“Something old and something new…” That’s how the Democrat/Republican political alignment could be described after the 2018 midterm elections.
Yes, there was a “blue wave”, although not a tsunami. According to Real Clear Politics the overall vote was 49.7% for Democrats and 42.4% for Republicans, and of this writing the Democrats succeeded in “flipping” 35 House seats from formerly Republican held districts. With a number of votes still undecided, that number could go as high as 40.
How was this achieved?
It has been documented ad nauseam that the main change has been among suburban white, middle class voters, especially white middle class women voters. This change reflects a changing attitude on the part of the mainstream of the US capitalist class. Take long time former Republican Michael Bloomberg. In this election cycle, he donated $100 million to various Democratic candidates.
In addition, there are the millions of young, mainly white young adults who face a very insecure future. With the Red Scare long gone, they see capitalism as the problem. Added to this are the voters of color, who correctly see the threat of Trump’s racist and xenophobic attacks.
In part, the Democrats simply sat back and allowed Trump to be Trump. While his xenophobic and racist speeches
and tweets during the election campaign helped shore up his base and enthuse his hard core supporters to come out and vote, it also turned off the middle class suburban voters. The Democrats campaigned largely around the issue of health care. As Senator David Perdue (R-GA) said “health care was a bigger issue in the suburbs than President Trump.” This reflects the scare this sector got when the Republicans started to repeal Obamacare altogether. Such a repeal would have returned us to the days when the health insurance companies were completely free to lie, cheat and steal from their customers.
Democrats’ internal conflict: The cost of doing business
In the past, there was a conflict between those Democratic representatives who came from strong labor districts and others. The role of the Democratic Party leadership during those days was to hold this sort of conflict under control, while ensuring that nothing was passed that significantly empowered the unions or workers in general. For example,
during the first term of both the Carter and the (Bill) Clinton presidencies, when the Democrats held a majority in both houses, not a single piece of legislation that was a priority for the AFL-CIO was passed. The best example of how this coalition worked was when Bill Clinton was pushing NAFTA approval through congress. Ten different Democrats committed themselves to voting for NAFTA if their votes were needed for passage. If it was going to pass without their votes, then they were going to vote “no”.
The same game is happening now around health care. In 2009, when Obama was president with a Democratic majority in congress, his party refused to even consider a “public option” never mind single payer. Eight years later, a fraud similar to the NAFTA fraud was perpetrated in California, when a state-wide single payer bill was pushed through the state senate, only to have it killed in committee in the state assembly. The leader of that effort, Karen Bernal, chair of the California Democrats “Progressive Caucus” admitted later that that was the plan all along. But she, too, was party to another fraud, since even if it had passed and been signed by Governor Brown, it would have needed a waiver by the Trump administration to take effect. Nobody ever mentioned that little inconvenience. In other words, the liberal/“progressive” wing of the Democrats is pushing single payer, now watered down as Medicare for All, as
another NAFTA ploy. It can be compared to dangling a carrot on a stick in front of a horse, meant to keep the horse always running forward, but never reaching the carrot. While Medicare for All might be controversial within the Bloomberg wing of the Democrats, it plays a vital role in keeping the radicalized, mainly white youth in the fold.
The other wing, what could be called the Bernie Sanders wing, plays a vital role in this. They help keep the focus on appealing, cajoling and at times even “threatening” the Democrats. As a recent email from his “Our Revolution” put it, “In the new year, we will be calling members of Congress, organizing meetings in their districts, and using our grassroots power to demand that they take action and offer real alternatives” around health care.” The key here is keeping the focus on the health care issue, and that issue alone as well as channeling all political action through legislative action and, in a year or so, also electoral action — but always through the Democrats. Who have proven over and over that they will not provide Medicare for All or Single Payer, never mind socialized medicine, which is what’s really needed. (“Single payer”, itself, was brought into the health reform movement back in the 1980s in order to divert attention away from what’s really needed: socialized medicine. That succeeded as the health care reformers bought it lock, stock and barrel. Today they almost never, ever talk about socialized medicine or a national health system. For the weaknesses of single payer and the need for fully socialized medicine, see this article. )
The way forward
In the past, the unions were a powerful political force in the US. They commanded the respect and loyalty of tens of millions of workers, union and non-union alike. Ever since the great labor uprisings of the 1930s, the union leadership used this power to channel political action through the Democratic Party, rather than use it as a base to build an alternative, a mass working class party. Many union leaders argued that, yes, we need a working class party but since we don’t have one at this point, we should support the Democrats. This was always an excuse to divert any movement away from actually starting down the road towards building a working class party. Today, those union leaders have far less authority even among their own members, but they do have financial resources, which they channel into the Democratic Party.
