2020 elections

US Elections: Some Background and Perspectives

It now seems increasingly likely that Trump will be gone come January 20. In order to understand where we might be headed, we have to consider what Trump represents.

We are in a confused and confusing period that is without precedent, first and foremost with the “globalization” of capitalism, which among other things has meant the “demise of the nation statewith both capital and human beings flooding from one part of the globe to another like passengers on a ship causing the ship to rock wildly from side to side.

Capitalist Class fragmented
We have seen the degeneration and fragmentation of the capitalist class, nowhere more so than in the United States. This has been caused by the domination of finance capital, whose sole concern tends to be the next quarter’s profit margin. Also, in the past the existence of the Soviet Union tended to discipline and hold together the US capitalist class. The same can be said of the working class as an organized and conscious force, such as existed in the 1930s. The memories of both of those are receding in the rear-view mirror.

The leadership of the AFL-CIO. They have done their utmost to prevent any widespread struggle. The result has been a steady drumbeat of defeats.

Working class and union leadership
As far as the working class as a force, there is enormous confusion globally, nowhere more so than in the United States.

One important factor in that confusion has been the 75 year war carried out by the union leadership against those who struggled to maintain the fighting and also the socialist traditions of a previous era. That war opened a space for a more reactionary layer to increase its influence within the class, even in some cases becoming the leadership of the unions. (This confusion within the working class has been mirrored one thousand times over by confusion within the socialist movement.)

Democrats and Political Monopoly of the Capitalist Class
The working class has seen a steady string of defeats. There have been some defensive battles, even some large ones, but nothing on the scale of what was required, even on the front of industrial struggle. On the political front, there has been no serious struggle at all as all political activity has been channeled into supporting the capitalist Democratic Party. This party is just as responsible for the drumbeat of defe
ats as the Republicans! The capitalist class exercises a monopoly over political life in the United States. They do this through the fact that they have two political parties and the working class has none. The result has been that the avenue for political struggle by workers is extremely constricted and tends to be turned back into the capitalist Democratic Party.

The result has been that tens of millions of workers have been driven backwards. That is because while it is always demoralizing to lose a battle, it is many times more demoralizing to be driven backwards without a battle. And demoralization leads to confusion. This can be seen in voting patterns. During the 2016 primaries one poll  showed that 55% of those who planned to vote for Trump considered themselves to be “working class”. And in the general election another study revealed that in the general election, 39% of union members voted for Trump and 52% of white union members did so.

Resistance to Trump and Bernie Sanders
Of course, there has been resistance to Trump as well as to the overall attacks.

Bernie Sanders.
While he expressed much of the hopes and frustrations of millions. He really did not provide a way forward.

Much of that resistance was expressed through the Bernie Sanders campaigns. The enthusiasm of millions of young people and workers for Sanders is understandable. He expressed much of their frustrations as well as hopes. He also accidentally stumbled on and brought out the fact that socialism has become increasingly popular, especially among young people. (That rise in popularity was well under way well before Sanders was forced to call himself a “democratic socialist”.) For these reasons, socialists (including this writer) were correct to approach the Sanders supporters with sympathy.

However, we have to go further: The only way to understand his role is to start by seeing that the key factor in US politics is the historic absence of the US working class organized as a political force. The only way that can happen is through the working class having its own political party – a mass working class party. The “progressive” wing of the Democrats has played an indispensable role in preventing that from happening. Without them, the political monopoly of the US capitalist class would be impossible. As the central figure for that wing of the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders’ main role was in preventing any tendency towards working class political independence from breaking out. It’s true that he raised some uncomfortable issues for the capitalist class, but that is just the cost of doing business. Overall, he performed a tremendous service in helping maintain the capitalists’ political monopoly.

An important part of that role has been to try to divert the opposition to Trump and the Republicans away from mobilization in the streets. This was done in person and through such organizations that represent him like Democratic Socialists of America. On issue after issue there was no attempt to build that mobilization. That included the government shutdown, the elevation of Mat Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, voter suppression, and now the elevation of Amy Coney Barrett.

