US Mid-Term Election 2002: The factors that led to the Republican victory

As the results of the mid-term elections come in – an apparent sweeping victory for President Bush's Republican Party – many questions must be answered.  How and why did this happen?  What will it mean for working people and activists on the left? Does this mean Americans actually like George Bush and his policies?  Do Americans really want to bomb the hell out of everyone? After Enron, WorldCom, and Martha Stewart, after hundreds of thousands of jobs lost and trillions of dollars wiped off the stock market, how could the party of George Bush make gains? While the answers to these and other questions are complex, with a dialectical analysis we can come to a greater understanding of the processes at work in American society, and more importantly formulate a plan of action.

The capitalists and media would have us believe that Bush has a genuine popular mandate, and that his victory is due largely to his skillful posing of the question of terrorism and the war with Iraq. But that is only true if you accept that just 20% of eligible voters constitutes a democratic mandate!

According to the media, "while consumer confidence has dipped to its lowest levels since the mid 1990s, Democrats haven't gotten the traditional boost that a party out of power would be expected to get from economic worries among voters. Bush and the Republicans have strong ratings on the war against terror, which serve as a counterweight to the economy problem. The two most important issues for this election are the economy and the campaign against terror. While Democrats have advantages on social issues, the two parties have been relatively evenly matched on which party would best handle the economy. Republicans have a 35-point advantage on handling the campaign against terror and a 27-point advantage on handling Iraq."

This is all true – but we are speaking here of a small portion of the population.  In the mood of hysteria and paranoia after September 11, most Americans who bothered voting at all ended up focusing on these types of issues. This is yet another example of how individual terrorism serves only to strengthen the most reactionary wing of the ruling class, and damages the cause of workers everywhere. Unfortunately, many people will panic and fear that the "apathetic" working class has bowed subserviently before the "mighty" Bush who now has free reign to push through his anti-worker agenda and rampage around the world.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The working class is nowhere near defeated, and the period of sharpened struggle between the working and capitalist classes here in the United States is just beginning. In the short term, it will indeed be easier for him to make attacks on workers here and around the world, but the opposition in the coming period will also be much greater. What is needed is not despair, but understanding and organized action. This result is above all an expression of the deepening polarization in society, and the fact that the masses do not see any genuine alternative to the way things are – not yet at least.

Voter Turnout

Let's look at voter turnout. Curtis Gans, director of the independent Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, estimated Tuesday's turnout at 77 million, more than 39 percent of voting-age citizens. Twenty-eight states had higher turnouts this year and 22 states and the District of Columbia had lower turnouts. This is slightly higher than the last mid-term election in 1998, but can we really pretend we have a "democracy" when the "leadership" is decided by less than half the voting population?  With most races fairly close, and with third party candidates entering the fray in higher numbers, this means that most "winners" were selected by 20% or less of the eligible voting population.  But before we deal with the reasons why millions did not bother to vote at all, what about the "inconsistencies" in the election?

Election 2000 provided a concrete lesson in the wonders of US democracy.  The illusion of the "impartiality" of the Supreme Court was shattered, and most people still believe that Bush literally stole the election.  Now, two years later, the problems continue. Although the Justice Department dispatched more than 400 monitors to polling places in 14 states to ensure compliance with federal voting laws, there were many "anomalies" reported. Aside from disillusionment with the two party system and lack of a real alternative, there were examples of blatant intimidation and discrimination. In one incident in Maryland, in poor, mostly minority neighborhoods, flyers were passed out which listed the wrong day to vote and saying that voters should make sure to pay up their, rent make sure they wouldn't have warrants issued for them and so on. In Florida, there were problems with the new computer systems and there were cases where English-speaking voters were handed Spanish-language ballots and vice versa. With no decent selection of candidates, and hurdles like this placed in their way, it's no wonder millions of people don't bother voting and feel as though their votes do not count anyway!

