The 2018 US midterms have come and gone and there were no major surprises. Both Democrats and Republicans worked to mobilise millions and opened their pocketbooks to do so—to the tune of $4 billion. This and the polarisation in society led to a huge rise in turnout, with a record 113 million voting, and over 30 million getting their votes in early, compared to 83 million who voted in 2014.
Midterm elections usually see a lower turnout than presidential elections. In the 2010 and 2014 midterms, the turnout was 41 percent and 36.4 percent respectively. In the 2016 presidential election, the turnout was 55 percent. This year, 49 percent of eligible voters cast a vote.
While these figures indicate a profound polarisation in society, the absence of a political party of the working class means that these elections can only give a partial and distorted reflection of the mood in society. The Democrats rode a modest wave of anti-Trump anger to retake the House of Representatives, while Trump’s racist pandering to the more backward, rural areas of the country helped Republicans increase their control of the Senate. Nevertheless, there were important trends revealed in this electoral snapshot of the mood of the country, which provides an opportunity for revolutionary Marxists to yet again make our case for a fundamental political and economic change.
The first thing we must note is that, during the whole of the arduous and polarised campaign, not a single issue of real importance to working people was front and center. For example, where was the debate about the high cost of housing and the related increase in homelessness? Or the need for higher wages and unions in the workplace? What about the need for free education and the cancellation of the student debt? And although some called for free universal healthcare, no one presented a comprehensive plan to pay for it out of the profits of the pharmaceutical, health insurance, and other medical giants—or their nationalisation under workers’ control. Nor was there any focus on the movement to stop police killings and racism, the need for generous paid parental leave and daycare, or a plan for major infrastructure projects.
The bourgeois media and politicians set the tone and frame the issues. It is in the class interest of the capitalists of both parties to misdirect and create confusion. The Democrats and Republicans did not want to address real issues as this would expose the crisis of American capitalism. Trump tried to instill fear, creating scapegoats to distract people from the real causes of their economic problems. And the Democrats basically limited their campaign to “for or against” Trump—as though simply checking his power would lead to a wonderful life.
The real state of affairs
Booms and slumps are a constant feature of capitalism, and since 1974, the slumps have done more to deteriorate quality of life than the booms have done to increase it as the lion’s share of the wealth created by the working has gone to enrich the richest 1 percent. The present recovery—the second-longest in post-World War II history—has lasted 9 years and 5 months. As a result, many people do think things are better than they were in 2008, at the height of the last crisis, but they also think the economy is not giving them the living standard they expect. There is a generalised feeling that life is quite difficult for workers, and for the youth in particular.
The employment figures published by the White House hide the fact that some 5–7 million workers have dropped out of the workforce in the past decade, leaving the US labor force participation rate at a dismal 40-year low. This is another form of hidden unemployment. As of this summer, 22 million people are underemployed—either earning too little to make ends meet, or stuck with a part-time job. Nearly half of the employed workforce, 60 million workers, are earning $15 or less, while over 40 million workers scrape by on less than $12.
A referendum on Trump?
Trump was elected with 46.1 percent of the vote. His core base was the racist petty bourgeoisie and a small wing of the far right of the ruling class, as most of the ruling class supported Hillary Clinton. He also received the votes of many white workers who, without a class alternative, were looking to protest the status quo. In 2018, the Republicans largely held on to this vote, while pretty much everyone else voted against them. It is significant, however, that the Democrats won back some areas lost in the key rust belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, which tipped the balance to Trump in 2016. As an example, Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown cruised to a third term in a state that Trump won by eight points two years ago. And the workers of Wisconsin finally succeeded in kicking out Governor Scott Walker, though we might add, it was no thanks to the Democrats!