The Black Lives Matter protests. Inspirational and accomplished a lot but clear program needed.

Black Lives Matter
Despite S
anders’ role, we have seen mass mobilization, first and foremost the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. (We should not forget that initially Sanders was almost hostile to that movement as it was towards him.) In many ways, this movement has been inspirational, mobilizing hundreds of thousands in every state, and in cities and towns large and small, throughout the entire country. This movement really helped millions of white Americans get a clearer understanding of the depths of institutional racism in the country, especially but not only of the police. We should never underestimate the importance of that.

However, like all movements, there have been some shortcomings, and we do nobody any good to ignore those. There has been a tendency to picture the issue of police brutality and murders as being entirely a matter of racism. Of course racism is a fundamental part of this, but it is also a necessary part of the overall repression of the working class as a whole. So, for instance, the BLM movement largely ignored the police execution of Michael Reihoehl, the white man who was accused of shooting and killing a member of the Proud Boys in Portland. A team of federal, state and local police hunted him down and executed him in broad daylight. There were a few local protests, but that was all.

Also, the movement has largely ignored a whole host of other issues that hit black workers the hardest but has affected almost all workers. These include the ending of the $600/week unemployment supplement and the spread of covid in work places due to unsafe working conditions. This spread has hit black and Latino working class communities especially hard.

What has been required is a general program, one that is not confined to words on a web site but is used as an organizing tool. Such a program would have to be used to build an actual organization, complete with democratic structures and a democratically elected leadership.

The Me Too movement

Me Too Movement
It is similar with the Me Too movement, which enormously raised the consciousness of the issue of sexual harassment in the work place and beyond. But the limitations of that movement can be seen in one simple development: The likelihood that the US Supreme Court will throw out the Roe v. Wade decision, allowing a series of states to outlaw prohibit a woman’s right to choose altogether.

Overall, since the movements haven’t taken a clear class position and since they haven’t posed a class alternative to the Democrats, they have been unable to counter the narrative that runs like this: “You can go out and protest, and that’s important. But at the end of the day, if you don’t vote it’s all useless. If you don’t vote, don’t complain.” In practice, of course, what this means is that you must help the Democrats get into office.

As for the unions, despite the fact that now only about 10% of the working class, they still represent 14.6 million workers. Not a single other political organization or group of organizations can even come close to this. The unions largely control public transport, the railroads, the air industry and shipping as well as much of industrial production and the public utilities. They are concentrated in many of the urban centers of the country.

However, due to the role of the leadership, the unions are largely absent from the lives of the great majority of the members. This has resulted in massive alienation.

These are the key factors in considering the future of a working class struggle against capitalism.

Republican Party, vote suppression and threat of Constitutional Crisis
Until the last few weeks, it seemed that there was a realistic chance for a Constitutional crisis following the general election.
That seems less likely now, but we still should look at the sources, of which there are two main ones: First is the confusions built into the US system of electing a president through the electoral college. Second is the delay in counting the ballots due to the increased popularity of mail-in voting.

As the American Dream disappeared, both parties but especially the Republicans resorted to dog whistles for racism and also, more overtly, xenophobia and chauvinism. For a time, the Republicans tried to balance between this strategy and the strategy of trying to win over black and Latino voters with the appeal that “you, too, can become a successful entrepreneur.” But that balance was always precarious and never sustainable. As one mainstream conservative Republican put it, “you feed the crocodiles, the crocodile’s going to come eat you eventually.” He was referring to the steady feeding of the “crocodile” of racism.

Progression of gerrymandering in the state of Wisconsin

In 2005, the mainstream conservatives of the Republican Party collaborated with the Democrats in renewing the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Among other things, that act made it more difficult for the states that historically practiced formal Jim Crow to repress the vote of black voters. Its effect, however, was counteracted by gerrymandering, which minimized the influence of black voters in one state after another. This gerrymandering was carried out with a vengeance by Republicans after the 2010 census. The result was that by 2010, 20% of the population lived in a state where the Democrats got the majority of the votes but one or both houses of the state government were controlled by Republicans.

