Electoral Chaos and the Crisis of American Bourgeois Democracy

Election night has come and gone and, as expected, there are no clear results. Trump has all but declared victory, while the Biden camp calls for patience. The general picture is one of utter polarization, and the threat of a descent into an unholy mess of bourgeois democracy. Socialist Revolution editor John Peterson provides an analysis of where things stand one day into the post-election chaos. Also available in a podcast format at socialistrevolution.tv. Make sure you read our night of the election editorial, stay tuned for more updates in the coming days, and register for our upcoming post-election event!

Election 2020 was an even bigger mess of confusion and chaos than in 2000 or 2016. The election isn’t yet over and could still go either way. But it speaks volumes that it’s this close at all and that millions of people with sincere illusions in the Democratic Party find themselves yet again on the precipice of deep despair. For weeks, the pollsters and strategists told us that this election would not be a repeat of 2016. And yet, in most states, the polls were widely off the mark yet again. So how did things come to this? If Trump does pull off another upset, how can we explain it?

As we pointed out time and time again, this is what you get when your entire approach is based on so-called lesser evilism and the safe-state strategy. If you limit your choices to voting for one or another evil, you’re guaranteed that, sooner or later, the greater evil is going to win again. After 2016 and last night, it’s not even clear which of these two rotten parties American workers believe is the greater or lesser evil. Shamefully, huge swathes of the left caved to the pressure of lesser evilism, pointing to the alleged imminence of fascism.

Depending on how things play out, we may not have to wait four years for Trump or someone even worse than him to get back into office. Because Trump 2.0 would be far worse than the first incarnation. A new presidential term is not merely a continuation. Presidential term limits mean that there are no more re-election worries, so it presents an opportunity to reset, reshuffle, and reprioritize. And you can be sure that Trump’s priorities will not benefit the broader working class, and that he and his base will be even more arrogant and emboldened.

In any case, the uncertainty is likely to continue for several days. This is precisely the chaotic situation Donald J. Trump thrives in. He has made a career out of betting that he will come out on top of a wild scramble for position, and that his opponents will be so surprised and disoriented that they will be knocked out of contention.

After appearing a bit more somber than usual on Election Day, he had the spring back in his step by later in the evening. He obviously thinks he may have pulled it off, but he also wants to hedge his bets and be able to claim fraud, theft, and cheating if he doesn’t win in the end. If need be, he’ll unleash a constitutional crisis, demand a recount, and drag the process through the mud of the courts as long as possible—no matter what the consequences to the system as a whole. By preemptively declaring victory—even though he explicitly said just hours earlier that he wouldn’t make any such declaration—he has further undermined confidence in the fundamental institutions of bourgeois democracy.

It is still too close to call in the all-important states of Pennsylvania and Michigan, and to a lesser degree, North Carolina, and Georgia. Trump ended the night with a lead in these states, but over 20 million ballots remained to be counted, mostly from counties likely to lean Democrat. If Biden hangs on to Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin, or wins Pennsylvania, it may all be over.

This is why Trump wanted the vote counting to stop, claiming that people were still voting past poll closing time, and that a gigantic swindle is underway. He treats the presidency like a reality game show, starring Donald J. Trump and his family—never mind that millions and even billions of lives are at stake. Trump is not interested in the peaceful carrying out of the so-called democratic process. He and those around him are interested in winning at any cost. If Biden wins in the end, it will be seen by millions as an illegitimate victory, and although many will give him at least a short honeymoon, his government will be under assault and in deep crisis from the beginning.

The fundamental explanation for all of this is the lack of class politics in a country where the working class is under extreme pressure and polarized along incredibly distorted lines. Without a class-independent political party, without a class-independent lead by the labor leaders, the working class is mere fodder for division and exploitation. One layer of the class is played off against another: white against black, native-born against immigrants, coastal versus fly-over states, North versus South, urban against suburban against rural, or Baby Boomers against Millennials and Gen Z. Yet the fundamental dividing line in society is class. There are those who exploit and oppress, and those who are exploited and oppressed. A tiny minority exploits the vast majority, so to maintain their rule, the ruling class will do anything and everything to keep attention focused elsewhere and not on them.

