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Credit: KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang

Kshama Sawant Is A Socialist, But What Does That Even Mean?

Socialism has been a dirty word in many corners of American politics, and few politicians who identify as socialists have succeeded in the United States.

Now Seattle has elected socialist candidate Kshama Sawant to the city council over longtime incumbent Richard Conlin. To better understand her victory in the context of socialism in the US, The Record’s Ross Reynolds spoke with John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine and author of “The ‘S’ Word, A History of Socialism in America.”

Sawant, Nichols said, joins a small group of socialists elected to office – typically to city councils and school boards. The last big city Socialist Party mayor was Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler, who finished his final term in 1960. Benjamin Nichols, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, was mayor of Ithaca, N.Y. in the 1990s. Last year, 19-year-old Socialist Party member Pat Noble was elected to the regional board of education in Red Bank, N.J.

The highest ranking among them, US Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont served as the independent socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s.

“Bernie started out in the 1970s as a candidate and lost initially,” Nichols said. “But as people got to know him and got to know what he stood for, he did better and better politically, becoming mayor of Burlington, then congressman, then senator.”

What attracts voters isn’t necessarily the label they affix to their campaign, but their proposals and ideals, he said.

One of the things that I think Sawant, for instance, in Seattle, had going for her, in a city with relatively predictable politics, you had somebody come along with some very bold proposals -- $15 minimum wage, taxing millionaires, protecting public services and public education, rejecting austerity, and that sounds dynamic in the face of politics that is much more cautious and restrained.

There are many different kinds of socialists, Nichols said. Sawant is a member of the Socialist Alternative, which also calls for nationalizing banks.

Sawant, who identified as a Socialist Alternative candidate, came out of the Occupy movement, Nichols said, which, although not an explicitly socialist movement, “brought many social democratic critiques to debates about American policy.”

On the Monday before Election Day, Sawant campaign staffer Philip Locker noted that some of the candidate’s main issues became so popular, they became mainstream in this election cycle. Both Mayor Mike McGinn and Mayor-elect Ed Murray said in their campaigns that they support a $15 minimum wage, which Locker attributed to Sawant's influence.

“That’s powerful,” he said.