To old-timers who have lived through New York City’s recent history, the election of Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio must have seemed odd. Here was a city that, even into the 1990s, was getting national press for its crime, business flight, and general “rotting” amidst years of left-wing rule. It wasn’t until after the pro-market reforms of mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg that New York reclaimed its role as America’s glistening metropolis. Yet this November residents, in a bout of amnesia, elected someone whose talk of government expansion resembled that made back when the city was broke and burning.
One week later, similar results surfaced 3,000 miles to the west in Seattle. There Kshama Sawant, a community college economics professor and Socialist Alternative Party member, was elected to city council, narrowly beating longtime incumbent Richard Conlin. Yesterday she became Seattle’s first socialist to be sworn into office in over a century, marking a political evolution that has resembled New York’s, and that may foretell the direction of other U.S. cities.
For Seattle this evolution began in 1969, when it elected the first of seven consecutive Democratic mayors. Before then the Emerald City, like others, was led mostly by Republicans, along with the occasional liberal or independent. The common thread between parties then was a belief that economic growth was crucial for civic progress. This belief had seemed reasonable given the longtime growth of Seattle’s timber and aviation industries, and was pursued aggressively post-World War II. Looking to satisfy yearnings for a “Greater Seattle,” officials built a series of public works, like the Space Needle, that were featured in the 1962 World’s Fair. Several years later officials took the Forward Thrust initiative to ballot, asking voters to fund a regional rail network and other urban infrastructure.
But by the 1970s Seattle was forced to downgrade these ambitions. One reason was massive job cuts from Boeing, causing such immediate turmoil that in 1971 the Economist labeled Seattle the “City of Despair.” Another was a 1970 University of Washington protest against the Vietnam war, which shut down the city for days and heightened political tensions. And there was the growing “Lesser Seattle” movement started by local columnist Emmett Watson, which mocked the ambitious movement of old. It became an informal rallying cry for locals who had tired of the city’s new skyscrapers and traffic, and reflected their hostility — reinforced by an increasing liberalism — towards growth overall. By 1980 their wishes had been fulfilled, as Seattle dipped below 500,000 people, suffering an 11 percent decline since 1960. This decline was captured by a billboard posted years before that read “Will the last person leaving Seattle—Turn out the lights.”
The transformation into the global city known today began in the mid-1980s. Just years before, the city’s two most important entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, moved back to their hometown to start Microsoft, and by 1986 opened their headquarters in nearby Redmond. Eight years later Jeff Bezos opened Amazon downtown, and both companies, along with the University of Washington and a growing medical industry, turned Seattle into one of the nation’s most educated cities.
This demographic shift led to displacement of the city’s African Americans, immigrants, and elderly poor. It also, wrote University of Washington geographer Richard Morrill, changed Seattle’s political makeup from traditionally liberal to merely “neo-liberal.”
“Our ‘liberal,’” he wrote in 2010, is “fully committed to a post-industrial global service economy and accepting of extreme inequality, with scarcely a vestige of ‘radical.’”
There were of course exceptions to this, as evidenced by the 1999 WTO protests. But, he explained, average Seattleites had grown far more capitalist since the 1970s, while remaining socially and environmentally progressive.
This was reflected in the elections of several pro-business Democratic mayors, including Norm Rice, Paul Schell, and Greg Nickels. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s they rezoned the city for more development and revived public enthusiasm for grand civic works. As with the Lesser Seattle crowd, their visions soon became self-fulfilling, as population skyrocketed again, to over 600,000.
But, once more, the ill effects of growth — inequality, gentrification, rising cost-of-living — are being felt in Seattle. In 2009 voters replaced Mayor Nickels with the more extreme Mike McGinn, a bike-commuting, former Sierra Club leader with a scraggly beard and irascible manner. After one term of focusing more on bike lanes and pot laws than practical city issues, McGinn was booted out in November for the slightly more moderate Ed Murray. This year’s other winner was the socialist councilor, Kshama Sawant.
Sawant grew up in India, where stark inequalities inspired her compassion for the poor. She moved to Seattle in 2006, and soon grew politically active, including as an outdoor camper in the Occupy movement. For the city she wants to enforce rent control, a millionaire’s tax, housing density restraints, and a minimum wage of $15 (something already implemented in nearby SeaTac). She has also suggested collectivizing Amazon, and said that if Boeing had committed the “economic terrorism” of relocating its nearby factory, workers should have overtaken the floor and started manufacturing public buses rather than drones.
Such ideas might be amusing if not held by what is now a prominent official, in a city prone to destructive anti-capitalist protests. As in 1999, violence and vandalism were evident during the 2011 Occupy Movement and 2012 May Day rally. More such occurrences could hurt an area that is booming, but also fragile, given that it relies on a few key corporations. These include not only Boeing (which last week finally ended its longtime labor strife), but the two tech giants, plus Nordstrom, Starbucks and Costco. Any of these globally renowned companies could make an easy target for Sawant.
If there is a message that urbanites, whether in Seattle, New York, the increasingly liberal San Diego, or elsewhere should gather from her election and de Blasio’s, it is to not take their cities’ recent revivals, and what caused them, for granted. Those revivals resulted from a national economic boom in the 1980s and 1990s, and from improvements — in land use policy, infrastructure, welfare, policing, and other basic services — that helped usher this boom into once-forbidden city areas. They were inspired not by left-wing idealism, but by a cross-ideological belief that economic growth improves living standards. Recent urban history has revealed their significance, but also how tenuous they can be when competing with bad ideas.
Scott Beyer owns and manages The Market Urbanist.
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