Given the lack of opportunities for political expression in the US, even off-year elections provide important insights into where things stand politically and in which direction they are moving. Frustration with incumbents and disgust with “politics as usual” has reached record highs. This is an unprecedented situation with profound implications for the future. It is not simply this or that politician or this or that party in the doldrums; the entire system is being questioned. It is in this context that the 2013 elections give us yet another snapshot of the changing mood in America.
Given the lack of opportunities for political expression in the US, even off-year elections provide important insights into where things stand politically and in which direction they are moving. Frustration with incumbents and disgust with “politics as usual” has reached record highs.
Only 9% of Americans think Congress is doing a “good job.” A record low want their own representatives reelected. Just weeks after coming out bruised but on top in the showdown with Republicans over the government shutdown, President Obama’s rating is at its lowest ever—just 39%—lower even than GW Bush at this point in his second term. Only 19% trust the government to do “what is right.”
As reported recently by NPR: "’Dissatisfaction with government’ now ranks as the most important problem facing the country, ahead of health care, unemployment, the economy and the federal budget deficit. According to Gallup, dissatisfaction with government has been cited as the top problem for the past two months—something that has never happened before, and the polling firm has been asking this question since the 1930s.”
This is an unprecedented situation with profound implications for the future. It is not simply this or that politician or this or that party in the doldrums; the entire system is being questioned. It is in this context that the 2013 elections give us yet another snapshot of the changing mood in America.
As predicted, Bill de Blasio overwhelmingly won the NYC mayoral election. He is the first Democrat to head this traditionally Democratic-controlled city after two decades of Giuliani and Bloomberg. Many have illusions in his "liberal" credentials and promises, but the reality of the capitalist crisis in the world's financial capital will force him to do the ruling class's bidding, even if he does make some cosmetic changes. In fact, even before taking office, he is already toning down the unions’ expectations. Although he will enjoy a certain honeymoon period, a head-on clash with the city’s powerful labor movement cannot be put off indefinitely. With Democrat Andrew Cuomo as governor and de Blasio at the helm of the five boroughs, New Yorkers will now fully enter the "school of the Democrats.”
The referendum to allow casinos in NY state is a graphic example of the continuing crisis of American capitalism. The industrial base of the country has been whittled down and states are turning in desperation to parasitic, unproductive gambling as a way of increasing revenues. Polls have shown that majority of Americans now believe that winning the lottery is their only real hope for a decent retirement, which shows why so many ordinary people supported the measure.
In Virginia, the Democrat beat the Republican, despite broad discontent with Obamacare, due in large part to infighting between Tea Partiers and “mainstream” Republicans. Nonetheless, the result shows that the Republican grip on parts of the South is increasingly tenuous. In an Alabama by-election, the Tea Party candidate lost to the more "moderate" Republican, who was backed by business interests not at all pleased with the recklessness of the Tea Party in bringing the country (and their profits) to the edge of the default cliff. This is a clear example of what we explained in the aftermath of the government shutdown:
The Republican Party—once the party of Lincoln and a revolutionary war against slavery—is now embroiled in an internal civil war. On the one hand, the Tea Party, which has lost all sense of proportion as to its own weight in society, claims to speak for the “American people” and vows to redouble its efforts to win even more seats from “moderate” Republicans who voted for the deal. On the other, many traditional Republican big-money backers are turning against the Tea Party candidates they previously supported. They unleashed the Tea Party as a battering ram against social programs and the working class, but don’t appreciate the attack dogs biting the hand that fed them. They now find themselves in the position of funding primary challengers against Tea Party incumbents. Even the Koch brothers are having some second thoughts, as their vast industrial holdings would have been severely damaged by a default.
The Virginia governor race and the by-election in Alabama both show that the decisive layers of the ruling class will attempt to reign in the Tea Party and present a more "moderate face." But this will only make it easier for the Democrats to "compromise" with them to make a deal for further austerity. Social Security, Medicare, and more are very much in danger. Given the crisis of capitalism, politicians of both ruling parties have no option but to continue to cut transit, close public schools and hospitals, slash food stamps, and worse.