Trump is a demagogue and a liar. But he has guts and he stands up to the liberal establishment—and millions of small business owners and ordinary workers love him for it. Despite being the sitting president, despite presiding over the greatest combined catastrophe the country has ever faced, he was able to paint Biden as a lifelong politician and Washington insider, as an enemy of black people, and the favored choice of Wall Street—and he wasn’t wrong. Biden spent decades in Washington, he backed Bill Clinton’s Crime and Welfare reform bills, and chose California’s former top cop as his running mate. Why vote for the allegedly “kinder, gentler” right-wing party when you can just vote directly for an open reactionary who is proud of it? Or why bother voting at all?

There is also the myth that small donors are the backbone of these campaigns. An incredible $14 billion was spent on this election—more than the last two elections combined—and Democrats outspent Republicans by nearly double. The billionaires invested billions in these elections, and small donations accounted for less than a quarter of total contributions.

The Democrats thought that facts, reason, and science would be enough to prevail. They forgot the small detail that after decades of lies and betrayals, millions of workers no longer believe a word they say. Science can’t compete with good old “common sense,” which tells pragmatic Americans that the virus will just have to run its course—even if a few hundred thousand more people have to die. From their perspective, “that’s just the way it is.”

As for who should be blamed for the uncontrolled nature of the pandemic and the economic disaster, millions of people take Trump at his word that China is to blame for the virus, that scientists and liberals ruined the economy, and that hordes of rampaging socialists will impose a Stalinist tyranny if Joe Biden is elected. Trump may be a racist, sexist a*shole—but a lot of people see him as their racist, sexist as*hole.

Additionally, we should never overestimate the Democrats—or underestimate the class anger felt by millions of workers against the party that has been taking them for granted for generations. Union workers put decades of energy and billions of dollars into the Democrats—and for what? Lower real wages, and a steep fall in manufacturing jobs and union membership.

Instead of class struggle and class independence, the labor leaders have been preaching partnership with the bosses for decades. Instead of fighting the capitalists tooth and nail, their mantra has been that what is good for the boss is good for the worker. Why should it come as a surprise that large numbers of union voters ended up voting for the capitalist party that made the question of jobs and keeping the economy open the central campaign issue? The blame for these divisions in the working class must be placed squarely at the feet of the labor leaders.

Biden made a big push to reclaim union voters who voted for Trump in 2016. But according to exit polls, in the rust-belt state of Ohio union voters went for Trump over Biden 56% to 42%. And yet, there are people on the left who still insist that the Democrats are a worker-friendly party and that socialists should use their ballot line. Needless to say, their so-called strategy is in tatters. No matter who wins, it is clear that millions of workers understand that the Democratic Party is no friend of the working class. In fact, some in the Republican Party are now claiming that they are a working-class party!

Of course, neither party represents the workers, but the different wings of the capitalist class can’t scrape together enough votes to win without building “coalitions” that lean cynically on this or that layer of the working class. Once again, Trump, the New York City two-bit billionaire, was better able to tap into the fears, alienation, and frustration, not only of enraged small business owners, but of large layers of the working class. According to exit polls, he even won an estimated 10% of the black vote in Georgia.

Although the Democrats pulled many more voters to the polls this year, so did the Republicans. Roughly 45% of eligible voters did not bother voting in 2016, so there was a significant amount of people to tap into this time around. But even with a record turnout of 65% or more this year, millions still didn’t bother to vote—not to mention the tens of millions of people who are disenfranchised altogether.

The working class had no candidate in these elections. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor had no candidate. The countless survivors of sexual assault had no candidate. The youth who will inherit the climate catastrophe have no candidate. One of these pro-capitalist politicians will win, and the working class as a whole will lose.

The stakes were extremely high, yet millions of ordinary workers could feel in their bones that they had no horse in the race. And among those who did vote for Biden, over a third said they were doing so half-heartedly, more as a vote against Trump than a vote for Biden. On the other hand, Trump was able to rally his hard-core supporters, who voted for Trump as much as they voted against Biden.

