Sawant’s Strategy

While it’s obvious that Council member Kshama Sawant is working from a different playbook than all of her colleagues on the Seattle City Council, most people don’t understand the strategy that drives her activities. Fortunately, she explained it recently in a public talk.

In a panel session at the American Sociological Association conference, Sawant laid out three key rules for creating grassroots political movements:

  1. Movements need to organize around specific, concrete demands.

“One of those key lessons that I think we should be learning from our experience in Seattle is that movements need to organize around specific, concrete demands. Those demands may be multifaceted but they have to be concrete demands, because people need to know what they’re fighting for. Movements cannot be organized successfully if there are a few tens or even a few hundreds of people who agree with us on an abstraction of what society should be.”

2. Pick your battles based upon  “what is in the air” that people are ready to go fight for.

“We don’t think the theme of the hour is going to be the end of our struggle. By no means. And speaking as an economist if I might say, $15 an hour is not a living wage in Seattle. We should be very clear about that. But the reason we fought for 15 and the reason as Ruth said we made that the most prominent demand on our election campaign in 2013 was because $15 an hour was in the air. Part of the success of movements rests on the leadership of movements understanding consciousness, broader consciousness. And if we have a sense that a broad mass of working people are going to be willing to come out and fight for something concrete, then that is critical to do even though we recognize that is going to be a far cry from the wide access to social justice we need for every human being, it is important to build that fight.”

3. Give people a sense of victory — so they feel that they are on a winning path.

“So what we are lacking in this country or in any other country is not a desire for social change or a compassion or sense of compassion, sense of society, a sense that everybody’s basic needs need to be satisfied. That is not what has been lacking. What has been lacking is a clear strategy to building movements and what has been lacking is a sense of victory. A sense that we can all come together, get organized, and win. We have won in the past. There was a mention of Martin Luther King and civil rights. But that is so long ago that for most generations that are alive today this is the first experience, this fight for 15 and victory around it has been the first real experience of victory. And that experience of victory is absolutely central to building movements because it instills a sense of empowerment that, like nothing else can.”

It’s important to realize that these rules aren’t just three randomly-chosen tactics: together they form a coherent strategy.  If you’ve never read Michael Porter’s seminal paper “What is Strategy?” then go read it now, because this is one of the most important things you’ll ever read, and it will forever change the way you think about organizations, campaigns, tactics and strategy.

Sawant’s rules conform perfectly to Porter’s definition of a strategy: they reinforce and strengthen each other, they articulate both what to do and what not to do, and they create a clear differentiation from competitors. In a nutshell: she chooses issues with concrete outcomes that are winnable, and she does it when the community is already spoiling for the fight.  Looking back over the last year and knowing her strategy, the issues she has taken up look very sensible:

Now her record isn’t perfect; she has backed a few issues where she didn’t win, such as shutting down the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant. And some of her “wins” were easy layups requiring just a non-binding resolution from the Council (or no Council action at all — just generating bad PR for a company). But easy layups are still wins that build a sense of victory and momentum within her movement, so they are well within the strategy. She still gets to say “when we come together and organize, we win.”

But Sawant isn’t the only one following this strategy. In fact, The Sightline Institute published an essay just last week examining the success of another grassroots political movement: the Tea Party. Its summary of the Tea Party strategy is almost identical to Sawant’s self-described strategy.  You could extend this even further: the early successes of both Tim Eyman and Donald Trump could be attributed to application of the same strategy (concrete, winnable outcomes that tap into public discontent), and in fact even ISIS’s early successes in gaining both recruits and territory in Syria and Iraq follow an eerily similar pattern. Sawant has arguably articulated the universal strategy for successful movements across the political spectrum.

But these other examples, and Sawant’s own history, also point to two key weaknesses in the strategy.

  1. You need to keep winning.

It’s either a spiral up, or a spiral down: just as wins build momentum and recruit more supporters, losses cut deeply against the message of “when we come together and organize, we win.” When the losses start piling up, supporters get demoralized and can turn on the movement. We see that today with Bernie Sanders supporters, with Trump, with Tim Eyman, and clearly with ISIS. Leaders sense this and respond in two ways: they become risk-averse in choosing their battles (drifting towards more easy layups), and they take a “win at all costs” approach — such as with the “Block the Bunker” effort, or Sawant’s tendency to demonize her opponents and even her colleagues on the City Council. The former decreases the impact of the movement, and the latter forces it to spend political capital that it might need in future, more important battles.

2. There always needs to be a current issue.

While waiting around for the next concrete, winnable issue to emerge that captures the attention of the public, a movement can dissolve away. The danger is the attractiveness of filling the downtime by bending the rules: choosing an issue that isn’t winnable, isn’t concrete, or isn’t “in the air.” Trump and Eyman have both fallen into this trap.

This has been a challenging year for Sawant, since Council members Gonzalez and Herbold have taken the lead on what would normally be Sawant’s home territory: labor issues. Their leadership on secure scheduling and paid family leave for city employees has left Sawant in a purely supporting role. Sawant in turn has responded by embracing tenants’ rights as a new area for her. After passing the ordinance restricting rent increases for substandard properties, she quickly announced that she was embarking on a series of “tenants’ bill of rights” ordinances which would be introduced in the near future. That’s actually a smart move as an attempt to maintain momentum and keep the issue “in the air” while she identifies individual concrete, winnable regulations that she can introduce. But Sawant also continues to hammer on rent control as an issue she wants to address, one that is concrete and “in the air” but far from winnable (at least today) since it would require changes to state law (by a legislature hostile to the far-left) even before it could be considered at the local level.   She has also tried to reestablish her labor cred by laying claim to the fight for paid family leave for all Seattle employees (not just city employees as Gonzalez and Herbold have settled for in their bill); that idea is concrete and at least to some extent “in the air” but given the expense (and decreasing tolerance for additional regulations on businesses after the minimum wage, paid sick and safe time, and secure scheduling ordinances) it’s unclear if it’s winnable either.

Assuming Sawant keeps to her strategy — and there’s no reason to believe she won’t since it seems to be the universal success strategy for grassroots movements — we can expect her to continue a steady drumbeat of tenants’ rights ordinances, while looking for opportunities for wins on paid family leave and rent control. We should also expect opportunistic “easy layup” wins on other issues as they come along, to keep up her movement’s momentum and their sense of victory. Expect the issues and proposals she embraces to remain concrete, since she rarely goes abstract; rather, her biggest weakness is overreach into issues that aren’t winnable. Having just been re-elected to a four-year team last fall, she doesn’t need to worry about running another campaign for at least two years; but if at that time she is still rallying people around rent control without any visible progress, a long string of easy but meaningless wins may not be enough to prop up her reputation within her movement. The “tenants’ bill of rights” will be critical, but may not stretch out until the next election, so Sawant likely will need another big issue to rally the troops and give her a series of concrete wins to feed her strategy.

(hat tip to John  Perkins over at Crosscut for digging up Sawant’s speech in his excellent article last week)


  1. She’s also really good at skipping meetings and making uninformed/misinformed votes.

    1. And that’s not inconsistent with her strategy either. When she’s missing meetings, she’s not spending time sitting on the couch watching soap operas — she’s busy growing her political movement. And she votes the way her movement followers expect her to, regardless of whether that position is factually supportable. Of course, in doing so she is falling into the partisan trap of representing only the people who voted for her, rather than all the voters in her district.

Comments are closed.