The following essay is adapted from a speech delivered August 25th to Seattle's Downtown Rotary.
A year and a half ago, President Obama was searching for a catch phrase for his struggling administration. He came up with “A New Foundation.” That tagline that didn’t survive presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s jibe that “A New Foundation” sounded more like a woman’s girdle. It’s not easy to find a firm foundation for a new politics when things are changing so fast. But let’s give it a try, here in the Seattle region.
In the coming election, I sense that voters will groan a lot but opt for only a moderate dosage of change. They will be hedging their bets by opting for divided government, as a way to force the polarized parties to work together. Divided or coalition governments seem to be the cure-du-jour these days, as in Britain. It’s a clumsy way of groping toward the pragmatic center, where most of the voters are but where parties and their activists and biggest donors are not. Bipartisan Barack will reappear.
What voters really want, but can’t seem to get, is a politics that solves big problems, from the center, and in a pragmatic way that gives something significant to both sides and avoids sterile partisanship. Not a lot of that in this state, but here’s a promising tale from Idaho. Keith Allred is a former Harvard professor and political independent who founded a Boise nonprofit called Common Interest, which seeks bipartisan consensus on big state issues. The Democratic Party recruited Allred as a gubernatorial candidate, to run against Gov. Butch Otter. Guess who’s raised more money, who has the momentum, and who’s getting Republicans to defect to his side? And who’s our Keith Allred in this state, or, as I’d prefer to call him or her, Allpurple?
As for this state, I don’t see much relief soon from our current bitter political partisanship, at least until 2012. Gov. Gregoire is weary from the battle and a little lame-ducky, since most expect she won’t seek a third term. The key political figure in our state remains Speaker Frank Chopp, who assembled a wide majority in the House by recruiting candidates loyal to him and who could win in suburban and swing districts, often by taking pot shots at Seattle. Those suburban moderate Democrats are now in danger, given the rising Republican tide and much better opponents. However, when these centrist Chopp Democrats lose and exit the Democratic House Caucus, the remaining Democrats will be from true-blue districts, making compromise all the harder. Unless, of course, the Republicans take control of the House. Presto: divided government.
A year ago, probably many (including me) would have felt that Seattle politics was very stable. Mayor Greg Nickels had put together a traditional political coalition of developers, unions, big business interests, municipal employees, and environmentalists, leaving only neighborhood groups and deep-greens on the outs. Then suddenly, voters gave the two-term mayor a pink slip, as he finished third in the primary to two unknowns.
What happened? Nickels was an inside mayor, liked at city hall and good in deal-making but not well connected with the public. Another factor was Obama’s campaign a year before, which drew many young people into politics and trained them in the new, social-media aspects of highly targeted politics. Many flocked to the Mike McGinn campaign, and then on into his administration, which retains the feeling of a youthful crusade, cheerfully defying their unbelieving elders.
“Authenticity” is a key value for these young voters, who are deeply cynical about conventional politics and super-quick at detecting phoniness. Accordingly, Mayor Mike dresses casually, hangs out with young crowds at the Crocodile, and does seemingly outrageous things like dissing Steve Ballmer or ignoring the protocol for state-of-the city addresses. These things send powerful messages of insurgency and genuineness.
McGinn, more than most politicians around here, grasps that Seattle has changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years, becoming a McGinn kind of town. Seattle had been, during the long Cold War boom that greatly favored the region and its economy, a classic "city of the last move." People moved here in mid-career, psychologically considering Seattle a place to settle down, to join civic organizations, to get involved in local schools. They were the ones who took the legendary fork on the Oregon Trail west — the one leading to farmland, not gold fields. And they built, particularly in the 1970s and 80s, an admirably civic-minded culture, what I call Civic Seattle.
Well, Seattle is now a classic "city of the first move." As they do with New York and San Francisco and LA, restless young people move here right out of college. They want to hang out in a cool city with lots of starter jobs and other young people and nightlife. Psychologically, they are not really intending to stay so much as to get launched. Last-move cities build solid middle class neighborhoods, jobs, and institutions. First-move cities draw an irreverent, disruptive, geeky “creative class.” They are the footloose foot soldiers of an innovation economy.
And that’s produced the major fault line in our region and our politics: the tension between an Innovation Economy and a somewhat dispirited Civic Seattle. Bridging this gap is the challenge and opportunity of the day. That’s my theme in this essay.
Thanks largely to Microsoft, this region massively put its eggs in the new economy and the young workforce it requires. The transformation has been especially dramatic and swift in Seattle. Only a generation ago, we were the most middle-class large city in America. Now we are a city with a disproportionately high number of well-educated, young, detached newcomers. We are San Francisco.
Here are a few figures to demonstrate how extreme a case Seattle has become, how far the pendulum has swung.
- Our average household size is now 2.08, well below the national average of 2.61 and lower even than San Francisco’s (2.24).
- The percentage of families with kids is 19 percent, while the national average is 31and San Francisco’s is 18.
- The percentage of non-family or unmarried households is 55 percent, compared to the national average of 33 percent.
- 53 percent of Seattle adults have a college degree, highest in the nation and 20 points above the national average of 33 percent.
- Lastly, 31 percent of the Seattle population has lived in the city for five years or less; only Austin, Texas has a higher number, and it’s 32 percent.
Welcome to the Next Seattle. Smart, unmoored, mobile, young, liberal in politics. (Interestingly, the demographic portrait of towns surrounding Seattle is very close to the national norms.) So, Civic Seattle, picture a speeding bicyclist passing you as you sit in your Lexus SUV at a long red light. And maybe giving you the finger.
Such rapid demographic change has finally caught up with our slow-to-change political order. Suddenly coming to power, this new elite finds the fading regime too fond of cars, too slow in addressing climate change, too cozy with established ways of doing things. As one friend in the McGinn shop enjoys telling me, I’m Microsoft. Mayor Mike’s Apple.
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