In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Seattle’s mayor and city council held a sorrow but reaffirming press conference to express the city’s strong values, and that its institutions will do what they can to offer sanctuary from the hostile regime to refugees, women, and undocumented immigrants. Mayor Ed Murray expressed, “I want to give a message to people who live in this city, first to immigrants. I met with school children during this election year who are afraid that they are going to be sent away or that their parents will be sent away. This city will remain a welcoming place,” continuing with, “this city supports immigrants partly because we are enamored with their belief in our dream that this is still really a place of equity and equality and opportunity,” (Seattle Channel, 2016).

However, ‘sanctuary city’ policies that offer undocumented neighbors some access to social services and prevent local law enforcement from informing federal immigration agents are only useful when the folks they’d help can afford to live here, and are only genuine when the people have power as residents. Neoliberalism in Seattle has meant the proliferation of policies known to harm the working class, and a massive housing shortage from rapid growth in the high-paying tech industry. Equity throughout and inclusivity for the most vulnerable members of the community is impossible in a neoliberal city, but Seattle may not always be one.


President Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and policies that put so many immigrant lives in danger differs from the Republican Party’s recent era of neoconservatism and neoliberalism. His “America First” ideology posits that immigration, aid to refugees, free trade agreements, and American military intervention of foreign political issues have caused Americans to suffer. These beliefs are paleoconservatism, which once dominated the Republican Party (Matthews, 2016). As well as implementing tariffs, President Calvin Coolidge stated that, “America must be kept American,” while signing into law immigration restrictions in 1924. The end of the “Old Right” Republican Party is typically thought of as when the internationalist General Dwight Eisenhower defeated Robert Taft, who opposed US participation in WWII and the creation of NATO, in the 1952 nomination. (Mihm, 2016)

The movement lived on until Trump’s rise in fringe groups, from the conspiracist John Birch Society to commentator Pat Buchanan, who Trump once ran against for the 2000 Reform Party nomination. University of Georgia associate history professor Stephen Mihm speculated that, “Trump sensed that the time was ripe for a revival of the Old Right, despite its many liabilities. He understood that the bipartisan consensus behind free trade, open-door immigration and global institutions and treaties had left many voters resentful and disaffected. All that remained was for someone to take back the Republican Party from the neocons – and then attract enough white working-class Democrats fed up with free trade and fearful of immigration.” (Mihm, 2016)

The Neoliberalism Seattle Experiences

Neoliberalism, the status quo ideology in the US since Reagan, believes that individuals acting without obligations in their own best interest can create a global common good, requiring the same deregulation, privatization, and deunionization of industries as conservatism (Rossi and Vanolo, p.71). In cities specifically, Rossi and Vanolo (p.80) state that, “the neoliberal (counter)revolution of the Reagan-Thatcher era had strong repercussions at the urban scale, opening the way for an unprecedented deregulation of housing markets and generally for an irreversible shift to the entrepreneurialization of local government.” Urban sociologist Harvey Molotch has identified cities under neoliberalism as ‘growth machines’, with his belief described by Rossi and Vanalo that, “as a result, coalitions and public-private partnerships take shape in support of projects of urban renewal and broader strategies of urban economic development. On the other hand, Molotch also pointed out that US cities witness the formation of ‘anti-growth’ coalitions formed by citizens and social movements advocating an environmentally sustainable urban development,” (p.78). The city of Seattle is absolutely a growth machine for the tech industry, bringing 2.5% population  growth to King County in 2015 alone (Puget Sound Regional Council, 2016). In early 2015, Amazon occupied 13% of downtown office space at 4 million square feet. They’ve committed to growing that to 10 million square feet in the next few years (Bhatt, 2015).

With this boom, Seattle has experienced a rapid rise in housing cost, from rent averaging $1,760/month at the beginning of 2012, to $2,549 at the end of 2016 (Zillow, 2016). As part of the deregulation of the housing market that Rossi and Vanolo stated, in 1981 the Washington state legislature banned municipalities from imposing rent control on properties, and allowed rent to be increased by the landlord with just a 30 day notice (Brassaw, 2014). This neoliberal policy made during the Reagan-fervor prevents damage control from being taken to minimize displacement of existing residents while a city acts as that ‘growth machine’. The only feasible solutions presented by local government are public-private partnerships, such as requiring 9% of units to be for low income residents in exchange for the city granting higher zoning height limits, resulting in still increased return on investment for the developer (Fesler, 2017). This policy creates tension within those ‘anti-growth’ coalitions, some seeing it as just more capitalist growth, and others as the only solution we have to maintain livability under growth, a debate I’ve observed within housing justice activist circles.

