The Grinches Who Stole Seattle’s Civic Mojo

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Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay

For the past several weeks, I have been testing an idea among a circle of friends who are, like me, impatient at the doldrums of Seattle politics. The idea  on offer is to create a modern version of the civic organizations that used to be crucial to effective politics, along the lines of the Municipal League, Allied Arts, American Institute of Architects, and the League of Women Voters — all very diminished.

The idea is to create a new institution that would do bipartisan research, evaluate candidates, create task forces for study and advocacy, feed the media with better proposals, do watchdog investigations, find common ground, and draw in a new generation of civic actors and candidates who reflect the diverse and tech-accented new Seattle. 

Those were the institutions that once characterized, mobilized, and propelled forward local politics. Gone, gone, gone. 
The reaction to this proposal, I must candidly admit, has been largely negative. Too old fashioned. Too white and privileged. Too backward-looking. Too few would sign up. Too tone deaf to what Seattle has become. Go away!

The reasons for the rejection are quite interesting, and either depressing or motivating. So I thought I’d list a few of the civic retardants, the Grinches Who Stole Seattle’s Mojo. Hat tip to the many who cited the obstacles listed below.

City of Newcomers. Seattle now has a rootless population of tech-employed workers who live lightly on the land, care less about civic matters, and, if they stay in the region, move out of Seattle for better schools and to flee our signature urban crime. “Meet, Mate, and Move” is the new pattern (including for Amazon headquarters). Others move here drawn by the city’s radical reputation (General Strike, WTO, CHOP). And Seattle has become a transitory college town like Berkeley and Cambridge.

Lost Regional Dominance. Seattle no longer dictates the metropolitan agenda; the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce outpaces the Greater Seattle Chamber; the Eastside has graduated from subservience to Seattle to full independence. Seattle has lost its imperial scope.

Loss of Local Ownership. Banks, Baby Bells, Law Firms, Architects, Boeing, Downtown Property Developers, Media, Financial Firms, Safeco — all now controlled by national owners, who apply standard formulas and bottom-line thinking. Seattle is a “province” again.

Activist Takeover of Local Politics. Into the void left by the exit of middle-class-reform politicians (including liberal Republicans) have come the new dominators of city hall: service unions, Sound Transit, social service nonprofits funded by the city, and (as usual) developers. This Progressive Monoculture has a hammerlock on Seattle politics, and it is enforced with intimidation tactics. A player that used to be a swing vote, environmentalists, is now joined at the hip with labor, the better to lobby the Legislature. Ethnic politicians like ex-Mayor Norm Rice who were pro-development moderates are now lockstep progressives. The middle has become a piddle.

Nationalization. Politicians such as Kshama Sawant now draw most of their campaign contributions from national sources, such as socialist organizations, Emily’s List, and the Bernie Cash Machine. Seattle has become a national testing ground for advanced ideas, such as minimum wage hikes and “woke” advances. Employees of the large tech companies prefer to paint on a big canvas, and regard local politics as stagnant and petty. By contrast, 40 years ago the city was full of young lawyers and young architects who would get involved in civic improvement schemes as a way of finding clients, indulging their civic appetites, and impressing the boss. 

Weak Business Leadership. Our giant corporations think of national and international expansion, so they are not tied as they once were to the health of a local economy. Nor is there much alignment in civic goals among these mega-companies such as Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Expedia. Attempts to weld together the business leadership of Seattle and the Eastside faltered. Largely progressive business leadership once drove Seattle politics (and support for the arts), but now capitalism dares not speak its name.

Thin Media and Culture. Aside from public broadcasting, The Seattle Times, and The Stranger, none of our media are locally owned, and all are shrinking in clout and trust. It’s hard to generate civic interest this way, particularly when most of the media hew to the progressive, woke agenda. Another source of public debate, the arts, are now kept in line by funders who promote politically correct expression and diversification.  

Paucity of Plans. The Central Waterfront Park and Sound Transit notwithstanding, Seattle has developed an aversion to big plans. No one on the city council has a feeling for urban planning, and the city avoids the risk and divisiveness of real plans. So we drift, and the public has no galvanizing plans to get behind (world’s fair, Metro, Goodwill Games, stadiums, fighting freeways, saving the Pike Place Market). The Seattle Commons, twice defeated, was the Last Hurrah of city-building. Look instead to the Bel-Red Corridor on the Eastside if you want a broad planning initiative.

As I say, you can look at this long list of reasons-not as the way we’ve become, grown up at last, or as a provocation to create the instruments for change. If the latter, be prepared for a very long slog.

9 COMMENTS

  1. David

    You are my favorite author on what I think is a growing voice in Post Alley. This is a perfect example – you have the history and have been a part of big movements of the past and most important the perspective.

    I absolutely agree – my personal current bent is solutions must be regional (sound transit)- this cannot be Seattle centric but Seattle must play a role. My current focus is housing and we need a lot more of it than Seattle can or in fact will produce. There will be 1.8 million more people inn the 4 County region by 2050 and we are 244,000 units behind already–this requires a regional solution on par with Sound transit and Sound Transit itself will never realize its potential unless we surround each station with housing. We have the demonstrated need, the demonstrated will in funding Sound Transit in the first place and certainly the resources on a regional basis to accomplish this goal- but your idea of a Metropolitan entity must aspire to a larger more regional constituency.

    Many thanks for your continued voice –

  2. A grim rundown, but that’s because the reality is grim. Unlike the Grinch who ends up mending his ways, it’s difficult to see how what you describe self corrects.
    On your point about national funding of local races, Emily’s List does play a growing role in helping Democratic women win at all levels. This election, it endorsed Debora Juarez and Lisa Herbold in their city council races.

  3. Years ago it seemed that when Seattle’s problems became acute in would step the CEOs of Boeing, Pacific Northwest Bell, and Seattle First National Bank. Even Puget Power is now owned by Australians, and Weyerhaeuser is new to town.

  4. This leaves me with no hope. Who would have guessed that the woke, politically correct, progressive monoculture would destroy Seattle?

  5. As someone who lived in the Northwest in the 1970s and now again since 2010, your diagnosis of Seattle’s ills seems depressingly accurate. However, I wonder if at least a few of the functions that used to be carried out by civic organizations could be handled elsewhere. While universities are hardly representative of the entire population, they do represent a fairly broad cross-section of young people. And they’re going to need to become more responsive to local concerns to get the support they need. Academic input can always veer into irrelevance of course, but if properly structured, probably at the graduate level, it could make a contribution. I’m thinking about something like the Foley Institute at WSU.

  6. Where can people who want to help fill the void, i.e.

    …create a new institution that would do bipartisan research, evaluate candidates, create task forces for study and advocacy, feed the media with better proposals, do watchdog investigations, find common ground, and draw in a new generation of civic actors and candidates who reflect the diverse and tech-accented new Seattle…

    … sign up? Can PostAlley.org host signups?

  7. You forgot Geekwire–a locally owned vibrant media company. This is emblematic of the central problem. Not engaging with tech is the biggest mistake “old Seattle” has made, and fixing that is what will bring back the civic work you seek.

  8. What a terrific piece of work David. I think there is a path forward, everyone. I think it may come from a future difficult-to-label, uncommonly talented mayor. Or perhaps a well organized coalition ticket of Council candidates.

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