We also have to consider the “small detail” that Biden is almost certain to win the popular vote, just as Al Gore and Hillary Clinton did before him. But the popular vote doesn’t matter one iota, because this is an inherently undemocratic system. It is purposely and carefully calibrated to ensure stability for the ruling class, while keeping the masses in check. By nature, it is designed to be in a constant impasse, so that the party in power can use the excuse that this or that policy can’t be implemented because the other party will not allow it.

But eventually, even the most finely tuned machine breaks down—especially a chaotic system with so many living variables, contradictory interests, and moving parts. Remember that this system was designed for the conditions of two-and-a-half centuries ago, and is now bursting at the seams. The fact is that, for all the talk of democracy in this country, US citizens have no constitutional right to elect the highest office in the land. This goes back to the country’s founding, when slaves were counted as three-fifths of a human being in the census.

What is elected on election day is not the president, but the so-called Electoral College. Votes to this body are allocated based on how many Senators and Representatives each state has. But since every state automatically gets two Senators and a minimum of one Congressperson, this skews the balance towards smaller, rural, and more conservative states—never mind that 75 to 80% of the population live in urban areas. Even though they appear small, these margins can be decisive. As an example, both North Dakota and California have two Senators and the corresponding electoral votes—even though California’s population is fifty times larger. In all states except Maine and Nebraska, the winner takes all the electoral votes.

In 2016, Trump won the massive state of Florida by just 100,000 votes—and claimed all 29 electoral votes. In 2000, George W Bush won all of Florida’s electoral votes and the presidency with a lead of just 525 popular votes. And although Trump received three million fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton in the last election, just 77,000 votes across three states in the upper Midwest handed Trump the Electoral College and the keys to the White House.

As a result, the so-called battleground or swing states take far greater precedence when it comes to campaigning—since all that matters are the 270 electoral votes required for victory. Many states are all-but guaranteed to vote for one party or another. It doesn’t matter if you voted for Trump in New York or for Biden in Mississippi—your vote will have zero effect on the outcome. This also means that the 80% of the population living in non-battleground states are often simply taken for granted. This blew up in Hillary Clinton’s face in 2016. She didn’t visit Wisconsin even once, since she was so confident that those votes were in the bag—and she ended up losing there. Little wonder that a majority of Americans support abolishing the Electoral College outright! Yet all of this is considered perfectly normal and legitimate by liberal and conservative politicians and pundits alike.

In all their wisdom, the framers of the Constitution decided on an even number of electors, thus opening the possibility of a tie in the Electoral College. If this were to occur, the House of Representatives would elect the president on the basis of one vote per state delegation. This makes an even greater mockery of the concept of democracy, as California would receive one vote for its delegation of 53 Representatives, while South Dakota would also receive one vote for its single Representative. As things currently stand in 2020, this would favor Donald Trump.

Then there is the Supreme Court, which could well be called upon to weigh in on the elections and potentially tip the balance, as it did in the fiasco between Al Gore and George W Bush in the 2000 election. For years, Chief Justice John Roberts has tried to play a balancing act, using the court’s power to exert political influence without appearing to do so. This charade will be a lot harder to pull off now that the court has been loaded with conservative “interpreters” of the Constitution—all of them appointed for life. It is worth noting that justices Roberts, Kavanaugh, and the recently appointed Amy Coney Barrett were all involved with Bush’s campaign in the 2000 election.

The fact that there are so-called liberal and conservative justices at all exposes this unelected body’s deeply political nature. Although they would have us believe that the highest court in the land floats above the rest of the state and class society, nothing could be further from the truth. Like the far-from-innocuous British monarchy, the Supreme Court is a crucial bulwark of bourgeois rule. It was once a dependably stabilizing factor, but it too is being transformed into a destabilizing factor of the highest order as people lose even more confidence in the so-called impartiality of the law.