On the other hand, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) now claims over 50,000 members. The DSA leadership is playing a similar role. With the end of the Red Scare and the declining prospects for the younger generation, “socialism” is increasingly popular among young adults. And reflecting that, there has been a whole series of liberal candidates campaigning under the banner of “democratic socialists”. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is but the most prominent example. These “democratic socialists” will stir up some conflicts within the Democrats and cause some headaches for the leadership, but that’s the cost of doing business; that’s the necessary overhead for the Democrats’ to play the vital role that they do, keeping an independent working class movement from developing.
DSA tends to focus on those issues and methods that fit the agenda of the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. Over recent months, for example, the near-exclusive focus was on campaigning for various liberal Democrats (“democratic socialists”).
California: Ballot Initiatives
In California, it also included campaigning for a ballot initiative (Proposition 10) that would have allowed municipalities to establish rent control. The various contenders who get these initiatives onto the ballot often don’t expect that the initiative will pass; the hope is that it will bring a layer of voters to the polls who will help elect “their” side. In the recent elections the Republicans pushed a repeal of a gas tax initiative with that hope, while the liberal Democrats used Proposition 10 for the same purpose. With almost all major capitalist forces opposed to both initiatives, they both predictably failed.
The question is whether a real working class socialist movement can be built strictly around canvassing and telephone calling for various political candidates and/or for legislation being proposed by the liberal Democrats.
Democratic Socialists of America
When there was mass outrage at the performance of Brett Kavanaugh, DSA could have and should have organized nation-wide protests. In the Oakland area, after prodding, they “endorsed” a protest rally organized by others but did little or nothing to turn people out to it.
Here in the Bay Area of California right now, there is a health crisis from the extremely high levels of smoke in the air due to the massive Camp wildfire in the north. There are a whole series of issues tied up with this disaster: First and foremost is the issue of capitalist-caused global climate disruption; second is the issue of PG&E lining their own pockets and refusing to do the maintenance and upgrading that is desperately needed. Then, on top of all that, while people are urged to stay indoors, what happens to Oakland’s reputed 9,000 homeless? Where can they go? Meanwhile, just two days after Oakland’s mayor Libby “Yuppie” Schaaf got reelected, her police department issued eviction orders to homeless encampments. But DSA is silent and inactive on this. (See these articles for more on these fires, including both the science and the politics involved.)
What’s needed now more than ever is a real working class movement that will mobilize workers – including the unemployed – in the streets, work places, communities, and working class schools. This includes starting to bring together and lend hope to those union members who see what a potentially powerful fighting force the unions can and should be, both on the job and off. Such a movement would lead to the creation of a working class organization, in other words, the beginning of a true working class party.
What is a working class party?
Many people in the US have become accustomed to thinking of a political party purely in the role of the two major capitalist parties – as bodies that run people for office and try to get legislation passed. That’s the box into which capitalist politics tries to confine working class activity. A true working class party would be an organizing and mobilizing center for our class, in addition to being a center for debate around ideas, around clarifying the situation we find ourselves in. Ultimately, it would have to also run its own candidates for office, but that might not come first.
The problem for DSA, and for the movement in general, is that by supporting one wing of the Democrats, there is a powerful tendency to get drawn into the program and the mode of functioning of the Democrats in general. There is a powerful tendency to focus exclusively around those issues that this particular party puts on the agenda and on elections and elections, and in general forget about the issues that the most oppressed sectors of the working class feel the most strongly as well as to focus on the methods of the US working class in general.
DSA can and should start down this road. Those DSA members who see this need can and should start to organize towards this end.