Does Sawant's win signal an end to our gilded age?

Washington was a progressive hot bed at the turn of the 20th century. With gay marriage, legal pot, $15 an hour wages and Kshama Sawant, we may be poised to do it again.
Washington was a progressive hot bed at the turn of the 20th century. With gay marriage, legal pot, $15 an hour wages and Kshama Sawant, we may be poised to do it again.
When journalist James Fallows was in town a few weeks back to speak at the Crosscut Courage Awards, he had an optimistic message about our current political era. We are in a second Gilded Age, he said, with a wealth gap as bad as or worse than the robber baron era. But he reminded us that what followed that age was an incredible blossoming of citizen-led reform, from women's suffrage to the Progressive movement that reshaped our democracy for the better.
We still enjoy the benefits of those reforms, which included anti-trust laws, the vote for women, direct popular election of senators, the right of referendums, initiatives and recalls, conservation and protection of public lands, consumer protection laws, labor reforms, help for the poor, and much more. The reform era was one of tumult — the changes didn't come easy and the politics of the era were scrambled. Democrats bolted to support populists, Republicans bolted to support Progressives, labor unrest stirred the pot and Socialists gained traction. The main political parties morphed and shifted.
Here in Washington, we were a hot-bed of all of the above. We elected a Populist governor in 1896 who helped enshrine equal access to public education in our state. In 1910, Washington state elected its first Socialist mayor, W. B. Cook, in Edmonds. Spokane elected a Socialist city commissioner in 1911.
In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt, who had abandoned his own party to run for president on a reform ticket, came to Seattle to speak at the Dreamland Pavilion to the state convention of the Bull Moose Progressive Party. He was greeted by a throng of red bandana-wearing Seattleites who heard him rail against the unfettered rich and powerful. Only a national government, he said, can regulate the national economy and keep Wall Street reined in.
That same year, Socialist Eugene V. Debs came to town and accused Roosevelt of co-opting his party's platform during a speech at the Moore Theater. That year, Socialist candidates had strong showings, though no victories, in Seattle's city council elections, but the turnout did help Democrat reformer George Cotterill win the mayor's office, according to the anti-Socialist, anti-Cotterill Seattle Times. Teddy Roosevelt carried the state. Another progressive victory in 1912: Seattle passed a minimum wage of $2.75 per day for laborers doing work for the city.
Flash forward to 2013, with Socialist city council candidate Kshama Sawant (below, right) unseating a four-term, progressive incumbent Richard Conlin on the strength of her aggressive campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, taxes on millionaires and rent control — and the apparent eked-out victory for the $15-an-hour minimum wage measure in Sea-Tac. With her unexpected victory — Sawant began her campaign hoping only for a decent showing and a chance to steer the debate leftward — the new city council member found herself the subject of national stories, a poster child for her national party, Socialist Alternative.
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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.