Low voter turnout, typically lower among minorities and the working poor, was due primarily due to a complete lack of confidence or inspiration in the choices being offered. In the Florida race, where GW's brother Jeb was victorious, low turnout among blacks was a decisive factor.  According to Reuters:

"An analysis of predominantly black precincts said black voters overwhelming favored McBride, by 94 percent to 6 percent. But only 43 percent of black voters cast ballots, compared with a 55 percent turnout among non-blacks. Black turnout in the state for the November 2000 presidential election was 72 percent, helping create the extremely close result Bush and Vice President Al Gore. Bush won by just 537 votes in the state after a post-election legal battle over recounts."

And all of this was in spite of the best efforts of the Democrats to court segment of the population , with appearances by former President Bill Clinton, Gore and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson told voters not to be discouraged by the problems that plagued the last two statewide elections – apparently they paid him no heed.

Millions of people have literally ceased to be seriously counted as potential voters, as the hue and cry about third-party candidates like Nader "stealing votes" shows. When Democrats and Republicans lose elections, they often blame third-party candidates for "taking away votes from them".  No matter that there are millions of other eligible voters from which to gain support – they see the election as an effort to win a majority out of just 40-50% of the population! This shows that the vast majority of the population does not see a real alternative, and that when the media talks about "the issues which concern voters", they are speaking only of a small segment of society – generally the better-off layers who have the time and money to worry about this sort of thing.

Along with the homogenization of the two main capitalist parties, which on all fundamental issues are in agreement, there is an increasing polarization in society generally between those who believe in the system, and feel that the traditional parties can make a difference in their lives, and those who increasingly feel disenfranchised, marginalized, and disillusioned with the entire system.  It is just a fraction of the 40-50% of the eligible electorate who vote which is deciding who will control the government.

In June of this year, we made the following initial prediction for the elections in our US Perspectives document: "The Republicans may ride Bush’s popularity wave to gain some seats and regain complete control over Congress. On the other hand, the Democrats may come out in cautious but vocal opposition on secondary social concerns and the economy and make some gains. Either way, one of the capitalist parties will continue to dominate the political life and institutions of the US. The Democrats showed their true colors after Bush’s election, approving every one of his cabinet appointees, and putting up little resistance to his anti-worker policies. After September 11, when 99 percent of them rallied to the calls for national unity and supported the open-ended war on terrorism and the invasion of Afghanistan, it was nearly impossible to tell Republicans and Democrats apart. While the Green Party and other small coalitions may make some gains in local elections, there will be little national attention for the smaller parties."

In general this analysis holds true.  In many ways, this election was a referendum on Bush's government so far.  It was a vote "for" or "against" his policies at home and abroad.   Bush was able to maintain the post September 11 momentum to make some gains.  However his victory does not in any way mean that he has really been given a popular mandate.  There are many reasons which contributed to this outcome, but the fundamental blame lies on the Democratic Party and trade union bureaucracy for not offering a genuine alternative. Many people underestimated just how degenerate the Democratic Party has become.

It often appears that in our "two party system", the pendulum swings endlessly back and forth between the "right" Republicans, and the "left" Democrats.  On the surface this seems true – without any real alternatives, many votes are often votes "against" one party to the benefit of the other party who actually has a chance to win.  But this is not a simple, mechanical process. This process does not proceed linearly, but is affected by all sorts of factors – the economy, the media, the world situation, etc.   The fortunes and leadership of the capitalist parties are in the final analysis a reflection of the conditions of capitalist system itself.  When capitalism in the US was still a mighty force for the development of the means of production, the Republicans gave us Abraham Lincoln.  When after WWII the US was the master of the capitalist world, riding the greatest economic boom in history, the Democrats produced John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. True, these men were defenders of capitalism just as their counterparts are today, but these were men of resolve, vision, and character, who could at least run their own system.  A far cry they from the semi-literate Bush and the incompetent Gore!  The quality of the political leadership of the ruling class is a reflection of the quality of their declining system – corrupt, ignorant, lazy, and lackluster.

As we explained in the US Perspectives Document: "…disillusionment with the two bourgeois parties is evidenced by the dismal voter turnout and the nearly identical poll results of the last national election, when neither party was able to distinguish itself enough to gain the vote of a clear majority of the population… Had Al Gore simply promised to raise the minimum wage, repeal anti-worker legislation, implement a nationalized health care system, massively fund public education, etc. he would have won the overwhelming support of workers across America. But he was unable to do any of this, tied as he is to the capitalist class. Instead he parroted the positions of George W. Bush, and ended up losing the election through a combination of stupidity and less than democratic ballot counting and behind the scenes maneuvers, losing even in states where he should have won hands down."

