Nine years ago I wrote about a certain rising political force in city politics and how it was turning Seattle into a “leading indicator” for a major shake-up of liberalism.

“The election isn’t for 10 days, but we can already declare the big winner in Seattle,” that 2013 column began. “It’s the socialist.”

The premise was that Kshama Sawant had yet to be elected to the Seattle City Council, but her views, and her protest-fueled style, were signaling a tectonic shift in liberal politics.

Out was the market-oriented liberalism of traditional Democratic politicians like Barack Obama, where equality of opportunity was the goal. In was a sweeping “new new left” with a more radical goal: equality of outcomes, in everything from pay to education.

It’s been a strong run for that rising new left, at least in West Coast incubator cities like Seattle. It led to everything from the $15 minimum wage to major experiments in criminal justice reform, such as slashing police budgets, and pledges to incarcerate so few people that we could close both the adult and youth jails.

Is the run over?

Who can say? — maybe it’s just on pause. But an “old left” vibe sure seems ascendant these days in elections up and down the West Coast.


One San Francisco political pundit called it “the revenge of the Obama Democrats.”

After San Francisco voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly recalled their progressive, light-on-crime district attorney, Chesa Boudin, another local columnist said the city’s famously left-wing voters had simply “tired of ideology taking precedence over real nuts-and-bolts progress.”

People are “fed up that nothing related to city government seems to be working,” wrote Chronicle columnist Heather Knight. “Frustrated that this city with so much potential isn’t remotely living up to it. Irate that a city with so many built-in advantages — wealth, beauty, diversity, creativity, smarts — is so much less than the sum of its parts.”

Sound familiar? These same themes echoed through last fall’s Seattle elections — when voters likewise tossed out a reform-minded city attorney, Pete Holmes, and also passed over the left-progressive candidate in the mayor’s race for a classic “Obama Democrat,” Bruce Harrell.

On Tuesday, voters in Los Angeles also gave first place in a mayoral primary to a former Republican who, like Harrell here, is promising to clear the city’s sprawling homeless encampments.

Seattle political consultant Christian Sinderman experienced both sides of this voter mood shift — he ran Holmes’ losing campaign for Seattle city attorney, but also Harrell’s winning campaign for mayor.


“I think what voters are saying is there is only so far and so fast you can push the progressive vanguard,” Sinderman said.

“It doesn’t mean people here have gotten less progressive-minded,” he said. “But there’s a counterpressure now, which is causing a return to a kind of civic do-gooder who is interested in basic problem-solving, instead of the more partisan, ideological approach.”

Prime example, he says: Defund the police. Seattle is down 400 cops, but we haven’t added more than a handful of mental health counselors or social workers to take their places.

“It got ahead of itself, and so now people see that it just isn’t working,” Sinderman said. “But that doesn’t mean Seattleites are no longer interested in alternatives to the police.”

The recall campaign in San Francisco featured a heavy rotation of viral videos showing rampant shoplifting going unchallenged. We’ve all seen similar security footage shot here at the downtown Seattle Target store. Outrage about the videos doesn’t mean voters think the shoplifters should be jailed for long sentences, but voters also see that the “no consequences” approach leads to civic chaos.

In this gap lies political opportunity: “You’re going to see a third way emerge,” a veteran Democratic consultant told the Chronicle in San Francisco.


People can want more police officers, rejecting defund the police. The same people can want drug offenders to get treatment, not jail — which is a core plank of the defund movement.

This Obama-type nuance is what new Seattle Mayor Harrell was channeling in his inaugural address when he kept repeating “Yes, and.” Yes, shelter the homeless and keep parks clear of encampments; yes, demand fair policing and go hard after gun crime.

Easy to say, tough to pull off — especially when populists on both the left and the right don’t trust institutions to work anymore.

Personally I have warm, sepia-toned feelings toward the Obama style of building coalitions and painstakingly bending the arc of history toward justice. But pragmatic approaches have been considered part of the problem in places like Seattle or San Francisco, where scores of activists feel the systems are hopelessly corrupted by inequality and racism.

Back to Sawant, who, for a time, so successfully tilted Seattle politics. Is she done?

Not done taking up the fight. She was recently featured in Current Affairs, a new left magazine, in an essay about all this. It’s headlined: “The Left Is Losing Because We’re Not Confrontational Enough.”

That’s not what voters in these Protest Central cities seem to be saying. For now, anyway, they’re delivering a mundane rebuke to all that: The Left Is Losing Because We’re Not Competent Enough.