After four years of disastrous, corporate, racist policies, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party are running in November’s elections against Trump – and not much else. They are not promising to fight for crucial improvements in our living standards like free healthcare for all. They hope to win by being the ‘lesser evil’.
Americans are continually bombarded by the idea that the only way to defeat Donald Trump and the Republicans is to ‘vote blue no matter who’ (blue is the Democratic Party’s colour). But has this ever actually worked? After the repression and right-wing policies of the Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, did the Democratic president Jimmy Carter champion the working class? No, in fact he maintained the capitalist status quo by deregulating major industries, busting unions, and facilitating huge wage cuts, paving the way for the openly right-wing policies of Ronald Reagan. After the ‘trickle-down economics’ policies of Reagan that ushered in the modern era of neo-liberalism – in which basic social services were cut to death and tax breaks for the rich were handed out like candy – did Bill Clinton, with Democratic control of the legislature and the presidency, reverse these anti-worker policies? Not even close. He and his fellow Democrats slashed welfare spending along with the then senator Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats authoring the 1994 Crime Bill, a major leap into the disproportionate mass incarceration of black and brown workers.
While the Democratic and Republican Parties are certainly not the same, they are wholly bipartisan in their support for capitalism, imperialism, and serving the interests of their corporate backers. Administrations change hands between the two corporate parties, every time leaving workers behind in the ways that matter regardless of which corporate stooge is in power. Lesser-evilism only works for the ruling class.
The Barack Obama administration similarly betrayed hopes for public health care. After swearing that healthcare legislation would include a federal public option to help control prices, they instead settled on the incredibly weak Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is a near carbon copy of Republican Mitt Romney’s ‘healthcare’ plan as Governor of Massachusetts. It lacked even a public option and massively expanded the profits and handouts to the health insurance industry while still leaving more than 27 million people uninsured by 2016 and millions more underinsured. When the Democratic Party had control of the legislature and the presidency, instead of passing a universal healthcare system ensuring free access to healthcare for all, they completely bent to the interests of health insurance corporations over the needs of workers. This had serious consequences, especially leaving millions of newly unemployed workers without their employer-based health insurance during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
The disillusionment with Obama was seen in the decreased share of the vote he won in 2012, as well as the mediocre vote that his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton received in 2016, when she promised to carry on the work of the Obama years. When Americans ‘voted blue’ for Obama, they got a pro-corporate administration which removed any possibility of hope for change through a Democratic Party regime under Hillary Clinton, and laid the ground for the successful campaign of Trump as a ‘political outsider’.
Figures like Trump rise to power by taking advantage of the problems that people experience as a regular part of life under capitalism. Rather than pointing towards capitalism as the root cause, they scapegoat other countries or marginalized communities (immigrants, Muslims, people of color, etc). Trump is a grotesque symptom of the crises that American capitalism is facing, but he is not the core problem. While the right-wing role he has played in US politics shouldn’t be downplayed, he is by no means unique within US history. Prior to Trump, Republican figures like Nixon and Reagan similarly rested upon reactionary elements in US society and right-wing populist appeals for their base of support. If we want to defeat Trump now and the future figures like him who will surely spring up as a symptom of the desperate, failing capitalist system, we must be aware of the historical reality of Democratic and Republican Party politics.
The Democratic Party is not just pro-capitalist, it is also controlled from the top down by corporate forces, and without membership structures or internal democracy it lacks any avenue for a grassroots working-class movement to seize control of the party or change its direction in a meaningful way. Attempts to push the Democratic Party to fight for working-class demands fail for this reason, leaving activists, union leaders, and many progressive movements co-opted or demoralized. This reinforces low turnout and political participation from huge sections of the working class, who see no political force that will genuinely represent them or actually change their economic and social conditions.
Bernie Sanders made the crucial mistake of trying to win major reforms through the Democratic Party twice, and now unflinchingly supports Biden (as he supported Hillary Clinton in 2016) despite correctly criticizing Biden’s corporate politics just weeks ago. People want someone to vote for, not just a greater evil to vote against, and it is clear to workers and youth that Biden is not a serious alternative to the right populism of Trump. A recent poll of Black Americans aged 18 to 29 demonstrated that roughly half of this population has no confidence in the Democratic Party and 49% of them thought that “voting doesn’t make a difference anyway”. Meanwhile, Sanders, arguably the most ‘left’ amongst the Democrats, scolds workers and youth for refusing to back Biden rather than presenting a serious alternative. The Sanders campaign’s attempts to convince Biden to move left have resulted in little to no change in Biden’s platform, including the consistent refusal to support any sort of Medicare for All or universal healthcare system in the middle of a pandemic!