As Marxists we have no illusions whatsoever in the Democratic Party which presents itself as the “kinder gentler” face of US capitalism.  They are tied hand and foot to the capitalist class, and will never represent the interests of working people.  They may put up resistance on various issues of minor importance, but they will never in a million years side against capital in favor of the working class. They operate entirely within the boundaries of bourgeois democracy – that is, democracy for the rich and powerful. This so-called "center of the road" is in fact a toll road controlled by the capitalist class. Ultimately they wholeheartedly endorse the capitalist system, and serve only to deceive the masses with the illusion that things can improve under this economic system.  The Democrats have moved so far to the "center" (not that they were ever very far to the left), that they are indistinguishable from their supposed ideological opponents. Even ultra-Democrat James Carvel maintains that during this campaign, they did not differentiate themselves from the Republicans in any way.  If you are one of the few people who actually voted, why bother voting for the "opposition" when their politics are virtually the same as those already in power?   As the saying goes, why change horses in midstream?  Both are for the "war on terror" and Iraq, are marionettes of the capitalist class and support corporate welfare with no mention of universal healthcare, etc.  Bush is doing a fine job at pursuing the war (a lot of bellicose talk with few casualties as of yet), so why not let him and his party get on with it and see how things go?

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.

Looking for an Alternative

Most working people do not like Bush and the Republicans, but they don't like what the Democrats have to offer either. Many do not really believe the old "worker friendly" lie any longer, and expressed their discontent by staying away from the polls. But all the same, Democrats might end up with half the governorships, including ones in the large industrial states of Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania. They also held onto the governorship in California, the nation's most populous state, even though polls showed Gov. Gray Davis was highly unpopular. This shows that in many urban areas, despite the continued betrayals of the Democrats, the masses are still not about to let the Bush clique gain more power.

It is interesting also to recall the example of Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial victory in Minnesota in 1998.  When presented with what at least on the surface appeared to be a real change from the run of the mill "Republicrat" candidates, voter turnout was over 60%, and he won in what was then an astonishing upset. So the question we must ask ourselves is, what kind of alternative are the masses looking for?

Clearly, the working class is looking for a class solution to their problems. But the media does everything in its power to avoid the issue of jobs, healthcare, education, etc.  When they do mention healthcare, it is in the context of helping seniors buy their prescription drugs more cheaply – never is there any mention of a universal health plan. When they discuss jobs, they skirt the issue that nearly 2,000,000 have been lost since Bush took over.  They relentlessly focus on the war on terror, and Bush was able to use his momentum on this issue to great effect. After September 11, it is understandable that people are psychologically jarred and seeking security – especially those who are most active in voting.

What is needed then is a clear lead – a class analysis of the problems facing working people, and a concrete plan of action. The trade union leadership does not help the situation at all by clinging to their traditional support of the Democrats, and some unions have even supported the Republicans!  In the struggle between the bosses' association the PMA and the ILWU dockworkers, the only political guidance the workers were given by their "leaders" was to vote Democrat on November 5th.  Never mind that California Democrat Diane Feinstein was actually encouraging Bush to invoke the anti-worker Taft-Hartley Act against the locked out workers (note – they were not even on strike but had been locked out by the bosses!).  Why? Because her husband is in the shipping business!  What working people need is a clear class alternative which unambiguously poses the question of workers' control over the running of society – let those who produce the wealth democratically decide what to do with that wealth!  What is needed is a mass party of labor armed with a program for the socialist transformation of society.

Third Parties of Today

So why is there no such alternative at this point in time?  In US Perspectives, we discuss the perspectives for a Labor Party, the Green Party, and the trade union movement.  We encourage our readers to read it for the background to this issue; in this article we will look at how third-parties fared in the mid term elections and why.

