What if they held an election and nobody came? In some ways, the 2014 midterm election in the USA were very much like this. Just 36.6 percent voted, only 13% of them under age 30, and as many as 70 million eligible voters are not even registered. The main capitalist parties—the Democrats and Republicans—do not deal with real issues related to the lives of the overwhelming majority of the population. This is true bourgeois democracy. That is, democracy for the top 1% or 2%, but not for the rest of us!
Just a few of the working class issues and demands not discussed in this midterm election campaign include: the need for universal healthcare (free at the point of service); full employment with union protections and benefits; higher wages for all and at the very least a $16 hour minimum wage, indexed to the rate of inflation (with no loopholes or “subminimum wages”); a massive public works program to build and rebuild bridges, roads, housing, and create a new “state of the art” intercity passenger rail system; capping rents at 10% of income; closing military bases overseas and slashing the military budget; free universal child care and generous parental leave; free higher education and canceling all student debt.
Furthermore, according to ABC News:
- 45 percent of Americans say the economy is the most important issue in their vote (out of four choices). That’s down from 2012 when 59 percent chose it and 2010, and 2008, when 63 percent said it was their top issue—but still a big number.
- Seven in 10 voters say the nation’s economy is in bad shape, fewer than in 2012, 2010 and 2008—but still seven in 10.
- Voters by 78-21 percent are worried about the economy’s direction in the year ahead.
- 31 percent say the economy’s getting worse, similar to the number who said so in 2012, vs. 35 percent who say it’s getting better. Thirty-three percent say it’s staying about the same, which for most, isn’t a good thing.
- 28 percent say their own financial situation has improved from two years ago; 25 percent say it’s worse; while nearly half say it’s about the same. Again, that’s better than 2012, 2010 and 2008, but still far from good.
Instead of discussions on issues that affect working Americans, we are subjected to non-stop attack ads and distractions. The bourgeois media then wags its finger at the masses like we are little children, and tells us how bad we are because we don’t want to vote!
The election results
The Democrats have been on the receiving end of a serious trouncing by the Republicans. In the most expensive midterm election in US history, large donors far outspent small ones, with roughly $4 billion blown on the various campaigns (which incidentally, would be enough to hire 70,000 union teachers). Since they cannot inspire voters with ideas, they must confuse, bully, lie, and buy them.
The Republicans gained seats in the House, took control of the US Senate, and gained some governors. They are gloating and puffed up and really believe that they have been given a right-wing mandate by the American people. President Obama blamed the “worst electoral map” since Eisenhower, in 1958. The newly minted “lame duck” president is already calling for cooperation with his compatriots across the aisle—which will mean even more vicious austerity in the years to come. But does this really mean that there is a “shift to the right” among American workers? In order to understand the significance of these results, we must keep the big picture in mind.
This year, there were two sets of elections taking place: federal elections, in which the entire House of Representatives and a third of the US Senate were up for election, and in some states, elections for governors and state legislatures.
The federal elections took place with the backdrop of President Obama’s six years in office. At present, his overall job approval rating is about 40%. Obama entered office at the beginning of the “Great Recession,” after eight years of the hated Bush-Cheney government. He promised “change we can believe in.” Given the lack of a mass labor party with the endorsement of the major unions, many workers and youth had sincere illusions in him, but have subsequently become very disappointed with his government and the Democrats in Congress. In 2008, 2010, and 2012, Socialist Appeal explained that as representatives of big business, Obama and the Democrats could not and would not solve anything fundamental for the workers.
In June 2009, during the most drastic phase of the economic crisis, after 5-plus months of the Obama presidency, the percent of employed persons over the total population was 59.1%. Despite years of “quantitative easing” and other tricks which have vastly enriched the top “earners,” the percentage of the population with a job today remains exactly the same. The new jobs created in the last period have merely absorbed the increase in population, but there are still millions of people out of work or underemployed. Compare this with the figure of 62.4% in August 2004, which now looks like the “good old days.” On top of this, median income is down when adjusted for the inflation rate.
Thus, many working class and young voters sat out the election in disgust. Smelling victory, the Republicans poured millions of dollars into “anyone but the incumbents” negative campaign ads in order to get people to the polls. A layer of the population switched their vote from Democrat to Republican, to show their displeasure with Obama. In fact, exit polls showed that 34% were indirectly voting against Obama, versus just 20% who were voting for him and his policies. Little wonder the Democrats got pummeled.
