A First Look at U.S. Election 2004: “Democracy” Rears Its Ugly Head

“I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it.” – Eugene Debs

The U.S. Presidential Election of 2004 marks yet another turning point in the rapidly changing consciousness of the American working class. The result, which should come as no real surprise to readers of Marxist.com, dashed the hopes of millions who sincerely thought they could get rid of Bush by voting for a “lesser evil”.

The Democrats won overwhelming support in large population centers with heavy concentrations of trade unionists, minorities and the poor in general. These voters are clearly looking for a solution to the economic and social crisis they are facing. For millions, support for the Democrats was a healthy rejection of Bush’s policies, and a shift to the “left” (at least by American standards). For lack of an alternative, many voters held their noses and voted for Kerry. But by placing their hopes in the Democrats, not only did they not get the “lesser evil”; they got the “greater evil”. John Kerry said far more than he intended when in his concession speech he declared, “We cannot win this election.” The main lesson to be drawn from the 2004 election is that working people cannot rely on the representatives of another class to fight our battles for us. We can rely only on our own forces and organizations, and must build a mass party of labor that can truly defend our interests.

Before all the votes were even counted, Kerry called Bush to concede defeat and congratulate him on his victory. The main theme of their conversation was the need for “healing” and “national unity”. In Kerry’s own words, there is a “desperate need for unity”. Bush also highlighted this point in his acceptance speech. Both bourgeois candidates realize that in the heat of electoral battle, they have raised the hopes and ire of millions, especially among supporters of the Democrats, whose genuine aspirations for a betterment of their situation were betrayed once again. America is polarized like never before, and as the pent up rage and frustration that is building up beneath the surface has not found its expression at the polls, it will necessarily explode in other ways in the coming period. It is therefore their top priority to call for unity, forgiveness, respect, mutual understanding, etc. In other words, now that the election is over, everyone who actually thought voting could make a difference should just go home for another four years and let the millionaire professional politicians take care of business. This is precisely what working people should not do. They need to start preparing now for the battles that lie ahead.

In an eerie but not surprising result reminiscent of 2000, the U.S. Presidential election was at first too close to call. Not surprisingly, Bush carried the rural, traditionally Republican strongholds in the South and much of the West, while Kerry succeeded in winning the more densely populated North East, much of the Middle West, and the West Coast. Florida was close, but in the end Bush carried it. This time around, the controversy focused on the hotly contested “swing state” of Ohio.

It is fitting that Ohio was the final battleground for the world’s most powerful position. In many ways, it is a microcosm of America: a stark contrast between conservative rural areas and massive industrial cities gutted by the economic crisis. One out of every 23 jobs has been lost there since 2000. Per capita, more manufacturing jobs have been lost in Ohio under Bush’s watch than in any other state. Despite a huge decline over the past two decades, Ohio still has higher-than-average union density of 16.8 percent, as compared to 13.1 percent nationally. In what is a fittingly American contradiction, workers in Ohio are as likely to be card-carrying union members as they are to be card-carrying members of the conservative National Rifle Association. Nonetheless, it would seem that this would be ripe ground for anyone running against Bush and his devastating economic policies. In the end, as we explained was a very real possibility in our 2004 U.S. Perspectives document, the Democrats failed to inspire people to come out and vote for them, allowing the conservative rump of American society to choose for them.

Marx explained that bourgeois democracy is just that: democracy for the bourgeoisie. Every few years, we get to choose which representative of the bosses will mis-represent us in government, pursuing policies that benefit only the ruling class. This year is no exception. Workers, minorities, women, and the poor in general are the real losers. Regardless of the final result, it was clear from the beginning that the capitalist class would remain in power while the interests of working people would continue to be trampled underfoot. Another four years of Bush will mean a continuation of the ruling class’ blatant war on workers at home and abroad. If Kerry had managed to scrape by with a victory, he would have continued in all fundamental ways where Bush left off, albeit with a “kinder, gentler” face.To think otherwise is to pull the wool over your own eyes.

Either way, we would still be plagued by the occupation of Iraq, the “war on terror”, Taft-Hartley, a soaring budget deficit, economic crisis, militarization, the Patriot Act, and a disintegrating social infrastructure. These are all functions of the capitalist system – not of this or that individual. Electoral promises are so many empty words. Remember, Bush ran on an “America first” platform, rejecting foreign intervention and “nation-building”. In the end, reality came knocking and he acted accordingly in order to defend American corporate interests. While individual characteristics obviously affect the details, the fundamental interests defended by both candidates were the same. Both of them are arch defenders of the ruling class’ interests – that’s the job they were competing for.