Election 2002 was a harsh reminder to the aspiring 3rd parties that in American politics, "money talks". Libertarians, Greens, Independence and other third party candidates were on the ballot across the nation. In the state legislatures, third party and independent candidates are seeking about a fifth of the seats up for election – the largest number since the 1930s, according to Ballot Access News, which tracks third party candidates. The Green Party alone fielded 160 legislative candidates, more than double from past years. But the result was disheartening for all.  As we predicted, some very minor gains were made at the local level, but overall, it was a disappointment.  In important states like Minnesota, the Greens lost the "major party status" which they fought so hard for during Ralph Nader's campaign in 2000.  Not getting the required 5% means that these parties must in effect go back to square one in terms of their state-wide and national political organization. 

Aside from lacking funding and resources, the lack of a clear class program damages the efforts of even the most well-intentioned and energetic Greens. Most people in this country are workers, and it is above all to the workers that a successful third party needs to speak. As for the current Labor Party, it has not yet run candidates, and is quickly withering on the vine due to inactivity. Only in the course of bitter struggle will a mass third party emerge.  And to succeed, it must be made up of the only force which can shake loose the stranglehold of the capitalist parties – the working class and the trade unions which represent them. Workers do not seek political change on a whim – they need to feel that their political involvement will make a real and lasting change. They will only endorse a third party on a mass scale when they are presented with a program which truly addresses their needs and aspirations, and when they feel their existing options have been exhausted. This feeling of a lack of options is more and more becoming the case, as the election results showed – the Democrats were largely abandoned, and third parties did not get much of an echo either. Most people do not want to simply "make a statement" by voting for a minor third party.  The current third-party alternatives in their current form will never be able to march gradually towards greater and greater political clout. Big shocks and changes will be needed for change – revolutionary change – and the masses are not yet sure what political path to take.

A Farce and a Tragedy

On the whole, the entire election campaign was a disgrace, and was ignored by most Americans. A prime example was the fiasco which was the New Jersey Senate Race. The Republicans initially gave up on the seat due to the overwhelming power of incumbency, but soon they were presented with a gift: the Democrat (Robert Toricelli) was under investigation for corruption.  His crime?   Accepting a $3000 watch from a businessman.  Of course, if that had been accepted in the form of campaign contributions, Toricelli would not be unethical but a great fundraiser.  Faced with his crimes Toricelli resigned and was replaced (under somewhat questionable circumstances) by Frank Lautenberg, a former Senator.  But lucky for the Democrats, Lautenberg, a so-called "liberal", cruised to victory in a campaign focusing on such traditionally progressive issues as his desire to execute terrorists. These shenanigans contain all the contradictions of the American electoral system: mediocre candidates, slanted election systems, corruption, and the one-upsmanship between the parties to please big business. In Minnesota, Senator Wellstone's somber funeral was turned into a political rally for his replacement, Walter Mondale.  This angered thousands of voters including former supporters of Wellstone, and led to a major loss for the Democrats in what should have been a victory. With campaigns such as this, it's no wonder most people, and especially the youth are turned off by "politics".

Let's look at a few other reasons for the results. Besides facing a dull, uninspiring, and indistinct opposition generally, the Republicans had certain other advantages as well – they beat the replacement for a Senator who died in a plane crash just days before the election, and another dead Senator's politically inexperienced widow who had been appointed to her late husband's position (he also died mysteriously in a plane crash).   They also had household name Republicans such as Elizabeth Dole, John Sununu, and Lamar Alexander running for office. President Bush had a job approval of 67 percent headed into the midterm elections, which was good news for those associated with him. Yet interestingly, in an ominous note for the political future, those polled were about evenly split on whether they are satisfied with the way government is working. Bush may be riding a wave of popularity, but it has steadily declined since September 11, and now that he has consolidated his power in the Congress, people will be looking for concrete improvements in their lives under his governance.

