November 20, 2017
In 2013, Kshama Sawant became the first socialist elected to a major city council in decades. Among her accomplishments in office, she helped make a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle a reality in 2015, catalyzing it into a mainstream idea in American politics.
Since Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Presidential Campaign, Democratic Socialism has surged in popular as an antidote to far right and corporate establishment politics. While the Democratic Party experienced recent electoral wins this November in Virginia, New Jersey and across the country, included in that blue wave were 21 Democratic Socialists of America members or endorsed candidates.
“Within the Democratic Party, people are not just passively saying, ‘Well, anybody but Trump.’ People are clearly rejecting corporate politics as well as Trump himself and right wing politics,” said Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant in an interview. “There’s a real battle within the Democratic Party going on between corporate politics, Wall Street dominated politics of Pelosi and Schumer, and the millions in the grassroots, people who supported Bernie Sanders and were really energized by his message of a political revolution against the billionaire class. Just because Bernie is not running himself, or because it’s not the presidential election year doesn’t mean that the ideas that he energized have gone away.”
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That energy is most evident among young people. Sanders won more voters under 30 across all demographics than Clinton and Trump combined during the primaries. A Harvard-Harris poll conducted in October 2017 found that 69 percent of Democrats ages 18 to 34 favored moving the party further left. The failures of neoliberalism and the Democratic Party establishment’s ties to wealthy donors over the working class are pushing voters to favor progressive solutions that challenge these power structures.
“Now that the DSA and Our Revolution have got their candidates elected, I think the question is, what kind of policy program will these elected officials at different levels put forward? What kind of work will they do?” she said. “The reason I am fighting and I have fulfilled every promise that I made on the campaign trail is because I’m part of an organization, Socialist Alternative, that is tied to social movements, tied to the working class and holds me accountable. What are the structures similar to Socialist Alternative? What are the structures that can be used to hold these other candidates who have won, accountable?”
Rather than simply pushing the Democratic Party further left, many young voters are turning to socialism as a solution to the problems rampant in today’s hyper-capitalist society. The Democratic Socialists of America reached over 30,000 members in October 2017, and recent election victories of members and endorsed candidates are reflective of this surge in popularity.
“I think that will be one of the key questions in the next several years, not just next year but for the rest of their first term,” she said of trying to push the Democrats leftward. “The vast majority of people who voted for Trump are working class people who wanted to register a protest against corporate politics. What it shows, really more than anything else, is the absence of a real alternative to corporate politics. If Bernie Sanders had been the candidate who was running against Trump, he would have presented a real left wing alternative, a real progressive, humane, and sane alternative to what people are looking for. Instead, Trump, because he’s a con man, he got to pose as somebody who would as he said, ‘Remember the forgotten men and women,’ but obviously not.”
She cites the Republican tax reform package as “the antithesis of anything good for the working class,” likening it to a wish-list for the wealthy. And yet, she says, because Hillary Clinton didn’t offer an alternative to corporate politics, working people voted for him. “What Trump took advantage of was the complete vacuum that exists on the left. He ran as an alternative, as an outsider to Hillary Clinton,” she said. “The reason he succeeded was because there’s such a deep hatred of corporate politics.”
And yet, the Democratic Party’s answer seems to be more of the same. And, according to Sewant, this dynamic isn’t confined to national politics. “You see the same power structures being replicated,” she said. “In Seattle, we didn’t win a $15 minimum because the Seattle city council is all Democrat. No, we won it despite the fact that all the politicians here are Democrats, because most of them are corporate Democrats and they did not support $15 an hour, but we won it despite them because we built a strong social movement,” she said.
Sawant says that building social movements on the left will invigorate the Democratic Party—and not the other way around.
“As a socialist, I feel more optimistic today than I would have in years past because people are moving more to left and not to the right. People are questioning the status quo, people are angry at corporate politics. There’s a small current of real right wing ideology and that’s horrific. We should not pretend it doesn’t exist, but that does not describe the vast majority of people who voted for Trump,” said Sawant.