The success of the openly racist, sexist and violence-mongering Republican presidential campaign of billionaire Donald Trump, and the broad support for self-described “socialist” Bernie Sanders’ challenge to the Democrats’ presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, have shaken both parties’ “establishments” – the mega-rich capitalists who fund the parties’ campaigns, and the politicians and other hacks who do their bidding Taking turns in power, the two ruling-class parties have presided over decades of falling living standards without facing a revolt from their voting bases. The Republicans took for granted that thinly veiled appeals to racism, and reactionary claims to champion “family values” against supposed evils like abortion rights for women, would be enough mobilize their supporters. And the Democrats trusted that people’s fears of the Republicans’ extremism would in turn mobilize their voting base. In this election, however, the effects of the economic crisis have driven millions of voters to revolt against the traditional political leaders and their plans to continue business as usual.
Both parties have championed economic policies that have devastated poor and working-class people. They have overseen the destruction of millions of jobs in the United States with “free trade” policies that allowed corporations shift industrial production to “Third World” countries, where they super-exploit desperately poor workers kept down by brutal dictatorships. Likewise they have allowed capitalists in the U.S. to exploit immigrants from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere, demonizing and persecuting them as so-called “illegals” to undermine working-class solidarity. And they have outdone each other with attacks on welfare and other social services. On top of all this, when the financial crisis broke out on Wall Street in 2008, the two parties came together to bail out the banks while abandoning the rest of the country to the ravages of the “Great Recession.”
Hopes that the election of Barack Obama would mean greater justice for all were dashed, as the first Black president offered nothing more than eloquent speeches full of concern for the problems people face while pursuing policies that always put capitalist profits first. The only major change supposed to help working-class and poor people, “Obamacare,” in reality forced millions to purchase the “services” of profiteering health insurance companies. And Obama sought to improve his re-election hopes by trumping the Republicans’ immigrant-bashing with record levels of deportations of undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, he continued the war-making and support for vicious dictators in the Middle East and beyond that U.S. corporations rely on to super-exploit the planet.
Throughout this period, attempts by working-class and oppressed people to fight back through protests, strikes and other forms of direct mass action, were strangled by those who claim to be their leaders. The bureaucrats who control the country’s trade unions, along with the leaders of civil rights groups and “progressive” NGOs, sought to protect their positions of power and privilege by opposing demands from the ranks for mass protests and strikes, insisting that voting for and lobbying Democratic Party politicians was the only way forward.
The potential to break out of this stifling electoralism was seen recently in the uprisings against racist police murders and brutality. This country’s enduring racism means that the worst effects of decades of economic decline and then the post-2008 crisis were suffered by Blacks and Latinos. They were most often the first to lose both jobs and homes when the economic crisis struck; austerity attacks on government services hit people of color hardest; and decades of racist “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” policies saw a massive expansion of the prison population and escalating police harassment and brutal targeting of people of color.
Outrageous cases of racist police killing unarmed Black men triggered uprisings by working-class and poor Black youth that faced down riot police and National Guard soldiers in Ferguson and Baltimore, where depression-like conditions of poverty have reigned for years. A nationwide movement was spurred on by these and other outrages. The protests won important victories, including increased prosecutions of killer cops. But their example of working-class and poor youth standing up for themselves in struggle rather than hopelessly waiting for politicians to address their problems was not enough to spark broader working-class struggles. The absence of a widely recognized way for working-class, poor and oppressed people to fight back through mass action frames the current revolt at the ballot box against the Republican and Democratic establishments.
The decades of decline and the post-2008 economic catastrophe suffered by the working class in this country and hundreds of millions abroad were not simply the result of policy choices. Intensified exploitation and aggressive imperialism are the capitalist system’s only answer to its global stagnation. Whoever wins in November will be just as committed to the interests of American capitalism as previous presidents. He or she will preside over increasing austerity at home and over the U.S.’s bullying, war-making, and super-exploitation across the globe.