Bush, Kerry, and all other capitalist politicians are quick to lecture other countries about the need for democracy and free and fair elections. These pronouncements are the height of cynicism. It is common knowledge that the United States, promoted as a “beacon of democracy” for the rest of the world, is in reality far from it. There is no such thing as a “free and fair” election, and the veneer of democracy is used only to conceal the fact that just a handful of very rich people call the shots on all decisive issues.

In a winner-take-all presidential campaign, the victor gets complete control over the executive branch of the U.S. government. Countless cabinet members and federal judges are appointed, not elected, and are almost always overwhelmingly approved by the Congress (the Democrats approved of all of Bush’s arch-reactionary appointments the last time around – folks like Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Rove, and Wolfowitz). These are the people who run the day-to-day machinery of the government, and they are not accountable to the voters in any way.

And of course there’s the Electoral College, a set up in which there is no popular, direct election, but rather, a vote for “electors” chosen by the political parties themselves. With only a handful of exceptions, the winner of a state’s popular vote gets all of its electoral votes. Electoral votes are granted based on population, but as each state gets a minimum of 3 electors no matter how small the population (2 for each Senator, 1 for each member of the House of Representatives), it favors the more conservative rural areas of the country. Take a state like North Dakota, which receives 3 electors for its mere 650,000 residents (one elector per 217,000 residents). Compare that to New York with its 31 electoral votes and population of 20,000,000 (one elector per 645,000 residents). This time around, Bush did win the popular vote as well, so there was no tremendous controversy over the Electoral College, but it is not uncommon for the winner of the popular vote to lose the presidency, which is hardly a shining example of democracy.

“Irregularities” in the Voting Process

The two big-business parties quickly resolved the question of Ohio, in order to save the electoral system from another confidence-shaking ordeal like the one we saw in 2000. But this is not to say that everything went smoothly. In 2000 all attention was focused on Florida, but the reality is that fraud and malfeasance are widespread across the country. During the most recent elections, there were innumerable incidents of fraud, vote rigging, trickery, deceptions, and intimidation. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There were well-documented cases of tens if not hundreds of thousands of missing absentee ballots, countless instances of fraudulent registrations and voter lists, and glaring errors committed by the supposedly foolproof ATM-like touch-screen machines used by an estimated 45 million voters. As reported by Yahoo! News, voters calling in to an election-day hotline reported serious problems with the machines, from improperly tallied choices to frozen screens that left their votes in limbo. How is it that ATM machines are infallible when it comes to distributing cash, but they cannot be programmed to register votes accurately, especially when we take into consideration that they’ve had four years to correct the problems of 2000?

In Daytona Beach, FL, 13,244 early votes were lost when poll workers cut the power to a vote-counting machine. They claim the votes we re-entered manually, but in the commotion of Election Day across an entire continent, it seems unlikely that all such mistakes were corrected. Poll monitors in Philadelphia reported numerous problems, especially in black neighborhoods that included broken voting machines and attempts to intimidate voters. Voters in Maryland said congressional candidates were left off ballots, while some in Florida told hotline volunteers that their ballots had already been filled out when they stepped up to vote. Others showed up to find that the polls were closed early, or received letters in the days before telling them that due to projected voter turnout, Republicans should vote on Tuesday, while Democrats would vote on Wednesday. Investigative reporter Greg Palast estimates that some one million eligible voters, most of them poor minorities, were wiped from the registration roles before the polling even began.

In another effort to intimidate voters, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan “challengers” could challenge the legitimacy of voters’ registrations. The registration process is often cumbersome and time-consuming, which deters many from bothering in the first place. Now, after jumping through those hoops, you now run the risk of having your right to vote “challenged” at the polling station by a member of a political party seeking to disqualify you. At one major university, 6,000 students were told they could not vote since their names were “lost” from the registration list. In order to address these problems, many polling places provided “provisional ballots” for those who could not confirm they were legitimate voters. The theory is that these votes would be counted later, if they could confirm that they were indeed eligible. But in practice, few if any of these votes will ever be counted, as the result has already been finalized. The same applies to the thousands of absentee ballots filled out before Election Day.

