An Initial Look at the U.S. Mid-Term Elections

Bush Bruised

This year's mid-term elections mark yet another step forward in the rapidly-changing consciousness of the U.S. working class.  Every such change needs to be examined carefully from a dialectical, Marxist, working class perspective so we can understand and approach it accordingly.   Workers' consciousness is not fixed in stone. We can't have a one-sided approach to what is an infinitely complex process, especially in a country as rife with contradictions as the U.S.

To begin, we must understand that this is not 2000, 2002, 2004 or even early 2006.  This is late 2006 – 5 years after September 11, 4 years into a jobless "recovery", 3 years into the Iraq War and occupation, 1 year after Katrina, and after a seemingly endless wave of corporate and political scandals.  The elections also come just months after a massive mobilization of immigrant workers and with the Latin American revolution spreading across the continent. 

Turning points such as these bring with them a shaking up of the routine of every day life, and present an opportunity for us to connect the ideas of revolutionary Marxism with the reality of life under capitalism – provided we approach them from a dialectical point of view.

Many people often take a "ho-hum" approach to these kinds of elections because they instinctively know that nothing fundamental will change as a result of the shift in the balance of political power between one big business party and another.  But given the entire context of the world and U.S. economic, political, and military situation, these elections do mark a definite shift, at least in how many working and young people perceive them.

“Enough is Enough”

The result represents a wholesale rejection of Bush's policies.  The Democrats have retaken both houses of Congress.  This entirely confirms the perspective we outlined in 2002, when we explained that due to a lack of a genuine mass working class alternative, the Democrats would inevitably be back in order to harness the left-moving of the energy of the inevitable reaction against Bush's policies. We wrote this immediately after the Democrats' route in the last mid-term elections, at a time when many people said the party was finished, that Bush was now omnipotent would ride roughshod over the working class, getting away with whatever he wanted.

This seemed to be the case for a period.  For the last few years, Bush has moved might and main to turn the clock back eighty years or more, with attacks on the labor movement, Social Security, health care, education, and the most aggressive and arrogant imperialist policy in history. But we explained consistently that this power had limits, and that there would eventually be a reaction against his policies.  We explained that he would regret being re-elected, and that the ruling class would again call on the Democrats to channel this discontent along safe lines.

After 6 full years of almost total control by Bush and the neo-cons, their agenda has been thrown backwards – in spite of the Democrats – who were one of the most important supports to his administration all along.  It is only because they are incapable of offering any real opposition to Bush's policies or a program to genuinely improve working people's lives that it took them so many electoral cycles to regain some measure of political power.

It is also not at all insignificant that Donald Rumsfeld was the first public casualty of the Republican debacle.  Discontent over the Iraq War and concerns about terrorism were major factors in the elections, but so were corruption in government, the state of the economy, health care, and education.

Lack of an alternative

The Democrats are euphoric and are riding high.  They will almost certainly offer some cosmetic scraps that they will try and pass off as genuine "worker friendly" policies.  They will inevitably benefit from a certain "honeymoon" period which – again, due to the lack of an alternative, may last longer than we think – though it cannot last long in historic terms. The system is in such crisis that they cannot offer any significant reforms.  But after the far-more-openly-right-wing years of Republican rule, it is clear that many people will have sincere illusions in them.

This is a contradictory process, and we must be clear that for millions of people fed up with Bush, these elections represent a sincere shift to the left, at least within the context of the narrow limits of the current U.S. political system.

For the vast majority of American workers, getting the vote out for the Democrats seems a much easier path than building a mass class struggle current within the unions, of building a mass party of labor, of breaking with the Democrats, etc.  They hope against hope (though they may know better deep down), that the Democrats will somehow miraculously really defend their interests this time.  They will have to go through a "school of hard knocks" and learn the bitter truth the hard way, on the basis of their own experiences.  As Marxists we need to be there with our class, patiently explaining the need for a genuine political alternative by and for working people: a mass party of labor based on the unions.

Let us be 100% clear: the Democrats are a party of, by and for the capitalist class. They are in no way shape or form a reformist social-democratic party of the masses along the lines of the European Social Democracy. There is absolutely no question of Marxists working within it or attempting to transform or “reform” it into a genuine workers’ party.  But it is a fact that many people do sincerely see them as a "left" alternative. Through patient explanation, the Marxists will be able to connect with the most advanced workers and youth – those who today have illusions in the Democrats – but who tomorrow will be bitterly angry at the betrayals of what they thought was "their" party.

“Life Teaches”

Millions are already against both corporate parties and are seeking alternatives. The relatively large number of votes won by third parties is an expression of this. But at the moment, many of the most politically active individuals we encounter will consider themselves die-hard Democrats, having forgotten for the moment all the betrayals and sell-outs.  But these betrayals and sell-outs are an organic part of the Democratic party, and will seem especially scandalous after the hopes raised by this week's rejection of Bush and co.  It is on the basis of this real-life experience that the consciousness of millions of workers and young people will shift further and further to the left in the coming years.

However, we should not underestimate the feeling of empowerment many will feel in the next period after the seemingly "hopeless" and "desperate" years under Bush's apparently all-powerful control. Illusions in the Democrats by certain layers of the workers and youth are inevitable for a certain period.

It is significant that the turnout of young voters was the highest since records were first kept 20 years ago (although still a small percentage of the overall potential voters).  These are people moving AWAY from Bush, voting AGAINST his policies.  But as revolutionary Marxists, we must give them something to vote FOR. We must maintain a friendly but firm approach to those who have illusions in the Democrats, explaining patiently and proving in practice that only a revolutionary change of society can solve the problems that affect us all. In this work, the world revolution and in particular the events in Latin America will play a key role.

