Election 2016: The Reality Show of Politics in the USA
Karl Marx once said, when discussing the realities of politics and elections in the bourgeois state that: “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and oppress them”. Although this has always been true, it seems that it's never been more obvious than in the elections in the United States in 2016. The choice is between billionaire Donald Trump (estimates vary between $3-10bn) or the more modest millionaires, the Clintons (with $110m, according to Fortune).
The underlying reality of politics, limited by bourgeois strictures on what can be done, has this year, seemingly been overtaken by the sensibilities of a scripted “reality show”, starring a former reality show host as one of the principals. I'm referring, of course, to Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for President of the United States. Trump, who has positioned himself as an outsider untainted by the Washington D.C. Establishment, is being opposed by that epitome of the establishment, Hillary Clinton, running as the Democratic candidate. Her gender is the only reason that she could, in any way, be considered any sort of a “change” candidate and she has played this identity card for all it is worth during this year of massive voter discontent.
And still the people are not happy.
These two are the most disliked presidential candidates ever in the history of polling for the office. Taken together, neither Trump nor Clinton inspire anything but revulsion among a majority of the populace and both are running campaigns that basically say, “I might be bad, but the other guy is worse”. 2016 is the result of the “lesser of two evils” argument that has fuelled campaigns since the Goldwater/Johnson election of 1964. The choices have got worse and worse with every campaign until you have two people running for the most visibly powerful position on Earth, who the majority do not like, do not trust, and do not want.
Hillary Clinton - The Democrat
Hillary Clinton finally beat back the insurgent candidacy of self-identified socialist Bernie Sanders, using every dirty trick in the book to secure the Democratic nomination for President. True to his word, Sanders played his “sheepdog” role, guiding the flock of dissatisfied left voters back to the Democratic Party, a classic “lesser of two evils” ploy to scare the left of the electorate into voting against Donald Trump rather than for Hillary Clinton.
Given an election season marked by historically high levels of expressions of disgust at the “establishment”, the Democrats could hardly have chosen a more totally establishment candidate. A former First Lady whose fingerprints were all over the triangulation policies of her husband during the 1990s that began the Democratic Party's lurch to the right. Policies like welfare reform, defense of heterosexual only marriage, draconian drug laws that fed the privatized prison pipeline, deregulation of Wall Street and many other horrors that marked the “New Democrat” strategy of courting big business and ignoring what had previously been core constituencies like labor unions, the poor and the working class.
She then furthered those aims as a Senator from New York State and added a vote for George W. Bush's adventurism in Iraq to her resumé. Finally, as the Secretary of State under Barack Obama, she oversaw the explosion of exploitation and war in the Middle East, supervising indiscriminate mass-murder by drone of innocent men, women, and children. Her famously evil gloating at Gadaffi’s brutal death, with the words “we came: we saw: he died!” can be seen everywhere on Youtube. Having likened Putin to Hitler and made “standing up to Russia” her number one foreign policy goal, only worse can be expected from her.
On the economy, she is the classic neo-liberal, but with the aggressive foreign policy positions that will attempt to spread this deadly virus to the rest of the world through the US military. This last point is probably the one that is most problematic for the American soft left. She has reluctantly “evolved” on the domestic social issues to the point where she could be palatable to the average Sanders supporter, especially as compared to the demagoguery of Trump but, in the area of foreign policy, Clinton shows her true colors. She is an unreconstructed, neo-conservative hawk with the full support of the military-industrial complex and a solid wall of support from prominent neo-conservative imperialists like Robert Kagan, Richard Armitage, John Negroponte, and the original architect of the genre, Henry Kissinger.
Donald Trump - The Republican
It is difficult to see how any opposition party would not salivate at the prospect of running against Hillary Clinton and her well-known problems with both the left and the right of American politics. To use an old political expression, one would think that the Republicans could nominate a “ham sandwich” and win, or at least compete, against the negatives that Clinton has. So what do they do? They give in to their worst and most racist and misogynistic tendencies and nominate an opportunist and egotist named Donald Trump.