It should also be noted that in state government races, especially where there was no race for the US Senate, the gubernatorial race became the prime focus. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker, a right-wing “Tea Party” union-buster, was challenged by a Democratic candidate who would have maintained the pension and other cuts implemented by Walker. This lack of any genuine alternative helped Walker win reelection. This was similar to Rhode Island, where the Democratic candidate for governor helped to cut pensions for public employees!
“Tea Party” Governors Sam Brownback (Kansas) and Paul LePage (Maine) also remained in office, as the Democrats who “challenged” them did not offer any real improvement.
Is this election a clear picture of the views of American workers?
First of all, we must be clear about what elections can and cannot tell us. Elections can give a snapshot of “public opinion” at a given moment in time, but at best this is an incomplete and one-sided view. The elections are reported by the big business–dominated monopolies called “the media.” The media determines what is covered and how it is covered and “frames” issues completely within the limits of capitalist politics, concentrating on the “horse race” aspect of elections, in the sense of who is going to win by how much, etc. In short, there is a dearth of real politics in their coverage.
In addition, elections are held on working days, which makes it harder for workers to vote. The states also have extremely unequal representation, with Wyoming (population 583,000) and California (population 38.3 million) each having two Senators in Washington. Legislative and congressional districts are gerrymandered to favor certain parties, and most seats are not even contested in a serious way, with incumbents or the members of this or that party virtual shoe-ins for election or reelection. Due to these inequalities, the election results are not really representative of the “will of the people,” even within the extremely limited range of “choices” being offered. For example, the Democrats received more individual votes for the House of Representatives in 2012, and yet, Republicans control that body. There are also endless new voting restrictions aimed at disenfranchising blacks, Latinos, immigrants, the elderly, and the poor in general.
But the biggest distortion is that the vast majority of the population, the working class, has no mass political party of its own. We cannot know for certain how many workers would vote for a mass labor party, because right now there is no such party. However, the class composition of society, the experience of other countries with such parties, and the generalized disenchantment with politics as usual in the US would seem to indicate that such a party could quickly gain momentum and start racking up the victories at all levels of government. The lack of such a party is entirely the fault of the leaders of the labor movement, especially the AFL-CIO, NEA, and SEIU.
Both of the major parties represent the maintenance of the present system, along with its misery. They only differ on how to maintain they present system. They both accept the need for austerity, but the Democrats want a little “nicer” austerity—whatever that might mean. This is why the “lesser evil” strategy is such a disaster. When people vote for the “lesser evil,” they immediately get one form of “evil,” and will in time also get the “greater evil,” as people will eventually want to throw out the incumbent party, since it cannot solve any fundamental problems. 2014 should be more than enough confirmation that this is a failed strategy. American workers urgently need and deserve a different strategy, one that can actually win. Only on the basis of class independence, by relying on our own power and organizations, and by building our own mass political party can we turn the tide.
Republican gains: a shift to the right?
Some people will argue that this election reflects a move to the right. This is a complete misreading of the situation (which the Republicans will find out soon enough!) As we explained above, it is more a case of the Democrats losing the election than of the Republicans winning. According to former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, “both parties are on probation, severely so.” In fact, as unpopular as the incumbent Democrats are (53% view them unfavorably), the Republicans are even less popular with a 56% unfavorable rating. Republican members of Congress are even less popular. But as the “opposition” party, the Republicans benefited from the usual anti-incumbent backlash. However, this back-and-forth can’t continue indefinitely. Eventually, the whiplash from this kind of dysfunctional politics will burst through the artificial constraints of the two-party system.
In addition, if a rightward shift were in fact the case, why did so many referendums raising the minimum wage pass? San Francisco voted in a minimum wage of $15 per hour. Across the Bay in Oakland, California, voters adopted $12.25. The following states, usually Republican in their majority voting patterns, also voted to increase their minimum wage above the federal level: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. It is true that none of these laws bring the minimum wage up to the level it needs to be, but the votes for higher wages show that workers are not voting for big business and austerity.
What we really see is that workers are understandably confused about how to break out of this mess. They know things are bad, but there is no mass alternative to vote for, and the labor leaders just tell them to vote for the Democrats, which is another way of saying “vote for more of the same!”
Labor Party candidate In South Carolina
In the second Congressional District of South Carolina, that state’s Labor Party ran sheet metal worker Harold Geddings for Congress. It is terrific that that they ran a candidate for Congress, and we believe workers in that district should have voted for him against the Republicans and Democrats.
However, the campaign appears to have been approached in a half-hearted manner. If they wanted to run a serious campaign, why not start this campaign in 2013, instead of waiting until late in 2014 to announce it? Why not tour brother Geddings around the country and ask for donations to allow him to run a real campaign in 2014—as a worker candidate pledged to accept a workers’ wage and donate the rest of the fat congressional salary back into the movement? Why not have him speak in every union local that will hear him, urging other brothers and sisters to consider running as well?