And what was the Democrats’ answer to all of this? To send out teams of lawyers to monitor the elections. Any party truly concerned about preventing fraud, would have mobilized the masses to monitor the elections themselves, instead of relying on the services of a “flying picket” of high-paid lawyers and party hacks. Their deep-seated fear and loathing of the masses they purport to represent is clearly evident. Unsurprisingly, voters’ mistrust of the electoral process was high even among those who voted. Pre-election polls found that nationally, only 51 percent felt votes would be counted fairly, while in Florida and Ohio, that figure dropped to just 40 percent.

As always in American politics, big money called the shots. The 2004 election was the longest, most expensive political campaign in American history. A combined $600 million was spent on TV and radio ads alone, twice the total from 2000. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of what could have been done with that money instead. One young voter, exasperated by the endless stream of patriotic and negative attack ads, summed up her attitude to the election by noting, “It’s the only way to make the ads stop.”

Advertisers don’t spend billions each year for nothing. They know very well that effective advertising can cause people to buy useless products they don’t need. The same applies to politicians. Commentators openly stated that such and such a candidate had an overwhelming “money advantage”, and was therefore most likely to win – and in nearly every case, did win. Only the wealthy can afford to campaign, either by drawing on their personal wealth, or by raising big donations from other wealthy individuals and corporations. These donations most definitely come with strings attached. As we say in America, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

We’ve described the accelerating polarization of American society many times on this site. The gap between rich and poor is greater than ever before, and increases every day. This has led to deep class contradictions in society which are being expressed in a distorted way due to the lack of a viable working class alternative. Rich, conservative voters generally supported Bush, while poor, more “liberal” voters generally supported Kerry. It’s therefore no surprise that Bush won among voters with family incomes above $100,000 and weekly churchgoers. Three-fourths of white voters who described themselves as born-again Christians or evangelicals supported Bush. By contrast, roughly 90 percent of black voters cast their ballot for Kerry, which also comes as no surprise. What was surprising was the fall in support the Democrats suffered from Latinos, with only 56 percent voting for Kerry.

Conventional wisdom held that greater voter turnout would favor the Democrats, and the Republicans did their best to keep the numbers low. But in the end, the Republican grass roots “get out the vote” mobilization was equal to that of the Democrats. Especially in rural areas which were practically a given for Bush, they mobilized voters, pushing up the overall numbers statewide, therefore handing Bush important electoral votes in states like Florida and Ohio. It is interesting, however, that while there was a record turnout in some areas, especially in swing states, neither party was able to mobilize their core “base” any more than they did in 2000. Bush did not increase his support among the religious right, and Kerry was unable to increase the level of black or union households who supported him. Even when confronted with Bush’s arrogance and openly reactionary policies, millions stayed at home, unimpressed with Kerry’s bland “opposition”. At least with Bush they know what they are getting.

Bush would like to promote his “historic” victory as a mandate from the American people, but this does not square with the truth. When we take into consideration the millions of Americans who were unable to vote because they are incarcerated, undocumented, or purged from the voter lists for a variety of reasons, it would not be unreasonable to state that Bush was probably elected by only 20 percent or so of Americans. Compare this with voter turnout in recent elections in Venezuela, where fully 90 percent participated.

We Say it Once Again: The Democrats Offer No Solution

Many will ask how it is possible that the most incompetent, arrogant, ignorant, and hated president of recent times remained in office when he shouldn’t even be there in the first place. Many will paint a broad picture of Americans as “ignorant cattle”, willingly being “led to the slaughter”. This would be a profoundly mistaken impression of the American working class. The reason for this contradiction is not that difficult to understand when approached from a class perspective. The root cause of this result is due to the big business-dominated, 2-party system that currently has a stranglehold on American political life. It was not the state of Ohio that decided the election, but the fact that most Americans do not see an alternative in either party. In their “Anyone But Bush” panic, far too many honest “progressives” who should have known better put on the blinders when it came to John Kerry, ignoring the fact that he is a representative of the capitalist class unable to represent the working class. Millions of American workers understand this instinctively, and abandoned Kerry to his fate at the polls.

