Meet the Most Important Socialist in America Not Named Bernie Sanders

Meet the Most Important Socialist in America Not Named Bernie Sanders
Source: AP
Source: AP

Bernie Sanders is sparking a new dawn for socialism in America.

The fast-talking Vermont senator has reveled in every opportunity to brandish his self-description as a "democratic socialist" and has electrified millions across the country with his message about ending inequality. He has prompted a wide-ranging conversation on the left about how to move beyond conventional Democratic politics. Along the way, he's also inspired a debate over what socialism truly means.

But Sanders isn't the only socialist in the United States making a splash.

Kshama Sawant, a member of Seattle's city council since her election in 2013, has a tiny fraction of the name recognition of Sanders. But she's quietly been making an impact that is arguably just as important, having led the charge for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle, which in turn sparked a national movement and has become a major litmus test for Democratic politicians.

Mic spoke on the phone with Sawant about her experience and aspirations as a proud socialist in a two-party-dominated political system. Last year at a panel in New York, she urged Sanders to run for the White House as a third party candidate and has been disappointed that he hasn't. But she thinks his campaign is hugely important nonetheless. "This is not about Bernie Sanders," she says, "It's about those tens of millions of people who are now electrified by his message." For Sawant, it's always about the people.

The fight for $15: Just three years after becoming an American citizen, Sawant dethroned a four-term Democratic incumbent, becoming the first socialist to hold a citywide office in Seattle in decades, and the only declared socialist sitting in the legislature of a major U.S. city. 

Her grassroots campaign centered on a demand for a $15 minimum wage, and her election was essential to the city's historic passage of it, making it the highest minimum wage in the country. Since then, the $15 minimum wage has also been passed into law in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and for fast-food workers in the state of New York. Sawant's original war cry has echoed: The $15 minimum wage has become a mainstream idea in the Democratic Party, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California recently endorsing the idea.

Sawant isn't solely responsible for the success of the $15 minimum wage campaign — it's a union-backed national grassroots movement that has gone on for years — but her success in creating a mandate for it in Seattle was undoubtedly a game-changer on the national scene. Just as importantly, it proves that a socialist in American politics doesn't have to be reduced to an outside agitator.

Sawant's worldview: Sawant's idea of socialism doesn't involve any theoretical description of a controlled economy. "Socialism is a global society that is able to deliver a high standard of living to all human beings in an environmentally sustainable way," she explained. 

The key question for her, which emerged while she grew up in India surrounded by "an ocean of poverty and misery," is why the accumulation of wealth in  modern society is accompanied by so much poverty. Sawant tackles the question from a "systemic standpoint," arguing that contemporary capitalism by its very nature produces inequality in a manner that neither Democrats or Republicans are willing to grapple with.

Prior to her election, Sawant's ascent in Seattle politics was unlikely. She was a relatively recent migrant into the city whose main electoral experience was one failed bid for a seat in Washington's House of Representatives. She had less money and name recognition than her Democratic opponent. Her campaign was organized by the obscure American political party Socialist Alternative. 

But she was less concerned with winning than she was with building a leftist alternative to Democratic-Republican rule. "I think what's fundamentally essential if we are to have any hope of building the left and building a real alternative to the abject failure of corporate politics, then the first step is to break out of this two-party idea," she said. "As long as we subscribe to the idea of lesser evil-ism, there is no end."

"Running as a socialist was in no way a barrier to winning over ordinary working people."

To the surprise of many in Seattle — including herself — that message resonated. In fact, it was precisely her willingness to breach the conventions of electoral campaigning that attracted voters to her. 

"We did everything that we were told not to do, which is we were bold about our politics," Sawant said.  She took no money from corporate donors, brazenly criticized big business and promised that she would only take $40,000 of the $120,000 city council-member salary in order to match the average worker's wage (the remainder of the salary goes to a "solidarity fund," Sawant said).

"Running as a socialist was in no way a barrier to winning over ordinary working people," she explained. People disenchanted with a political system that is awash in corporate money were enticed by her transparency about her motivation and her commitments, she said. She found it particularly easy to connect with young voters struggling in the job market who didn't grow up in the shadow of the Cold War: "What they're worried about is not whether socialism is evil or not, what they're preoccupied with is a realization that this economy, the status quo, is not working for them."

Continued success: Sawant's time in office has been productive beyond the major $15 minimum wage momentum she helped fuel. She was instrumental in winning significant amendments to the city budget last year, including $1 million for the city's homeless population and increased funding for women's shelters. She led efforts to block proposed big rent hikes by the Seattle Housing Authority. Now, she's making affordable housing and rent control the focus of her political energies and the centerpiece of her re-election campaign.

Sawant and Sanders: Sawant thinks that the left — whether it describes itself as socialist or not — should grow both inside and outside the voting booth, and at all levels of governance. On the national level, she considers Sanders' ability to draw crowds and perform well in the polls to be evidence of a big appetite for something beyond the two-party system. 

"You have this whole political vacuum, it's like a crater, where most American people exist and neither of the two big business parties are really addressing the day-to-day lives that most American people are living," said Sawant. "That is where left politics needs to build itself. And the stunning response that Sanders has gotten to his campaign is proof that we need to build the left urgently."

But Sawant said that she doesn't think Sanders has been particularly strategic. She thinks he should've used his time in the Senate to build more momentum around a few concrete issues going into the White House race. 

"It is your obligation to use that position to help build organized movements," she said. "The real measure of how successful we would've been through an electoral position is how effective we've been in building that larger layer that has to go beyond that one person."

Sawant's style of politics has not won her many friends on the nine-person city council. Her recent lobbying on housing seems to have been particularly alienating to some of her colleagues. But rather than serving an activist whose only victory has been maintaining moral purity, she's been able to pull the whole council to the left, and in the process, gotten very real things done. 

Asked about Sawant's role in Seattle politics, David Goldstein, a journalist who is helping Sawant write a memoir, told Mic, "I understand why many in consensus-obsessed Seattle find her grating. Her tactics are not 'the Seattle Way.' But you can't argue with her results. She gets shit done."