The 3.3% of the state’s population with undocumented immigration status payed $292 million in Washington state and local taxes in 2010 (Faulk, 2013). Despite this, they are not eligible for some social services, including Seattle public housing (Seattle Housing Authority), a policy that could be backed up with Trump’s “America First” paleoconservative ideology. Nationally, the average undocumented family income was 72% that of all Americans in 2007 (Passel and Cohn). Without the same kind of institutional and family safety-nets, the vulnerability of displacement for this community is clearly still higher than for others in Seattle.

In the past decade, the Seattle area’s tech billionaires, whose fortunes were the result of privatization of government research and exploitation of workers, have put considerable money behind causes that further their personal interests. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ family’s ‘philanthropic’ contributions include $100,000 to defeat an initiative to create progressive income tax in the state, which Microsoft’s Steve Balmer matched (Cook, 2010), joined Walmart’s Alice Walton in giving another $750,000 that helped pass the charter school initiative, and hundreds of thousands in additional funding to various anti-teacher union and pro-charter school organizations (Fang, 2013). Bill Gates, who has a notably more benevolent public image yet also contributed to the charter school initiative, donated $200,000 to a political action committee for the opponent to state Supreme Court Justice Wiggins, who ruled the charter schools unconstitutional, using the funds to run smear campaigns (Brunner and Miletich, 2016). School privatization is not beneficial to disenfranchised groups, as a Washington Post article describes, “there is a substantial body of research concluding that charter schools are accelerating re-segregation by race, class, measured achievement, special education status (particularly when severity of disability is considered), and English-Language Learner status,” including two 2010 nationwide studies (Strauss, 2015). The players in society who have most benefited from individualism clearly believe in furthering those belief systems to the operation of more institutions, including early childhood development.


The Stranger’s Charles Mudede predicts Trump’s presidency, which is particularly favorable to charter schools and private vouchers, will be the end of neoliberalism. He argues that neoliberalism has a “commitment to cosmopolitan values,” a distinction between it and Trump, yet neoliberalism ultimately creates a contradiction when it manifests, “in racist ways because of income inequality, privatization of public services, and the replacement of welfare with mass incarceration.” Mudede continues, saying that cosmopolitanism ultimately exposed, “real leftist programs aligned with working-class struggles—especially, civil rights, which Trump and his like, attacked as “identity politics,” which has created a new “separation between rural and urban principles.” He predicts that urban social democracy will replace neoliberalism through this separation (Mudede, 2017). Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) previously worked with secretary of education Betsy DeVos as a board member of the Alliance for School Choice, then supporting the privatization of education through charter schools and voucher programs. During DeVoss’ confirmation hearings and vote, he was one of her staunchest critics. Wake Forest University Provost Rogan Kersh posits that Booker, “can’t afford to alienate the powerful teachers’ unions,” as a potential 2020 presidential candidate (Salant, 2017).

Meanwhile, tech industry leaders typically thought of as progressive, such as Elon Musk, have been happy to work with the climate-denying administration. As a CNBC article describes, “this unlikely alliance could have benefits for both sides. Musk gets an ear to the president who’s promised to shake up the current order and make it easier for American companies to do business. […] While this may seem surprising to a lot people, it’s not totally surprising to investors. Tesla is up about 31 percent since the election, while the Dow Jones industrial average is up roughly 9 percent since the election,” (Rosoff, 2017). ‘Progressive’ corporations are doing well.

Capitalists will continue to support deregulation, privatization, and deunionization even with the notion of creating a global common good now removed, and this could prompt Democrats to finally reject them and neoliberalism. If that happens, perhaps allowing housing solutions that don’t need to be public-private partnerships will be possible, and cities like Seattle may one day become the, “place of equity and equality and opportunity,” that so many dream of.


Cited Sources

Featured image by KOMO News

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