We are witnessing a historic change in the US political order.
In general, Corporate America, or the US capitalist class, has ruled “from the middle”. This has meant they prevented any proposal for any sort of radical change to gain real traction. They were able to do this mainly because they could grant a layer of (mainly but not entirely) white voters at least a realistic hope of having “the American dream”. At the same time, they had to distract attention away from their steady erosion of exactly that dream. This was started under Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy”, whereby they used the code words like “violent criminals” and “war on drugs” for attacks on black people. In other words, appeal to racism without using the “n” word. (In general, they couldn’t use open, direct racist appeals any more because of the black revolt of the 1960s.) At the same time, they appealed to and built up Christian fundamentalism as another means of confusing people.
Republican/Democrat Division of Labor
Within this “ruling from the middle” the two main capitalist parties – the Republicans and the Democrats – have had a complementary division of labor ever since the 1930s. The Republican Party was the party of choice to go onto the offensive against the workers and the poor in the US. This included both an economic and political offensive and a propaganda offensive. For example, Ronald Reagan was the perfect instrument to not only start the attack on what little government assistance and government regulations existed in the US; he was also perfect for the propaganda offensive, that everybody should be an “entrepreneur”, that “freedom” means the freedom of private business to loot, plunder and pillage, etc.
The last eight years have been the perfect arrangement: All-important foreign policy is mainly worked out through the president’s administration and Corporate America cannot trust the Republicans to have an adequate strategic sense for this. So they installed a Democratic president. But they believed they could keep right on attacking the working class and the poor without let-up, so they’ve kept a Republican majority in the congress. A perfect division of labor.
Sometimes, the attacks of the Republicans went too far. For example, there was the two-week shut down of the US government in 2013, led by the Tea Party Republicans. The Wall St. Journal reported at the time that “business leaders” were shocked that they were unable to convince these Republicans to compromise. It was a signal that their baby – the Tea Partiers and other far right demagogues – was partly getting out of their control.
Fast forward to 2016. The Wall St. Journal carries one article and editorial after another attacking Donald Trump. Their Tea Party baby has grown up and is starting to walk on its own two legs – partly out of corporate control. That’s why Trump’s threats to send all the (low wage) undocumented Mexican workers back home scares Corporate America. Same for NAFTA. Same for his “beautiful wall”, which would really rock relations with the repressive Mexican government.
That’s why this year, many of them are liable to shift to supporting a Democrat (Clinton) because their baby – their Frankenstein monster – is starting to get out of control in their preferred party. This means a more direct corporate takeover of the Democrats, which historically have been the party that the union leadership rests on.
We are already seeing that at the state level. For example, an April 4 (2016) article in the SF Chronicle (Note: We’re carrying two links because because not everybody can open Chronicle links) reports on the reelection campaign of state Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D – San Bernardino). Brown is a totally corporate-friendly Democrat, so much so that the usually pliant union leadership is leading a campaign to replace her. The article refers to “the mounting clout that business-friendly Democrats hold in Sacramento.” Brown is no exception; she is supported by the state Democratic Party as well as by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
But there is still the tension there. In general, Corporate America doesn’t completely trust the Democrats, because of their role. Ever since the days of FDR, the Democrats have kept a base made up of the union leadership and others. Since the civil rights movement, that has included the leadership of the major civil rights groups and also, in more recent decades, the mainstream environmental groups. That has made them subject to pressure.
Already, parts of Corporate America – the US capitalist class – are warning that if Trump, or even Cruz, wins the Republican nomination they will support Clinton (assuming she wins the Democratic nomination). But they won’t be happy about it since Clinton is subject to the pressure of Sanders and his left supporters. This shows the capitalist class’s weakening control over both their parties.
The two parties have played complementary roles: The Republicans to more directly advance the interests of the US capitalist class as that class conceives it; the Democrats to smooth things over and help prevent an outbreak of a real movement from below that would really disrupt society and threaten the capitalist monopoly over US politics. Now, the roles of both those parties is weakening. The old method of rule is threatened. It is exactly in times like this, when important shifts at the top take place, that an opening for movements from below appear.
The rise of Trump shows one such tendency – the racism and xenophobia that US capitalism keeps simmering away, but always under control. Not so strong as to provoke a mass reaction from below that would threaten their stability. Trump shows the potential for this to get out of hand. On the other hand, Sanders shows the role of the “left” wing of the Democratic Party to keep protest movements within safe bounds, and channeling it into the Democratic Party. Will a wing of Sanders supporters break those bounds? Sanders, himself, will continue doing everything in his power to prevent that, but who knows if he’ll succeed?
A new economic crisis or another crisis – such as a new war – could more decisively break these bounds. Meanwhile, the rise of Trump and Sanders shows both the threat and the potential.