National Sections of the L5I:

USA: A Shift to the Left - and its Limits

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Tuesday, November 6, saw the US midterm elections to one third of the seats in the Senate and all of those in the House of Representatives, as well as at the local and state level in many places. As the presidency of Donald Trump started with the Republican party controlling both House and Senate, the opposition Democrats had called for an electoral “blue wave” to win back both chambers which would effectively enable them to block legal and appointment proposals from the White House.

Many left liberals, reformists and centrists supported this claim, either seeing the Democrats as the “lesser evil” or even as a progressive alternative. In the event, although they won the House, the Democrats lost ground in the Senate and, shortly afterwards, made perfectly clear how little they mean to oppose Trump's racist, misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ and anti-working class agenda by announcing bipartisan cooperation. The whole episode emphasises both the central problem in US politics; that the two major parties are equally bourgeois not only in politics but in their character as a whole, and the need to build a worker's party that will go well beyond electoral politics.

Results and Democratic Deficits
After the public outrage over Congress confirming Supreme Court candidate Bret Kavanaugh, who had faced multiple accusations of sexual assault, Democrats hoped to win enough of the 35 contested seats in the Senate to be able to prevent this in the future. It should be mentioned that one Democratic Senator, Manchin of West Virginia, voted to confirm Kavanaugh, rather discounting his party's claim to being some kind of bulwark against misogynists coming into power. However, the Democrats actually lost 3 seats and won only 1, decreasing the blue share in the Senate.

However, they were successful in capturing the House, going from a 193:235 seats minority to a 231:198 majority, with 7 seats not decided yet due to re-counts.

No comment on US elections can be made without shedding light on the various undemocratic measures in place to prevent large numbers of minority voters and workers from casting their votes. Voter registration, photo ID laws, street address laws (over-proportionally excluding indigenous voters), closure of polling stations in black and worker-majority districts as well as the exclusion of immigrants, prisoners and ex-convicts suggests that the votes counted are mostly from white and economically well-off voters.

Furthermore, the election system that allocates seats on the basis of majorities in districts, rather than in proportion to the total popular vote, and the principle of 2 senators per state, no matter the population, distort actual results. It caters to the two-party system of the United States in which both parties are traditionally parties of the ruling class. In turn, it makes it extremely difficult for incumbents to gain any power in law-making bodies.

A Shift to the Left

Overall, the Democrats won the popular votes in both races. Among Democratic candidates, several candidates considerably to the left of the national caucus won primaries and state races, most notably Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez from New York City. Discounting for the immense democratic deficits, one can say that the 2018 elections represent a modest shift of US voters to the left.

The results illustrate the crisis of leadership the Trump administration has brought upon the ruling class and the Republican party. Ideologically, it is held together by chauvinist, racist, misogynist and anti-LGBTQ sentiments. More importantly, Trump tries to tie his voters to himself by claiming to rule by the will of the people rather than the established democratic institutions, including the Republican party itself. He makes the traditional claim of bonapartist politicians without being able to fulfill their usual promises, leaving him in an awkward position of instability and escalating oppressive state politics to secure his power. This is not only very dangerous for any progressive agenda, but also not very attractive to the millions that voted for him. Unsurprisingly, many Trump voters simply did not cast their ballot in the midterms. The Democrats reaped some of the gains from this instability.

This shift is however limited by several important factors. First, as in every capitalist regime, the true power is not for voting on. Economic decisions are made in corporate headquarters by people whose power lies in their ownership of the means of production, or by experts in government agencies far detached from any public vote. Repressive power is held not only by the armed forces but also by the highly militarised police and secret services, and judicial power is held by a small and opaque elite of judges, as the Kavanaugh case showed clearly.

These are the bodies that capitalists will mobilise whenever the working class tries to take power. It would be naive and wrong to believe that an electoral platform could put up meaningful resistance against these forces. The real power lies in the factories, neighborhoods and on the streets, where workers need to organise the class struggle.

Furthermore, it is notable that in the United States no meaningful electoral representation of the working class exists, unlike many other countries in which social-democratic and neo-reformist “Communist” parties represent this heritage. Although these are often rotten to the core, their historical and still existing ties to the class and its organizations mean that workers can mobilize to move them. This is not true for the Democratic party, a traditional party of the ruling class, whose ties to trade unions and oppressed minorities are more tactical than organic.
These are the real limits to any shift to the left in US elections, but even within these limits the step to the left has been moderate.