If this had been done, brother Geddings and the South Carolina LP could have had an educational effect on the entire country and had a stronger showing in his district. In the end, he received just 2.1% of the vote. The low-intensity way in which this campaign was run would seem to indicate that the leaders of the South Carolina Labor party do not want to make the national labor leaders uncomfortable with their present policy. Either that, or they just aren’t thinking as boldly and strategically as we need to be in order to break through the two-party duopoly.
Eventually, a bold step in this direction will need to be taken. There is no doubt that any labor leaders who dare to do so will be made very uncomfortable by the ruling class, especially by the Democrats and the media. But as every worker knows, anything worth having is worth fighting for, and some discomfort is inevitable when it comes to changing the status quo!
We should also note that although he put forward many excellent demands, such as universal healthcare and higher education, regardless of the ability to pay, these and other reforms would only be possible under a socialist system. Even if a majority in Congress and the President stood on a platform such as brother Geddings’, the crisis-ridden capitalist system would not be able to deliver. Only by taking the key levers of the economy into public ownership would we be able to provide all of this and more. This is why the emergence of a mass labor party in and of itself will not be the end of the matter. It is only one component in what the working class requires to truly improve its conditions of life. This is why we need a workers’ government on a socialist program to carry out a fundamental transformation of society.
It is not entirely clear how many independent-left candidates ran for Congress in 2012 or in the 2010 midterms, but there were very few. In last year’s local elections, three independent labor candidates won in Lorain County, Ohio, and Socialist Alternative’s Kashama Sawant was elected to Seattle’s City Council. This year, out of 435 districts (436 if you count Washington, DC’s non-voting representative), there were five such candidates, including South Carolina’s labor candidate. A few others ran in races for governor. This may not seem like much, but the fact that left candidates are running once again, 25 years after the collapse of Stalinism—which the ruling class called the “end of history”—is significant. In the absence of a mass alternative, Socialist Appeal believes workers and youth should have voted for these candidates, as a protest vote against the big business parties.
This year, in NY-CD-13, leftist Daniel Vila ran on the Green Party line against Democrat Charles Rangel and got 12.6%. In Michigan, The Spark, ran two people for Congress on the Working Class Fight slate, Sam Johnson in CD-13, and Gary Walkowicz in CD 12. They received 2.1% and 2.4% respectively. In California, the Peace and Freedom Party ran Adam Shbeita in CD-44 against the Democrat and received 13%.
In NY State, Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones ran on the Green Party line for Governor and Lieutenant Governor and scored 5%. Last time in 2010, Hawkins received only 1.3% of the vote. The so-called NY Working Families Party, which is just a trojan horse for the Democrats, endorsed the anti-labor Cuomo for the second time. Nonetheless, likely riding on their name alone, they managed to get well over 50,0000 votes and will therefore have permanent ballot status for the next four years.
In Washington state, Socialist Alternative ran Jess Spear for the lower house of the state legislature in the 43rd district (this would be about one-fifth of a congressional district), and received almost 17%. This is down from the 29% received by Kshama Sawant in 2010 for the same office.
Nonetheless, the fact that there are more left-of-the-Democrats candidates, and that they are receiving modest protest votes shows the vacuum that has opened up in society. But given the enormous size of the United States, most people do not live in the few areas where these candidates have presented themselves. Also, it is a historical fact that most people will not merely register a protest vote for the sake of it. Most people want to actually vote for someone who has a chance of winning, and in the absence of such options, opt not to vote at all, or hold their noses and vote for the allegedly “lesser evil.” With the right combination of circumstances, such candidates can occasionally win. But until a large portion of the labor movement breaks with the Democrats and builds a mass labor party, these campaigns will tend to be marginal.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Eventually something will fill the space. This can be seen, for example, with the rise of SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain. But this cannot be declared, announced, or willed into existence by tiny groups. Only in exceptional circumstances do new mass parties and political traditions emerge, and only out of mass forces, movements, and traditions.
Bernie Sanders and the 2016 elections
There is one independent politician who calls himself a socialist in the US Senate, Bernie Sanders, from Vermont. However, he has many political views which the WIL and IMT would strongly disagree with. He caucuses (votes) with the Democrats most of the time, including votes for austerity and military spending, which no genuine socialist would support. His basic stance on the issues is similar to the Democratic Party’s “left-wing,” which includes people such as John Conyers and Maxine Waters. At most, he may be slightly to the left of the British Labour Party’s Ed Miliband, which is not saying a whole lot. We must therefore be clear: Bernie Sanders is not a Marxist and he does he claim to be one.