And if voting is such a sacred act, why does it take place on a Tuesday, in the middle of a workday? Some have referred to all of this as “misrepresentative democracy.” But it is precisely what it has always been—bourgeois democracy—a system designed to defend the interests of a tiny propertied minority over the interests of the majority.

It is absolutely true that US politics has moved far to the right, but that is not the same as saying that the working class as a whole has moved to the right—and the overwhelming majority of the youth certainly haven’t either.

If Trump wins, the Democrats have no right to call themselves the champions of “ordinary people.” Unable to defeat a criminal clown during an economic meltdown and pandemic, the utter rottenness of the Democrats would be exposed once and for all, and the need for a total and immediate break would be apparent to millions. Even if Biden wins, they have absolutely no right to pretend to represent the interests of the working-class majority. Biden’s mission will be to reestablish the stability and credibility of the system’s institutions, all while preparing the way for the next generation of Democratic defenders of capitalism.

Don’t forget that even Bernie’s milquetoast reforms were seen as too radical by the party tops. As we all know, after Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, socialism was put front and center in US politics. Millions now have a favorable view of socialism and say they would vote for one. But once Sanders was sidelined yet again this Spring, the Democrats tacked even further to the right and tried to distance themselves from anything remotely having to do with socialism.

Trump played on the fears and suspicions of the Cold War period, which continue to haunt a layer of the older working class. In places like Miami, with its large Cuban and Venezuelan-American population, he seized on this, and cynically painted the Democrats as rabid Stalinists and violent anarchists.

As for Biden, he made it abundantly clear he is not a socialist—precisely at a time when millions say they would vote for a socialist and are not interested in yet another status quo politician. It is entirely accurate that many Democrats—the so-called moderates—are scared of socialism. Biden and the DNC again placed their bets on winning the so-called center. But the center has been hollowed out by decades of crisis and polarization. This explains the rising interest in socialism and communism and the rise of a more vocal and visible extreme right wing.

Far from discrediting the idea that socialists can run and win in this country, the results in this election merely expose the fact that the Democratic Party is not a socialist party, never has been, and never will be. Those on the left who think you can wish it into being one, or avoid the hard work of building something new outside the two-party system, are deluding themselves and others with their so-called inside-outside strategy.

To be sure, if the Democrats ran as a socialist party, they would be routed at the polls. This is because people know full well who the Democrats are and what they represent. But people would come out in droves for a class-independent socialist candidate, supported by an elemental movement like the one we saw last summer, laying the foundations for a mass party with a real chance at winning—not liberals masquerading as socialists, but genuine working-class socialists.

We need a bona fide workers’ that takes up all the issues affecting all workers on a class basis. A party fighting for jobs, health care, and education for all. A party that argues that all of this, and more, should be paid for by expropriating the Fortune 500, including the biggest companies on Wall Street and the giants in Silicon Valley. On a class basis, even many workers who voted for Trump could be won over to such a program.

Take the question of fracking and fossil fuels generally as an example. Many workers in this industry may worry about its environmental effects, but for them, it is the only way they can pay the rent or mortgage, put food on the table, and send their kids to school. When Biden bluntly stated that he would “get rid of fossil fuels,” the only thing these workers heard was, “you’re going to be out of a job yet again, the Rust Belt is going to be betrayed yet again by the Democrats.”

Furthermore, there is a strong libertarian tradition in this country, and not only in the modern extreme-right-wing sense. Going back to the contradictory period of the first American Revolution, there is a strong tradition of individualism, of exalting personal liberty above all else, and deep illusions in the concept of “freedom” in the abstract. There is widespread distrust in the government—and for good reason. This is cynically played on by conspiracy theorists, rival powers, and Donald J. Trump himself. For example, instead of offering a rational explanation for why people should wear masks and practice social distancing, there has been a confusing mess of mixed messages. Democratic governors have decreed cold and impersonal mandates from above, as ordinary workers’ bank accounts got drained.

