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