By STEVE LEIGH
What happened to the Blue Wave? Why couldn’t the Democrats roundly defeat the racist, incompetent bigot who bungled the corona pandemic? Are millions of Americans hopelessly reactionary? Before looking at key lessons coming out of the election, what are the facts?
At this writing, it looks like Biden has just squeaked through to a narrow Electoral College victory based on a more substantial popular vote victory of close to 4 million. The Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives but will retain control. The Republicans lost some in the Senate but will likely remain in control. Referenda around the country had mixed results. Several states legalized marijuana and Oregon legalized possession of small amounts of all drugs. Florida voted in a $15 per hour minimum wage, even after voting Republican in national elections. However, Illinois voters rejected a tax increase on the rich, and California voters kept Uber workers as subcontractors without labor protection.
Lesson One: The Democratic Party didn’t win big because it does not come across as being in favor of the interests of ordinary people. Many people see little reason to vote for it. They are right! The Democrats are a party run by and for big business, not ordinary people.
The massive war chest that Biden amassed mostly came from large donors. The Democrats under Obama/Biden presided over declining living standards and increased concentration of wealth. In response to the Great Recession, Obama/Biden bailed out the banks and watched millions lose their houses and go bankrupt. This especially hit working class people and people of color.
They deported more immigrants than all previous presidents. They continued U.S. wars. Obama proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Black Lives Matter erupted under Obama/Biden, showing that they did nothing substantial to oppose institutional racism. The right to abortion eroded under Obama. State and local Democratic administrations are the face of police brutality and austerity in most of the major cities in the U.S.
Millions more people voted in this election out of fear or hatred of Trump on one side and fear of Biden destroying the economy on the other. However, what most commentators forgot to note is that there were still tens of millions—perhaps 100 million—who saw no reason to vote for either side.
Lesson Two: Don’t be too obsessed with election results because mass struggle, not elections, is what changes society. As the great radical historian Howard Zinn said: “The crucial question is not who is in office, but what kind of social movement do you have. Because if you have a powerful social movement, it doesn’t matter who is in office.” And “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but “who is sitting in” — and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change”.
History has proven Zinn correct. The mass uprising against racism and police brutality this summer has changed the whole political conversation. “Defunding the Police” went from an obscure idea among a tiny handful to the center of the national conversation. The BLM movement has already won reforms.
The Red State revolt among teachers in 2018 won major funding for education even from Republican dominated legislatures. Governments at all levels are controlled by the 1%. Most Congress people are millionaires.
In a competitive capitalist world, capitalist governments must cater to the interests of their major corporations to keep their economy strong. This means putting the interests of the rich above those of the poor. However, these pro-capitalist governments under either party can be compelled to grant reforms if they are threatened enough by mass movements. They are not threatened by electing even liberal Democratic politicians. But they are threatened by struggle. This means that those on the left, unions, anti-racist organizations, etc. should focus on building mass struggle instead of electing “better” politicians. The left definitely should not see itself as advisor to the Democrats but instead as a builder of struggles against Republicans and Democrats.
Workers should build their own independent political party that can build support for workers’ struggles. Even though elections are not the main way to win reforms, a workers’ party could help create conditions for more effective struggle.
Lesson Three: The U.S. governmental structure is undemocratic. Besides the economic power of the rich, the Constitution itself was aimed to exclude the poor from power. The system of checks and balances was set up specifically to thwart popular will. A recent focus has been on the Electoral College. In two of the last five presidential elections, the loser in the popular vote became president (Bush in 2000, Trump in 2016). This is a complete travesty and shows how undemocratic the system is.
What is sometimes forgotten is that the Electoral College is only one example of the undemocratic nature of U.S. “democracy.” The inequality reflected in the Electoral College parallels that of the U.S. Senate, which gives equal representation to small and large states. A few thousand Wyoming citizens get as many votes as the millions in New York and California. Senators representing a minority of U.S. citizens can block legislation wanted by a majority, as Mitch McConnell so often shows.
This too is only part of the problem! Non-citizens, prisoners, and most past felons have no access to suffrage. Black people had to fight and die for ballot access. As the recent attack on Blacks attempting to register in North Carolina shows, the campaign to suppress the vote of Blacks and other people of color continues. Both parties have tried to suppress voters who would vote the wrong way. Republicans are leading the charge against people of color now. Democrats go out of their way to prevent third parties from getting on the ballot. Voter suppression was especially a problem after the Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act a few years ago.
