Kshama Sawant, a Socialist Alternative party member of Seattle City Council who was re-elected in a hotly contested election, says her victory is a huge popular mandate for progressive policies and gives a very crucial message to people ahead of the presidential election in 2020.
The 46-year-old Indian-American economist, whose party adheres to Marxist principles, has always put a premium on grassroots campaign issues like a $15 minimum wage, rent control in a city with rising rents, and a millionaires' tax to fund transportation, says the victory shows how the socialist-led movement has galvanized thousands of people in the grassroots against the entire might of the capitalists, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. She says the results show the “incredible potential for the progressive and left movements to build throughout the nation, beyond the borders of Seattle.
“The biggest mistake we could make is not recognizing how much of an opening there is now for the left to build itself in the country which is what we have clearly demonstrated in this election. It is, therefore, very important to get the voice of the working people out there before the election next year,” Sawant told India Abroad in an interview in which she shared her thoughts on a variety of issues, including the rise and the role of progressives like U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan in the U.S. Congress and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. She also touched on the issue of differences between young progressives and the establishment Democrats and how that may help Trump and the Republicans win in the 2020 election. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. Last month, you said the Seattle election will be a test of whether Democratic voters are truly willing to stand behind progressive ideas. Now that you have won the election for the second time since 2013, what are your major lessons you may have learned?
A. What I meant was what the big business, the corporate elites and corporations like Amazon were attempting to do this year was complete and hostile corporate takeover of the city hall, and if they succeed here in Seattle, it will not stop with Seattle. It will embolden them, and they will brazenly try and buy candidates in other cities as well.
I think the main takeaway of this election is the fact that a socialist-led movement that has galvanized thousands of people in the grassroots has gone up against the entire might of the capitalists, against the richest man in the world, against the chamber of commerce and $4 million of corporate PAC money, and yet we have won the election. That shows the incredible potential for the progressives and the left movements to build throughout the nation. The biggest mistake we could make is not recognizing how much of an opening there is now for the left to build itself. I think going into the presidential election this is a very crucial message. That is why I have proudly endorsed Bernie Sanders for President.
Q. Talking about Bernie Sanders, how much the left and the progressive movement you think can really contribute towards swaying the outcome of the 2020 election in favor of Democrats and the interest of the working class?
Ans. It's absolutely true that big business and the wealthy would not want either Bernie Sanders or (Elizabeth) Warren, even though in my view there are differences between them. Clearly, big business does not want either of them, and they will do everything in their power to stop the momentum. However, on the other hand, ordinary people, the rank and file of the Democratic party members are so energized, especially by Bernie Sanders campaign and also by Warren, who are quite different from somebody like Joe Biden who clearly has been a “spokesperson” for the corporate elite, for the political establishment and for the insiders, that they have given incredible support to Bernie Sanders on the ground so far. That completely destroys the myth of ‘Bernie bro’ that only some white, upper class men are supporting Sanders.
Q. Given the “backlash,” as newspaper reports described it against Bernie Sanders in New York from some public housing leaders last month, how do you think he will fare in the elections?
Ans. Backlash? I think polls after polls show that the majority of people, the millennials, the young people are supporting Bernie Sanders, and women of color, middle class women and suburban women are also supporting Sanders in large number. It is very important to note also that some new Congresswomen like left-wing leaders, including Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Harbi Tlaib, have been playing a transformative role in the political conversation in Washington. The fact that these Congresswomen have endorsed Bernie Sanders is a powerful show of left unity. That, and the mood among the ordinary people who identify themselves as Democratic party supporters stand in stark contrast with (Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer of the Democratic party establishment who are still highly tied to the Wall Street and the billionaire class and they're completely out of touch with where the majority of the nation is.
Q. Precisely that is my question too. If there is division within the Democratic party, will it not help Trump and the Republicans in terms of winning the election?
Ans. I think the paramount insight and the analysis that we have to draw out is that if our priorities are to defeat Trump — and that I think unites the vast majority of American people because he's the complete antithesis of our vision for social justice-based society — it is extremely important we strongly support Bernie Sanders. We must fight to make sure that he is able to win the election because it is clear that ordinary people are looking for a clear alternative that will fight against the corporate domination and against the entrenched inequality and misery that people are being subjected to in their daily lives. They are looking to fight back and that is the mood Bernie Sanders has captured.
Sanders recognizes that in order to accomplish any of the progressive goals that people want him to attain, he will need a movement behind him and that is why he has correctly said that he is going to be the organizer-in-chief when he gets elected. That is exactly what we have done in Seattle, proving that you can be a socialist and work against big business, you can be an unapologetic fighter for ordinary people against big business and still you can win big victories in elections after elections, if you base yourself on the strength of the social movement.
Q. So, how does this divergence within the party augur for the outcome in 2020?
Ans. Trump and the Republicans will attempt to exploit that division within the Democratic party and that is why in addition to strongly pushing for Bernie Sanders agenda, as a socialist I would also add that division within the Democratic party also reflects the fundamental need for a new party for working people. This is needed because clearly as long as the Democratic party leadership remains tied to the agenda of the big business and corporate elite, it will remain incapable of representing ordinary people, and hence incapable of defeating Trump.
