I live in Seattle’s 3rd council district, ground zero of local politics right now. So every day this past week I got mailings and door flyers that decried Kshama Sawant as too polarizing for Seattle’s genteel politics.
“She can’t even work with her fellow progressives,” read one flyer.
Most of these business-funded mailings feature a damaging quote from M. Lorena González, one of Sawant’s most influential colleagues on the City Council.
“ … Unfortunately I have found that there is almost a nonexisting working relationship between her and myself, and frankly, anyone else on the floor,” González says, about the flame-throwing socialist.
So it was startling that on Friday González announced her exuberant endorsement in the 3rd district for … the same Kshama Sawant. González posed with Sawant in a photo, the two of them holding a sign that reads “Amazon Can’t Buy City Hall.”
“With Amazon fighting all of us, it’s not about whether you’re a Democrat or a socialist,” said González, explaining her conversion. Council member Teresa Mosqueda also endorsed Sawant.
I bring all this up not to get too in the weeds about a local council race. But what happened here is like a microcosm of modern politics in America. A million years ago, all politics was said to be local. Now, all politics is polarization.
It isn’t just red versus blue or urban versus rural. Take my district: With the exception of a precinct or two in Madison Park, such as the Broadmoor gated community, practically everyone in the 3rd district is a lefty who votes for every tax and generally favors progressive solutions to the problems of the day. It’s one of the more consistently liberal, left-wing voting areas in the United States.
As a result, the two candidates in this race, Sawant and former gay pride parade organizer Egan Orion, differ mostly in whether they are backed by business interests (he is, she defiantly isn’t). But both are to the left of probably 99 percent of the U.S. Senate. An example of one of their most vehement points of disagreement is that Sawant backs rent control, while Orion supports “rent stabilization” — which is a milder form of rent control.
The point is that their policy positions scarcely seem to matter. González, who sure seemed to believe Sawant was too polarizing for the council two months ago, was herself just polarized by a larger polarizing force into siding with the council’s chief polarizer.
This is how Sawant says it’s supposed to work.
“You have to take a side because it is not a neutral situation,” Sawant was quoted recently by KUOW, about her political style. “This is class warfare.”
Recent research suggests though that polarization like this is largely manufactured from the top down for political purposes. Large swaths of the public tend to agree on many proposed solutions to various governmental problems. What gets people into a lather is not the ideas, but who is proposing them. It’s a phenomenon called an “opinion cascade”— in which partisans pile onto whatever emerging position they identify with their own group, and recoil from ideas associated with the other (this is according to research from Cornell University).
It’s why we see head-snapping hypocrisies in national politics on an almost daily basis (conservatives suddenly blithely unconcerned about debt, liberals lambasting the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East, etc.). If it wasn’t your team, then you’re against it.
Right on cue, last week the liberal former U.S. labor secretary, Robert Reich, sent out a list of all 14 Seattle City Council candidates. He divided them into two simple slates: The Amazon team, and the non-Amazon team. To him that’s apparently all you need to know.
But interesting research last year suggested that two-thirds of the public is “exhausted” by this sort of tribalism, even as polls show it’s super-effective for marshaling votes. A fellow 3rd district resident, the writer Knute Berger, summed up the framed “polarity” between Sawant and Orion like this:
“I find myself confronted with this general dilemma: Trotsky or Bezos?” he wrote. “Whose town do I want to live in? The Soviet of Seattle or a Seattle underneath a vast Amazon Sphere?
“My answer is neither.”
I sympathize. Except none of the above isn’t on the ballot. Maybe the best he can hope for is a mixed result in council races around the city, so neither the Trotskyites nor the corporate assassins run the table.
Back in my 3rd district bunker, the Amazon-funded mailings and red-shirted socialist door-knockings continue apace. That a showdown like this is happening in a municipal election, no matter how hyped or contrived, feels like a harbinger. City elections are still nonpartisan, after all, on the obviously outdated theory that they’re about mundane services like filling potholes. It’s quaint, but they’re supposed to be removed from ideology.
Sign of the times: Everything is ideological now. And Seattle’s council elections are probably but a small rumbling for the main event — next year’s presidential election, where it feels like an ideological bomb is set to go off.