class.
Let's look at actual, on-the-ground information from the presidential primaries. Look at the echo that Bernie has gotten in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt. If you look at Michigan's results, for example, where it was clear that working people were voting for Bernie in a decisive manner because of his clear opposition and leadership, actually, in the opposition to NAFTA – he's been on picket lines; he's been in protests; he has led protests against NAFTA and TPP. These are the trade deals that have been responsible for the complete deindustrialization of the Rust Belt which single-handedly has destroyed the standards of living of the working class throughout all these states.
What's interesting about this is that this is precisely what was drawing people toward Trump as well. He is seen by people on the right as the challenge to corporate domination of Wall Street and these corporate politicians who are hand-in-glove in perpetuating these trade deals. When you draw it in that way, I'm extremely hopeful that if the left takes its task of building itself seriously we will absolutely be able to draw in the vast majority of working people towards a real fight back against both the right wing and against corporate domination.
Much has been made of Donald Trump's support among the so-called white working class, but I was looking at some polling data from Reuters and even among the white working class – which we can define as making less than US$25,000 a year, or being unemployed – Bernie Sanders stomps Trump in a matchup. In fact, two-thirds of these voters would either vote for Sanders or stay at home in a Trump vs. Sanders race, so there is some hope that it's not a lost cause; that the white working class has not been lost to the xenophobic demagogues.
You're absolutely right and I'm so glad you brought that point up because what you're also alluding to really is the complete imbalance in corporate media in how they have reported the resonance that Bernie has received vs. the echo that Trump has received, and it's completely out of proportion. They report Trump rallies – every day there's a report on a Trump rally. But Bernie's rallies are rarely reported, if ever. It's completely disproportionate, so you're absolutely right, that is a very important point to note: that the echo that Bernie Sanders is getting is completely outshining the echo that Trump is getting.
The question is: Where do his voters go? Bernie's still in the race – this isn't to leap to conclusions – but if he's not the nominee, what would you recommend to people? If the Republican is Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, a lot of people are going to be persuaded by the lesser evil argument. What do you think Bernie supporters should do and what would you argue is the best way to confront the Trump/Cruz phenomenon going forward?
First of all, we should look at how things go in the next couple weeks, but I think that it's very likely that Hillary Clinton will get the nomination. I think it is very important that Bernie Sanders make a nationwide call for a conference of activists, before the Democratic National Convention, to build a base and discuss the way forward. Socialist Alternative would say that it's extremely critical that Bernie run all the way to November. That is our message. Millions of people still haven't heard his message; millions more will only become politically active in the fall, in the general election. Many people aren't paying attention and it is essential that his message is heard by all of them.
Those people who are worried about the rise of Trump and are making a lesser evilism argument – I'm sympathetic to how people feel, absolutely. I do not want Trump to succeed any more than anyone else on the left does. But it's a question of how do you actually fight against Trump. The best way to fight against Trump is to provide a real alternative to Clinton, who is a hated figure. The people who are voting for Trump hate the establishment. So how do you counter that? You provide a real alternative. So I think Bernie should run all the way to November. And for people who are worried about the spoiler effect: How about he runs in all the safe states? He could run on a Green party ticket, which is on the ballot in most states, and he could run with Jill Stein – we could have a fiery left alternative running against both Clinton and Trump, and it could really make history.
Charles Davis is an editor at teleSUR. Follow him on Twitter: @charliearchy