The outrageously weak Democratic platform

One reason why the Democrats were not able to do more than just benefit from the unstable political and economic situation was the embarrassing weakness of their platform, even measured by the standards of bourgeois parties. They only reluctantly and half-heartedly supported any extension of state-assisted health care, one of the essential needs of the American working class, after long struggles within the party. Instead of taking a strong stance against the disgusting and blatant racism of the administration they tried to find some middle ground that could only be called racism with a human face. And, instead of proposing economic policies to reverse the massive re-distribution of wealth towards the richest in Trump's tax plan, they remained totally silent on the topic of economic justice. In summary, they were absolutely unable to win back working class voters in key states that had previously lost their illusions in the Democratic party because their living standards declined under a Democratic president.

In the middle of an upsurge of union activities, strikes and organizing campaigns, they said hardly anything on these struggles, preferring to uphold their allegiance to the bosses. Even in the face of an impending climate catastrophe, the party was unable to mobilize around environmental questions which are one of the core issues in this country beyond criticizing Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Accords. And, in the face of outrageous misogynistic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies, their response was calls for "civility", not real resistance.

Limitations of Bourgeois Electoralism
Bourgeois democracy is the form in which capitalists rule in almost all capitalist countries. While the right to vote and elect leaders is given to the population in name, the true power remains in the hands of the rich: the armed forces and the supreme court, secret police and the managers at the top of the government agencies are not subject to popular vote. And, in any case, democracy ends at the door to the workplace: workers have no say over how they work, what to produce, and what to do with the product.

However, there are different forms of workers' participation in, or exclusion from, power structures. It would be foolish to argue that these do not matter just because the power ultimately remains with the bosses. In the United States, this democratic veil is especially thin when compared to other capitalist democracies. While immigrants are excluded from elections in almost all nation states, a racist policy in and of itself, the degree of voter exclusion, gerrymandering and closure of polling stations in the United States is outrageous, even to the most conservative observer from the outside. Millions of workers, especially the racially oppressed, are systematically stopped from casting their ballots. Furthermore, gerrymandering, the electoral college and the system of election for Congress make sure that it is not the popular majority that makes decisions.

Numerically, the Democrats did not only win both the House and Congress elections, but also the Presidential election. While the party itself seems relatively content with the racist and anti-democratic state of affairs, this sheds light on how little substance there is behind the claim to be the “largest and most advanced democracy in the world”. It also carries important lessons to all activists who want to bring change via elections: Not only will police and secret services not give up their allegiance to the ruling class just because of a vote, it is almost impossible to win any power in the United States by standing in elections.

Workers' party

The instability of the Trump regime and the increasing contradictions within the ruling Republican party are no surprise for Marxists who provided an analysis of their program and social basis when he was elected. However, they provide a chance to put up meaningful resistance against the reactionary reorganization of large parts of US politics and life.

The Democrats are not only unable to put up an alternative for the working class, they even seem unable to provide an alternative for their own bureaucrats and their liberal capitalist social basis. It is no use revolutionaries, socialists or, frankly, any half-progressive person who wants to change anything in this country, relying on this party. Instead a clean break from it and its anti-working class politics is long overdue.

The unbroken increase in membership for self-proclaimed socialist groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America, DSA, shows that there is a significant minority of new activists who are willing to organize outside of bourgeois politics. There are many more that could be convinced to break from the futile policies of pulling the Democrats left, or the Greens both left and out of insignificance.

However, the DSA needs to break not only from its support for Democrats like Sanders and to pull its own people off Democratic tickets, but also with its reformist heritage and instead lay out a program that can last, even if the capitalists mobilize everything against it: A revolutionary program for building a new workers' party.

This is primarily the task of the membership to deliver on their promise of radical and socialist policies instead of drawing another generation of activists first into Democrat politics and then into resignation. They need to fight the opportunistic course of the leadership and put an honest programmatic debate in place of the empty “big tent” rhetoric that only delays the looming confrontation.