The S-word: A Place at the Table

4 years ago ccwa 2

640px-Democratic_Socialists_Occupy_Wall_Street_2011_ShankboneAlthough much of the post election analysis has been reserved for the high profile races in Virginia and New Jersey, there is a much more surprising development that isn’t garnering similar attention. Two Socialist candidates, Kshama Sawant of Seattle and Ty Moore of Minneapolis, had extremely strong showings in their districts.

City council races do not usually demand national interest, however both Moore and Sawant’s competitive Socialist showings could indicate a larger political trend. Ty Moore trailed Democratic candidate Alondra Cano by only 3 percent, with a 41 percent to 38 percent final count. While, Kshama Sawant of Seattle, unseated 16-year Democratic incumbent Richard Conlin with a 50.5 percent to 49.2 percent win. It is not only the impressive showing of Socialist candidates that makes these races worth discussing but the implications that such competitive numbers have for the spectrum of political discourse in this country.

While two city council races do not a revolution make, these races indicate a growing willingness in Americans to vote outside of the rigid Democrat/Republican binary. The two-party system has become such an integral aspect of our political culture that anything outside of it has seemed almost unthinkable. However, in recent years Americans have shown a willingness to consider ideas and candidates that function outside of that model. Tea party supporters have made their demands for dramatically reduced national debt and a shrunken bureaucracy clear and have begun making space (sometimes forcefully) for themselves in Washington. Indeed, a Tea Party favorite, Ken Cuccinelli very narrowly lost the Virginia gubernatorial race on Election Day. Perhaps Sawant and Moore illustrate the beginnings of similar conversations on the left of the American political spectrum.

It was only two years ago that the Occupy movement rose to the surface of international discourse when protestors took to the streets against political corruption, dramatic wealth disparities, and the considerable influence of corporations on politics. After several massive protests in Zuccotti Park, the media, also operating from within the deeply entrenched two-party norm, began to ask what this would mean for Democrats. Although Occupy’s political energy did not translate into an organized effort to run candidates that would pressure Democrats further left, the issues that arose from the movement have had a considerable effect. Our vocabulary speaks to that, with terms like “the one percent” becoming normalized within conversations about income inequality. And although Zucotti Park is pretty quiet these days, those notions, and those protestors, have not gone away.

In the case of the Minneapolis city council race, Moore’s platform was largely reminiscent of the concerns raised by Occupy. Calling for a $15 minimum wage, a moratorium on foreclosures and considering housing a human right, many of his supporters may have been hearing the exact brand of ideas they believed dissipated with the end of the Occupy protests. In fact, Moore is a founding activist of the anti-foreclosure group Occupy Homes Minnesota while many of his supporters work in similar activist arenas. Additionally, running as a member of the Socialist Alternative party afforded him the freedom to voice his left-of-Democratic views honestly to his constituents.

Sawant also has a history of grassroots organizing, as a member of AFT Local 1719, a teachers union. The Sawant campaign’s unique ability to secure strong union support is worth noting since labor has consistently provided a reservoir of support for the Democratic Party. A total of 6 unions publically endorsed her while activists within the Democratic Party also conglomerated in support of her under the name “Democrats for Sawant”. Her appeal reached beyond just Socialists or even those who consider themselves outside of the available political spectrum, she managed to garner the support of those within it.

Although these races do not necessarily signal the coming of a nationwide electoral push for third or fourth party options, they do present a challenge to the current understanding of what’s possible at the ballot box. Americans are growing agitated with a stagnated minimum wage, an aggressively dysfunctional congress, a dramatic increase in income inequality and a string of wars on nouns (Drugs, Poverty, Terror) that have been waged for over 5 decades and claimed countless lives along the way.  In the wake of a government shutdown that pushed the two-party deadlock to its logical end, the time may be right to rethink the system at large.  Although this structure is familiar and posits to be nearly immutable, the current climate of unrest could signal a change. The limited spectrum of political choice has been pushing in on a people for so long that they may be beginning to push back. Noam Chomsky once said, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion”. With mounting political dysfunction and a citizenry’s growing appetite for dissent, the people are no longer passive and the spectrum of limited opinion is no longer acceptable.

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by Ilhan Dahir

(photo credit: Flickr – David Shankbone)