It should be emphasized that this largely racial gerrymandering was only successful because of the decline in class consciousness. This resulted in tens of millions of white workers seeing themselves as white Americans, rather than as workers.

Obama and “Post Racial” Society
Then came 2012 and the election of the first black man to the presidency. Tens of millions were understandably inspired. However, that election was used to portray the idea that we were living in a “post racial society.”
However, that election also saw the rise of the extreme right “Tea Party” Republicans who did not feel bound by the old rules of working with the rivals/partners – the Democrats. It also resulted from the extreme effects of gerrymandering.

In 2013, the John Roberts Supreme Court struck down the sections of the Civil Rights Act that required the former Jim Crow states to get preclearance from the Justice Department to change any voter laws. Such preclearance had meant that all sorts of voter suppression would see the light of day, and it made more difficult additional voter suppression. The Roberts court completely discounted some 12,000 pages of testimony that showed voter suppression carried out by those states in recent years. We were in the “post racial” society, after all!

Voter Id’s required: a form of voter suppression

This opened the fence to the crocodile of mass voter suppression and led to a flood of voter restrictions, largely against black and Latino voters. From 2014-2018 over 32 million voters were purged from the rolls. (Note: this history and these statistics are largely drawn from this article in the New Republic.)

Another important legal development was the ending of a 1982 “consent decree” in 2018. This was a court order prohibiting the Republican Party from mobilizing its forces to intimidate voters at the polls. It stemmed from their having done so in New Jersey in 1981. This coming election will be the first national election held in nearly 40 years in which that consent decree was not in effect. Trump made the plans clear: “We’re going to have sheriffs and we’re going to have law enforcement and we’re going to have, hopefully, U.S. attorneys” at the polls on election day. He didn’t mention having the Proud Boys and other armed vigilante groups, whom he requested to “stand by”.

In 2000, the Republicans mobilized hundreds of their representatives in Miami-Dade County Florida to prevent a recount of the vote there in order to get Bush in as president. This was known as the “Brooks Brother (suit) riots.” Something similar was planned for this election, except the rioters would be in the uniform of sheriffs as well as the camouflage of the Proud Boys. The strategy was to disrupt the vote on election day as well as disrupt and delay the count of the mail in ballots, which take longer to count anyway. Challenge after challenge would go to the Republican-controlled Supreme Court.

This strategy was also based on the dates by which the electors have to be appointed and have to vote in each of the states. The idea was that if things can be sufficiently disrupted and delayed, then in some cases it might even be possible to get Republican-controlled state legislatures to appoint the electors. (This is where the gerrymandering comes into play.)

It was never possible for Trump to outright defy the result if it was an officially recognized electoral majority for Biden, but in this way he and the Republicans hoped to prevent the official recognition of such a majority. The utter confusion could, theoretically, have resulted in both Trump and Biden presenting themselves on January 20 to be inaugurated. In fact, a third person, the Speaker of the House, could also theoretically have been presented! This was never likely, but the mere fact that it could be seriously discussed shows the extreme political instability. After all, if Donald Trump could get elected, if he could completely take over the more favored party of the capitalists, if he as president could blatantly violate one norm after another, then what else is possible?

Mainstream of Capitalist Class vs. Trump
It is necessary to emphasize that the capitalist class is not entirely fragmented. Major sections still have a world vision, the world vision of neoliberalism. That is based on world production and world markets. It seeks to maintain control through capitalist (“bourgeois”) democracy, which is now a much more stable means of rule because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the confusion of the working class. In order to maintain this stability, the divisions within capitalist society (racial and otherwise) must be kept on the back burner; they must not boil over.

Also, this vision includes a series of alliances, first and foremost the Atlantic alliance as represented by NATO.

Trump has violated both their world strategy (e.g. attacking NATO) as well as their domestic strategy of “we’re all Americans”.

The mainstream of the US capitalist class has ruled securely for over 200 years through these democratic and Constitutional norms and they won’t give it up so easily. If Trump were to return to power through his approach (which now appears less likely), it would mean almost the death knell for US capitalist democracy – the end of the “rule of law” and a president nearly completely out of the control of the mainstream of the capitalist class.

