In the recent midterm elections, the Republicans made a dramatic comeback after their electoral routing just two years ago. They gained several governorships, seats in the Senate, and took full control of the US House of Representatives. How was this possible?
The basic reason is quite simple: there are no jobs. Americans are dissatisfied that Obama and the Democrats have not offered any real solution to the economic calamity hitting many workers, youth and the middle class. Two years after Obama's election, unemployment remains high with no end in sight, despite a return to profitability and mega bonuses for Wall Street. Little wonder voters were not happy with the incumbents!
On top of this, millions of dollars were spent by outside groups to influence the elections. It is a well-known fact that Big Business invests heavily in both main parties – it knows which side its bread is buttered. In 2008, more money flowed to the Democrats, as they understood that after 8 years of Bush and Cheney, Americans were desperate for change, and they wanted to be in on the new bonanza. This time around, more money was sent to the Republicans, as corporate America sensed the dissatisfaction with the status quo. Once again, the mood was “throw the bums out!” All this just two years after Obama's message of “change we can believe in” seemed to promise a new era of prosperity and hope.
Unfortunately, the labor movement leaders did not offer any alternative to voting for the parties of the rich. Instead, they called on workers to vote “against” the Tea Party Republicans, or for “worker friendly” or “union-endorsed” candidates. These were all just code words for “vote Democrat.” But understanding how disillusioned workers are with the jobs situation and the Democrats' impotence on that front, they could not call directly for a vote for that party. This is an important change in approach, as it shows that the union leaders fear losing control of the rank and file.
There was one independent labor candidate, Brett Bursey, in South Carolina, who ran for the state House of Representatives and received 3.1% of the vote. Bursey was the first candidate run by the newly re-launched South Carolina Labor Party. He would have almost certainly received a larger vote if the SC Labor Party had run more candidates and appealed for support from the national labor movement. But it seems clear that they were getting pressure from the top labor leaders not to run a more aggressive campaign, as they are intimately tied with the Democrats in Washington, DC. Hopefully, the SCLP will run him and others in the future, and will see this election as a first step and an example for the rest of the country.
In addition, Hugh Giordano, a Philadelphia area labor organizer who ran on the Green Party ticket, lost to the Democrat but came in second, ahead of the Republican, with over 20% of the vote. Philadelphia has a larger and stronger labor movement than South Carolina, which in part explains his higher vote total.
As we explained in past articles, most workers will not vote for a candidate unless he or she has serious resources behind him or her and has at least some realistic chance at winning. Both of these candidates had little money and were mostly ignored by the capitalist media, which gives little coverage to small left parties. And as we have seen, the labor leaders were bending over backwards to get out the vote for the Democrats. Nevertheless, there was an important increase in votes for various left “protest” parties in this election.
In 2006, in California, the Peace and Freedom Party received 3,849 votes and the Green Party received 33,545 votes for the Governor’s race. In this election, the Peace and Freedom Party received more than 65,000 votes, while the Greens received 91,029 votes. In Ohio, in 2006, there was no independent left candidate for the US Senate seat. This election, Socialist Party candidate Dan Labotz received more than 25,000 votes. In NY, the parties running independently and to the left of the two main corporate parties received nearly 120,000 votes for Governor. In 2006, these parties received only 55,000 votes. These are modest but significant results, as they show that tens of thousands more Americans have already abandoned their support for the Democratic Party, and are looking for an electoral alternative. It is still a very small result, but has big implications for the future.
The Present Context
Elections are a snapshot of society at a given moment, and these elections took place in a very specific context. The world capitalist system is in its worse crisis since the end of World War II. The US capitalist system in particular is in a state of prolonged decay. Capitalism has a tendency to produce more goods than it can sell at a profit, due to its exploitation of the working class. In other words, with the wages they receive for their labor, workers are unable to buy back all the goods they produce, because a large portion of the wealth they create goes directly or indirectly to the capitalists in the form of profits. This means that the system periodically clogs up, as it has produced “too many” cars, homes, hospitals, etc. Not “too many” when it comes to meeting human needs, but too many to sell on the market at a profit.
When capitalism moves into crisis, it must destroy “excess” production and productive capacity before it can return to profitability. But this can only be done at the expense of the working class, by driving down wages and benefits, creating massive unemployment, and shutting down perfectly good factories. The downturn in the economy also means a reduction in tax revenues for the government, and this tends to force the government to increase taxes and borrowing, along with cuts in expenditures, starting with social expenditures. In other words, the working class is made to pay for the crisis.