In New Jersey, Republican governor Chris Christie handily and unsurprisingly won reelection, and is eyeing a 2016 presidential bid. While many might say that this bucks the overall trend and represents a shift to the right by NJ voters, nothing could be further from the truth. His Democratic opponent was an uninspiring nonentity and NJ Democrats have gone along kit and caboodle with Christie’s austerity measures. Turnout was low and it ultimately came down to a popularity contest as Christie posed as someone who can “work across the aisle” and “get things done”—as compared to the unpopular deadlock in Washington.
We have explained many times in the past that as the US limps along after the worst economic downturn since World War II, the potential for big shifts in the country’s electoral politics is in the cards. But given the lack of a bold alternative by the labor leaders, the absence of a generalized militant left opposition inside the labor movement, and the weakness of the forces of Marxism, the working class as a whole does not yet have a real alternative to oppose the system. Although voter turnout in the latest elections was historically low in many areas, in those districts and on those issues where voters felt they had a say or could clearly reject the status quo, interest was palpably heightened.
This was the case, for example with the New Jersey referendum to increase the minimum wage, which will also include regular Cost of Living Adjustments. In SeaTac, Washington, a referendum to raise the minimum wage to $15 was passed (pending final tallying of the votes). And in Seattle, Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant narrowly defeated her Democratic rival for one of nine seats on the city council.
This all continues the trend seen in the 2012 elections—for example, in the referendums on gay marriage, voter ID laws, and legalization of marijuana—and clearly indicates a shift to the left, albeit within the narrow confines of the US political setup. This process is not yet generalized throughout the country, and will not unfold linearly—nor is this leftward shift permanent. We have explained previously that the defeat of the radical right will prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, as the liberals and moderates will no longer have the right wing to blame for the deep cuts to social programs that are still to come. In addition, if you remain within the limits of “lesser evil” politics, disappointment with the “lesser” variant leads eventually to the coming back to power of the “greater” if a viable alternative is not built. Nonetheless, the shifts we have seen in the last few electoral cycles represents an important symptomatic development and a marked change from the situation in the US just a few years ago.
As Marxists we analyze events, not impressionistically, but dialectically; not in the abstract, but from the perspective of the interests of the working class as a whole. We take the long view on the constant changes taking place in society, basing ourselves on fundamental processes and dynamics, not superficial, temporary, and fleeting phenomena. We develop our perspectives, strategy, and tactics on the basis of our understanding of Marxist theory, the experience of the class struggle in the US and internationally, and our understanding of the relationship between the movement of the working class and its mass organizations.
Through study and discussion over a period of years, the Marxists have concluded that if the US working class is to successfully bring about the socialist transformation of society, it requires two things:
A mass party of labor based on the unions—i.e., a political vehicle through which the workers can collectively defend their own interests and fight the bosses’ parties.
A Marxist cadre organization with deep roots in the class, large enough to fight actively for socialist policies within a future mass labor party, forming the basis of a mass revolutionary party armed with the ideas of Marxism.
We cannot say precisely how and when a mass labor party will emerge, but we can say that it must gain the support of a large section of the labor movement if it is to have the numbers, resources, and social weight to decisively break the political stranglehold of the Democrats and Republicans. While we actively advocate for such a party and have helped launch the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor, in the final analysis, such a party will emerge on the basis of great events: waves of strikes, mass unionization drives, militant class struggle currents winning the leadership in one union after another, splits in the existing unions and the rise of new ones, factory and government building occupations, independent labor candidates and statewide labor parties, mass social movements on various issues linking up with labor, general strikes, and more. Such a tool cannot be improvised, but must be forged in the heat of the class struggle.
The insoluble contradictions of the capitalist system itself are preparing the conditions for the coming upsurge in the class struggle. Whether we like it or not, history shows that small groups cannot artificially force such momentous events. The movement of the working class cannot be turned on and off at will like a faucet. As Alan Woods stated at the WIL’s National Congress last year, the working class will move when it is ready—and not a moment sooner. However, once the class does begin to move, no force on earth will be able to stop it from ending capitalism and building socialism—provided we have prepared the necessary revolutionary leadership in advance.
It is during these dramatic tipping points in the historic process that a small group can and must play an equation-changing role. It is at these decisive moments (revolutions) that the objective factor (the material conditions created by capitalism) and the subjective factor (a farsighted and determined revolutionary leadership) can combine to bring about the socialist transformation of society. The building of such a leadership is the unique and indispensable task of the Marxists. The real question, therefore, is the following: with what forces will we intervene in the stormy events of the future?
