Senator Nikil Saval Explores Entering the Political Sphere in Night Owls Event

Courtesy of Yana Sharifullina

On March 2, Nikil Saval, a former editor of n+1 and Pennsylvania State Senator of the 1st District, shared insights on his journey into and experience in politics at the “Becoming a Politician” Night Owls event. Night Owls is a philosophy discussion forum series inspired by University of Chicago Associate Professor in Philosophy Agnes Callard’s series.  Swarthmore’s version is hosted by Assistant Professor of Political Science Jonny Thakkar. “Becoming a Politician” was co-sponsored by the political science and philosophy departments, as well as The Point magazine.

Saval originally had no intention of becoming a politician. 

“If there was a trajectory that led to politics, the one I was following was not the right one because I got a Ph.D in English and ran a literary magazine,” he said. 

He described his entry to politics as “slow” but stated that his breakthrough into the political sphere was through protests against the Iraq War and War in Afghanistan in the early 2000s.

“The effect of those wars was very disempowering for those who protested year after year and march after march and felt like it wasn’t working. We were not stopping the wars. They somehow seemed to expand or they would mutate or take new forms,” Saval said. 

As Saval sought for answers, he found his place in the San Francisco labor movement. 

“It was this movement in San Francisco of Black, Brown, Asian, and Latinx workers who lived in San Francisco in the Bay Area – a very expensive area, of course – but had made a living wage, had the power to shut down entire industries, and streets. It was a multiracial working class youth movement.”

This environment solidified Saval’s commitment and provided him with the sense of purpose he’d been searching for, shaping his trajectory toward politics. Furthermore, Saval’s socialist beginnings stemmed from early political participation, particularly from canvassing for the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign. Saval recounted the moment when the idea of running for office was suggested to him. 

“I was not horrified by the idea, mostly because I had seen it. I’d seen people win, seen things that we thought were impossible happen, and I thought, ‘I’m probably gonna lose.’”

Campaigning against an incumbent meant difficulty and potential loss, but Saval believed there were still solid gains to be made. 

“Even if I lose, we’ll leave a legacy. People will have canvassed, knocked doors, and eventually they’ll volunteer for something else,” he stated. “They’ll go into progressive organizations, they’ll join the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The movement will grow. It won’t be a bad loss.”

After forming a political action committee (PAC) and campaigning in both Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Saval eventually won, unseating incumbent Larry Farnese. 

Saval discussed his responsibilities as a state senator, emphasizing the importance of staff and community partners. 

“Legislators get a ton of bills to vote on. You’re rarely actually in a position of reading through all of them,” he explained. “You actually have expert folks who read through them and are kind of coercing them – not all the time – the parsing positions.” 

In addition to that, Saval said that there were individuals assigned to organizational support for the different aspects of politics. 

“We have a community organizer, advocacy and organizing director, who comes out of gender justice and environmental justice movement work. And then a dedicated liaison with organized labor to organize unions,” Saval said. 

Saval tackled the challenges of constituent service and engaging with the community to address a diverse range of needs and concerns.

“For the actual case work that needs to be done, it is expert work. I am not good personally at  helping you solve your unemployment compensation case,” Saval said. “The constituent-level work that I end up doing is more related to bigger institutions convening people together.” 

He also took into consideration the balance between representing constituents, exercising independent judgment and understanding statewide interests, revealing the various influences on legislative decision-making. 

“I have to understand why a Philadelphia problem or a first district problem is also an Armstrong County problem or an Indiana County problem,” he stated. “I have to get a lot of people to support something and that project is amazing.”

Saval addressed how much of the public tends to criticize the federal government for many of the things caused by the state legislature. 

“We lack local media infrastructure. Existing major national media institutions tend to be focused on, for good reason. But also, local politics is being nationalized. The margin between what happens at the state level and what happens nationally is diminishing. It makes it harder to maneuver.” 

A student audience member asked Saval if he worries about straying from his original values as a long-term politician after years. 

“I generally think people should not be in office for very long,” Saval responded. “We might even consider term limits, but I will say that there’s something really interesting about the particular knowledge that a lot of [long-serving politicians] have with that long experience.” 

However, he added that younger legislators’ “level of confidence” and “competitiveness” allow them to “make decisions much more readily. There are talents or virtues that come with that barred experience at that time.” 

There was also a growing concern for those that spend their entire lives in politics and how they might lack diverse experiences and intellectual curiosity. 

“I thought that this is like an experiment in some ways. Not a personal experiment, but a collective experiment. There were zero socialists in elected office, and now there are dozens. [Others] don’t have the same idea of politics that I have. We have a number of us that don’t see it the same way. We see certain things,” Saval explained. 

Saval noted how taking up his current position has opened many doors for intellectual pursuits but is still time restraining.

“You can range quite widely and get interested and involved in all of this. The politician is overwhelmed by concrete tasks to be performed, decisions to be taken urgently, often without any cause for longer flexion,” he said. 

Saval showed his path from activism and literature to successful candidacy for state office, highlighting the flexibility of politics to different backgrounds.

“As an elected official, I didn’t plan my whole life and I was changed in some way. [Elected officials] are important figures. They do a lot of stuff and can find creative ways to use despite all the obstacles of the machinery, the bureaucracy. I want to see change and I haven’t given up on the labor movement. That’s fundamental and I’d say that’s been changing a lot visibly to the [United Auto Workers’] success,” he said.

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