THOUSANDS gathered at Seattle’s King Street Station, waiting eagerly for the arrival of the candidate whose socialist politics had captured their imagination, hopes and votes. Hundreds of families, children in tow, overflowed the sidewalks in anticipation of the candidate’s arrival. When the socialist firebrand arrived, the crowd marched up Second Avenue together.
It wasn’t Kshama Sawant, newly elected member to Seattle City Council. This event was more than a century ago. The candidate was Eugene Debs and the year was 1908.
Debs was campaigning for the U.S. presidency under the banner of the Socialist Party, crisscrossing the country in his Red Special, a train with one engine and an attached car festooned with campaign banners.
He addressed wildly enthusiastic crowds and spoke of the country’s great imbalance of political power and its vast economic inequality. He spoke of the evils of corporate greed, of poverty, of child labor and of the failure of both Democrats and Republicans to address the serious economic problems confronting the country.
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In November, a grass-roots movement put a socialist on the Seattle City Council, electing a woman who brings the same energy, compassion and fresh ideas that Debs did 105 years ago.
Sawant was not the only socialist on this year’s ballots. John Naubert, a socialist, ran for the Port of Seattle Commission. Mary Martin ran for Seattle mayor. Neither of these candidates garnered the support Sawant did.
Her election is a link to the past that helps inform the present. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, socialists were elected to Seattle’s City Council and School Board, to the state Legislature, and as mayors of Blaine, Tukwila, Edmonds and Camas.
In Eastern Washington, the entire municipal government of Pasco was elected on the Socialist Party ticket. Seattle’s labor and pro-socialist newspaper, The Union Record, had a circulation of 80,000.
Socialism was in the air. While socialists never held an electoral majority in Seattle, they strongly influenced the political debate here and elsewhere. Socialists carried the badge of legitimacy. In the period before World War I, the Socialist Party was America’s third party. Its critique of American capitalism was an important part of our political culture.
The political repression that came with World War I and the first Red Scare pushed socialism to the margins. After World War I, unbridled capitalism and illusory prosperity triumphed. By the mid-1920s, socialism and the party of Debs were excluded from public discourse.
Although many reforms that socialists had embraced were incorporated into President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, forward progressive motion declined significantly by the 1940s and 1950s.
The civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s again enlarged the political space, but that expansion was halted with the emergence of Reaganism in the 1980s and by an unrelenting Republican agenda that pushed the country further to the right with each passing decade.
Republicans have been enabled by Democrats running in place as the safety net was slashed. Both parties now embrace free trade,
deregulation and free markets as the solutions to unemployment, poverty and upward mobility. These solutions were proved hollow by the recent economic catastrophe.
The political and economic equation in this country is out of balance. Kshama Sawant is a smart, articulate, fresh voice for the 99 percent. Her campaign, and the activism it has brought to the fore, has already enlarged our political space, offering new ideas with hopes of bringing a more balanced power equation to our city and country.
The movement that elected her will help set a new agenda: rent control, a $15 minimum wage and taxation of the very rich. This is only the beginning.
Like the socialist movements of old, this one is pushing open the gates of political space that have been closed for far too long. And it may extend far beyond one electoral victory and one city.
Kraig Schwartz teaches history at Seattle Central Community College and serves as membership chairman of Local 1789 of the American Federation of Teachers.