The Seattle Process: Somewhere Between Democracy and Kafka


Change is not impossible in Seattle, but sometimes it comes very slowly. The Seattle Process, sometimes called the Seattle Way, has become shorthand among American policy wonks, municipal mandarins and the citizens settled around the Seattle-Tacoma Metroplex for the Seattle region’s often grindingly slow form of governance. Some leaders lead, some leaders follow, some leaders fiddle, but Seattle’s leadership seems eternally mired in the middle of holding public meetings to discuss every minute detail of municipal action in order to satisfy each and every minority before moving forward. To hear some tell the tale, it is the death of sound leadership, a Kafkaesque labyrinth of wasted money and gridlocked special interests; to hear others tell it, the Seattle Process is democracy at its finest.

Franz Kafka wrote stories about surreal bureaucratic systems that swallowed their own human components within a mist of ill-defined oppressiveness and evil. While none, or at least very few, would assign words like “evil” to Seattle’s government, the themes of bureaucratic paralysis, and even satirically extreme deadlock, are all too familiar to Seattle residents. This is not because of incompetence in any traditional sense, nor corruption as one might readily assume in many other regions, but due to the rise of an extreme form of identity politics as is the norm in Seattle.

In Seattle, one cannot simply sit down with Boeing and the local environmentalists and hope to hammer out a compromise.  Instead “three dimensional identity politics” dominate.  One must meet with the wealthy, environmentally-conscious women and the lower-class, gay artists, then one must satisfy the bicycle-riding, under-30 technocrats and the suburban, commuter dads. Any one group opposing a given change tends to derail it, or at least stall it until demands are met, money runs out or exhaustion sets in.

In any system, projects come and go. Some projects thrive, and some projects fail. Seattle’s recent history with large municipal projects, even if one chose to limit one’s examination to transportation projects alone, is positively epic in ambition. From airport runways to light rail systems to underwater tunnels, Seattle has put forward a grip of proposals to unsnarl traffic delays and modernize its energy use and economic outlook. Yet many of these projects have died on the vine, often taking millions or billions of dollars with them into oblivion. Seattleites weave the list into songs and make pretty graphs of the money wasted and years squandered trying to satisfy every bicyclist, car owner and neighborhood association before laying an inch of asphalt or digging even one ditch in Seattle’s rich northwestern soil.

Yet democracy, or Kafkaism, is the Seattle Way. Seattleites also laud the process for its successes. For every one of those massive transportation projects that vanished in a puff of lawsuits and bureaucracy, another one is being built today, all seemingly due to cut ribbon around 2016.

Much hay has been made of Seattle’s recent minimum wage hike. The new $15 per hour minimum, the highest in the country, came into existence virtually uncontested.  So extreme a maneuver would have normally been beset by opposition from large and small business owners and every stripe of labor union and investor. Frankly, everyone who has any interest in money should have had something to say about the implementation and timetable of so massive a change, yet it passed with great support, less challenging a lawsuit or two, alongside a funny line chart of phase-in variables and future responsibilities.

More commonly, Seattle success stories look like this: a proposed bicycle path through a downtown neighborhood hits resistance and the local businesses file a lawsuit to stop the project. The path does not get built, but the idea does not die, and the bike advocates continue to lobby through the end of one mayoral administration and into a new one. The new mayor pulls the parties into the mayor’s office for a series of closed-door meetings, until finally a settlement is reached. Victory. Everyone involved releases glowing press releases about effective advocacy and sustainable transportation planning and the bike path gets built. It is not the pyramids of Giza, but no one goes home mad.

One ex-mayor defended the process by trying to delineate consensus building from committee leadership, insisting that a leader who designs his policies with the principles of equality, environmental sustainability and economic growth can still get things done. However, consensus building keeps the mayor’s office honest, the citizens happy and, figuratively speaking, the streets free of blood.

Whether it is Kafka dressed in red, white and biodegradable, and bicycle-friendly blue, or a new democratic distillate where everyone wins…eventually, this is the Seattle Process.  Seattle may have lent the process its name, but as special interest politics evolve into identity politics and the large municipalities continue to set the tone and tenor of the American political landscape, the Seattle Process may well become the American Way.

Opinion by Evan Prieskop

USA Today
Bloomberg Businessweek
Seattle Met
Atlanta Business Chronicle
Seattle Chamber of Commerce

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