[Sandeep Kaushik played a strategic advisory role in the independent expenditure campaigns supporting Bruce Harrell, Sara Nelson, and Ann Davison in this election.]
Time of death for the Seattle ActiRad (activist radical) Left: 8:07 pm, Tuesday, November 2, 2021.
The electoral tsunami that just hit Seattle politics has been building for a long time. As the current campaigns started to take shape last spring, the warning signs for Seattle’s increasingly radicalized movement left were clear. Clear, that is, unless you happen to live largely inside the perpetual, self-contained ideological circle jerk that is Left Twitter.
Polling by the Downtown Seattle Association, conducted almost exactly one year ago, showed that only 35 percent of the city’s voters thought the city was on the right track then (those numbers are far lower by now). The City Council’s favorable rating was little better, at 37 percent favorable; 59 percent had an unfavorable view (and the council’s numbers have also continued to sink).
Fully three-quarters of likely Seattle voters in the DSA poll agreed with the statements that unauthorized tent encampments were “getting out of control in many city parks and playgrounds,” and in “many Seattle neighborhoods.” Three out of five voters said they opposed cutting officers at SPD, and 57 percent of Seattle voters favored (after offers of shelter or housing have been made) removing homeless encampments. Only 37 percent agreed that “removing tent encampments is not an effective or humane policy and the City Council was right to stop the sweeps.”
Taken together, these numbers – along with a slew of subsequent polls – painted a vivid, crystal-clear picture of a still progressive, but increasingly frustrated Seattle electorate. It was an electorate whose mood was souring, and who believed the status quo of Seattle politics – dominated by a movement-left City Council supermajority that had repeatedly flexed its muscles to drive City policies on homelessness and public safety in a sharply leftward direction – was not working. It was an electorate majority that disliked the endless bickering at City Hall, and blamed the council more than the mayor for the breakdown between the executive and legislative branches. And one that believed that the city’s problems were getting worse and that City Hall was more focused on endlessly regurgitating pat, wishful-thinking, left-progressive bromides than on offering any credible answers with majority support.
That electorate wanted change and fresh ideas, as opposed to the performative ideological posturing and lockstep fidelity to the Twitter Left’s dittohead groupthink. It hungered for more pragmatism, compromise, and consensus. An electorate that, with Trump and the protests of 2020 and COVID perhaps finally fading, was most of all craving a return to normalcy – a return to the city as they knew it before the cascading disruptions of 2020 – rather than salivating at the prospect of radical and untested utopian changes to core municipal institutions.
This was all evident in the publicly available polling data. But in the ActiRad left’s increasingly inwardly focused bubble, things looked very different. The left was ascendant, they believed. The city’s politics had fundamentally shifted, they told themselves over and over. After all, hadn’t they vanquished the mighty Amazon, and swept away the power of the old downtown Establishment, with their resounding victories in the 2019 council races? Hadn’t Seattle moved even further left through the tumultuous social justice protests of 2020? Hadn’t Seattle repeatedly dictated a left activist wish list policy agenda at City Hall with only feeble resistance from a cowed and whipped business community that was increasingly irrelevant politically? Hadn’t a growing cohort of fellow travelers in the local media adopted their framing, touted their ideas, and dismissed as heartless reactionaries anyone who dared to disagree?
In other words, they committed the cardinal sin of political campaigning. They privileged their ideology and their tribal solidarity over reality, and they fell in love with their own bullshit spin.
As a consequence, they thought the time for compromise, for half measures, was over. Instead, now was the time to double, even triple, down on the ActiRad agenda. No encampment cleanups ever, including in parks and public spaces. Continue slashing the police force even as shootings and street disorder spiked in many parts of the city. Push forward as fast as possible towards the dismantling of the criminal justice system in favor of a new model that combines radical permissiveness with therapeutic and empathetic responses to criminal behavior. Condemn the ModProg’s (“moderate progressives”) preference for incremental advances and thoughtful caution as political poison peddled by reactionary bourgeois sellouts. And demonize the business community as Progressive Left Public Enemy #1.
Increasingly fired up by their collective rhetorical excesses and pile-ons – if you spend much time perusing the output of Left Twitter, you know that Nicole Thomas-Kennedy’s nasty tweets aren’t really much of an aberration – they developed an almost hallucinatory sense of their own righteous political strength. They decided it was time to throw down the gauntlet, to force Seattle voters to make a choice, rather than muddling through. Then came this week’s election and voters made a clear choice to send ActiRadism packing.
But how did we get here? How could the Seattle movement left leave so many strongly progressive voters so far behind?
To answer that question, here’s a short anecdote. Last week I met an old friend for a drink on Capitol Hill. He’s middle aged like me, but (unlike me) he’s still down with the man-the-barricades kidz. He was voting the straight ActiRad ticket – Lorena, Teresa, Nikkita, NTK. As we were sparring good-naturedly, I began telling him how much I loved the oversized mail pieces we ran against NTK. So simple, so noticeable, so unmistakably direct, so hard hitting. “You’ll laugh,” he responded, “but when I got that first piece, with NTK’s black bandana-covered face on the front and her ‘my rabid hatred of the police’ quote plastered over it, my initial reaction was that it was a pro-NTK mailer!”