Trump, who calls himself a businessman, is most famously known for real estate deals that go wrong and wind up in bankruptcy court and relentless self-promotion, including his starring role in the reality show “The Apprentice” with its famous “You're fired!” line. For most of his political life, he's been a Democrat. But, seeing an opportunity to expand his “brand” into a new field, and perhaps strengthen that brand in his other endeavours, he decided to run as an outsider and a Republican. In a crowded field of Republican candidates that included the “Old Guard” like Jeb Bush and John Kasich and younger up and comers like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, he took the primaries by storm, defeating every opponent by double digits.
It was the way that he won that sent shock waves through the political class. He didn't shy away from controversial statements and stands but, instead, embraced them fully, giving vent to Republican values that had previously been only spoken in “dog whistle” terms. Calling Mexicans “drug dealers” and “rapists”, calling for deporting all Muslims, downgrading women, blacks and even making fun of the handicapped, the Donald said outrageous things that would have been unthinkable for any other candidate. Instead of tanking his chances, these outbursts only made him more popular with the Republican base. He also called for violence against his political opponents, which has led Clinton supporters to use the word “fascist” in order to demonize him and reinforce the “greater evil” strategy. This, however, is more of a calculated political ploy by the Clinton campaign than an accurate assessment of Trump's politics.
It is noteworthy that the fascist far right, who used to describe Trump as a would-be Jew, have rallied to his cause as the white racist vote rallied to him. Trump is not a committed and ideological fascist. Indeed, he is not committed to anything beyond self-promotion. His pathologically inflated ego is his motivation. The problem with Trump is that, driven by unbridled opportunism to support that ego, he is using the tropes that appeal to the social forces that could, at a later stage, support fascism. He appeals to the squeezed middle class and impoverished elements of the “native” (i.e. white) proletariat, who feel themselves the special victims of globalisation and the lingering Long Depression. He focusses their frustration and hatred not on the parasitic capitalist system of which he is such a prime example but on “the political establishment” and the latest “other”; Latin American and Middle Eastern migrants. He plays on their fears of an increasingly pluralistic American society. His call to “make America great again”, build up its armed forces whilst avoiding the wars that have shown the global superpower has feet of clay, is aimed at the US victims of the Clinton-Bush-Obama wars.
In his hubris, he thinks that these are forces that he can appeal to and then control. That, rather than a committed fascist political philosophy, is the true danger of Trump. Playing the role of Goethe and Disney’s sorcerer’s apprentice, he ignores the fact that there is no benevolent magician to suppress the manic spirits that he has raised.
History is replete with examples of capitalists who thought they could use racist populists, and even fascists, for their own ends and then put them back in their box once those ends had been accomplished. Ukraine is a prime and recent example of what happens once fascistic elements are unleashed. As far as the policies that a Trump presidency might entail, those are all over the map and, at times, totally incoherent. He supports massive tax cuts, privatization, and deregulation like a typical Republican neo-liberal, but he also seems to favor an isolationist foreign policy that is to the “left” of Clinton.
Yet he seems to be enamored of nuclear weapons and has gone on record wondering, “why have them if they're not to be used?” He also seems to be a fan of Vladimir Putin and the aims of Russian imperialism. Of course, none of this is very well fleshed out and seems to be mostly election sloganeering. What a Trump election and policies would actually entail is uncertain, other than massive unrest by the people that he has slurred and insulted of course. The sideshow of Trump himself is of more concern than his actual policies at this point.
Libertarians, Greens, and Socialists, Oh My!
Not unexpectedly, with such disliked candidates running for the two major parties, there seems to be an opportunity for various other parties to make inroads into the near unbroken monopoly that the Republicans and Democrats have had on power since the Civil War. Not that they have any chance of actually winning of course, but it can be reasonably expected that a couple of these after-thoughts could have their best general elections ever.
Although there are at least four “socialist” slates running, the two parties that are expected to do best in November, outside of the big two, do not come from this group of would-be representatives of the working class. The two “other” parties that have been polling the best in recent months are the Libertarians, on 10 percent, and the Greens, 5 percent.
