Kshama Sawant is only a city council member and the only elected representative from a really tiny political party, yet she has been called The Most Dangerous Woman in America.
She is a socialist, that’s why, in a country where most people think it is insulting to be described as one — President Obama is often called that by conservatives who really dislike him. She is a member of Socialist Alternative, the closest thing to India’s CPI(M).
And she has been vocal, impatient and aggressive as a city council member in Seattle. She has helped push through minimum wage to $15 an hour in Seattle, which is catching on in other parts of the country — Los Angeles signed on this week.
Sawant, 41, is proud to be a socialist and told HT in an interview she won’t be supporting Hillary Clinton or her Republican rival in the coming presidential election. She is herself running for a second term. Edited excerpts:
When and how did you to become a socialist?
I started thinking about Marxism from a very young age. Growing up in India I saw a stark division in the country — most people live in utter poverty, and you see a sliver of a middle class struggling for survival and then there are the obscenely rich at the top. I asked ‘why is there so much poverty?’ Explanations given to me were inadequate and plainly untruthful. I was told the poor were poor because they were lazy. That’s complete nonsense. Some of the hardest working people in the world are poor. Also, in India you hear about karma — that the poor are poor because of some bad deeds in their past lives. Over time, it became clear to me that poverty is not an inevitable reality of human existence perpetuated by individual mistakes. It’s far, far more systemic than it may appear. All this led me towards Marxism.
And the formal act of joining the party?
As these ideas were forming in my mind, I figured we won’t be able to solve this problem by merely writing about them or lecturing about them — which I did as a teacher. This was not going to be an academic exercise. I found that platform in Socialist Alternative.
But if you were looking for a platform with reach, Socialist Alternative is severely handicapped in terms of numbers. If you look across America, you will find most people are disgusted with politicians — the approval rating for the US Congress is lower than things like cockroaches. I am not joking. What is missing is a real political organisation that'll faithfully represent working class families. What is needed is a bold alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties.
The word “socialist” is used in the US as an abuse, to insult someone — specially by Republicans.
That’s true. And that shows how out of touch the leadership of these corporate-backed bodies are with reality. People on the ground, working families struggling to get by are not attuned to ideological labels. What they want to know is who is on their side, and that’s the reason for the strong support for what we are doing. That angers the business establishment, the political establishment — you will find all kinds of attacks on me, my ideology, and on my personal life.
And what made you decide to run, seek public office?
We do things differently in the Socialist Alternative. We first democratically discuss and decide whether it makes sense to run an electoral campaign. We agreed that in 2013 there was an opening — a political moment. But the decision on the candidate was to be a democratic one. To be honest with you, I was stunned when I was told I would be the candidate — my first reaction was, what, I am an immigrant person, nobody can even say my name — and that would be a huge barrier. But it was not, because of the ideas I stood for.
How did you fund your campaign?
Entirely through donations. Donation from working families, young people, workers, retirees, who have very little financial resources — they were extremely committed to our ideas. We also appealed for financial contributions from labour unions.
Any view on the coming presidential elections?
Obviously we will not be supporting Hillary Clinton, or any Republican candidate. It’s very critical for us — people on the left — to understand and reject this notion of supporting the lesser of the two evils. The problem is that the labour movement, environment activists have supported the Democratic party, which takes them for granted — gets their endorsement, gets their foot soldiers and gives nothing in turn. The question we have to ask is how long will we go along with this false choice? People on the left roundly reject Clinton, and want an independent alternative — Bernie Sanders (independent senator from Maine) is a good candidate but I believe he should run as an independent, and not as a Democrat. People are hungry for an alternative.