In general, capitalism needs the acceptance of some basic science. Trump violates that. Linked with the science denialism is the growth of the extreme conspiracy theory approach. (Much of the socialist left is also guilty of this.) This has opened the door to all sorts of weird semi-religious cults, first and foremost Q-Anon. In addition, it has opened the door to the rise of the violent vigilante groups like the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, and a host of others. All of this makes much more difficult the rule of capital through “democratic” means. It vastly destabilizes US capitalism.

The mainstream of the US capitalist class has sought to undermine Trump. They have had news items and opinion pieces attacking him 24/7 on the main news channels (except Fox). Despite that, until recently Biden had only a lead of about 5-7%. That was not enough to be sure Trump’s strategy would not work. Then Trump came down with Covid and it was also made clear that the White House was a center for the disease. This further undermined Trump. Despite all this, though, Trump still holds the support of slightly over 40% of the population! Compare that to Nixon, who at his zenith had only 24% support.

Now, a Biden victory seems increasingly likely and, in fact, a “landslide” is possible. (A “landslide” means Biden winning some 55% of the vote. Some landslide.)

Socialist Program of Action
When massive voter suppression and fraud seemed entirely possible, Oaklandsocialist was emphasizing the need for a mobilization of millions of workers in the streets to stop them. That could only be done through the unions, but in order for this to happen an organized revolt of the rank and file is necessary. A major reason why the union bureaucracy is so resistant can be seen when we consider what could be the result of such a mobilization:

It would tend to lead towards building local organized coordinating committees and, from there, a national coordinating committee. The role of such would be to help coordinate and lead forward the movement. Inevitably, this would include drawing the lessons from the movement. What is this but the beginning of a mass working class party, born in struggle? We have to realize that a working class party would not be confined to simply running candidates for office every few years. It would be an organizing center for all the struggles of the working class, in all the different arenas, including but definitely not limited to the electoral arena.

The fact of the very real danger a few weeks ago, and the possibility that it still could happen has given a real fright to the capitalist class. Even the conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks was calling for, mass mobilization in the streets! This stirred the union leadership and their associates into action, with the Rochester Labor Council calling for a general strike if Trump & Co. carry out their repressive plans. Their call was followed by a similar one from the Seattle Education Association (the teachers union). Sara Nelson, head of the flight attendants union, has also been prominent in these calls. (She was the one who called for a general strike in response to the government shutdown a couple of years ago.)

A recent Supreme Court ruling showed that such a crisis is still possible. That was the ruling of just two days ago that favored mail-in voting in the key swing state of Pennsylvania. That was a 4-4 tie vote. As a tie vote, it simply upheld the appeals court decision. When Barret comes onto the Court, that will give the extreme right wing Republican (in)Justices a 5-4 majority and any ruling is possible. So, unless Biden wins a strong victory outright on election day, things are very far from guaranteed. Such a victory now seems possible (although far from guaranteed.)

In the event of a possible sweeping Democratic victory this November, the far right may become demoralized. But this in itself is also a danger as a symptom of this demoralization could be terrorist attacks, either by individuals or groups. The plot of the Michigan vigilante group to kidnap and murder the governor of that state is an example of this, but it could be attacks on people of color and left groups and individuals also.

Joe Biden

Biden Presidency
A Biden presidency would be greeted with a tremendous sigh of relief. His first task, though, would be to tackle the pandemic. But how can he do so? As has been made clear, the general wearing of masks in public, especially in confined spaces, is necessary to prevent the spread of the disease. But Biden will have no credibility with the crazed Trump supporters, who will refuse to listen to him on that.

That will be a heritage of the Trump presidency. Another heritage will be the Supreme Court, which will block almost every reform the Democrats try to make, no matter how mild. Biden will then be faced with the choice of either retreating entirely or “packing” the Court. The Republicans have been “packing” the federal court system at all levels for years. They did this by refusing to act on Obama’s appointments, waiting till they got a Republican president. In case Biden tries to add members to the Supreme Court, the Republicans will raise an unholy clamor and a battle royale will break out between the two parties. Such a battle will tend to spill over onto all other aspects of US politics.