Trump’s racism, sexism and glorification of wealth can easily seem to be the polar opposite of Sanders’ call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class.” Both campaigns, however, appeal to working-class voters who are desperate for relief from rising unemployment and falling wages. While all kinds of things spill out of Trump’s mouth both vile and contradictory, it is notable that he has avoided standard Republican general attacks on “big government,” particularly its “social safety net” programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. This is in contrast to the campaign of other Republicans like Ted Cruz, who continue the conservative agenda of further attacks on government support of poor and workers and even more tax breaks for the wealthy, along with thinly veiled racism and moralizing about “family values.”
Sanders and Trump channel the voters’ revolt differently. Trump’s open racism appeals to the Republican base of white small business people and cops, along with those white workers who identify with them. With the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Trump implicitly promises that by re-establishing the U.S. as a feared superpower that won’t hesitate to bomb and torture its enemies, he will also create jobs at home, arrest falling living standards and reassure whites of their place above Blacks and Latinos in society. His vicious machismo directed at women who challenge him echoes his chest-thumping bullying towards other countries and speaks to the worst instincts of those men for whom “family values” means they rule.
Trump’s campaign can be described as populist, appealing to resentment against “special interests” without actually targeting the capitalist system itself or the capitalist class as a whole. But right-wing populism is inherently racist, and while Trump has focused his diatribes on Mexicans and Muslims, most Black people recognize that he is aiming at them too. While not a fascist himself, Trump rides with and further inflames popular prejudices.
Mobs chanting Trump slogans and brandishing pictures of Trump and signs with his slogans have mobilized to taunt and intimidate Latinos at local sporting events. His demagogy creates space for actual fascists to operate; it is also reminiscent of fascist movements in the past that wanted a larger governmental economic role than does traditional American conservatism.
By rallying millions of Republican voters to support a campaign that rejects the party’s traditional appeal to religious moralizing and repudiates its “free trade” and “small government” mantras, Trump has broken the alliance of evangelical Christians with the “Country Club” Republicans and threatens to split the party. No wonder the GOP establishment is in a state of panic, fearing that if Trump wins the nomination he will not only lose the general election but will bring down with him enough Republican candidates to cost them control of Congress.
Even though he hasn’t had the same 24-7 media coverage as Trump, Sanders’ campaign has drawn large crowds, energized supporters (particularly young men and women) – and worried Clinton, the candidate whom much of the ruling class prefers for the Democratic side. Sanders gains support by playing up Clinton’s ties and debts to Wall Street and the Democratic establishment, and forcefully condemning the wide and growing income disparities. In a country where socialism has been a dirty word for decades and even President Obama has been labeled a socialist by Republicans, it is striking that Sanders’ claim to be a socialist – plus the fact that he is Jewish – has not prevented him from becoming a serious contender.
Sanders’ evocation of socialism appeals especially to young people who associate capitalism with Wall Street bailouts and their own bleak prospects for the future. Indeed, right-wing denunciations of even limited government social programs as “socialist” have undermined the grip of Cold-War anti-communism and encouraged growing numbers of working-class people to look upon the idea of “socialism” favorably.
This is significant, but there is a difference between the potential for radicalization represented by his widespread support and what his campaign would do with that potential. To be sure, Sanders will not be mistaken for a revolutionary: he makes clear that his model of socialism is a capitalist welfare state like Denmark, not Bolshevik Russia when the working class seized state power from the Tsar and capitalist class. Indeed, in his speech at Georgetown University where he explained his supposedly socialist vision, Sanders made clear that he was actually only in favor of a more regulated form of capitalism:
“The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this: I don’t believe government should own the means of production. ... I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas.”
And, of course, he is running for the nomination of a capitalist-controlled party with a thousand ties to the Wall Street he hypocritically condemns.
No wonder his program is closer to traditional liberalism than to Scandinavian social democracy. Some of his demands, like single-payer healthcare, a living minimum wage, equal pay for equal work for women and free college tuition are worthwhile reforms. His call for breaking up the banks is not only extremely vague but suggests that smaller capitalist financial institutions are a solution. No, the genuine socialist solution is just the opposite, the takeover of the banks by a government serving the interests of the workers and oppressed. In any case, Sanders’ reforms are unlikely to be pressed seriously. They are up against the continued stagnation of the global capitalist economy; the system avoids collapse only by imposing ever more intense exploitation and austerity on the masses. Whatever Sanders believes, that is what capitalism requires today.
