Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is Politics. This article was originally published March 5, 2012.
This is the way a political era ends — not with a single bang, but with a series of seemingly unrelated shocks to the system. Late last week, with the twin shocks of Rep. Norm Dicks' decision to retire this year and the defection of three Washington Senate Democrats to give the Republicans a temporary budgetary majority, I detected the loud cracking sounds of an ice-bound river breaking apart.
Given how fluid and "disruptive" our business sector is, and the West Coast's penchant for inventing futures before the rest of the nation, it is surprising to consider just how settled a political order we have had in our state. The ice on the river of change has become very thick, as for example the run of progressive-Democratic governors dating back to 1984. But big logjams on a swift-running river can turn explosive when they finally come apart. That's happening now, and will characterize our politics for the next half-decade or so.
I would call this long-lived political settlement the Cold War Consensus. Congressman Dicks is the embodiment of it, being our most dedicated partisan of Defense spending and Boeing and going all the way back to 1968 when Dicks joined Sen. Warren Magnuson's staff. Maggie himself, aided by Sen. Henry Jackson, pushed the tradition back into the heart of the New Deal, serving in Congress from 1936-80 and creating a vibrant class of political proteges, including Dicks. The result, though we rarely pause to admit it, has been an extensively militarized economy in our state, for both Defense contractors and our many military bases. More about this below.
The other part of the Great Consensus has been Democratic sway in Olympia, most notably under the shrewd discipline of House Speaker Frank Chopp, who has been co-speaker or speaker since 1999 and whose political roots go deep in Seattle's traditions of social activism and the many institutions set up to help the poor. Like many powerful speakers, Chopp has built a network of loyalists, many of whom owe their elections to his help, and is able to be the unelected governor of the state, since all decisions flow through him, even more than the constitutionally weakened office of the governor.
The Olympia part of the Great Consensus has been to service the major political interest groups in the center and the left, in return for their loyalty each election. Those major interests are: environmental groups, public employees, unions, teachers, Indian tribes, Boeing, minorities, and the social services. It has meant a pragmatic focus on jobs, roads, schools, and community colleges, with a well-tended safety net for the poor.
Business interests have tended to go along with this Consensus, in part because it is so powerfully entrenched, but also because they get benefits as well: low taxes for the wealthy, many special dispensations for powerful businesses, and a highly regressive tax structure. Also, both Dicks and Chopp are consummate deal-makers, not policy-types, so you can work with them if you are powerful enough and loyal enough. The big exception has been higher education, particularly the University of Washington, where business interests and Chopp's budgetary priorities diverge sharply.
The result of all this is neither pretty nor easy to modify. Our tax structure, for instance, favors the rich (no income tax) and large businesses (many exemptions), while being severely regressive on the working class (high sales taxes and punishing sin taxes) and on small business (who pay a crushing B&O tax). The state budget is skewed to social services and away from the kinds of investment that help modernize our economy. And we are deeply dependent on the Defense sector, which is likely to be diminishing fast. Further, with the state's economy shifting quickly from a Boeing-led economy to a Microsoft-led new economy, our politics lags far behind.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!