Through their own actions, the Democrats will expose themselves as the most loyal defenders of the capitalist system.  We must ask those with illusions in them why they don't repeal Taft-Hartley, NAFTA, and the Patriot Act, or provide universal health care, housing and education for all, not to mention their foreign policy, which will of necessity remain one of imperialist domination, even if the overt aggressiveness is softened somewhat.

We should not be taken by surprise if the Democrats do enact some very modest reforms, such as raising the minimum wage (though it would not be enough to bring it into line with inflation since the minimum wage peaked in 1968); or if they move to pull the troops from Iraq (they risk breaking the military if they don't); or if they pump some funding into education and Medicare, etc. We need to explain that these measures are all well and good, but that they fall far short of what working people and youth need, that they in no way make up for the massive cuts we have suffered since the late 1970s (under administrations of both parties), and above all, that they don't affect the fundamental economic relations in society. Although the labor bureaucrats will loudly proclaim that their electoral strategy of pouring millions of dollars into supporting a bosses’ party succeeded in “defeating the right”, we must remain firm in our call for a genuine mass working class alternative.

We must explain that with the current state of the US and world economies, the ruling class cannot offer any serious concessions, let alone concessions on the scale of the New Deal or Great Society. Even if they were somehow able to do so, it would only be to save their system for future intensified exploitation of the working class. Concessions are never "given" due to the good will of the ruling class – they are the by products of mass struggle.  Even the most modest concessions are unsafe as long as the capitalist class remains in political and economic power. This has been made painfully clear in the recent period, as the bosses and their parties stripped us of nearly everything we fought for over decades.

“Sharp, sudden, changes”

It is clear that the American people are more frustrated than they were just a few months ago, and they will accordingly make sharper demands on the Democrats. This will provide us with opportunities to explain our ideas. As revolutionary Marxists we must differentiate ourselves from the shrill denunciations of the sects while still breaking people's illusions in the Democrats.

Above all, the result shows just how quickly and suddenly things can change in the current volatile world situation.  Just 4 years ago, many were proclaiming the death of the Democratic Party.  Now, the Republicans have gone from apparently unbeatable to “on the ropes”, virtually overnight. While millions still have certain illusions in the 2 parties, what’s clear is that they can change their minds quickly.  A divided government will only further exacerbate the contradictions of the Bush administration and the among the Democrats themselves, who cannot keep up the "worker friendly" charade for long.

In conclusion, we refer our readers to our analysis of the 2002 Mid-Term elections, which is well worth re-reading, above all for the method used in drawing the conclusions:

4 years ago we explained:

"However, despite their current ineptitude, and the fact that the masses in effect rejected them this election, the Democrats remain a powerful tool for the ruling class. In the absence of a traditional party of labor, the ruling class will try to use the Democrats and their historic connection with the AFL-CIO to derail any movement of the workers. At the present time, however, it appears that the ruling class prefers to use the much more overtly aggressive policies of Bush and his clique. But this will not last for very long. What the ruling class fails to take into consideration at this point is the fact that the American working class is still fresh and undefeated – they will move at a certain stage. There is tremendous discontent beneath the surface. This is what they did with Bill Clinton, when dissatisfaction with the Reagan years was growing.  It is true that historically, due to pressure from the masses and on the basis of the post-war economic boom the Democrats were forced to grant some concessions to the working class. They lived off this reputation for decades, but their true face has now been shown, with Clinton passing some of the most anti-working class legislation in decades. He did the dirty work for the capitalist class – albeit with a charming smile on his face. Although their reputation is now in a shambles, their fortunes will be revived for a time at a certain stage when the capitalists can no longer rule openly through Bush and co.

"The masses are still in a bit of shock after September 11, have adopted a 'wait and see' approach, and have yet to mobilize on a mass scale. But they certainly will, and in what is essentially a one party system with two different faces, it is inevitable that there will be a swing back to the Democrats in the future. But that won't last long either. Lenin was fond of saying that 'life teaches'.  Most people do not learn from books or theory, but from the school of hard knocks. And there are plenty of hard knocks in store for the working class as long as capitalism is allowed to continue. In the convulsive period which we have entered on a world scale, there are massive shocks and changes being prepared, especially in the heart of world capitalism.  The monotonous swinging back and forth between the two parties is coming to an end. Sudden, sharp changes are on the order of the day."

(From: US Mid-Term Election 2002: The factors that led to the Republican Victory)

The above lines are now coming true. While a mass working class movement has yet to emerge, the simmering discontent is starting to boil over, and yesterday's elections are just one symptom of this.  The longer it takes for the movement to acquire a focused and conscious expression, the more explosive it will be when it finally erupts on a mass scale.

Revolutionary future

The illusions in the Democrats will be burned out of workers' consciousness through bitter experience.  As this occurs, things in the U.S. will really start to heat up, as working Americans reject a simple yo-yo-like return to the Republicans and move to create a genuine mass working class alternative.  With these elections, the American working has begun to say "enough is enough".  It is only the beginning of a process that will continue to accelerate and sharpen in the coming months and years.

History is on our side – but time isn't. We must prepare now – during the "calm before the storm" – for the historic tasks before us. The socialist transformation of the United States will be the death knell of world capitalism and the beginning of a new stage for humanity. This is a perspective worth fighting for.  Join the Workers International League in the struggle for a better world!


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