Seattle: Beacon of Progress or Liberal Pariah?

With a $15 minimum wage, legal marijuana, and same-sex marriage, Seattle has set itself apart.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signs a bill that raises the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
June 5, 2014, 8:40 a.m.

Are Seattle and Wash­ing­ton state at the fore­front of a pro­gress­ive fu­ture, or will the Pa­cific North­w­est be­come a lib­er­al pari­ah in a for­got­ten corner of the coun­try? In­creas­ingly pro­gress­ive policies could set Seattle up as a lead­er and role mod­el for the na­tion, or could turn the Em­er­ald City in­to an ex­ample of lib­er­al­ism gone wrong.

On Monday, the Seattle City Coun­cil ap­proved an in­crease in the city’s min­im­um wage to $15, mak­ing Seattle’s by far the highest min­im­um wage in the coun­try (San Fran­cisco has the second highest wage at $10.74). The coun­cil’s un­an­im­ous de­cision re­quires large em­ploy­ers (those with more than 500 em­ploy­ees) to pay work­ers at least a $15 hourly wage by 2017 and al­lows smal­ler em­ploy­ers an ad­di­tion­al two years to com­ply. The cam­paign to raise Seattle’s min­im­um wage was led by Kshama Sawant, an out­spoken so­cial­ist who was elec­ted to the city coun­cil last year.

“No city or state has gone this far. We go in­to un­charted ter­rit­ory,” said Coun­cil Mem­ber Sally Clark in sup­port of the vote.

But Seattle, the most pop­u­lous city in Wash­ing­ton state, holds the pro­gress­ive torch in more aren­as than just labor rights. Wash­ing­ton was not the first to leg­al­ize either marijuana or same-sex mar­riage, two touch­stone lib­er­al is­sues, but it is the only state that has leg­al­ized both.

North Dakota or Alabama may nev­er look like Wash­ing­ton, but the coun­try could turn to the North­w­est for guid­ance if at­ti­tudes con­tin­ue to shift to­ward so­cial lib­er­al­ism na­tion­wide. As a guinea pig for un­pre­ced­en­ted policies such as the min­im­um-wage hike and leg­al marijuana, Seattle could act as a prov­ing ground and ease the way for sim­il­ar policies else­where in the coun­try. If, however, these lib­er­al ex­per­i­ments fail, Seattle could turn in­to a cau­tion­ary tale, bol­ster­ing op­pon­ents of these policies across the coun­try.

Wash­ing­ton’s path to marijuana leg­al­iz­a­tion, es­pe­cially, is likely to serve as a mod­el for oth­er states, be­cause it had to cre­ate a reg­u­lat­ory frame­work from scratch. Wash­ing­ton and Col­or­ado voted to leg­al­ize marijuana at the same time, but Wash­ing­ton’s pro­gress has been much slower: Col­or­ado has already li­censed more than 100 dis­pens­ar­ies while Wash­ing­ton has yet to au­thor­ize a single leg­al sale. This is be­cause Col­or­ado already had a reg­u­lat­ory frame­work in place when marijuana was leg­al­ized (its med­ic­al-marijuana mar­ket was tightly reg­u­lated) where Wash­ing­ton did not (med­ic­al marijuana was largely un­reg­u­lated in Wash­ing­ton).

The U.S. as a whole, al­though still very con­ser­vat­ive in parts, seems to be inch­ing in Wash­ing­ton’s dir­ec­tion. Ap­prov­al rat­ings for same-sex mar­riage and marijuana leg­al­iz­a­tion are at all-time highs, and in­creas­ing the fed­er­al min­im­um wage (al­though not nearly as drastic­ally as Seattle did) was a ma­jor is­sue in Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2014 State of the Uni­on speech, and is a ral­ly­ing point for Demo­crats ahead of this year’s midterm elec­tions.

It’ll take years for Seattle and Wash­ing­ton state to im­ple­ment these new policies, and for the rest of the U.S. to make sense of the res­ults. But as more of these pro­gress­ive ideas wind up on bal­lots na­tion­wide, pro­ponents and crit­ics both will have a labor­at­ory ex­per­i­ment to look to.

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