In the two years that Trump has been in power, he has done very little of substance—unless inflammatory rhetoric and tweets can be counted as such. He could not even get the Republicans in the Senate to support repeal of Obamacare. GDP has risen and there been a steady increase in (mostly low-wage) jobs, but this is largely due to inertia from the already-in-motion recovery that preceded his election—although he would claim full credit and point to his tax cuts as the reason. As for “America First,” Trump’s trade policy is actually leading to rising contradictions, especially for soybean and pork farmers and businesses that purchase steel and aluminum. And what about his promise of massive infrastructural investment? That too has gone by the wayside.
Now that they control the House, the Democrats will work to tie Trump into knots with their myriad investigations, lawsuits, and intrigues. However, one thing that is likely off the agenda is impeachment—that battle cry of so many liberals and even some on the left who think there is a panacea solution to the systemic crisis. Nancy Pelosi, who, after eight years of being on the outside looking in may once again become Speaker of the House, has said she will not support it.
Marxists understand that impeachment is nothing but another distraction from the real issues. Trump is unfit to rule because the system he defends and represents is unfit rule—not because of this or that legalistic technicality or malfeasance. US workers cannot place their hopes in the capitalist Democratic Party to get rid of Trump—who would, in any case, only be replaced by the equally reactionary Mike Pence. The task before us is not only to get rid of Trump but to get rid of the rotten system of capitalism itself.
The next two years will see a further weakening of Trump and we can expect him to continue to lash out at scapegoats to create distractions. All of this will make Trump’s reelection in 2020 more complicated, though nothing is guaranteed, as the Democrats are experts at seizing defeat from the jaws of victory. But the real elephant in the room is the coming economic crisis, which will upset all the carefully laid plans and set new parameters for economic, social, and political struggle.
In a two-party system, those who wanted to oppose Trump felt they had to vote Democrat, and there was a definite swing in their direction. Lesser evilism was seriously undermined in 2016, and cannot last forever. But the truth is concrete, and until something comes along to replace the current parties, there will be a continuous and contradictory back and forth between them.
The Democrats won a total 230 seats out of 435, in the House of Representatives, giving them control of this body. Even where they lost, there was a large swing to Democrats. In Kentucky, Republican Andy Barr won by 22 points in 2016. This time, he won by just three points—a swing of 19 percent against Trump. In Texas, where Beto O’Rourke campaigned “free of corporate money” and for single-payer healthcare, there was a swing of six points against the Republicans compared to the 2016 presidential election and a 13-point swing against Ted Cruz compared with his last election in 2012.
The Democrats also won the governorship in 23 of the 36 states where this office was up for election, including Kansas, Illinois, and the afore-mentioned Wisconsin, and came close in other states as well.
In New York State, the Democrats now have control of both houses of the state legislature and all statewide positions. The Democrats now have no excuses for not passing major reforms like statewide single-payer healthcare and free education from daycare to grad school—or for not repealing the reactionary Taylor Law.
Despite the passage of reactionary measures that will most likely lead to restricted access to abortions in Alabama and West Virginia, several ballot measures shed light on the rumblings beneath the surface. For example, proposed minimum wage hikes were approved in Arkansas ($11) and Missouri ($12). Earlier this year, so-called right-to-work legislation in Missouri was defeated by 68 percent of the vote in a referendum. These votes, in areas largely dominated by the Republicans, show that when given a chance to vote concretely in their own interests, workers will do so. It also shows that a future mass workers’ party will be able to win support on a class basis, even from those who today consider themselves Republicans.
2018 was also a banner year for women candidates. College-educated women preferred Democrats by 18 percent, as compared to 2012 when this same group voted for Mitt Romney over Obama by a margin of 6 percent. At least 96 women are projected to win seats in the House of Representatives. Two Muslim women and a Native American woman were also elected for the first time. All of this represents an instinctive rejection of Trump’s disgusting sexism and comes after the rise of the #MeToo movement.
But we must also ask, what policies will most of these candidates defend? Experience shows that a capitalist party can’t solve the problems of the working class. Working-class women have working-class problems and need working-class candidates and solutions. Since neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can deliver, we can be sure that working-class women will be at the forefront of a future mass socialist party.
One person, one vote?
