Activism in office

Kshama Sawant joins the Seattle City Council this week, and her support for socialism seemed newsworthy to the editors of the New York Times.

Kshama Sawant campaigns

The headline notes that the election makes Sawant “a rare elected voice for socialism.”  Sawant campaigned for a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle, and generally expressed strong support for the disadvantaged and stronger distrust of local, national, and multinational economic powers.

Kirk Johnson’s interesting article focuses on the dilemmas inherent in holding office.  No one, including Sawant, seems to think that there is widespread support for socialism per se, and she knows that she has to govern in order to be of use to anyone, including the movements she comes out of.  She introduced herself to voters as:

…an economics teacher at Seattle Central Community College and a member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789. She was an activist in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and is a fighter for workers, women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants.

Delivering benefits to the people she wants to represent means working with a City Council and a Mayor who don’t necessarily share all of her commitments, and finding a way to deal with Boeing, a huge local employer that reminds everyone it could leave the City at any time.  It means trimming her rhetorical sails from time to time, negotiating possible deals at the expense of Ideals.

This is a difficult balancing act for any activist who pursues elected office (it’s easier, alas, just to lose and maintain a clear political line), and paradoxically, tougher for someone working at the local level who bears responsibility for making decisions that affect constituent’s lives.  Johnson quotes a Sawant supporter who sketches out the dilemma clearly:

“If she remains only an activist, she’ll be a one-shot wonder,” said the Rev. Rich Lang, the pastor of University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle and a Sawant supporter. But if she moves too far toward the center, “she’ll be shot down from the left as a compromiser,” he said. “There’s tremendous pressure on her.”

Councilor Sawant’s dilemmas are hardly peculiar to her or to the left more generally.  A member of the House of Representatives from a safe seat can often carve out a political career as an ideologue, while working backstage to bring goodies back to the district.  This was the story of Republican Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas libertarian who excoriated corporate subsidies and earmarks rhetorically, while making sure his allies and district got their share.

But personal ambition and political visibility make this kind of secret balancing tougher to pull off.  Three Republican Senators often tagged as Tea Partiers are confronting the same dilemmas in a brighter spotlight than Councilor Sawant will face–at least for now.  Rep. Paul’s libertarian son, Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky) mouths the same ideals as his father, but also looks to find ways to maintain Medicare and oppose open borders or immigration reform.  Senator Marco Rubio (Florida), an experienced politician, tried to lead the way on immigration reform without seeming to compromise on any other issues.  And Senator Ted Cruz (Texas) took credit for leading the Republican Party into a government shut-down that hurt his country–and more pointedly, his party.

All face the same conflicting pressures that could bedevil Councilor Sawant in seeking to govern effectively without “selling out.”

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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4 Responses to Activism in office

  1. Just one thing I can’t figure out Professor Meyer…

    Why is Kshama Sawant a socialist activist and those affiliated with the Tea Party ideologues?

    Socialism is as much an ideology as conservativism.

    J.R. Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher

    • I’m baffled. The point I meant to make is that someone who enters elected office purporting to represent an ideology or movement faces a difficult balancing act–left or right. I’ll stand with calling Ron Paul an ideologue, albeit one who compromised more than he let on–stuffing earmarks into bills he voted against–knowing they would pass anyway. I don’t use that term for anyone else mentioned, and certainly don’t see Senators Rubio or Cruz as putting ideology above other objectives. (I don’t know enough about Senator Paul or Councilor Sawant.)

  2. Even with your reply Professor, I think I made my point.

    How does one differentiate or describe those in politics in America today? Who really is the ideologue? And who is not?

    From a distance, it would seem that all American politics today is run solely from an ideological perspective. Sure there are two main parties, Democrat and Republican, but both those parties are founded in ideology. Republicans espousing a preference for the ideology of conservativism and Democrats in their belief in Liberalism.

    This brings me to a question since we are on the topic.

    How do you classify those who describe themselves as Progressive?

    In Canada if you describe yourself as a progressive you are a socialist. The same goes for many countries in Europe, Progressive is a description of socialist policies.

    Are Progressives in America Liberal ideologues or are they Socialists? Or do you define them more as a subtype, like feminism or environmentalism?

    J.R. Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher

    • I’m not so interested in a taxonomy, and generally let political actors describe themselves (Councilor Sawant claims to be a Socialist). On ideology and American political parties, not really for most of American history. Mainstream parties were (and are) vehicles for competing for office and organizing majorities; historically, both the major parties have contained a great deal of ideological and political diversity.

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