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Election 2016: The Reality Show of Politics in the USA

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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 underlying reality of politics limited by bourgeois strictures on what can be done has, this year, seemingly been overtaken by the sensibilities of an actual scripted “reality show” and starring a former reality show host as one of the principals. I'm referring, of course, to Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President of the United States. Trump, who has positioned himself as an outsider untainted by the D.C. Establishment, is being opposed by the epitome of that establishment in 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's worth during this year of voter discontent. And the people are not happy.

Together, these two representatives of their respective parties are the most disliked presidential candidates ever in the history of polling for the office. Neither Trump not 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 even 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 gotten 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 candidate more completely identified with that establishment. A former First Lady, her fingerprints were all over her husband's triangulation policies, which began the Democratic Party's lurch to the right during the 1990s . This led to policies like welfare “reform”, defence 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. At the same time, it ignored what had previously been core constituencies like labor unions, the poor and the working class.

Subsequently, she furthered the same 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.

On the economy, she is the classic neo-liberal, but with aggressive foreign policy positions that 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 most on 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, as well as the originator of the genre, Henry Kissinger.

If Clinton is elected, we can expect her to use the US military to enforce the will of the owners ruthlessly and without mercy throughout the world.

Donald Trump - The Republican

It's 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 endeavors, 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 the younger up and comers like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, he took the primaries by storm, defeating every opponent by double digits.

But 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 deportation of all Muslims, downgrading women and 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.

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”, to 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 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 these so very disliked candidates of the two major parties running, 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 any such candidates 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 “socialist” slates running, the two minor parties that are expected to do best in November do not come from these would-be representatives of the working class. It is the Libertarians and the Greens, with 10 per cent and 5 per cent respectively, who are currently riding highest of the “other” parties in the polls.

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, considering that the first candidate of the Libertarian Party in the 1980s was the billionaire David Koch. Unrestricted and unregulated, with “buyer beware” being the only check on business activity, the Libertarian platform attempts to balance this business “freedom” with greater personal freedom by, for example, doing away with drug laws and other restrictions on life style. 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. Support for the repeal of the ridiculous laws on drugs and opposition to governmental interference in personal decisions like lifestyle and choice, are intended to balance any concerns about the Libertarian agenda of freedom for businesses to exploit with impunity. The con involves the likely fate 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, therefore, to immediate enactment, the personal freedoms are a different matter altogether and would be unlikely to 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, SA, the 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, it went on to endorse the candidate of the Green Party under the slogan “Build a new party of the 99 per cent - 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 supporting it means sacrificing the political independence the US workers so desperately need. It is a position totally impermissible for revolutionary socialists. However, since they are well positioned to be the “left alternative” this year, they will probably have their best ever general election.

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, nationwide.

Yet the forces of the Left are so divided into warring micro-sects that they cannot even get together to debate an action programme of immediate and transitional demands on which a common slate of candidates could stand. Even at a time when capitalism is under pressure from all sides, the far left has been unable to offer a unified electoral platform, despite appearing to agree on many of the essential elements of such a platform.

This must change. Whether by the use of a series of united fronts on specific vital issues for workers and the oppressed, or by forming a workers' party supported by sections of the trade unions, antiracist and minority rights campaigners, a way must be found for joint work around elections. This is not because anyone should expect to gain a system change from such work, 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, the revolutionary left, especially Trotskyists, could provide the “revolutionary current” even within a reformist, that is, a bourgeois, workers' party.

These are, of course, only tentative ideas and not fleshed out; easy to say, but difficult to do. But, just because it's difficult, does not mean that the attempt should not be made. We would work together with all comrades of good will who want to achieve this goal and other, especially more specific, ideas are always welcomed. Of course, different groups and traditions have their own ideas and their differences are neither meaningless nor unimportant, but they do need to be tested out not only in discussion but through common practice.

Congressional Elections

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 33 Senate seats. In most years, there are very few changes in the makeup of Congress but, sometimes, when the ruling party has angered the electorate to the point where they vote en-masse for the opposition there can be exceptions to this rule. Such “wave elections” can indeed change the makeup of Congress, as in 2008 when Barack Obama led the Democrats into ascendancy. Thereafter, in 2010, the Republicans took back the House and narrowed the Democrats' Senate majority sufficiently to block Obama's agenda before going on to win the Senate and take full control of Congress on the 2014 mid-term elections.

Because of the anger in the electorate this year, some might expect a Democrat “wave” to change the Congressional majorities but this is certainly not guaranteed. Clinton might focus fear of Trump, but she does not focus popular anger against the Republicans as a party. As of this writing, Clinton holds a fairly substantial lead in the Presidential race, but Congress is still up in the air. The Democrats have a better chance of taking back the Senate, mostly because they are defending fewer seats than the Republicans, but even this is still too close to call.

In the House, districts have been so gerrymandered since 2010 that, no matter how big the Clinton victory might be, there probably will not be a change in Republican control. To show how egregious this gerrymandering is, in 2012, Democratic House candidates won five million more votes than the Republican candidates but still didn't cut into the Republican House majority. So, with two months still to go, the probable outcome of the elections will be a more divided Congress, 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 much in the way of change for our benefit out of the 2016 elections in the USA. If Clinton wins, as 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, together with that neo-liberal agenda. Moreover, because Congress will probably still be divided, any laws that are enacted will have to be palatable to the Republican House of Representatives. That means laws will be center-right, at best, and concerned with supporting private profit rather than the urgent needs of the majority of people.

It's always been a fact that American politics has 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 failed to deliver. There's always an excuse that radical political positions, despite being popular, cannot be enacted, usually because the other party in opposition are “obstructionists”. The real truth is that the moneyed interests have always decided how far the spectrum of government policy can be stretched to include programs for the general welfare, as opposed to the profit required by the capitalist system. It is also true that every dime that is 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.

So, American elections have always been a “reality show” in the sense that whoever wins, the outcome of the election won't 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”. And it's 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 people we are forced to vote for because they are the only ones we're allowed to vote for.

To even begin to break the stranglehold of the owners, elections are only the beginning. And, in elections, we have to widen the choices we are allowed to have. To do this, we need an American party of labor that unabashedly represents us, the workers, the oppressed, the rest of us. But that's only a start. A workers' party that is only concerned with elections every two to four years is worse than useless because it will inevitably devolve 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 and in every day of its existence and 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 sate but of large reactionary social strata too, it will require a Third American Revolution - a socialist one.

Till then, enjoy the show, but don't expect anything to really change for the better as a result.