Although the post-World War II boom ended in the 1970s, the capitalist class tried to deal with the crisis through a huge expansion of credit. That is why in the 1990s and 2000s, everyone had multiple credit cards and many people had 2nd or 3rd mortgages and home lines of credit. However, Marx explained that although the extension of credit can allow capitalism to continue to artificially expand for a time, it will eventually increase the severity of the crisis when the bill is due. We saw this with the economic meltdown of late 2008.
World capitalism is now going through what the capitalist economists call “de-leveraging.” Socialist Appeal explained this even before the 2008 election. We explained that Obama and the Democrats, who base themselves on the defense and continuation of sick American capitalism, would not be able to solve the economic crisis and would make the workers pay for it.
Many workers and youth had sincere illusions in Obama. These illusions were inflated by the media, which is owned and controlled by Big Business. However, these illusions were also supported by the leadership of the labor movement. The AFL-CIO and major unions like SEIU and the NEA led the workers to believe that if the Democrats won Congress and the White House, the economy would be back to health in no time, there would be jobs for all, universal healthcare, and changes in labor laws to help union organizing. In confirmation of what Socialist Appeal predicted, not one of these promises was delivered. We must speak the truth: the policy of the labor leaders has ended in complete failure.
By this year's mid-term elections, many workers and youth were already disgusted with the Democrats, and seeing no real alternative, did not vote at all. The Republicans, sensing victory and tapping into public outrage, were able to turn out more of their supporters. Millions of Americans are desperate for change – any change. Many of those who voted Democrat in 2008 to protest against Bush, now voted Republican to protest the party in power. In a two party system, the “other guy” is the main beneficiary of voter discontent. But the workers lose out either way.
The Tea Party
The so-called “Tea Party” movement was organized to channel the anger and frustration that certain sections of the middle class have over the economic crisis. The aim was to absorb this vocal layer of society into the Republican Party, while at the same time pushing the Republicans as a whole even further to the right. But as we have explained before, the Tea Party is not a genuine grass roots movement. It is largely funded by the Koch brothers, some of the wealthiest men in the country, and by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, owner of Fox News and numerous TV stations and newspapers. Its leaders also include former Republican majority leader Dick Armey, a mainstream politician.
Most of the Tea Party activists are older, white, middle class people. Their message is: “we want our country back.” This slogan means that they want America to be like it was in the post-war boom years. The problem is that the post-war economic boom was an aberration; it was not the norm for capitalism. The post-war boom was made possible by the enormous destruction of the Second World War, in which some 60 million people were killed worldwide. In the war's aftermath, American Big Business ruled the roost, as its rivals on the world stage had been bombed to bits. After World War Two, the US was the world's largest creditor and imperialist super power; now it is the world's largest debtor and its global might is waning. The simple reality is that American capitalism cannot return to this period, and to think that it can is truly Utopian.
The basic program of the Tea Party and the Republican Party is to cut government spending and taxes. But this will solve nothing. It will not lead to the massive job creation the unemployed hope for and will mean vicious attacks on the working class. To begin with, tax cuts will not spur private sector investment. With the capacity utilization rate of industry below 80%, any temporary upswing will not lead the capitalists to build new factories. They will just increase production in their present factories and squeeze even more out of existing workers before hiring on new ones.
What we can expect from Obama and the Republicans
Cuts in government spending, unpaid furloughs, layoffs, and salary cuts of government employees will lead to a decrease in demand and consumer spending. Further increases in unemployment will mean even further cuts in the wages of those still working, as workers are forced to compete with one another over scarce jobs. It will unleash a vicious downward cycle. The Republican Congress will become unpopular just as quickly as the Democratic Congress before it. Sooner, rather than later, the public will turn against them also. And in the not-too-distant future, a critical mass of workers will come to realize that there is no solution possible through either Big Business party.
Even if the Democrats had won, their program was basically the same. Given the reality of the economic situation, they would have also had to make “hard choices” and cut vital government programs and services. Obama’s bi-partisan debt reduction panel, which will report on December 1, 2010 at the latest, is expected to urge cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Therefore, we can expect that although Obama will fight with the Republicans as Bill Clinton did, eventually they will reach a “compromise,” and it will be the workers who will be made to pay and suffer.