My friend was right; I did laugh. But I also thought his “right on, sister, fuck the police!” reaction to our attack mailer was telling. It crystallized and confirmed something that had been gnawing at me for a while. Then it suddenly dawned on me. It’s not just that Seattle’s movement left has moved sharply left in the last few years, widening their divide from the ModProgs into a chasm, though that has certainly happened. It’s that the shift has been deeper than that, more fundamental, as much a foundational cultural shift as a political one.
Seattle’s (disproportionately white) movement-left, I realized, increasingly lives inside an explicitly countercultural bubble, one that has similarities to the radical left counterculture that rose up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. (It is telling that in one of NTK’s infamous tweets she revived the long-abandoned epithet “pigs” to refer to the police.) This new counterculture explicitly rejects the traditional mainstream liberal culture that has held sway in Seattle for decades.
It sees that traditional culture as corrupted and impure, and instead seeks to create a cosmopolitan utopian alternative, built around an entirely new set of norms and touchstones, refined and inculcated through progressive-left networks and social media safe spaces. This rising ActiRad left counterculture weaves together a number of ideological threads, including a full-throated embrace of tribal us-vs.-them hyperpolarization, ideological anti-racism, uncompromising urbanism (verging towards urban chauvinism), collectivist anti-liberalism (particularly opposing liberalism’s emphasis on individual autonomy), gender fluidity and root-and-branch anti-capitalism. It forms its own worldview.
That’s why my friend could (briefly) mistake our anti-NTK mail as a positive. He’s largely living in a separatist cultural world where expressing “rabid hatred for the police” isn’t a negative. It’s not even particularly noteworthy. I mean, doesn’t everybody hate the cops? Doesn’t everyone believe that policing, and the courts, are irredeemably racist?
Hey, it’s a free country. If the left wants to live in its own cultural world, fine by me. But the political problem of retreating into this sort of separatist bubble is that when you’re living inside it, it becomes really hard to understand and connect with the worldview of cultural traditionalists, even when they are ideologically very progressive.
That’s what really happened to the Actirad left in this election. That is how they so spectacularly misread the mood of the electorate.
In mid-July, a few weeks before the primary, I predicted in a Facebook post that if the left lined up behind Lorena Gonzalez – who was, it seemed obvious to me, a much weaker general election candidate than either Jessyn Farrell or Colleen Echohawk, runners-up in the mayoral primary – Bruce Harrell would win by a 55-45 margin. I was met with a slew of responses from Seattle left activist friends telling me I was clueless and crazy, that I didn’t understand how profoundly Seattle had changed since 2017, and that progressive voters were now fully on board with a transformational ActiRad agenda. Let’s revisit this conversation after the general election results, I replied.
Now for a few further observations about the implications of Tuesday’s election results:
Whither the City Council? Even with Nelson’s victory, replacing Lorena Gonzalez on the City Council, that body retains a left majority. Will these election results matter on the inside of municipal politics? Will it sink in that, as they’ve pushed the City’s policies farther and farther towards ActiRad extremism, their approval ratings have commensurately plunged into the truly abysmal mid-to-upper 20s? Will they recalibrate? Will they try to reconnect with their culturally traditional ModProg constituents?
It has become evident in recent years that the incentive and reward structure for left lane councilmembers is entirely geared towards pleasing the constellation of the powerful interest groups that comprise the backbone of Seattle’s movement-left, even when doing so is at odds with what those councilmembers’ own constituents want. (It’s noteworthy that just 24 hours before this election Councilmember Lisa Herbold endorsed NTK, even as her own constituents were decisively rejecting NTK’s abolitionist extremism).
If the ModProg voters of District 3 recall Councilmember Sawant on December 7 (which seems to me to now be a better than 50/50 proposition), it would, from a purely political perspective, behoove some of the seven councilmembers up for reelection in two years to back off the ActiRad agenda. This is true as well of the long and growing list of once-mainstream ModProg groups in Seattle, who in this election went full ActiRad, even as substantial majorities of culturally traditional Seattle voters were rejecting that call for radical transformation.
Hey, Legacy Media, Your Bias Is Showing. In recent years I’ve watched the erosion of traditional norms of objectivity within significant segments of the local media. Nowadays, many reporters and outlets routinely privilege ActiRad voices, ideas, and framing. For instance, every encampment cleanup, no matter how many times services and shelter have been offered, is “a sweep.” Anyone who opposes ActiRad orthodoxy is a “conservative.” And these media outlets ignore or downplay stories that raise questions about Seattle’s activist-left. (I should note that on the tv news side, some of the coverage has moved in the opposite direction). One professional, ostensibly objective news organization did an entire story on “abolition” without talking to a single person who opposes it. WTF?