It hardly needs to be stated that at present, the Left in the US is lamentably small. There is no mass labor party and no Socialist or Communist Party of any size or influence. The creation of a mass labor party will more clearly draw the class battle lines and awaken millions of workers to political activity. But as we have explained many times in the past, nature abhors a vacuum. The workers and youth are fed up with the political options available and cannot simply wait until the labor leaders actually give a lead. Therefore, in the absence of a viable mass alternative, all kinds of movements, candidates, campaigns, and parties will rise and fall. Some will win small victories; others may even win relatively big victories. Some will make a big splash in certain cities or states; others may even hit the regional or national stage for a time. But the experience of the world working class demonstrates that no political party can gain a serious and lasting foothold in American politics without the participation of a decisive sector of organized labor.
After years of crisis and disappointment in Obama, millions of Americans are rethinking what they thought they knew about socialism, and the word “socialist” is no longer the dirty word it used to be. Polls show that a majority of young people prefer “socialism” to “capitalism.” However, just what is understood by “socialism” is unclear. With so much misinformation from both the Right and the Left, everything from Obama to Stalin, Canada to modern-day China, and Hitler to Hillary Clinton, are considered by many to be “socialist.” In other words, many people know what they do not like—capitalism—but are not yet clear as to the alternative. This watering-down of the real content of socialism can be clarified only if we are grounded in the ideas of scientific socialism, i.e., of Marxism.
We have explained elsewhere that most people will not willingly “throw away their ballot” and vote for someone who has no chance of winning, unless they feel very strongly about it. Although some people will exercise their right to vote and cast a protest ballot, most will protest the lack of alternatives by simply staying home. Despite calls for a wave of “Occupy candidates” in the aftermath of Occupy, few, if any such candidates emerged in the 2012 electoral cycle (other than Kshama Sawant, who ran for Washington State House of Representatives). In 2013, in an attempt to spark a wider movement through the example of a small group, Socialist Alternative ran three of its own “candidates for the 99%” for city council seats in Boston, Minneapolis, and Seattle.
In Boston, their candidate Seamus Whelan came in 15th out of 19 candidates for four at-large seats, winning only 1.2% of the vote, and did not even make it to the second round of voting. In Minneapolis, activist Ty Moore placed a close second, despite having built up a local profile as the “face of Occupy” and Occupy Homes, and despite raising more money, having more visible yard signs, and more door-knocking volunteers than his main Democratic opponent (there was no Republican running). And even though he secured a handful of union endorsements, most of the unions backed the Democrat.
It was therefore only in Seattle that a socialist “candidate of the 99%” was successful in beating the Democrat (again, there was no Republican running). How was this possible? To begin with, Sawant based herself on her status as a local Occupy activist and her previous unsuccessful bid for the state House of Representatives. She skillfully tapped into the extreme anger and anti-incumbent backlash, as well as the growing national wave of support for a $15/hr minimum wage. Seattle also has a tradition of left/socialist candidates, and the area’s relatively heavily unionized labor movement has been increasingly radicalized with recent and ongoing struggles at the Port of Longview, the SeaTac airport, and at companies such as Boeing, Starbucks, and Amazon. With strong media support by popular newspapers like The Stranger, several union endorsements, and a wave of celebrity endorsements to accompany the over $120,000 in campaign contributions, she was just able to squeeze out a victory over her Democratic rival. With all of that momentum, voters felt she had an actual chance and came out to vote for her.
Sawant ran a “big tent” campaign, calling on Occupy activists, independents, socialists, Greens, and activists from various social movements to support her. She also touted endorsements from liberal organizations like the Sierra Club, the Progressive Party, and from prominent liberal Democrats. The core platform put forward by her campaign can only be described as left-reformist in nature. Her demands to tax the super-rich, raise the minimum wage to $15, and for rent control, while progressive, are not much different from the position of liberal Democrats like Bill de Blasio.
To be sure, the power of a city council is limited to local issues,but win or lose, a campaign like this should be seen above all as an educational platform to raise the need for a labor party in the unions, explain ideas of revolutionary Marxism, and to win and educate workers and youth to a Marxist cadre organization. Marxists view these kinds of campaigns as means to an end, not as the end in itself. While Sawant’s election is an encouraging indication that ordinary Americans are indeed looking for a left alternative, by watering down demands in the interest of short-term gains, such a platform contributes to a muddled understanding of what socialism really is.