Another main aim of Biden will be to reinforce the attitude that “we are all Americans”. As part of this, he will try to moderate the rate at which the police attack people, especially black and Latino people. This means “community policing”, which means the police will act more as spies than as a blunt attacking force. But the police themselves, like a dog used to the taste of blood, will not give up their attacks so easily.

Biden will also try to restore “American leadership” globally. But it is too late. On the one hand, we have seen the further rise of Chinese capitalism and the fact that they seem to be moving closer to the other main rival of US capitalism – Russian capitalism. On the other hand, which foreign government will be able to really trust any deal with the US government if that deal can be abrogated in a second when a new president is elected?

As far as his economic policies, a recent article in the Financial Times reported on the World Bank and the IMF abandoning policies of austerity and advocating increased government deficit spending, at least in the developed capitalist countries. It seems very possible that Biden will pursue that approach. However, as we saw in the 1970s, deficit spending has its own problems and cannot resolve the inherent contradictions of the laws of motion of capitalist economics. That is a subject for further discussion.

A return to a temporary “normalcy” for a time is possible, although even this is far from certain. In any case, new shocks are inevitable. For example, a massive wave of climate refugees – even internal climate refugees – would disrupt everything. Likewise for some new scandal including possible revelations of the direct links between law enforcement and the paramilitaries. Also entirely possible is an environmental disaster killing thousands.

Workers movement under Biden
Regarding the perspectives for how a  working class party could develop, we have outlined one possibility here. But the situation could change in such a way as to make other avenues possible.

The French Yellow Vest movement.
A new workers’ movement in the US could very possible be similar.

The main point is how a new movement is likely to develop. We should remember the Yellow Vest movement in France. There, there had been a strike wave that could have been used as a springboard to a wider movement. However, the union leadership did everything in their power to prevent that. As a result, a wider social movement broke out a short while later, but whose class basis was less clear. Something similar could well happen here. Such a movement would tend to galvanize the most thinking and courageous sectors of the working class, especially black and Latino workers. It would also tend to push the more selfish, individualistic, pro capitalist and racist sectors more into the background while many other would start rethinking their views.

This could be the beginning of the start of a formation that could start to lead to a mass working class political party, thereby breaking the political stalemate in the United States.

Finally, as to a socialist program: Oaklandsocialist has clearly advocated such a program around racism, sexism, economic issues, the environment, the unions, etc. We should emphasize that a fundamental part of any such program must be for internationalism in deeds, not just words. This means, among other things, establishing direct links between workers in the US and our counterparts elsewhere. The purpose is to coordinate an international struggle against capital, including cross-border strikes against multinational companies and entire industries. That is absolutely essential in order to combat the rising xenophobia and chauvinism.

We have put forward some particular issues of recent months here. Those include the issue of the police and the state apparatus, economic issues such as the $600 unemployment supplement, and how to approach the unions. For a more well rounded programmatic approach, we will have to see how things shape up in this rapidly changing situation. 

Editorial comment: This article has been criticized for implying that the “nation state” (individual countries) is gone. That is not what we meant but we should have been clearer on that. That term “demise of the nation state” stems from this 2018 article in the Guardian newspaper. In this article, the author explains how the power of the national governments over capital – for example to tax capital – has been vastly weakened. He also explains how the nation-states as we know them have also been transformed by the huge floods of refugees from one part of the world to another. It is a brilliant article and should be read by all socialists. In the Oaklandsocialist article Boris Johnson and the Demise of the Nation State, we discuss how the election of that Trump-like figure relates to this “demise”. We also have some of the key quotes from the Guardian article.



3 replies »

  1. Are you absolutely sure he’ll be gone? In Australia we are starting to wonder… Black Swan event?

    • No, I am very far from sure, as the article makes clear. But if I had to bet, that’s where I’d place my money (although not very much.)

      One thing I learned from the outcome of 2016 is that this period is chock full of surprises.

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