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Seattle's not-so-radical history will reassert itself

Guest Opinion: What our past may tell us about the current push for new policies.
Seattle skyline

Seattle skyline Evan Leeson/Flickr

"There are the 47 states and the Soviet of Washington." Roosevelt Administration Postmaster General James Farley may or may not have uttered this famous quote, but it is plausible, considering Seattle's radical reputation in the 1930s (when there were just 48 states). And with the latest string of ideas that put Seattle and Washington state at the head of the progressive agenda — legalized weed, $15 minimum wage — that radical reputation is reasserting itself.

But what Farley observed from outside missed the point. Seattle is not as far to the left as it gives itself credit for: Pragmatism lies just underneath the veneer of radicalism. Truly radical approaches require a level of risk and discomfort that does not wear well here.

The labor movement, which has been the source of most radical action in America, was originally based most heavily in manufacturing and transportation operations, where terrible working conditions demanded action. At the same time, industrialists put up strong, and often violent resistance, setting up bloody conflicts that further radicalized workers.

But Seattle was not really an industrial city until the shipbuilding industry took off during World War I. While manufacturing was booming in the central and eastern parts of the country in the second half of the 19th century and the labor movement was slowly gaining traction, Seattle was mostly a commercial city. By the time the docks and shipyards generated a large union presence, industries had figured out how to make a tentative peace.

Seattle's most famous labor action, the general strike of 1919, turned out to be a pretty tepid event, lasting just a few days, during which the streets were quiet and most workers were anxious to get back to the jobs that supported their fine Seattle lifestyles. Few wanted a revolution, and what started out as a highly radical event, petered out for lack of an agenda.

Labor strengthened in the city, but under the leadership of Dave Beck, at the Teamsters, it took a very practical approach. Author Murray Morgan, writing during the peak of the Beck era in the 1950s, described him as "the dominant personality in present-day Seattle ... a plump and efficient businessman." Beck avoided conflict and mostly just sought to maximize labor's slice of the pie. And, importantly, he was very interested in growing that pie.

By the 1950s, as in much of the country, labor and business settled into a relatively comfortable relationship that, like Beck's worldview, centered on sharing the fruits of a growing economy. There was not much room for radicalism, and the city was run by a center-right government led by such moderates mayors as Gordon Clinton and Dorm Bramen.

In the 1960s, again like much of the country, the old center-right, business leadership got forced aside by the sweep of events. A new leadership cohort, best described as the "progressive-cosmopolitans," came to power and, until recently, have kept a firm grip on the city. In 1969 Seattle swapped a center-right perspective for a center-left one. The city's radicals of the 1960s gradually became part of the establishment. When Latino activist Roberto Maestas was crowned King Neptune of Seafair, it was clear that radicalism had faded.

So what to make of the events of the past four or five years? A mayor from far outside the center-left establishment spends four years disrupting the normal flow of business, and an unapologetic socialist springs out of the Occupy movement to oust a council member who, as much as anyone, embodied the prevailing political ethos of the past 40 years. Is Farley's assertion back in play?

Unlikely, for the simple reason that those holding the torch for a radical agenda have very few resources with which to carry it out. Unlike state and national governments, city governments rely heavily on the resources of businesses and institutions to get things done. Cities are, above all, economic entities, and they do not work very well without the cooperation of business, education and community institutions. Successful local leaders, however radical they may start out, learn this and sooner or later embrace the old establishment.

The city's founders deliberately set out to create a bourgeois city, and it has remained one ever since. Radicalism takes root among those who have little to lose, and in Seattle there has always been something to lose. The shipyard workers who fomented the general strike had been paid well and had comfortable lives that they wanted to maintain. More recently, younger Boeing workers accepted unappealing contract provisions because they knew what a career in a Boeing factory could do for them.

Seattle is doing well economically and can afford to push the policy envelope a bit. But after an experiment or two, leaders will revert to type and get the city back to the business of the past 163 years: making money and enjoying the scenery.

Check out Crosscut’s City Beat page for all the news and commentary about Seattle.