Most people would be astonished to know that, although 45 million people voted for Democrats in the US Senate races, and the Republicans received just 33 million votes—the Republicans actually gained seats! How is this possible?
Elections in the US are distorted by the very structure of its 'democracy.' One person, one vote is alleged to be a basic principle of bourgeois democracy, yet American capitalism does not abide by this principle. The US Constitution of 1787 was ratified by a handful of white, male property owners over the age of twenty—no one else was allowed to vote on it—and even then, it was just barely approved. The US House of Representatives is the more representative legislative branch, but the founders created the Senate as well as two other branches of government with powers to stop the House in its tracks—just in case ordinary people ever got control of it.
Furthermore, from the Senate to the Electoral College, more sparsely populated states have a weighted advantage over their urban counterparts because every state automatically gets two Senators, and at least one congressperson, which gives them a minimum of three electoral votes, no matter how many people live there. As an example, Wyoming has 580,000 people, two Senators, and one congressperson. This means it gets one electoral vote for every 193,333 people. But New York State, with its 19.85 million people, 27 congresspersons and two Senators, only gets one for every 684,482.
It is even more skewed when it comes to the Senate. Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana have a combined population of less than 2.4 million, but get six votes in the Senate. Missouri has a population of six million people and only two votes. California has a population of nearly 40 million people—more than the whole of Canada—and yet it also has just two Senators. Washington, DC, a city of more than 700,000 people, does not have any Senators or a voting congressperson.
In addition to this, millions of felons are disqualified from voting at all and there is a nonstop effort to deny or discourage poor workers from voting, especially Native Americans, black people, and Latinos.
A missed opportunity for the left
The rise of the “socialist” label was a significant development in these elections. As a result of Sanders’s meteoric 2016 run, socialism is now front and center in American politics and many candidates openly identify themselves as such. However, there is socialism and there is socialism. And it is not that the Democrats have moved to the left but much of the left moved to the Democrats—who are only too happy to accommodate and co-opt these candidates, however well-meaning they may be.
Three DSA members, who identified themselves as socialists, ran for Congress as Democrats, with two of them winning: Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez in New York (the youngest-ever woman elected to the House). In Maine, independent Senator Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats, won reelection, but the Democratic candidate was Zak Ringelstein, a DSA candidate who won more than 10 percent of the vote in the ranked-choice voting system. Julia Salazar, another DSA member, was elected as one of New York’s Democratic State Senators.
All of this shows that people are looking to the left and are open to and looking for socialist ideas. However, we think it was a mistake for these candidates to run as Democrats. It was also a mistake to run on a reformist programme that seeks only a kinder, gentler capitalism—at a time when the crisis makes it impossible for the system to deliver anything of substance. If people associate “socialism” with broken promises and a continuation of the status quo, the current revival of interest in these ideas could turn into its opposite.
This is why we believe the 2018 midterms were yet another missed opportunity for the working class and the left. At this stage of the class struggle, we believe that election campaigns should be used as opportunities to raise the consciousness of workers, to help them organise, expose the system, and crucially, point to the need for a mass socialist party and a workers’ government. Recent polls have shown that 62 percent of Americans want a “third party” and this rises to 71 percent when it comes to millennials. According to CNN, nearly four out of ten voters said their vote was a sign of opposition Trump. This is an incredible statistic since it means that roughly four out of five who voted Democrat were not voting “for” them but “against” Trump.
However, we must be clear that, no matter how much workers “want” their own party, this cannot be wished into existence—it must be built! The first step towards actually building such a party is to have a perspective to do so. The IMT’s perspective is that the historic impasse of the capitalist system—with the instability and attacks on workers it will bring—is preparing the way for an intensification of the class struggle. Only a workers’ government with socialist policies can really beat Trump and capitalism.