Another factor which could have played a big role in the election is the economy. With unemployment hovering around 6%, savings decimated, and quality jobs harder to find, one would think the Democrats would benefit.  Aside from the media blowout on Iraq and terrorism, the main reason this did not play a fundamental role in the end is that many voters have adopted a wait and see approach.  The poorest layers in American society have already largely given up hope on seeing their lives improve under the current system.  But for those who actively vote, memories of the boom still linger.  Sure, they are angry at the loss of their retirement funds, and worried about their jobs, but this is America, baby!  The land of opportunity!  They are shocked at the recession, but with all the talk of a quick recovery, even lower interest rates, and great deals on new cars, the pain is bearable enough – for now.  They are willing to let things slide for a bit more, in hopes the boom times will soon return. Of course, if we have a double dip recession, and the US enters a Japanese-style long-term slump or even a depression, then things will change very quickly.  Also, the "war on terror" is in its early days, and the war against Iraq and possibly other countries has not even yet begun.  So far, this "war" has been relatively easy, with few casualties. This has lulled the population into imagining that safety and security can be achieved with little pain and sacrifice. However, war is an incredibly complex phenomenon, and we can expect all sorts of surprises and shocks.  People's consciousness will change very quickly in the years ahead. Let's not forget the example of the pioneering American Trotskyist Farrell Dobbs who went from voting Republican straight to revolutionary Marxism! Or the ignominious defeat handed to GW Bush's father just months after the presiding over the generally popular Gulf War.

Nothing Gained for the Working Class

The bottom line is that the real loser in this election is the working class. Bush will now be able to push through an even more reactionary agenda in terms of war on Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, union busting, attacks on civil liberties, etc. Federal workers in the proposed "Homeland Security Department" will almost certainly lose their union rights. For the time being, th advantage has passed to the most openly reactionary wing of the US ruling class, but this cannot last for very long. Life will not improve one iota for the vast majority of Americans, and the lives of the poor in other countries, and particularly in the Middle East will be adversely affected as well. So what needs to be done?

Only a system of workers' democracy and socialism can genuinely improve the conditions of life for all workers. But to recognize this fact is not enough. We must develop a concrete plan of action to begin the fight back against the attacks of the capitalist class.  The main lesson to be drawn from this is the utter incapacity of the Democrats to defend the interests of working people.  This has always been the case, but what is most important it that this election shows that more and more people realize this. But this is not to say that they will not stage a comeback in the future – as we explained above, it is inevitable that they will. It is therefore imperative that we make it clear to Republicans and the Democrats alike that we are not content with the alternatives we are being presented with – that we will no longer allow a handful of people to control our destinies.

The Democrats will now try and pose more to the "left" – to try and differentiate themselves from their Republican counterparts. We must work to dispel all illusions people may have in them!  We must never forget that these parties are just two sides of the same capitalist coin.  It is the duty of the trade union leaders to break with them and provide a real alternative. It will be easier for the Democrats to pretend to be in opposition now that they have less control over government. By the same token, in 2004 Bush will be held fully responsible for all that happens between now and then.  The fruits of victory are his for now, but those fruits may be rotted and infested with maggots in two years' time. The one constant in life and politics is that things change all the time – it is guaranteed that things in 2004 will be completely different.

As we said in US Perspectives. "It will not be until the 2004 Presidential election that the political climate in the US really heats up, with revived memories of the 2000 debacle. A lot can happen in two years, but we can be sure that events globally and domestically will continue to be unstable and convulsive. In a situation like this, people’s moods can change very quickly. It bears mentioning that in spite of the victorious Gulf War, President Bush’s father lost the presidential election only months later during the last 'jobless recovery'."

The struggle has to begin with a clear explanation of the alternatives facing working people – continued rule under the incompetent and corrupt parties of the capitalist class, or the seizure of political power in the interests of working people. We need to hit the streets in protest against the war on workers here and abroad. We need to build the trade unions and put leaders in place who are not in bed with big business. We need to tear the trade unions from the decrepit body of the Democrats and build a mass party of labor which can genuinely defend the interests of working people. We need to inspire the millions of disenfranchised and disillusioned American workers with the possibility that a better world is possible – a world of genuine peace, freedom, and plenty in harmony with the environment.  Above all, we need to build the forces of Marxism in the United States, and work with our class brothers and sisters around the world for an end to the capitalist system and all its brutality, ignorance, and degradation.


Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!