It may come as a surprise to Ted Cruz, but Americans have a rich history of entertaining democratic-socialist responses to economic and political challenges. Tom Paine charted the rough outlines of a social-welfare state in his 1797 pamphlet “Agrarian Justice.” Fanny Wright was campaigning for the labor-linked and essentially social-democratic Workingmen’s Party in 1829. Utopian socialists were regular contributors to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the newspaper that inspired the radical political experiment that came to be known as the Republican Party.
A century ago, members of the Socialist Party served in Congress and state legislatures, they were mayors of big cities and peopled city councils and school boards across the country. The Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912, Eugene Victor Debs, won close to a million votes and polled more than 10 percent of the vote in the states of Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington.
The latter state was a hotbed of radicalism, especially in Seattle, where in 1916 activist Anna Louise Strong was elected to the school board. A militant supporter of left-wing causes and campaigns, she aligned with labor unions during the city’s general strike and famously declared: “They say the Pharaohs built the pyramids. Do you think one Pharaoh dropped one bead of sweat? We built the pyramids for the Pharaohs and we’re building for them yet.”
As a member of the school board, Strong backed the antiwar and civil liberties crusades of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, who in 1924 would seek the presidency as an independent progressive backed by the Socialist Party. La Follette came in third nationally but he finished second in Washington that year, behind Republican Calvin Coolidge but well ahead of Democrat John Davis.
Like San Francisco and Portland, Seattle remains a “Left Coast” city, with strong unions, a history of militant activism and adventurous local politics.
The latest adventure will play out November 5, when Seattle voters will decide whether to add a socialist to their city council. Kshama Sawant, a former software engineer who now teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College, is running a Socialist Alternative “Fund Human Needs, Fight Corporate Greed” campaign that declares: “We live in one of the richest cities in the richest nation on earth. There is no shortage of resources. Capitalism has failed the 99%. Another world is both possible and necessary—a socialist world based on the needs of humanity and the environment.”