Bernie Sanders—with his mass base of supporters, contributors, and voters—could have built a mass working-class socialist party. But his capitulation to the Democrats and top-down control of the “Our Revolution” organisation cut across that opportunity. Since then, and especially after Trump’s election, many people awakened to left politics joined DSA, which grew from 6,000 members to 50,000. DSA is not a mass party, but it is the largest socialist organisation in the country. It is in a unique position to use its rising profile to put forward bold socialist policies and the need for a break with the Democrats—an essential first step in the fight for socialism.
For example, if DSA had stood five or ten candidates for Congress, either on a socialist line or as independents, running on a socialist programme and calling for the building of mass working-class socialist party, it could have generated even more interest for socialist ideas. DSA could have mobilised a nationwide campaign with members and supporters everywhere helping out and possibly writing in candidates in their local areas. Given the mood in the electorate, these candidates would have made a good showing and may have even won a seat. And even if they were all defeated this time around, it could have led to hundreds of thousands of new DSA members and an experience that could be built on in the years ahead.
Instead, Bernie Sanders and most of the DSA basically backed the Democrats. Where DSA ran candidates, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, they ran them as Democrats on a program acceptable to the Democrats. Rather than using the election to raise political consciousness, they are sowing illusions and disappointment which will be revealed over the next period. As it is not organized as a political party, DSA has no way of holding its elected members accountable. Their candidates will come under enormous pressure from the Democratic leadership to fall into line—with the offer of both carrots and sticks. They will also be associated with all of the reactionary policies of the Democratic Party. This only adds to political confusion instead of clarifying the class interests of the Democrats and the need for a workers’ alternative.
As for the labour leaders, they played their usual lamentable role in this election. Like the Democrats, they seem to hope that, if they keep their heads down long enough, demographic changes will be enough to nudge out the Republicans, thus guaranteeing the rule of “worker-friendly” Democrats. Never mind that that party has never had the interests of the workers in mind! And though they mostly supported the Democrats, and in a few areas, like Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional district, the AFL-CIO supported Republican Brian Fitzpatrick and helped him win reelection. The class collaborationist outlook of the labour leaders is a dead end and will only change when serious left oppositions are built in the trade unions.
What is to be done?
Lenin explained that without theory, there is no revolutionary movement. It seems as though the entire left—not just in the US, but around the world—is demoralised and pessimistic. On the other hand, the International Marxist Tendency is exceedingly optimistic! Why this disparity? Because we take what Lenin said seriously. We know that if we are serious about taking on capitalism, we need to take a scientific approach. Otherwise, we end up thinking the way our class enemy wants us to think—like the reformists. No matter how good their intentions, they end up following the lead of the ruling class and get trapped in the mentality that capitalism is almighty and will last forever and that the best we can do is pressure them for reforms.
But with a scientific approach, we can see the size and potential power of the working class—and the growing weakness and divisions among the capitalists. We know that the workers will eventually be forced to fight back against the system, whether it has a revolutionary leadership or not. But if it wants to fight and win, it must build that leadership, and that leadership must be guided by theory—the concentrated lessons of the past experience and struggles of the working class. This is why we must continue building this leadership now. If we succeed in accumulating quality today, we will develop much greater quantity in the heat of future events.
Marxism is still a small force but we have gained much over the last period. With clear ideas on the need for class independence and a socialist revolution, we are confident we can make even further strides in the years ahead. The objective conditions for our growth are highly favorable because neither the capitalists nor the reformists will be able to solve the system’s contradictions. By standing against the tide of lesser evilism we have been able to differentiate ourselves from those on the left who capitulated to that pressure.
For many workers, the question of who is the “greater” or “lesser” evil is not at all clear—and understandably so. Instead of throwing ourselves onto the miniature “blue wave” of class collaboration with the Democratic Party, the IMT puts our confidence in the working class. What will smash the wobbling two-party system is not the tepid “anyone but Trump” programme of the Democrats, but the tsunami of class struggle that is on the horizon. It is impossible to predict precisely when it will come; but when it does, socialists need all hands on deck and a clear plan to help channel all that energy into revolutionary change. If you agree with this analysis, we invite you to work with and join the International Marxist Tendency.