Sanders condemns the offshoring of jobs overseas and has been playing up his opposition to “free trade” agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Deal. These are certainly anti-worker agreements, but the idea of walling off American industry and jobs from the world is an illusion and would lead to deeper economic troubles. His platform includes “major investment to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure,” a much better jobs program than protectionism. But Sanders, like Trump, plays on nationalist divisions instead of championing international workers’ solidarity with workers’ struggles abroad.
Sanders’ program would never get past the Republicans (or even most Democrats) in Congress, but he has no intention of encouraging the working class and oppressed to seize the streets or factories. Although Black Lives Matter protests have forced him to talk more about the plight of Black people, it is telling that he refused to identify with the uprisings of struggle against racist killings by police in Ferguson, New York or Baltimore when the situation was hot. He expresses support for workers under attack by bosses – he can afford to, as long as the workers are not offering a united and militant challenge. Nothing in his “political revolution” points to truly taking power or privilege from the capitalist class, and so it cannot honestly address the burning problems facing working-class and oppressed people.
Unlike Trump among the Republicans, Sanders’ challenge to Clinton does not pose an existential crisis for the Democrats. Sanders began his campaign, like that of other left-wing candidates before him from Jesse Jackson to Denis Kucinich, with the aim of strengthening the Democrats’ support among millions who have grown disillusioned by the party’s years of betrayed promises. Indeed Sanders has repeatedly promised to support the Democratic nominee whoever it is. In preparation for such a likely turn, Sanders refers to Clinton repeatedly as “a good friend” for whom he has “a great deal of respect,” thereby undermining his criticism of her ties to Wall Street and her support for “free trade” and military adventures abroad. His main role in this campaign is hardly a political revolution: it is to deliver the most disaffected workers and youth into the embrace of the Democratic Party.
It is understandable that many in the U.S., especially people of color, think that the threat of Trump winning is reason to vote for the Democratic candidate. History shows, however, that relying on the Democratic Party only serves to hamper the only force that can really be relied on to defeat the threat from the right: the organization and struggle of working-class and oppressed people. For example, in 2006 racist Sensenbrenner bill before Congress foretold Trump’s immigration policies: it proposed to jail and deport all undocumented immigrants, criminalize all who assisted them and build a militarized double-layered fence along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, among other repressive measures. A massive uprising of protest by millions of undocumented immigrants defeated that bill, but prominent figures in the movement then directed it to leave the streets and enter the voting booths to elects Democrats. Barack Obama, who famously promised “Change” in his first presidential campaign, then proceeded to deport record numbers of undocumented immigrants. Democrats are no answer to Republican policies.
Trump’s demagogy has triggered opposition at his rallies – including the mass protest in Chicago on March 12, led by Black and Latino young people, that forced him to cancel his appearance. Likewise, the low-wage workers’ struggle for a $15 an hour minimum wage has scored victories across the country. These are just indications of the much greater struggles against racism and exploitation that are needed, but efforts to organize such struggles will only be held back by the idea that electing Democrats is any kind of answer to the growing threat from the far right.
The Republican Party openly represents big business. The Democrats also champion capitalism, but their party represents the more liberal bourgeoisie and therefore can claim to reflect the interests of workers and minorities as well. For example, in the 1930’s with the huge explosion of industrial unionism, and in the 1960’s with the mighty struggles for Black liberation, the Democrats were forced to yield some reforms, lest the mass struggles grow to threaten the capitalist system itself. The Democratic politicians were never the source of these gains; it was mobilizations in the factories and streets, not votes, that won them. But the Democratic Party was the channel through which gains won in struggle were grudgingly distributed – that role points to its usefulness to the ruling class.
But the price that the Black and white masses paid for those benefits was pacification and the incorporation of their struggles. The Democratic Party has always been a institution designed to divert struggles against the system into passive electoral channels; it is not a way-station for a movement but a graveyard for mass struggles. While faces have changed and circumstances differ, this role of the Democrats has only become more solidified with time. We have seen over seven years of broken promises by a Democrat and the first Black President despite the great excitement that ushered in his victory. We would get more of the same, or worse, from the first “socialist” or the first woman president.
