Where We Stand After the Elections
American elections have historically played an important role in the ebb and flow of the unfolding social struggle. On one hand, they have served as an indicator of the degree of the polarization in society, and as a gauge of the social awareness and social consciousness of the workers. On the other hand, they have served as an arena for a massive propaganda war over the causes and solutions of America’s economic and social problems. The 2018 midterm elections were no exception.
According to the United States Elections Project, a midterm record of 118 million ballots had been counted, and the 50.1 percent turnout of eligible voters was the highest in a midterm election in over 100 years. According to Tufts University researchers, voter turnout among young people aged 18-29 increased the most, rising from 21 percent in 2014 to 31 percent in 2018.
Increased voter turnout reflected an overall upsurge in political participation, especially among the youth. The Tufts studies found that the percentage of young people who said they had attended a political march or rally tripled in the past two years. Significantly, they found that most youth who described themselves as “more cynical about politics,” also said that they were extremely likely to vote. Seventy-two percent of all young people said they believed that “dramatic change could occur in this country if people banded together.”
The cause of the increased turnout is not difficult to discern. Although on the surface the 2018 turnout appears inspired by anti-Trump resistance, the actual cause is deeper and not so partisan. Even amid a so-called recovery, actual poverty and hardship are growing, and access to housing, health care, clean water, and public education is eroding. In late November, General Motors announced plans to shut down five plants and lay off 15 percent of its salaried workforce. George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen has projected an American future with “a Mexico-like or Brazil-like environment,” complete with a lower “quality of water” and “partial shantytowns.”
Voters appeared to be more driven by the struggle for necessities than by parties. “Red state” residents voted over the opposition of Republican officials to expand Medicaid in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah, and to raise the minimum wage in Arkansas and Missouri. In California, in Democratic Party dominated San Francisco and Mountain View, voters elected to impose “tech taxes” on their largest corporations to pay for transit and homeless services, despite opposition by leading Democrats. Florida voters passed a voter re-enfranchisement measure that will add 1.5 million ex-felons as new voters to the rolls in 2020.
Many observers noted a shift among suburban voters in Texas, Georgia, and Florida that caused surprising near victories by reformers Beto O’Rourke, Stacy Abrams and Andrew Gillum. This happened because their programs were responsive to the demands of people for basic necessities, while the suburbs themselves had changed over the last two decades. As urban scholar Richard Florida points out in his book, The New Urban Crisis, “Across the United States, more than one in four suburbanites are poor or nearly poor. In fact, the suburbs of America’s largest metropolitan areas have more poor people living in them than their inner cities do.”
The crisis is systemic. The very foundation of capitalism is the buying and selling of labor power. Today’s replacement of human labor by automated production is steadily destroying our economy and polarizing our society. On the one hand, more wealth is being produced and concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer than at any other time in human history. On the other hand, more and more workers are being permanently displaced from their jobs and left with nowhere to work, without the wherewithal to secure the necessities of life, with no access to the social wealth that they and their ancestors helped to create. They are more and more forced into political struggle, including the electoral arena, because they have nowhere else to turn.
This trend toward increased voter participation by the working class is on a collision course with a ruling class that is intent on preserving its private property relations at all costs. The government has launched a massive campaign of gerrymandering and voter suppression. In her book, Democracy in Chains, Nancy McLean states, “In the two years after Republican candidates swept the 2010 midterm elections, ALEC-backed legislators in forty-one states introduced more than 180 bills to restrict who could vote and how.” Voter roll purges in Georgia, Florida, and elsewhere literally reversed the outcomes of many of the most important statewide campaigns there. At the same time, numerous state legislatures gerrymandered electoral districts to disenfranchise the working class. The result was that in the 2016 general election, the party that the majority of people voted against in elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the presidency ended up controlling all three. While the form of these battles appears to be partisan, the underlying cause is a bipartisan drive to strip all political rights from the working class.
Elected officials opposed by the majority of Americans then used their power to install judges on the Supreme Court and in lower courts all across the land. The President of the United States even threatened to revoke birthright citizenship altogether. Just at the time when more Americans than ever are participating in politics to fight for their future, the ruling class is moving to attempt to deny them the ability to do so. As a result, the courts and other government institutions are losing their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The battle is on.
Historically, elections have played a critical role in the social struggle in America, because our sharpest battles for class interests have always been bound up with the battle for democracy. For example, the fight against nineteenth century slavery gained its real political traction only when the abolitionists began to point out that slave power tyranny threatened democracy everywhere, North and South. In the same way, the fight for housing, health care, and education for the working class today is inseparable from its right to protest, to speak and write, and to vote. Martin Luther King echoed the sentiment of millions when he said, “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
Some people portray electoral battles as diversionary or reformist. Although that can often be the case, a cursory examination of American history shows that many of our sharpest and most militant reform and even revolutionary struggles have tended to revolve around elections.
For example, the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, set off a bitter battle over whether the territory of Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. Free-soil settlers outnumbered pro-slavery Kansans by an estimated nine to one margin, but the 1855 election for a territorial legislature was deliberately sabotaged, when some 5000 (slave state) Missourians literally crossed the border to vote in the Kansas election and installed a pro-slavery legislature. This set off the period of warfare that became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Free-soilers were forced to boycott two elections and a state constitutional convention, before they were finally able to organize an election fair enough to win admission to the Union as a free state.
After the Civil War, elections in the Southern states became the linch-pin around which all social struggle around the country turned. Throughout the periods of Reconstruction, populism, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement, Southern elections were more often than not accompanied by pitched battles, lynchings, massive fraud, and violent assaults on voters. As the 2018 elections confirmed, elections were and continue to be a central arena where the battle between class unity and fascist division has been and is being fought out.
Democracy and Private Property
The pre-Civil War political struggle was fought between the slave labor agricultural capitalists on the one hand, and free labor industrial capitalists on the other. Today, America’s social polarization is driven by the antagonism between a ruling class of private property owners, and a new, propertyless class that is becoming increasingly separated from the formal capitalist economy altogether. This new class cannot physically survive without material means of support, and cannot obtain them without demanding their distribution based on need. This compels it to confront the private property system and the government. The conflict is every bit as irrepressible as the one in the pre-Civil War period.
Despite vastly different economic and political conditions, the major ideological debate today is in one respect remarkably similar to that of the pre-Civil War era. As early as the 1840s, the pro-slavery apologist John Calhoun began to develop the “substantive due process” doctrine, in order to outflank the growing political power of the Northern industrialists. The essential argument was that since slaves were property, the constitution protected the slave system, with no political, legal, or territorial limitations whatsoever. This was the doctrine that was ultimately declared to be the law of the land in the 1857 Dred Scott decision – and then overthrown at Appomattox in 1865.
Just as Calhoun argued then, that the constitutional right to own slaves trumped democracy, today’s rulers argue that the right to private property supersedes other democratic rights. Today’s revolutionaries need to show that we cannot win our economic and political demands without democracy, we cannot secure democracy without breaking the power of the corporations, and we cannot win real freedom and real democracy until we abolish private property. Revolutionaries play their true role when they explain the nature of the class antagonism and the class interests underlying our increasing poverty and violence. This is the path to the cooperative society we are striving for.
January/February 2019. Vol29.Ed1
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 email@example.com
Free to reproduce unless otherwise marked.
Please include this message with any reproduction.
The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011