However, in the present US context, there is no question that if Sanders runs for President in 2016 as an independent—and he is currently exploring this possibility—he would attract many workers and youth tired of politics as usual and looking for an alternative. The fact that he calls himself a socialist would alone generate much interest and support. A recent poll showed that a plurality of young people in the US say they prefer “socialism” to “capitalism,” even if they are not entirely clear what that means.
If he does decide to run as an independent, we believe that Sanders should use his campaign to show how capitalism means misery for the masses, while workers’ power and socialism are the solution. He should state that a vote for his campaign is a message to the labor leaders to break with the Democrats and to build a labor party. He should encourage workers in every union and nonunion workplace to form support groups for his campaign, along with students in high schools, colleges, vocational schools, universities, and in working class neighborhoods.
However, if Sanders runs as a Democrat—and he has also said he might go this route—he will not fully tap into the feeling of anger that is building up against the dominant parties. Running as a Democrat, Sanders’ campaign would serve only to sow illusions in the Democratic Party, and he would likely do poorly against Hillary Clinton in the contest to select the Democratic presidential candidate. The Democratic Party is completely controlled by the ruling class through the media and big money during the primaries and caucuses, supplemented by the powerful official party machinery. In this context, Sanders would only serve as a “bait and switch” patsy in the party bosses’ relentless drive to suck progressive voters into the “big tent”—or rather, big swamp—of the Democrats. This would not help advance class consciousness one iota, and should he opt to run as a Democrat, we will be the first in line to mercilessly call him out.
Perspectives for the future
In 2008, Obama awakened enormous hopes. These hopes were deeply and bitterly betrayed. Let us not forget that between 2008 and 2010, the Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and Presidency. They could have dispensed with the absurd filibuster rules in the Senate and passed virtually any law they wanted: universal health care and education, a higher minimum wage tied to inflation, a massive program of public works, nationalization of the Fortune 500 and more. Not surprisingly, they did nothing of the sort. Only the rich have benefited from the Obama presidency. Incredible as it may seem, things were actually “better” under Bush!
As we have explained in the past, in a two-party system, "the other guy" is the default beneficiary. But any illusions that the Republicans will be any different will also be shattered. The postwar boom is not coming back and neither are the quality jobs. Austerity is on the order of the day as world capitalism lurches from one crisis to the next and forces the workers to shoulder the burden. According to the ABC News exit poll, half of voters expect life for the next generation of Americans to be worse, by far the most to say so in exit polls since 1996. Those not voting at all must have an even more bleak view of the prospects for the future.
As Marxists, we should therefore not conflate the scale of history with the scale of our individual lives. Unfortunately, many people, including many on the "left," expect unrealistic miracles from history, politics, the working class, and political organizations, and then gripe and whine and lash out in impotent frustration when things do not turn out for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
No matter how much we would like things to be straightforward and simple, this is not how the struggle to change society actually works. We refer to it as a struggle for a reason. It is not easy, and it takes persistence, hard work, and sacrifice. It took many centuries and many social convulsions before capitalism rose to worldwide political and economic predominance, after gestating for centuries within the womb of feudalism. That the struggle for socialism has been going on for over 150 years should therefore not surprise us. Humanity has not yet succeeded in consigning capitalism to the dustbin of history—but history is far from over. Make no mistake about it: the consciousness of the American working class is being transformed, although this is not expressed directly or linearly. It takes time and experience for these complex and contradictory processes to work themselves out. Eventually we will see strikes, struggles, unionization, demonstrations, and political activity on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The workers and youth will have no alternative.
The 2014 elections are a clear confirmation of the Marxists' political perspectives. Far from being dejected in any way, shape, or form, we should remain optimistic. Yet another step in the process of disabusing the American workers of illusions in the two big business parties has been taken. This is just another necessary stage of the process of growing political consciousness in this very convoluted but nevertheless deeply revolutionary country. History shows that the “equal and opposite” reaction to counterrevolution is revolution. This is why we must see the world dialectically and not superficially. This is why we must assiduously study the ideas of Marxism, which provide us with a guide to action and give us the benefit of foresight over astonishment.
The Marxists know that the struggle to change society will not happen overnight. More and more people are starting to question the system and are looking to our ideas and organization. We can look confidently to the future, knowing that the power of the working class, combined with the ideas of Marxism, can lead us to a socialist future. Join us in the struggle for a better world!