A workers’ party would take a very different approach. It would not frame things in black and white terms, such as “your job or your health.” It would protect people’s health while guaranteeing quality jobs for all and a truly living wage—whether you are actively working or not. It would ban evictions, provide universal healthcare, childcare, education, and a little thing called dignity.

The potential for a party like this cannot be denied. To be fair, had there been a viable independent socialist candidate in this election, there is no telling what the result would have been. They may not have won this round—but in a close three-way race, they may well have! But even if they didn’t win, at least it could organize a massive movement prepared to fight in the streets and the workplaces against Trump or Biden and lay the groundwork for a successful challenge in 2024.

The current impasse is not the result the serious strategists of capital wanted. A blow-out victory for Biden would have suited their interests best. A survey conducted by the Yale School of Management in late September found that 77% of CEOs planned to vote for Biden, and that over 60% predicted he would win. Instability is bad for business, and Trump is the definition of instability.

The Financial Times understands the implications of this kind of uncertainty, the constant undermining of the legitimacy of the entire system. As they wrote in an editorial today:

America faces two dangers, one immediate, the other structural. The first is that the judiciary may well get involved in deciding the outcome … The second danger is to the legitimacy of the entire system. If Mr. Trump wins the Electoral College, it will be the second time he has done so with a minority of the vote and the third time a Republican has done so this century.

There is one important angle to consider. By presenting the results as fraudulent, Trump may actually be in an even stronger position out of power than in it. He would be even less constrained by the need for decorum or concern for institutional integrity than he is as president. If Biden wins, he will inherit multiple crises and have limited tools to confront them, not to mention a virulent far-right opposition. If Trump can muddy the transfer of power and paint himself as a victim of “liberal tyranny,” his base will be fired up, and he will live to fight another day—potentially running for another term in 2024.

Millions of people are exhausted by the Trump presidency, by the economic rollercoaster, and the stress and strain of the pandemic. They want a return to “normalcy.” But this is the norm under capitalism. Only in a handful of countries for a handful of years was relative peace and stability the norm. That epoch is finished. This isn’t so much the “new normal” as the real fundamental normal under capitalism. By its very nature, it is a system of war, crisis, and instability.

After the last few years, many people sincerely want reconciliation. But the only reconciliation possible is that between workers, uniting in struggle against our common enemies. Reconciliation between the classes is impossible in a society divided into exploiters and exploited. We have no illusions in the farce of bourgeois democracy. No matter who wins, these elections mark a new point of inflection in the crisis of capitalism, the class struggle, and the contradictory development of class consciousness.

Presidential and other elections can provide a useful snapshot of the mood in society at a given moment, but they cannot offer a solution to the fundamental problems faced by the workers and youth. Although it won’t be an automatic or linear process, eventually the despair, unfocused anger, and uncertainty will be cut across by the class struggle. Nature despises a vacuum and the laws of social gravity will eventually assert themselves. The conclusion we must draw is that there is no way out of the crisis of capitalism within the capitalist system itself: not within the limits of its social and economic relations, not within its political parties, not within its legal framework, and not within its state and institutional structures.

We have said it before, and we will say it a million times more if necessary: what the American working class needs is a mass party of its own, armed with a revolutionary socialist program that transcends the limits of capitalism. Only the coming to power of a workers’ government can lay the foundations for ending the uncertainty and instability inherent in a system based on the pursuit of profits. This idea must be clearly, patiently, and persistently raised in the movement. It is the fulcrum around which our many seemingly separate struggles can be linked together into one mighty struggle against capitalism.

The period we are living in is more similar to the prerevolutionary 1750s or 1850s than the 1950s. The relative stability of the postwar period is dead and buried, and the social contradictions are all pushing in the direction of a new revolution in our lifetime. This is the perspective we must prepare for.

We all know that Biden is not a socialist, and Trump is most definitely not a socialist. But we in the IMT are socialists—we are revolutionary socialists and Marxists, and we have absolute confidence that the class issues will eventually come to the fore. If you aren’t yet a member of the IMT, now is the time to get in touch with us. Now is the time to join the struggle for a socialist revolution and a socialist world.

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