As of New Year's Day 2014, Seattle will have a city council member who identifies herself as a socialist. Good for her and good for Seattle.
While I don't identify myself as a socialist -- I'd be what the far left likes to call a "compromiser," and they don't mean that as a compliment -- I've long argued that we need to stretch the boundaries of political debate in this country towards the left. The Republicans have been doing this for decades, willing to trot out all manner of radical right nonsense -- it sometimes succeeds and sometimes doesn't, but always pulls the debate in their direction. That effectively shifts the terms of socially acceptable policymaking -- it's called the Overton window -- closer to their goals.
Democrats don't do this. The Dems are always trimming their sails before they even pull up the anchor. There are so many issues that Democratic candidates for anything are simply prohibited from talking about by the party professionals. If you're to be taken seriously by the pros and money people, you can't touch gun control, higher taxes on the rich, effective strategies to address global climate change, and on and on.
For all intents and purposes there is no liberal agenda, because liberals who are in a position to make one (elected officials and credible candidates) don't dare speak its name. Democrats have essentially positioned themselves to be less conservative than the extremist conservatives who run the Republican Party these days. Not too inspiring, is it?
In Wisconsin, we forget that for half a century our largest city was run by socialist mayors. Through most of the years from 1910 through 1960, Milwaukee's mayors identified themselves as socialists, and they did a heck of a job. They ran clean, efficient, tidy governments that built and maintained some of the best infrastructure in the nation (a.k.a. "Sewer Socialism"). Because they didn't hate the idea of government, they tried -- and succeeded -- in making it work.
So, that's why it's important that an unapologetic socialist was elected to the council in Seattle. The very fact of her existence starts to remove some of the taboo from the word and, if she plays her cards right, might start to lift the veil on some unabashedly leftist policy proposals. Even if those proposals are unsuccessful at first, anything that pulls the debate back from the far right is welcome even to those of us whose politics are more centrist.