Election day will likely favor Seattle’s Democratic candidates, but all that blue doesn’t mean what it used to. The party no longer holds the progressive cred it once did, and that could have consequences of the third-party kind.
Take the Seattle City Council’s recent about-face on a measure with progressive bona fides. In June 2018 it repealed a controversial head tax—affecting the city’s largest corporations and estimated to bring in tens of millions a year for affordable housing—less than a month after they unanimously passed it. A repeal campaign from businesses and public perception, the city’s elected officials said, forced their hand.
For some, the cowing to big business is confirmation that despite Seattle’s liberal reputation, its city council ultimately still caters to corporations over the public. Shaun Scott, an organizer for Democratic Socialists of America, argues Seattle has always had an undercurrent of conservative tendencies on issues like taxes and affordable housing. That same undercurrent could prompt some residents to start voting for third-party candidates. “Third parties sort of speak to a level of aspiration...for something different than and better than what we’ve inherited,” Scott says.
Speaking on the dais the day of the head tax repeal vote, socialist council member Kshama Sawant—Seattle’s third-party success story—said that for years, the Democrats have capitulated to big businesses and Republicans. “Are we going to engage in this failed strategy,” Sawant said, “of continuing to put our faith in politicians of the Democratic Party, however well meaning they say they might be?”
Sawant’s election foreshadowed Seattle’s shift to the far left. President Donald Trump’s election only further galvanized a liberal voter base. Then, in August 2017, Seattle Peoples Party candidate Nikkita Oliver came in third in the race for Seattle mayor, yet another specter of a more progressive citywide tilt.
But here’s the thing: Democrats know they have a problem. And since the 2016 election, the party has begun meeting that far-left base. This summer U.S. representative Pramila Jayapal from Seattle cosponsored a bill to shutter Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The call to abolish ICE had long been but a radical idea from far-left immigration activists, but the Democratic Party finally adopted the issue.
It’s just one example of how Dems are swerving further left to meet the voters where they are. In the Ninth Congressional District, which includes eastern parts of Seattle like Beacon Hill, both candidates who made it through the primary were Democrats—the challenger more liberal than the incumbent. Oh, and that repeal head tax vote? Teresa Mosqueda, the newly elected Democratic council member, also voted “no.”
And that’s how the Democratic Party can sustain itself, says Marco Lowe, a political science professor at Seattle University. It can pivot to meet local voters of the left without having to go very far. “There are absolutely organizations that don’t change when they need to,” Lowe says, “and fade away.” The party’s flexibility in adjusting to local voters’ political will ultimately gives Democrats a better chance at survival.