Iraq and the economy were the top issues on Democratic voters’ minds. The war in Iraq was higher than terrorism on New Yorkers’ list of concerns, despite the horrific September 11 attacks. The choice of Kerry a candidate shows utter lack of connection with honest base of Democrats who see them as an alternative. It’s no surprise that while many did come out and vote for this “lesser evil”, millions of other were left cold by a candidate who gave GW a blank check on Iraq, who supports sending more troops and money there, with no real plan for ending the occupation except to invite others into the quagmire. After this bitter defeat, followers of Kerry will be forced to re-think their support for a party that would endorse a pro-war candidate.

In a two-party system, millions vote not so much for what they want, but against what they don’t want. Their only real option is to vote for “the other guy”. This drove millions to vote against Bush despite their misgivings about Kerry. It also led to the rejection of a number of Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, whose craven “opposition” to the Republicans over the past few years was a farce.

The fact is, vast majority of Americans either voted against GW and his policies, or did not vote at all. Although he won the “popular vote”, Bush and his policies are by no means popular. The majority is decidedly not in favor of what he is doing. But millions could not be bothered to go to the polls to vote for someone who on every fundamental issue is a virtual carbon copy of the incumbent. After all, why change horses in midstream? The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the Democrats who are organically incapable of defending the interests of working people. How can they, when they are just as much in the pockets of big business as the Republicans?

Bush may be a “dumb redneck”, but for many people, he comes across as a “decent guy”, and “down to earth” – someone they could have a beer with while watching Monday Night Football. The power of these basic impressions cannot be underestimated. As compared to the stiff, boring, Kerry, who would have been the richest president in U.S. history had he won, it is not surprising that many “average” Americans would rather have an “average” President.

Voter participation reached record levels in some areas, and was larger than in 2000. However, it was no larger than the turnout during the Reagan years, and less than the 1992 election when Bill Clinton defeated George Bush Sr. Had Kerry managed to inspire just 1-2 percent of the millions of those who stayed away from the polls into voting for him, he could have easily won a number of states, their electoral votes, and the presidency. But he failed to do so, as this would have required that he seriously address the issues that concern working people from a class perspective – something he is simply not capable of doing.

Bush is first president since Great Depression to preside over a net loss of jobs – one million of them. Yet Kerry was unable to capitalize on this, preferring instead to focus much of his energy on proving he was as strong or stronger than Bush in issues of national security. Despite his promises to the contrary, Kerry, like Bush, had no real plan to offer truly universal health care, education and housing. His main plan to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs was to “close the loopholes” that allow companies to offshore work positions to other countries. There was no talk of a program of public works to rebuild infrastructure and provide quality jobs for all. Instead he did his best to out-do GW on the issues of terrorism and the war in Iraq, supporting the continuation of the anti-democratic Patriot Act “with a few alterations”, and to pursue the war on Iraq “more efficiently”. How could he possibly inspire the millions of Americans who have been marginalized to vote for him?

Even after conceding defeat, Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards promised to fight to make sure every vote counts. His demagogic promise was more than a little too late. The time to fight for the issues that concern working people was in the months leading up to the election, not after the result was already known. With months to make their case against the most hated, incompetent, and ignorant president in recent history, the Democrats have done nothing but falsely raise the hopes of millions. It only gives further weight to what we have patiently explained all along: the Democrats are incapable of offering working people a way forward. They simply cannot serve two masters: big business and the working class.

We Need a Mass Party of Labor to Defeat the Republicans

The coming years will bring many sharp, sudden changes, which will be accompanied by dramatic shifts in consciousness and truly mass participation in political life. Many people are momentarily in a state of shock at the result. What is needed is a clear and sober analysis of the situation based on the ideas of Marxism, without which we will end up in a mess. GW’s victory by no means signifies the end of the world. In fact, the political situation in the U.S. is just beginning to heat up.

All those who hysterically cried for “Anyone But Bush” – i.e. to vote for John Kerry – in order to defeat the incumbent president will have a lot to think about in the weeks and months ahead. For them, supporting the Democrats was “practical”, whereas building a genuine alternative – a mass party of labor – was “unrealistic” or “too much work”. However sincere they may have been in promoting this strategy, their approach has led only to bitter disappointment and disillusionment. All the time, money, and energy spent by hundreds of thousands of honest opponents of Bush was squandered.