Once the euphoria over her victory wears off, there be enormous pressures on Sawant and Socialist Alternative, as the powers that be attempt to pull her into the sordid world of politics in a major US city. The powerful Democratic Party machine may well co-opt bits from her platform on the one hand, and continually block and undermine her on the other, in order to slowly but surely buy off or grind down her base of support. Without a mass movement and the sustained support and resources of a labor-based mass political party behind her, she will find herself in a very difficult situation indeed.
Socialist Appeal and the Workers International League urged its supporters to vote for these candidates, but also explained that only the power and resources of the unions can truly challenge the bosses’ parties.
The reality is that the Democrats and Republicans still maintain their stranglehold on all levels of government, including in Seattle. They may have been taken by surprise this time, but they will undoubtedly move might and main to nip such campaigns in the bud in the future. As for the labor leaders, they may have been forced to allow a few locals and even city and state councils to endorse non-Democrats for local offices, but they will come down like a ton of bricks on any unions that dare support non-Democrats for federal or even some statewide offices. This will increase the tension within the unions, but will not in and of itself be enough to rip labor from the claws of the Democrats.
Election 2013 provides us with many lessons and insights into the present and future of politics in the USA. It shows that at least in some parts of the country, Americans are already so fed up with the politicians of the 1% that they are willing to vote and even volunteer their time for a socialist candidate. This is an important symptomatic change in the situation. However, the fact remains that despite picking up the support of several unions in Seattle and Minneapolis—which highlights the growing dissatisfaction with the union leaders’ blind support for the Democrats—the labor unions still endorsed Democrats in virtually every one of the thousands of city council and other elected positions around the country.
Millions of people are looking for a way out of the crisis. In the absence of a viable mass alternative for the working class, we will see many movements, candidates, and campaigns like Sawant’s in the years ahead. However, the idea that a small organization can somehow "force events" and substitute itself for the organic mass movement of the workers themselves is alien to Marxism and Bolshevism. The entire history of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st is a testament to this. This is doubly so in a country of over 310 million people, especially considering the history and traditions of the United States.
The contradictions and conditions of the capitalist system itself will force workers to band together collectively to defend themselves against the bosses’ attacks. The historic task of the Marxists is to build the revolutionary leadership the working class deserves and requires; our task is not to "build the movement." Many activists are frustrated that the workers have not yet moved despite the attacks and austerity. They want to accelerate the process through their own sacrifice and example. But frustration and impatience are the bane of revolutionaries—only through patient explanation can we win the workers to the Marxist perspective—not to mention that the experience of life under capitalism is the greatest teacher of all.
The rise of a labor party will fundamentally transform the political algebra of the United States. Both the Democrats and Republicans would be in disarray, and for the first time, millions of workers would have a political voice that truly represents their interests. Instead of winning just one or two city council seats, entire city governments would be won by labor candidates. Entire state governments and seats at the federal level would also be in play. Laws in the interests of the working class majority would be passed and implemented. Faced with such wave of workers' power, the bosses and their parties would do everything in their power to sabotage and undermine the will of the majority. In response, mass mobilizations, strikes, general strikes, would show where the real power in society lies. The key levers of the local, regional, and eventually, the national economy would be brought under public ownership, to be democratically administered by the workers themselves, in the interests of the public.
But the grip of the pro-capitalist labor leaders over the unions—and of the Democrats over the unions—will not be easily shaken. It will require an across-the-board revival of the labor movement and the great historic events and struggles described above. Only the organic pressure of millions of workers in struggle can break through the logjam. There are no shortcuts or get-rich-quick schemes that can speed up the process. The US working class has always moved at its own rhythm, with long periods of apparent apathy punctuated by tremendous bursts of revolutionary energy. We can rest assured that when the US working class finally moves in a serious way, it will shake the entire planet.
After more than five years of crisis and austerity—with even deeper cuts and greater hardship to come—the consciousness of US workers and youth continues to undergo a profound transformation. From apathy to action; from disinterest to engagement; from cynicism to a burning determination to change society. Election 2013 is yet another reminder that everything changes and continues to change.