The majority of registered voters are independents; huge sections of voters vote based on who is the ‘lesser evil; and nearly half of the country didn’t vote in the last presidential election. This isn’t because of apathy: workers feel alienated from a political system and political parties that do not represent them. A 2018 Gallup poll showed, in a continuing trend, that the majority of American adults think that we need a third major party. Even an outline, a beginning of a new workers’ party to the left of the Democrats, even in just a few key cities, could begin to create a visible alternative that could rapidly organize many workers and youth, giving us a necessary tool to fight for real improvements in our living conditions.
The history of working-class political parties is vibrant globally, with many examples to look to. In the US, there have been many attempts, but there has never been a working-class party that truly gained mass support or maintained its working-class character. This is a big part of why the US has such a weak labor movement and especially inadequate social programs compared to the most developed capitalist countries.
A notable example of an attempt at independent working-class politics in the US was the Socialist Party of America (SP). At its strongest in the early twentieth century, it ran candidates throughout the country at various levels of government and won some significant victories. A key lesson to take was the importance of internal democratic structures. In order to fight the top-down, memberless capitalist parties, the SP organized a party with a dues-paying membership. The Socialist Party chose its candidates and platform at a national convention, controlling the direction of the party and the deployment of its resources.
This was such a threat to the capitalist political system in the US that, in addition to police raids, imprisoning Socialist Party members, and other political repression, the primary system was spread throughout the country.In the ruling class’s war against socialism, primary elections were used to wrench nominations out of the grasp of the party membership and put them in the hands of a state-regulated party enrolment list, where the government could determine who could vote in the Socialist Party primary, regardless of whether they were dues-paying members who were committed to building the party. Rather than bottom-up political discussion and debate by the members in the lead up to the convention, there was a single, top-down vote dominated by professional politicians. It was too dangerous to have a Socialist Party with a real membership because it represented a working class that was becoming politically well organized.
If we want a political party in the US that can organize the working-class majority of society into political action, it must be totally independent of the Democrats, Republicans, and the capitalist forces they represent and are funded by. An independent workers’ party must take no corporate money, be funded by the dues and donations of working-class members and supporters, and its officers, candidates, and its platform must be decided democratically by the membership. Candidates and elected officials of a working-class party must take only the average wage of the workers they represent so that all elected officials remain aligned with the interests of the working class.
With a serious and organized party of the working class and youth, currently disjointed movements against various forms of oppression and economic exploitation can take on a unified expression not just in the streets but electorally as well. This would allow for running genuinely anti-racist, working-class candidates who can be champions for policies like universal health care, majorly defunding the police, raising the minimum wage to $20 an hour, and building affordable housing. Through a party of and by working people, all elected officials and political leaders of the party can be held accountable to the democratic structures of the party, which is not possible for the corporate controlled Democratic and Republican politicians.
For November’s elections Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker are running a socialist campaign on Green Party ballot lines for president and vice president respectively. Their campaign is running on a platform of an “eco-socialist Green New Deal, an economic bill of rights, and a socialist economy”. Socialists and progressives should look seriously at their campaign, andif it is determined to be the strongest independent left challenge, it should be vigorously supported as part of the effort to strengthen independent working-class politics. There are other left independents running for state and local positions who should be examined similarly as well.
Ultimately, it is clear that most working people are interested in a new party that can actually represent them. But wanting a new party and being convinced to play an active role in building it are not the same. The broader workers’ movement must come together and discuss how to start building the independent political voice of the working class. Forming a new party will likely start small with diligent organizing in the unions, in the workplaces, and in progressive community organizations to build a base for the beginnings of a new party that can raise its profile through initial, even if unsuccessful, local elections, and grassroots campaigning for issue-based struggles outside of the elections. A workers’ party must not be confined to elections and should play a crucial role in drawing together the forces of social movements to fight for the needs of the working-class in the streets and in the workplaces.
We need to break the cycle of voting for the ‘lesser evil’ as an immediate ‘solution’ as this only lays the groundwork for the ‘greater evil’ down the line. Workers must organize to defend and expand our rights and create a government that works for us, not for corporations and the rich. A workers’ party is a crucial first step towards building a just, socialist society free from the exploitation and environmental catastrophe caused by capitalism.
Jai Chavis and Nicholas Wurst
The full version of this article is available at independentsocialistgroup.org