Trade union activists in particular need to take a long, hard look at their leaders’ policy of supporting the Democrats. Countless millions in union dues and volunteer hours were thrown down a rat hole. If instead, all of this effort had been put into building a working class alternative, the foundation could have already been laid for future electoral battles. The fight back against the bosses’ attacks must be energetically and militantly carried on in the workplace, but this alone is not enough. Political representation for American workers is a prerequisite to rolling back the anti-labor laws enacted and supported by both of the bosses’ parties. Only with a mass party of labor in power can we hope to provide basic rights such as quality jobs, universal healthcare, cradle to the grave education, and safe, affordable housing for all. The trade unions must break immediately with the Democrats who betray us at every turn. If the current leadership refuses to do so, they need to be replaced by honest workers from the rank and file who will fight in their members’ interests.

Yes, we want to defeat the Republicans. Yes, we reject Bush’s anti-working class policies. Yes, we must aggressively fight back against these attacks. But we can no longer place our political destiny in the hands of a party that is organically incapable of defending our interests. Nader, the Greens, and the various smaller parties that fielded candidates had no effect on the elections, and will never gain mass support. The creation of a mass party of labor based on the unions is the urgent task of the U.S. labor movement.

All minorities, and African Americans in particular have been consistently disenfranchised by the 2 party system. The rage and frustration building up among black workers and youth must be channeled into genuine change. As one black activist commented in relation to Kerry, “We wanted to get excited for him, but we just couldn’t.” Only a mass party of labor can offer this decisive layer of the working class a genuine alternative. Such a party would attract to it all the best trade unionists, youth, women, minorities, and all other Americans who have no voice through the traditional big business parties.

The next presidential election is in 2008. In broad historical terms, that’s just around the corner. But there is certainly enough time before then for American workers to start building a working class alternative that can decisively defeat both the Republicans and the Democrats. If not in 2008, then in 2012 and beyond. What’s important is that we start building this alternative now. To be sure, there is a lot of inertia to overcome. But once the ball gets rolling, such a party could grow dramatically, and would represent a political earthquake.

It’s vital that we understand that the 2-party system as it exists today has not always existed, and will not always exist. In country after country, including right here in the U.S., new parties have emerged while the old parties disintegrated. The one constant in life is that things are always changing. Let us not forget that the Democrats were at one time the party of the Southern slave owners and their Northern supporters, while the Republicans started out as a tiny abolitionist party whose first president, Lincoln, presided over the most revolutionary transformation of this country since it was founded. Both parties have now changed so much as to be unrecognizable.

It is entirely predictable that despite such a humiliating defeat, the Democrats are calling on their supporters to continue to follow and trust them. They desperately want to keep their followers under their decrepit influence. The Democrats are in bad shape right now, and will spend the next weeks and months blaming each other for the debacle. Nonetheless, the ruling class will turn to them again in the future in order to head off the creation of a mass party of labor. Workers, minorities, women, youth, and the poor can no longer allow themselves to be duped by these pathetic people. The polarization of the country is very real, and as the election of a president changes nothing, tremendous explosions are on the horizon. We must have our own political representation in order to channel that energy into real and lasting change.

Life teaches: American workers are passing through the brutal school of “hard knocks”. Slowly but surely, they are realizing that all is not well with the system they are forced to live under. They are waking up to the reality that the Democrats are useless and must be discarded like a broken tool. They are beginning to realize that the only way to take their destiny into their own hands is to forge a new tool, a new party that can represent their interests. The result of the election marks another significant turning point in this process of awakening consciousness. The capitalists would like to have everything go back to “normal” now, but things have gone beyond that point. Nothing has been solved; the stark divisions remain. The election has only intensified the already deep contradictions, setting the stage for mighty explosions of the class struggle in the coming period.

Attacking the working class is the bosses’ only way out of the economic crisis. Bush will be emboldened by his perceived “mandate” and will increase the ferocity of the bosses’ attacks on wages, conditions, and workers’ dignity. This relentless squeezing will drive American workers to the breaking point and prepare a massive backlash. We will be forced to fight back, but for this, we need our own tools, not those of another class. Working people cannot rely on the Democrats to defend us. We must rely only on our own forces and organizations to stop the attacks of the bosses. We say it yet again: we need a mass party of labor with socialist policies to defeat the bosses’ parties. The time to start building that party is now.

Contact the Workers International League at [email protected].

November 4, 2004

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