The divergence between the two wings of the Democratic party with the establishment led by people like Nancy Pelosi on one hand who have made it very clear that they're completely opposed to anything akin to working class agenda and have refused to allow the Democratic party to move to the left, is a problem. I would say they are completely horrified at the prospect people like Sanders getting nomination. I wish to point out that the Democratic party establishment is the fundamental obstacle to achieving any of our goals and that's why I always raise the question of a new party for the working class.
Q. During my last interview you told me that before the 2016 election you had cautioned Sen. Sanders that he may not get Democratic nomination and that is exactly what happened. Do you think the same scenario may play out again in 2020? What is your sense of the situation?
Ans. First of all, there is a tremendous groundswell support for Sanders this time. He has the support of the Democratic party rank-and-file, even more than last time because in the intervening four years he has really done a lot of the work and his campaign program and platform is much stronger than in 2016. But as you mention history is the guide and as long as the Democratic establishment is hostile to him and his working class agenda, I expect the Democratic establishment to do everything in its power to prevent him from getting the nomination. So, our task is to do everything in our power to make sure that he gets the nomination. This is not the time to be timid and play by the conventional rule book. This is the time to recognize that there is real fire in the belly of ordinary people to fight for something different for a society that works for us. We have talked about affordable housing and homelessness inequality but think of the threat of climate catastrophe. We have a very limited window to make sure that we have a living planet. For the urgent necessities of our human society, it is critical that we move forward boldly running our own candidates, recognizing that while the billionaire class may have the political power, the police and the money, influence and the power of the state, (but) we have the people. If we get organized – and throughout history when ordinary people got organized and developed a serious political analysis to understand how you can build our forces -- we can have the ability to change society. In addition to all of that we have to have a vision for an alternative to capitalism and especially in case of climate catastrophe. It shows that capitalism simply has no solution for the climate crisis, and it is urgent that we make strides towards a socialist society but for that to happen we have to build our movement today locally, nationally and internationally.
Q. Quite right, but what if Sanders does not get nominated this time?
Ans. I would say exactly what I said in 2016 -- if he doesn't get the nomination, we would urge him to run in the general election as an independent because otherwise we will be facing the prospect of Donald Trump running against the corporate Democrats and that is a dangerous scenario. Trump will exploit that, and we cannot rule out that Trump will be re-elected. If we want to prevent that, it is extremely important that we have a candidate like Bernie Sanders run along till the end.
Q. Talking about left unity and the new young lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, how do you assess the performance of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who you advised in your ‘dear sister letter’ after her election to reject the idea that it is time for her to set her activism aside and become a politician? Has she taken your advice?
Ans. I am really impressed with Ocasio-Cortez and I respect her courage and dedication and her sacrifice to be accountable to ordinary people and she has made it very clear that she doesn't play by the rule book of the Democratic party establishment. I hope that by looking at her example, people will agree that it is not just something specific to Seattle and Socialist Alternative. I have shown a similar kind of approach to politics where we are not beholden to the establishment agenda and that is exactly what Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has shown. It is very important what she has done with her position already and it has a kind of transformative effect she has had on the political conversation nationally just like Barney Sanders and has rejected the ‘business as usual’ approach to politics.
Q. Since you believe that there is an opening now for the left to build, don’t you think it is time for you and your party to go to Washington and make your presence visible nationally?
Ans. Right. I do think that there are significant openings for socialists like my party to run for national office, but I would continue to say as I told you before that I remain part of the movement in Seattle that has got me elected. What we will do immediately when we come back next year, we will be organizing in a very big way for major progressive policies in Seattle like rent control, like taxing big business which will really require us to build very powerful movements. I must tell you it is not enough to win the election. We will have to fight the billionaire class again and in the process of doing that we will also be fighting for Bernie Sanders campaign and no doubt the question of socialists running for national office will emerge through all of that organizing. I welcome those opportunities for our movement.
Q. One last question. Do think the growing support of Indian-Americans, who are traditionally Democrats, for the rightwing politics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India and their reported disenchantment with the Democrats after Congressional democrats’ scathing criticism of Modi over alleged rights violations in Kashmir, could be a factor in the upcoming presidential election outcome in terms of shifting of Democratic votes towards Republicans?
Ans. I don't know the overall vote that is accounted for by the Indian-Americans and that is probably something worth looking at. That is something quite interesting to look into. But I would say that first of all that it was absolutely alarming to see that stadium rally in Texas where the massive audience of Indian-Americans were cheering Trump and Modi. To me, while there are specific characteristics of each of those immigrant communities, overall the analysis is still the same: that there is a rise in rightwing ideology and that process is unfolding in India also. Certainly, you can see that in Brazil and other places. But all that is reflecting the same thing that you see here in the U.S. with Trump's election which is the failure of the left to build an alternative for people. I think that is the crucial component here too.
Q. Is Sanders’ campaign cognizant of Indian-American voters?
Ans. It is extremely important that Bernie Sanders’s campaign keep in mind that young people, who come from immigrant background and who are looking for leftwing or even socialist campaign to be part of, and who are not going to be supporting Narendra Modi or Donald Trump, and make sure they are registered to vote and most importantly to raise their voice.
As an immigrant woman of color and as an Indian-American myself, I value the fact that we can provide an example that is diametrically opposed to Trump and Modi and say this is what Indian-Americans should be fighting for. If we agree that we want a society that is based on social justice, then we have to reject right-wing ideology whether it comes from the U.S. or Brazil or India and build progressive movements.