The Libertarians are a Republican Party offshoot with an even more radical agenda for capitalism than the most rabid of the neo-liberals. This is not surprising, given that the first candidate of the Libertarian Party, in the 1980s, was billionaire David Koch. Its programme is for unrestricted and unregulated capitalism, with “buyer beware” being the only check on business activity. The Libertarian platform attempts to balance business “freedom” by doing away with drug laws and other restrictions on personal freedom. In other words, they are capitalists who like to smoke dope.
Libertarianism is a scam by the bourgeoisie to peel off left support from the Democrats. The appeal of the repeal of the ridiculous laws on drugs and governmental interference in personal decisions like lifestyle and choice, are expected to balance any concerns that a potential left voter might have about the Libertarian agenda of freedom for businesses to exploit with impunity. The con involves the likelihood of the enactment of these two aspects of Libertarianism. Whereas the freedom of businesses to exploit would dovetail nicely with classic Republican and Democratic neo-liberal lawmakers and lead to immediate enactment, the personal freedoms are a lower priority and, most likely, would not have the support of enough representatives to ever be legislated into law.
The Greens are expected to benefit because they are the most left leaning party that has any sort of recognition among the American electorate. They are also on more state ballots than most of the other alternative parties and enjoy the tacit, if not overt, support of some of the larger socialist organizations, especially Socialist Alternative, US section of the Committee for a Workers' International.
SA achieved fame in November 2013 when its candidate, Kshama Sawant, was elected as an openly socialist Seattle Councillor. SA calls for a “mass workers' party”. In the Primaries season, it launched its own #Movement4Bernie, supporting Sanders’ policies but urging him not to endorse Hillary Clinton. After participating in protests at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, SA went on to endorse the candidate of the Green Party under the slogan “Build a new party of party of the 99% - support Jill Stein”.
The Greens are a “radical-liberal”, petit bourgeois party that takes some tentative steps toward reformist socialism, but still supports capitalism in its platform. That is, when the chips are down, it is a bourgeois party and to support it is to sacrifice the political independence that US workers so desperately need. It is a position totally impermissible for revolutionary socialists. However, they are well positioned to be the left alternative this year and, as such, will probably have the best general election that they have ever had.
The Problems of the Far Left
There are at least four slates of socialists running for president this year. The Socialist Party USA (SPUSA), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) are all running candidates in various states, although none are on the ballot everywhere or even in as many states as the Greens or the Libertarians. This is a farce. All of these candidates taken together might represent a constituency of a few tens of thousands of followers nationwide.
Yet the left is so divided into warring micro-sects that they cannot even get together to debate and agree an action programme of immediate and transitional demands on which a common slate of candidates could stand. In truth, at a time when capitalism is under pressure from all sides, the far left cannot unify, even on things that they all agree on.
This must change. Whether by use of a series of united fronts on specific vital issues for workers and the oppressed, or forming a workers' party supported by sections of the trade unions, antiracist and minority rights campaigners, a way must be found for joint work at times of elections. This is not because anyone expects to gain a system change from elections, but simply because elections are what most Americans, at this time, think of as politics. Broadening the base through electoral politics should be used to provide a platform for more direct and mass actions.
The ideal situation would be to bring together the socialist left into a workers' party that was also backed by at least a segment of organized labor in the US. In a political grouping of this sort, even if it were a reformist, that is a bourgeois, workers' party, the revolutionary left, especially Trotskyists, could provide the “revolutionary current” within it.
These are only tentative ideas, not fleshed out and easy to say, but difficult to do. But, just because it is difficult does not mean that the attempt should not be made. We would work together with all comrades who want to achieve this goal and other, especially more specific, ideas are always welcomed. Of course, different trends have their own ideas and such differences are not necessarily meaningless or unimportant, but they should be tested out in common practice.