A striking example of the Democrats’ role can be found in report in the New York Times of February 27covering the Clinton campaign and its Black women supporters. It described a portion of a campaign meeting in Columbia, South Carolina:
“When Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail after being arrested during a routine traffic stop, told the crowd she was not angry enough to riot but she was angry enough to help put Mrs. Clinton in office, the crowd rose to its feet.”
Reed-Veal’s comments may have been heartfelt, but they are an example of the kind of militancy the ruling class can accept: if the masses have to be mad, better to keep it confined to the voting booth. Her words spell out the diversionary role of Democratic Party politics. There is still a low level of struggle, and the capitalist class wants to keep it that way. Clinton has the support of many Black voters, particularly in the South. That support, however, is not due to any true championing of Black rights and interests, however, but a pragmatic calculation that she knows the ways of power and will not be as bad as anyone the Republicans offer. It is the kind of support that may not be a mile wide but is certainly an inch deep.
For the reasons presented above, we believe that any support for Democratic (or of course Republican) candidates will serve to undermine the organization of working-class and oppressed people to struggle in their own defense. We think the working class needs its own party, one that is organizationally and politically independent of the capitalists and their system. We believe that such a party can only truly represent the interests of the workers, poor and oppressed if it is a revolutionary socialist party dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. But we are prepared to support an independent party of the working class that arises out of the struggles of the workers and oppressed; inside it we would promote a revolutionary program against reformism. Unfortunately no such party exists in the U.S. today.
Such arguments, however, have not prevented some on the socialist far left from supporting Sanders. The Socialist Alternative organization (SA), which sponsored the election of Kshama Sawant to the city council in Seattle in 2013 as an open socialist and a spokesperson for ongoing class struggles, now enthuses over Sanders’ pseudo-socialism and is actively building his campaign in the Democratic Party. Their justification for crossing the class line is that they are also urging him to break from the Democrats, especially when he loses the nomination, and to continue his presidential run as an independent. Sanders, of course, has sworn multiple times that he will not do that and will support the Democratic nominee. SA is consciously misleading its supporters, and the likelihood is that a good number of them will follow Sanders into backing Clinton and working for her election.
Another large left group, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), has welcomed Sanders’ campaign as a breath of fresh air but balks at actually endorsing him because he is running as a Democrat. The ISO does not reject capitalist parties as such: it urges voting for the Green Party instead of the Democrats. Not only is the Green Party a thoroughly pro-capitalist outfit, even if it leans more to the left than even Sanders; it is tiny, relatively speaking, and has no chance of winning the presidency. Thus it is no alternative for Sanders supporters who hoped that his campaign would give ordinary people influence and even power in government.
Some on the left tell us that they agree with these arguments, but nevertheless the Democratic candidate will be a “lesser evil” as compared to the Republican. It may be true that Clinton, especially if she continues to mouth support for some of Sanders’ reformist ideas, would on paper at least have a better domestic program than Cruz or Trump. But internationally she is hardly a lesser evil, given her war-and coup-mongering as secretary of state. The oppressed and super-exploited around the globe rightly see her as an unmitigated evil, not a lesser one.
What then is to be done? The young people who challenged Trump in Chicago had the right idea: mass protests and other actions to confront the ruling-class politicians – above all Trump and Clinton if they win their parties’ nominations – at every appearance, showing contempt for what they stand for. All along the job of revolutionaries is to, in the words of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, “patiently explain” to fellow workers and community members that the working class needs to break from all capitalist parties and form its own. Today we have no electoral alternative. Our alternative is class struggle, the organization and mobilization of workers, youth and oppressed people.
Despite the justified fears by many working-class people of the horrors the Republicans offer, we urge members of our class not to get sucked into the Democratic trap. Hillary and Bernie are no answer to Trump and Cruz. Indeed, the unwillingness of the Democrats to provide any sort of answer to the misery of the majority helps to set up the appeal of right-wing loudmouths like Trump to millions of frightened people. To support such candidates creates illusions in the beneficence of ruling-class politicians and helps teach working people to rely on saviors from above, not the struggles of their own class.