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.