Seattle’s so-called progressives have a problem with power.
But it’s not with keeping it. Local liberals have enjoyed something close to a monopoly on political capital for decades. Every mayor in recent memory has maintained ties to the Democratic Party. Nevermind was only a few months old when we had our last conservative city councilmember in late 1991. And our leaders occasionally pick fights with conservative austerity hack Tim Eyman and Republican reps like Dave Reichert, but these battles stand out because they’re exceptions to the rule—the rule of Seattle liberalism.
No, the problem Seattle’s progressive establishment has with power is not that it doesn’t have any. It’s that it has grown accustomed to having too much. Years into a rampant crisis of affordability and decades into a 35-year-long war against the civil liberties of people of color and the financial security of the working poor, liberal ideals of tolerance and inclusivity have prevented our political discourse from calling out the powers that be for what they are. When combined with the conflict-averse tendencies of “Seattle nice,” the reign of liberalism—so preoccupied with symbols of progress, so eager to signal happy endings—has made it difficult to have honest conversations about the power dynamics plaguing the vulnerable.
Jack Kerouac was famous for writing that you “can’t fight city hall because it keeps changing its name.” In Seattle, city hall has settled on the name “progressive,” a label that allows the political establishment to sidestep important debates.
Speaking to Seattle Met in August 2017, King County Labor Council leader Nicole Grant cautioned workers against being “sore winners” in battles with big business. “The feeling that labor and business are at war is a feeling of despair,” muses Grant. “After we’ve won on issues like the minimum wage and securing workers’ rights…you don’t want to be a sore winner, you know?” The sentiment is shared by local labor leader David Rolf, who once asked The Seattle Times “Where is it written that the thing [unions and management] need to do most is have fights?”
These statements portray the antagonistic relationship between capitalism and workers as a sociopolitical rom-com filled with quaint misunderstandings and cute lovers’ quarrels. Declining worker protections and gender pay inequity are not only a matter of “feelings of despair” in Seattle. They’re deliberate misdeeds that workers struggle to combat. Yet in the framework of Seattle’s faux-progressives, the problem with capitalism isn’t that it consigns thousands of workers to poverty wages in cities with runaway rent prices. It’s that we’re not being nice enough to each other for it to work.
Former city council candidate Michael Maddux shares this worldview. Maddux took to Twitter recently to complain about the lack of “collaboration between communities and developers.” In the minds of Maddux’s cohort of centrist data miners, radical proposals for more affordable housing should do more to keep the material interests of landlords in mind. To them, current city council candidate’s Jon Grant’s call for 25% affordable housing in all new development is flawed because “instead of having an opportunity to discuss ways to improve collaboration, we start from an adversarial position.”
What Maddux fails to grasp is that the relationship between renters, developers, and the city is already adversarial. And where personal relationships do not buffer this financial exchange and municipal laws do not protect renters, that relationship becomes outright exploitative and cruel.
Seattle has seen average rent prices climb a whopping 57% in the last six years, and the city has the third largest homeless population in the nation. This is not, as Maddux has insinuated, because of “a myth that all developers are evil.” It’s because many of them put the profit motive before civic livability. Maddux’s notion that Seattle’s rental market is inaccessible to the cash-poor because developers haven’t been given enough avenues for “collaboration” doesn’t square with reality. Landlords have every opportunity to use their power and influence for the public good, but have repeatedly chosen to do the opposite:
A 2016 report by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) revealed that real estate giant Vulcan and other powerful corporate players dumped over $4 million of campaign contributions into Seattle’s 2015 elections, largely via clandestine political action committees (PACs). “Our rationale was pretty simple,” explains David Thyer, president of one of the corporate campaign contributors identified in the SEEC report; “we were supportive of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s slate of candidates, and the pro-business agenda of those candidates.” A fundraising letter circulated in May 2017 by the pro-developer Rental Housing Association PAC rallied its well-heeled members to “stop the spread of Seattle’s anti-landlord agenda. The PAC also aims to uphold Washington’s legal ban on rent control.
While observing the obvious influence that campaign contributions have on stacking the deck against renters and working people, Michael Maddux has tried to argue—in the face of all evidence—that “folks don’t make [campaign contributions] because they’re trying to buy votes.”
The real estate magnates fueling Seattle’s crisis of unaffordability understand the power dynamics at play in politics. Apparently, many of Seattle’s “progressives” do not, or pretend not to.
Perhaps the quintessential liberal fantasy in regards to realpolitik comes from interim Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess. Burgess recently sounded off on what he sees as the similarities between the socialist left and conservative far right groups represented by Breitbart and Fox News. “I think in many ways the radical left in Seattle is no different than the radical right in Washington, D.C.,” proclaimed Burgess in September 2017; “their rhetoric and their denigration of others who disagree is exactly the same.”
In actuality, leftist groups like the Transit Riders’ Union, Seattle Democratic Socialists of America, and Socialist Alternative are largely to thank for the high-earners’ income tax that Burgess’ own Finance Committee ratified when he was in city council. That income tax was not achieved because cash-poor and middle-income Seattleites appealed to the class interests of the rich. It happened because they acted in their own self-interest. What Burgess’ remarks betray is a Pollyannaish portrait of power that asks us to retreat into a phantom political center that does not exist. In this paradigm, it’s possible for the capitalist Chamber of Commerce and the purportedly progressive King County Labor Council to somehow support the same mayoral candidate.
Here in the real world—outside of the establishment comfort zone—power does everything it can to victimize those who do not have it. When a conversation takes place in the context of an inherently imbalanced power dynamic, the conflicts therein cannot be solved by that conversation alone. Philosophically, one wonders if liberalism as a whole is to blame for the inability of some Seattle “progressives” to develop a more potent theory of power. Or is a particular strain of play-nice Seattle liberalism the problem?
Mired as we are in the immediacy of a contentious election season that will see four Seattle mayors in one year, perhaps our collective situation becomes clearer when seen through the prism of another city or time to which we do not belong.
There’s a scene in the 2016 film Southside With You where a young Barack Obama (played by Parker Sawyers) pontificates about the nature of power in Chicago during the racially contentious summer of 1989. “We’ve got a heck of a lot of different people, with a heck of a lot of different agendas,” the character says. “Whether it’s a colleague, family member, or a particular opponent—where their needs align with our needs is where things get done.”
At the same time that the fictional Obama’s prose is as idealistic as the man we remember in real life, the gritty assumptions about group interests undergirding it are as stark as lines drawn in the desert sand.
Divisions exist for a reason. Gains are the result of struggle. If something didn’t require a fight, everybody would have it. And if everybody is “progressive,” then nobody can be.
Shaun Scott is a Seattle-based cultural critic. He’s the author of the book “Millennials and the Moments That Made Us: A Cultural History of the U.S. from 1982-Present.” He’s the Field Organizer for candidate Jon Grant’s campaign for Seattle City Council Position 8.