The difference is between someone who wants to chop your leg off above the knee and someone who wants to cut it off below the knee. Socialist Appeal says: “Don’t chop off the leg at all!”
Missed Opportunity and How to Fight Back Now
We have already explained that the labor movement should have stood independent candidates in this election. These candidates could have explained the cause of the crisis and fought for socialist solutions. This would have tapped into the existing discontent, and even if these candidates did not win, it would have begun to build up a movement for the future. Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed yet again this last electoral cycle.
After the elections, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka correctly stated that the “anger is directed at everyone in Washington. Our election night survey showed that, quite frankly, voters don’t make a distinction between Democrats and Republicans on having a plan to strengthen the economy.” He added that the result “wasn’t a mandate for the policies most Republicans campaigned on... The election wasn’t an endorsement of tax cuts for the wealthy – or for undermining Social Security or the minimum wage.”
In fact, it is quite the opposite. An AFL-CIO poll conducted on election night in 100 swing districts found that while voters are dissatisfied with the direction the country is going, in most cases it is not because Obama has done too much, even among Republican voters. 77 percent of all voters and 63 percent of Republicans favor job creation by rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure of roads, bridges, schools and energy systems. 65 percent of all voters and 47 of Republicans are in favor of federal unemployment insurance benefits being extended for those who have lost their jobs and are unable to find new ones. In other words, workers want jobs. And only a minority of those polled want to raise the retirement age, privatize Social Security, or eliminate the Department of Education.
But strong words and polling results are not enough. The labor leadership needs to organize a fight back against the coming austerity program. The labor movement has tremendous potential power, but only if it is mobilized.
First of all, labor must confront the lies of the two Big Business parties. When they say we have to raise the retirement age because people now live longer, we should point out that the productivity of the American worker increased 94% from 1973 to 2007 and has increased even more since then. That means we should actually lower the retirement age! When they say there is no money for jobs, education, health care, and social programs, we should explain that there is more than enough money. Just look at the military and spy agency budgets and the fact that the 400 wealthiest Americans have each gained $3,300 million in inflation-adjusted dollars from 1982 to 2008!
With the colossal resources of organized labor, the unions could launch a national newspaper, radio and even television stations, to give a workers' perspective on current events and the economy, and break Americans from the lies and cheap shots of the corporate media.
Secondly, the labor leadership needs to mobilize its networks of shop stewards and labor activists, in some cases rebuild these networks, and organize rallies, protests and job actions to prevent any cut backs against workers in the private or public sector. Although modest in size, the October 2nd mobilization for jobs in Washington was the first of its kind since Reagan was in office. It was the first flexing of American labor's potential muscle in decades. These kinds of demonstrations of labor's strength must be continued and intensified at the national, regional, and local level.
In addition, labor must work hard to connect with and mobilize allies like students who are facing tuition increases and cuts in education. They must link up with the unemployed, who, if they are not united with those who do have jobs, will be used to divide the workers and drive down wages. This should also be linked with a strategy to organize new members into the unions, as the struggle at Jimmy John's in Minneapolis has shown.
Finally, the labor leaders must break entirely with the Democrats and Republicans andbuild a nation-wide labor party, so that workers everywhere can vote for their own candidates in future elections.
The labor movement has tremendous resources at its disposal to make this a reality. In the 2010 electoral cycle, the AFL-CIO provided the Democrats with 200,000 volunteers, handed out 19.4 million leaflets, made millions of phone calls, and knocked on 8.5 million doors. Just imagine if all of that effort had instead gone toward running independent labor candidates and building a labor party, instead of waging a desperate rear-guard action to back candidates who represent the interests of another class!
The members and supporters of the Workers International League are fighting for these policies in our unions, schools and workplaces. As a part of this effort, we have launched the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor, and invite those who agree with its aims to join the campaign and help make such a party a reality. This may be a long, tough fight, but the only alternative is not to resist. One thing is for sure; if there is no resistance, there will be much more suffering ahead, because the sick American capitalist system demands it.
The 2010 midterm elections are yet another contradictory turning point in the transformation of consciousness of the US working class. Despite the obstacles before us, we can look confidently to the future. After all, history is on our side, the numbers are on our side, and we can be sure that once the American workers get a concrete idea in their heads (such as the need for a labor party), they will move mountains to make it happen. Join Socialist Appeal and the WIL in the struggle for a better world!