The range of public opinion in Seattle on issues like homelessness and policing is particularly true in communities of color in Seattle. Too many news outlets seem to only talk to radicalized activists, presenting their views as representative of communities of color, when there are clear indications that most POC in Seattle are more opposed to ActiRad demands like “defunding the police” or “stop the sweeps” than white voters in Seattle are. One thought — perhaps the media should spend more time talking to POC, rather than to those who claim to speak for them.
Is Abolition in Seattle Politically Dead? No issue demonstrates the Seattle movement left’s shift into countercultural ActiRadism than its lightning quick embrace of radical abolitionist sentiments. The idea of moving decisively towards abolishing the police, the courts and the criminal justice system was a far-fringe idea less than two years ago. Now, in the wake of last year’s protests, it stood at the center of the current election, with two self-proclaimed radical abolitionists on the ballot, Nikkita Oliver running for the open council seat and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy running for City Attorney. Mayoral candidate Lorena Gonzalez, who is abolition-adjacent in her politics, declined to rule out cutting the Seattle Police budget by 50 percent in this campaign.
The Seattle left’s full-frontal maximalist embrace of these ideas – despite some furious late election backpedaling, particularly from Thomas-Kennedy — was evident in both NTK’s and Oliver’s repeated endorsement of radical moves to defund police and sharply reduce misdemeanor prosecutions immediately. This embrace came just as public sentiment nationally has turned decisively against defunding the police, as this Pew Research Poll released last week made clear. With visible street crime in downtown impossible to miss, and shootings spiking across the city, the same rejection of de-policing has now come true in Seattle’s wipeout election.
Look at the messages in the ads we ran against the ActiRad slate. “We can’t use our parks, we don’t feel safe” (Harrell). Oliver has endorsed cutting 320 more cops in the 2022 budget, and eliminating half of municipal court judges and the half of the criminal division of the City Attorney’s office (Nelson). NTK has pledged to immediately halt the prosecution of most misdemeanor crimes (Davison).
Those messages resonated with culturally mainstream progressive Seattle voters, who don’t think that expecting some baseline level of accountability from people is racist or heartless. So, I wonder, will the left now bury abolition as a political issue, or will they allow it to carry on as some sort of undead rotting zombie carcass, consuming the flesh of left lane council candidates in upcoming elections? Stay tuned.
The Stranger Is Now a Three-Time Loser. The primary results proved, decisively to this former Stranger reporter, that the Stranger still has the following to pick the left lane candidates out of the primary. Unfortunately for the left, that’s a huge problem, because the kidz at the Stranger love the sort of divisive, ideological-warrior candidates who appeal to young, hyperpolarized radicals but who fare poorly with less polarized general election voters.
This year, though, was supposed to be different. The Stranger’s leadership openly admitted that, after their chosen candidates had lost the last two mayoral contests, they wanted to pick the most electable left lane candidates this time. Instead, they filtered their electability calculus through the prism of ActiRad zealotry, with disastrous (for them) results.
They picked the most ideologically combative (and therefore weakest) credible mayoral candidate, Lorena Gonzalez, over candidates like Colleen Echohawk and Jessyn Farrell, who had embraced a much more broadly acceptable “I know how to bring people together and speak across divides” vibe, and who could also credibly run as City Hall outsiders at a time when voters were fed up with the status quo.
They effectively elected Republican Ann Davison the day they passed over incumbent, strongly left City Attorney Pete Holmes in favor of abolitionist-extremist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. In the open council seat, they could have picked the experienced and potentially electable Brianna Thomas, a strong progressive, but instead went full ActiRad with Nikkita Oliver. Seems to me the Stranger has become the Pied Piper of the Seattle left, leading their radicalized readership by their nose rings to their electoral doom.
My Side Needs to Not Get too Full of Ourselves. One of the lessons we can take from this election is that Seattle’s movement-left way overread the results of the 2019 council races. Their big wins that year weren’t a validation of their ideological purism. It was just that at the last minute the voters were pissed off by the distorting power of excessive corporate money, especially from Amazon, in our elections. By misreading that result, they became politically arrogant and uncompromising, and tonight they paid the electoral price.
There‘s a lesson to be learned by the ModProg center. The reality for my side is that Seattle voters remain very, very progressive, and if we try to jam our agenda without making a good faith effort to bring the other side along we’ll eventually meet the same electoral fate. Bottom line: neither side of Seattle’s yawning political divide has the power to run roughshod over the other. So we face a choice: either we can retreat into our respective bunkers and continue the ideological trench warfare stalemate of the last two years, or we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again and make reasonable compromises on the big issues and problems that plague our city. It worked for the $15 minimum wage agreement. It worked for HALA.
Has the city’s politics changed so much that that sort of compromise is no longer possible? Voters just answered that question with a resounding No.