This brings us to the Supreme Court. Justices appointed for life can invalidate laws passed by supposedly democratically elected legislatures. The Court is poised to strike down the Affordable Care Act voted in by Congress. The president too has veto power over legislation and can only be overridden by a 2/3 vote.
As structurally undemocratic as the U.S. system is, what little democracy we have was won through mass struggle. The Civil Rights movement won voting rights for Blacks in the South. The women’s suffrage movement won female suffrage in 1920.
Lesson Four: Capitalism is inherently undemocratic. Even if the government structure were completely democratic, the economic system itself is anti-democratic. The most authoritarian place in society is the workplace. Workers have no democratic power at work. They must obey their bosses. The direction of their work places and the economy as a whole is determined by the small group of owners who try to maximize profit.
Lesson Five: Capitalism creates Trumpism. Capitalism creates competition between workers for jobs, housing etc. It opens them to accepting racist, sexist and nationalist ideas. The scarcity created by capitalism makes people fight among themselves. The capitalist media and education system reinforce these divisive ideas. Capitalists not only control the economy but they use their economic power to control politics. This limits the options that people have in politics. They can’t vote to raise their wages but they can sometimes vote to lower their taxes. They cannot vote to improve working and living conditions but they can try to hold back alleged competitors—for example, opposing affirmative action and immigrant rights.
We need to fight against these divisive ideas but will never overcome them while capitalism exists. There will always be some who will support individualism, and hence racism, etc. as long as the competitive market economy exists. We should not be surprised by or overly discouraged by the existence of a group of workers who tend toward the rightward end of the individualism/solidarity spectrum. The existence of this group does not prevent the ability of workers as a whole to overthrow capitalism in the long run.
Also, it is important to remember that the vast majority of Trump voters did not attend super-spreader rallies or harass people of color or leftists. Most voted what they thought was the best option for the economy and often disapproved of Trump’s racism and nastiness.
On the other hand, capitalism compels workers to unite to protect and improve their working conditions, wages, and the social wage (government programs). To advance, workers need solidarity: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” The principle of solidarity faces off against the principle of individual competition. The more organized workers get in defending their interests the more they can develop solidarity and decrease individualism. Socialists encourage solidarity and oppose all divisive ideologies—racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. It is one of the key roles of socialists to help build working-class organization.
Lesson Six: Those who want real democracy must become socialists. Only a socialist society can be thoroughly democratic. Only then, can the vast majority decide on all the key questions facing society. Only then, is the whole economy directly under the control of those who work in it. Only then, is there democracy at work. Only then, can people advance the interests of the whole society and all the individuals in it. Only then, can the society be based on abundance, so people don’t have to fight over the scraps.
The struggle for socialism flows directly out of the struggle against exploitation and oppression. To succeed, it will need to dismantle the current undemocratic state apparatus and take the whole economy under democratic control. Socialism will require revolution.
Society today is polarized between those favoring solidarity and those favoring individualism. It is also polarized between classes, as more and more ordinary people fight against austerity and racism and for workers’ rights and wages and for climate justice. These fights are waged in the interests of workers against the large corporations. As these fights grow, they can begin to attract even some of those who at this point thought Trump was the best option as well as those who felt they had to vote for the moderate austerity option Biden.
The polarization between Republicans and Democrats at the grassroots level is in part a reflection of the low level of class struggle and union organization. To be successful, workers’ struggle will have to confront racism, nationalism, and sexism. A rising level of class struggle can raise attitudes of solidarity and overcome the artificial divisions created by capitalism. Organizing around class divisions can help overcome racial and national divisions.
Socialists are confident that current reactionary attitudes among a section of the working class can be overcome by organization and struggle. Enough working-class unity can be created to overcome capitalist conditioning.
Activists should not be overly dismayed by the growth of right-wing populism, but neither should we ignore it. We need to confront the far right but realize that the Democratic Party actually created the conditions that allowed it to rise. Our task is to win people away from both capitalist ideologies—right-wing populism and neoliberal austerity, which only pretends to oppose racism. This can be done with education, organization, and struggle. This would be our task whether or not there was a Blue Wave.
Steve Leigh is a member of Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.