Midterm Elections and the Politics of Despair

The few bright spots in this year's dreary elections offer a hint of what class politics can accomplish, writes Gabriel Pierre

The best democracy money can buy. Photo via Flickr

The triumphant conservative talking heads and the loud pots-and-pans media banging on about the right-wing midterm results should take a moment to consider the whole picture.

November 4th wasn’t so much a Republican victory as it was a Democratic defeat. Just under 37 percent1 of eligible voters cast their ballots, giving this year’s elections the dubious honor of having the lowest turnout since 1942 – in the middle of the Second World War. This time it wasn’t being busy fighting Hitler that kept Americans from the polls, but rather the general absence of real choices to make. We should definitely be alarmed by the reactionaries who now have the majority in both houses of Congress and who are preparing to launch their anti-worker, anti-people of color and anti-environmental agenda with renewed vigor. What we should not do is double down on our support for Democratic politicians as the progressive alternative or even as a lesser evil compared to the GOP.

The pressure of lesser-evilism is enough to compress coal into diamonds, although that might not be the best metaphor to use: diamonds are, after all, valuable, while subordinating working class politics to the transient electoral considerations of a capitalist party has gotten us nowhere. Most readers of the Red Vine will not need to be convinced that the Republicans have a noxious program: you can read about that in the countless liberal shows, journals and blogs that make it their business. But the Democrats’ record in power just in recent years shows us that they have the same basic agenda as their erstwhile opponents.

Congressional Democrats closed ranks around George W. Bush in his crusade against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. As a candidate for president, Barack Obama joined with Bush and Republican nominee John McCain in supporting the $700 billion bank bailouts – a massive handout to the same corporations that presided over the crash. Once in power, the Obama Administration threw its pro-worker planks – like the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) out the door. As I wrote in May2:

“President Obama has stood with the class he represents – the capitalists – on every important question. He has effectively cut the wages of federal workers, considering wage freezes in combination with increased employee pension contributions. He has extended the Bush-era erosion of privacy, acted as warmonger-in-chief on the world stage (Libya, Syria) and made pro-corporate health care reform his signature policy achievement. As far as tackling the seemingly permanent economic malaise that the capitalist economy has entered, there has been not a word from the Oval Office on a mass public jobs program or even the (much more modest) policy of raising taxes for the super-rich to defend the social programs so desperately needed by millions of Americans.

State-level Democratic politicians are no better: the Wisconsin Democrats, through their ties with the union leadership, diverted a mass protest movement against union-buster Scott Walker into the dead end of a gubernatorial recall campaign in which the Democratic candidate did not even commit to undoing the hated legislation if he won! Democrats have lead the charge for austerity, implementing social welfare-slashing budgets in New York, Massachusetts and Iowa. Clearly they are not even a useful shield against the Right, differing with their counterparts across the aisle not on any principles but merely on details (and, increasingly, not even that.)”

To this we can add several more items: the Democrats’ lock-step support for Israel in its latest war against the Gazan people (including liberal stalwart Elizabeth Warren and supposedly ‘independent’ Senator Bernie Sanders), the Obama Administration’s expansion of fossil fuel production at the expense of renewables and renewed military intervention in the Middle East, to name a few. The one area where the Democrats can plausibly claim some success – jobs creation – is one where the new jobs created have been overwhelmingly in low-wage industries, furthering the falling living standards experienced by our class and furthering the historically high divide in wealth between us and the richest 1%. 2014 is not 2008, where enthusiasm among workers, youth and people of color lead to a Democratic House, Senate and presidency. Now enthusiasm (and by extension, turnout) is so low that even Wisconsin’s Scott Walker won re-election. Instead of “Yes We Can!”, we have the politics of despair – either hold your nose and vote for the Democrats or just stay home because it doesn’t make a difference anyway.

There were some exceptions to the general malaise in this election cycle. Ballot initiatives on pot legalization passed in Oregon, D.C. and Alaska – and failed in Florida despite getting a majority of votes because of the state’s undemocratic “supermajority” clause. Colorado defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have outlawed abortion. Illinois voters passed through a measure requiring health insurance plans to cover birth control. Californians approved a measure to reclassify a number of non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Several states, including stereotypically conservative Nebraska and South Dakota, passed modest minimum wage increases; the city of San Francisco passed a stronger, labor-backed increase. None of these were measures to implement a living wage, but the initiatives described above confirm that people do respond to issues of concern to the working-class majority.

A handful of socialist candidates ran energetic campaigns; combined, over 800,000 voters cast their ballots for candidates who self-identify as socialists. Whereas the Democratic Party, if it mobilizes its base at all, does so in a top-down way based on passive electoral support and fear of the other side, the socialist candidates by and large ran their campaigns on the basis of organizing movements. The Green Party’s Howie Hawkins / Brian Jones ticket for governor of New York took in 175,000 votes; in Washington State, Socialist Alternative ran Jess Spear against incumbent Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, taking 17%.

The key thing to remember is that our main goal should not necessarily be to win these seats – that is a secondary objective, although it can be quite helpful to have socialist representatives who act as revolutionary oppositionists. When revolutionary socialists run for office, the most important goal must always be to build and cohere support for independent working-class politics. These politics need to expose the U.S. electoral system, and thus the democratic credentials of our much-vaunted American democracy, for what they are. At any rate, victories for our class are won not mainly through sympathetic politicians but through mass struggle. When the more engaged, more class-conscious layers of workers and the oppressed are well organized around a party and a strong program, they can lead the more backward layers.

A concrete example: Socialist Alternative caught the establishment with its pants down during its first race against Chopp and Sawant’s successful city council candidacy last year. The Democratic Party wasn’t about to make the same mistake again. Note The Stranger, a popular alternative newspaper, which endorsed Kshama Sawant in 2013 but energetically backed Chopp this time around. With the Democratic electoral machine and the wealthy backers standing behind it bearing down on them, Socialist Alternative was weakened by failing to build the campaign as a united front involving the resources, manpower and political involvement of all Seattle area socialists. Not only would this have helped compensate for the lack of endorsement from The Stranger, it would also have put the revolutionary left in a much better position for united action in general. In New York, the Hawkins / Jones campaign is doing much more to build the Green Party than it is to build a robust socialist pole of attraction in the workers’ movement.

There is a gulf between dissatisfaction with the status quo and articulation of a revolutionary alternative. A rightward slide in mainstream politics will continue to fill that void unless and until that alternative emerges. There is fertile soil for a revolutionary socialist party in the labor and social movements. Isn’t it time to plant the seed?


(From The Red Vine.)


  1. http://www.npr.org/2014/11/05/361820838/midterm-elections-may-have-had-record-low-turnout
  2. http://red-party.com/cpusa-bankruptcy-of-official-communism/

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