There is one other aspect of election year 2016 that needs to be briefly discussed and that is the elections for Congress. There are 435 House of Representative seats up for grabs this year, along with 34 Senate seats. In most years, there are very few changes in the make-up of Congress but, it can happen that a ruling party so angers the electorate that they vote en-masse for the opposition and shift the balance of forces. Recent such “wave” elections include 2008, when Barack Obama led the Democrats into ascendancy and then 2010 when the Republicans took back the House and narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate. In the 2014 “mid-term” elections the Republicans went on to win the Senate, giving them control of Congress as a whole.
Because of the anger in the electorate this year, some might expect another change in Congressional majorities. But this anger might not translate into any particular Democratic “wave” simply because, whilst Clinton might focus fear of Trump, she does not focus anger against the Republicans. Indeed, many Republican candidates are openly distancing themselves from Trump to safeguard their own chances. The Democrats have a better shot at taking back the Senate, mostly because they are defending fewer seats than the Republicans are, but even this is still too close to call.
In the House, districts have been so gerrymandered since 2010 that, no matter how big a Clinton victory might be, there will probably be no change in Republican control. To show how egregious this gerrymandering is; in 2012, Democrat candidates won five million more votes than Republicans, but still did not cut into the Republican House majority. So the probable outcome of the Congressional elections will be more divided government with the House staying Republican, albeit with a narrowed majority, and the Senate moving to a Democratic majority or tied.
This is what (bourgeois) Democracy looks like!
In short, don't expect the 2016 elections in the USA to bring any benefit for the working class or left. If Clinton wins, as widely expected, we will be fighting against blatant American imperialism, war, and the continuing neo-liberal agenda of austerity and privatization. If Trump wins, the far right will be emboldened to the point where the fight against racism and ethnic division will take center stage, alongside the same neo-liberal agenda. Congress will probably still be divided, so only laws that are supported by the Republican House of Representatives will be enacted. Which means that those laws will be center-right at best and concerned with supporting private profit rather than the actual needs of the people.
American politics has always been dominated by quadrennial spectaculars that install one figurehead or another, of one political party or another, all of whom have promised the world to the electorate and then didn't deliver. Their excuse is always that radical political positions, despite being popular, cannot be enacted, usually involving the other party in opposition as “obstructionists”. The real truth is that the moneyed interests decide how far the spectrum can be stretched to include programs for the general welfare, as opposed to the profit required by the capitalist system. Their concern is that every dime spent on social welfare programs for the poor and middle economic classes is a dime that is not going into the marketplace or the protection of that marketplace, worldwide, by the US military. The ultimate truth of bourgeois democracy in the US is that, unless the people demand it militantly, programs and policies that benefit them, rather than the owners of the system, will not happen, no matter whether Democrats or Republicans control Washington, D.C.
American elections have always been a “reality show” in the sense that, whoever wins, the outcome of the election will not change much for the rest of us. The elections are there for our entertainment and to give us all the illusion that we have a choice in who “... rules and oppresses us”. It is becoming more and more obvious that what Marx said over a century ago about bourgeois elections is true. Change, even limited incremental change, comes from the streets and workplaces putting overwhelming pressure on the bosses and their profit margins, not from the laws enacted by the parties which represent those bosses and profit margins.
At best, elections can play a role in beginning to break the stranglehold of the owners. Even for that, we have to widen the choices available and to do this we need an American party of labor that unabashedly represents us, the workers, the oppressed, the rest of us. A workers' party that was only concerned with elections every two to four years would be worse than useless because it would inevitably degenerate into another capitalist supporting political party, not much better than the Democrats.
A party of labor must involve itself in the day-to-day lives and problems of workers and of the oppressed of all strata. It must work in the communities, neighborhoods and, especially, the workplaces, every day, not just every few years. When we can build this, there will be the prospect for real change and not just another band-aid to cover the gaping chest wound that is capitalism in 2016.
Given the immense power of US capital, given the huge obstacles that systemic racism presents, given the undemocratic obstacles enshrined in Federal and State Constitutions, and the armament not just of the capitalist state but of large reactionary social strata too, going beyond an electoral advance to a real change in the balance of social forces to give control of society's resources to the majority, will require a Third American Revolution, a socialist one.