Michael Luis is author of "Century 21 City, Seattle’s Fifty Year Journey from World’s Fair to World Stage" and several community histories of the Eastside. He can be reached at luisassociates@comcast.net.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, May 27, 8:49 a.m. Inappropriate

We're all neo-liberals now?

afreeman

Posted Tue, May 27, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattle's self-image as a progressive enclave is a delusion. On most issues, the city's politics are centrist, at least compared to other urban areas. Our relative prosperity gives us the luxury of appearing progressive. Our politics only **seem** progressive because the rest of the state and the country has shifted so far to the right.

Despite occasional outbursts of leftist rhetoric, lately expressed in the $15 minimum wage debate, city leaders consistently bow to the wishes of the corporate elite. In some cases, the city council and the bureaucracy are in the thrall of business interests, such as property developers, who almost always get their way when it comes to the types of housing they want to build, height limits, design reviews, and so on. This hand-in-glove relationship is part of the reason for Seattle's growing inequality. Any success by true progressives is on the margins, not in the core. The strategy is this: Give the vocal "progressives" a little of what they want, while the true movers and shakers march on.

Posted Tue, May 27, 3:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Detailed take-no-prisoners explanation of your lament and the author's accurately pegged —"make money and enjoy the scenery," which has been especially pronounced throughout Seattle history can be found in the new book, Fragile By Design, The Political Origins of Banking Crises & Scarce Credit.

afreeman

Posted Fri, May 30, 2:32 p.m. Inappropriate

My friend who attended the rallies and collected signatures for $15 now:

"It's hard to second guess this sort of thing. It's like bargaining a contract. $15 Now did get everyone's expectations up by threatening to swing for the fences, but in the end made the judgement that rather than risk striking out it was better to go for a double and stay in the game."

My response:

If Sawant had said no to this plan, called it unacceptably watered down, and continued with the ballot measure this plan would have been the minimum gained with the $15 now still a possibility. By going down without the fight promised she has shown herslf to be a paper tiger easily co-opted. Should Sawant start lobbying for rent control what leverage will she have? Will anyone take her seriously if she threatens to do a ballot initiative? Will you collect signatures for it? Will other people? She's done! She's got a smaller raise for the workers than might have been and helped the reelection campaigns of all these spineless liberals she has now joined with. In other words Sawant has effectively joined the Democrat party.

Orwell

Posted Tue, May 27, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

That's a pretty interesting perspective on the previous Mayor, who was a lawyer and friend of Vulcan. What exactly was "far left" about Mike McGinn, unless your perspective is decidedly RIGHT of center?

As for Conlin, he'd moved away from much of the social progressive agenda that originally got him elected, he had already served four consecutive terms, and he had the misfortune of drawing the opponent rallying behind a minimum wage increase.

And if you're one of the many fools (including her own supporters) who thinks the election of Sawant is any demonstration of some far-left rallying cry, we'll see how that plays out... Plenty of Democrats supported her because of the minimum wage and plenty of Independents simply wanted to shake things up for a change.

Mickymse

Posted Tue, May 27, 4:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Since when has legalized marijuana been a "progressive" cause? All of my adult life, liberals have been just as prohibitionist as conservatives. The legalization of marijuana is a libertarian cause, and the state's approval of that initiative has nothing to do with Seattle's crazy $15/hr minimum wage fascination.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, May 28, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm looking forward to the vote-by-district for Council seats and curious to see how that shakes things up.

Treker

Posted Fri, May 30, 2:36 p.m. Inappropriate

My hope is that district representation puts an end to these sports stadium giveaways. If these rich parasites want to bring an NBA team here under the current city hall handout they have until 2017 to get it done.

Orwell

Posted Thu, May 29, 1:37 p.m. Inappropriate

No, I don't think that Ms. Sawant and the Occupy Whatever/$15 Now crowd are a wave of the future, but that does not mean they are not harbingers of deeper changes of the sort that can't as facilely be dismissed as this article purports. It is not simply a matter of workers being pushed down, but of being pushed out - we are in the process of becoming an "enclave" city (think San Francisco), populated by an elite of white collar professionals/technicians (mostly white), while service workers (mostly not white) are increasingly being priced out, due to stagnant wages and skyrocketing rents, pushed out to an outer-ring of decaying suburbs at the end of our future light-rail lines (think Paris). We are going from a polyglot metropolis to, well, a bowl of vanilla pudding. How boring, boring, boring. The galleries will still be here, where the customers are, but the artists? They'll be in Everett or Tacoma...

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