This week, Seattle city councilor and Socialist Alternative (SA) member Kshama Sawant narrowly defeated a right-wing recall campaign. As of Friday, 50.3% of votes counted were opposed to the recall and 49.7% were in favor. About 600 ballots remain contested due to irregularities in signatures and a recount is possible, however, it looks like a clear victory against the recall.
The main supporters of the corporate-backed and racist recall campaign included a number of big business executives, major real estate developers and other corporations, including Amazon, as well as top Republican donors. The struggle to retain Sawant’s seat on the city council was supported by more than 20 unions. The defeat of the right wing’s recall move is a win for working class people in Seattle.
The Independent Socialist Group supports the democratic right of voters to recall politicians to hold them accountable, but this right-wing recall campaign demonstrates some of the fundamental flaws of the American electoral system. While SA managed to successfully mobilize over a thousand people to canvass for the campaign, a large part of the close results can be attributed to the classic capitalist tactics of swamping electoral politics with big money and corporate media propaganda. The pro-recall forces had around a million dollars in officially reported spending, with much more money likely being spent in various off-the-books ways. Socialist Alternative’s ability to rally small donors to oppose corporate funding is admirable, but so long as money plays such a large role in politics, more representative democracy will not exist. Likewise, the ability of the Recall Campaign to manipulate the date of the election by refusing to turn in signatures for the November election deadline represents another form of voter suppression. Calling an election at an irregular time during peak season for retail and logistics workers showed a concerted effort by pro-recall forces to avoid a high turnout of working-class voters.
A Future for Independent Working Class Politics in Seattle
Members of the Independent Socialist Group donated to and volunteered in each of Sawant’s three election campaigns, in 2013, 2015, and 2019. Now, a socialist elected and re-elected on an independent ballot line has retained her seat and this is an important victory. Defeating the right wing recall campaign can be used to reinvigorate independent left politics in Seattle.
The defeat of the pro-capitalist recall campaign in Seattle can be built upon to create a significant electoral movement for independent socialist candidates and a mass workers party in the future. Unfortunately, Sawant’s Solidarity Campaign also reveals the continuing alignment of Socialist Alternative with the “progressive” wing of the corporate Democratic Party. Sawant, along with other SA members, recently moved to a dual membership with the pro-Democratic Party Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Supporting Democratic Party politicians furthers corporate politics and helps cement the power-base of the Democratic Party as a whole. Such practices reinforce the idea that the only way forward for working class politics is through the undemocratic and capitalist Democratic Party. This idea has been a major obstacle in the development of the workers movement in the U.S. Sawant’s success used to stand out as a clear example of how workers can win outside of the Democratic Party, but that legacy has been muddled by Socialist Alternative’s strategy in recent years.
Endorsements for the solidarity campaign included Democratic Party politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Julia Salazar, and Rebecca Saldaña, as well as Washington’s 43rd District Democrats (the first endorsement listed on the solidarity campaign’s list). SA began supporting Democrats in the 2015 city council election and 2016 presidential primary. SA has endorsed and supported many more Democratic politicians in the years since. For this reason, founding members of the Independent Socialist Group left Socialist Alternative in 2019 after four years of arguing against endorsing and supporting Democratic Party politicians. Rather than touting Democratic Party endorsements in the solidarity campaign, SA should return to its stance, prior to 2016, of helping to build the forces of the independent left in cities like Seattle. In Sawant’s last re-election, SA unfortunately endorsed Democrat Tammy Morales in District 2 and considered endorsing both Emily Meyers and Shaun Scott in District 3, before deciding on the latter.
Voting more socialists onto city councils will not bring about the end of capitalism, but it can be used to organize for socialism and working class politics on a mass basis, including creating strong voting blocs to push back against the influence of big business and win important reforms. However, supporting the Democratic Party through its politicians, even on a “case by case basis,” and building an independent, left workers’ party are not compatible. Examples of independent class politics ending up as corporate politics include the Populist Party, Farmer-Labor Party, Nonpartisan League, and Working Families Party which all eventually folded into the Democratic Party.
This recall result is an important defeat for the ruling class in Seattle, but unless the momentum of the Solidarity Campaign is channeled into building an independent, socialist movement to oppose both corporate parties, their politicians, and their capitalist donors, we will continue to see an electoral war of attrition in the city with socialists constantly on the defensive.
SA’s initial election victory in 2013 should serve as an example for all socialist and working class activists on how victories can be won without going down the dead-end of working within the Democratic Party. Subsequent re-election campaigns and fights like the 15 Now campaign and the Tax Amazon movement should be studied and debated in order to conduct similar struggles around the country.
In order to continue the growth and impact of the workers movement, socialist and labor organizations should immediately identify elections that they can contest with their own members on their own ballot lines or as independents.