The upcoming presidential election presents Republican and Democratic Party candidates with as little to choose between as ever, as far as America’s workers and youth are concerned.
Mitt Romney represents a wing of the ruling capitalist class that barely hides its contempt for working-class people. He has a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars, thanks to his years as a “corporate raider” taking over companies and raising their profits by slashing jobs and wages, and he has used off-shore bank accounts and every other trick in the book to avoid paying taxes. Yet Romney has no shame in calling on working people to vote for him because of his economic experience. And as we have often seen before, Romney’s Republicans are more than prepared to use veiled appeals to racism to rally support.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, in his four years as president has bailed out Wall Street and delivered windfall profits to the banks at the cost of horrendous unemployment and continuing foreclosures and cutbacks – all the while claiming to be genuinely concerned for the problems faced by working-class and poor people. Even on matters of racism, Obama has proven no better for Blacks, Latinos and immigrants than the Republicans who governed before him. He has done nothing to counter the greatest relative fall in living standards for people of color in this country’s history, and broken records for the number of undocumented immigrants incarcerated and deported.
Like his predecessors, Obama has waged imperialist war around the world, carrying out mass murder from Afghanistan to Libya to Pakistan. His administration has violated civil liberties and cracked down on dissent, from victimizing Arab and Muslim communities to overseeing FBI raids on anti-war protesters and the nationally coordinated suppression of the Occupy movement.
Obama’s greater ability to deceive the masses, combined with the Democratic Party’s apparatus of conservative trade union and community leaders and its ability to hold back potential protest, makes his candidacy appealing to some capitalists – those who don’t take for granted that they will never face a rebellion against injustice and profiteering.
One of Obama’s greatest achievements for America’s ruling class has been the sense of hopelessness that has resulted from his presidency. Four years ago, millions of middle- and working-class people voted for Obama with great hope for the future. They believed the first Black president, with his message of “change,” would not only be different from the hated George W. Bush but would turn the country in a new and better direction. By now, most of those millions have been very disappointed, but most also feel powerless to resist and see no alternative.
The capitalist onslaught on the lives and livelihoods of working-class people can be resisted, but not by choosing one of the two candidates of American capitalism. On the contrary, the working-class and poor people who are the victims of this system will have to realize that if they are to stem the tide of layoffs and cutbacks, they will have to rely on their own capacity to organize and resist – with mass protests, workplace occupations and big strikes.
Such a fightback is inevitable, and real victories can be won. Most importantly, however, as the working class gains a sense of its power when it is organized in struggle, it will be able to more confidently face the fact that there can be no lasting solution to its problems within the limits of the crisis-ridden capitalist system. Working-class revolutions, that overthrow global capitalist rule and put the economy to work to produce an abundance of all that humans need instead of private profit, are the only solution.
The Obama presidency has confirmed what revolutionary socialists have said all along: the fundamental dividing line in this country is class. His administration’s policies are determined by his party’s loyalty to the interests of the capitalists. Like the Republicans, but in a different way that we will explain below, the Democrats act to preserve the capitalist system and to maintain the exploitation and oppression it is based on.
Obama’s record doesn’t stop the leaders of the trade unions and the establishment community organizations from lining up once again to campaign for the Democratic Party. They point to the reactionary anti-worker program of Romney and the Republican Party, and warn that he must be stopped. Of course, they downplay the slightly less anti-worker program of Obama and his party. This is the classic argument that whether workers like Obama’s record or not, they must vote for him as the “lesser evil.”
It is true that the Democrats usually don’t attack workers and poor people as openly as the Republicans do. Essentially, that is Obama’s campaign message: things may be bad under me but not as bad as they would be under Romney. The problem is that under capitalist rule with the entire economic system in crisis, conditions will keep getting worse for the working class with either party in power. For a new movement of mass action against the capitalist attacks to succeed, workers and their mass organizations will have to break from both capitalist parties. Supporting the Democrats undermines that necessity: hoping to slow down the attacks in the short term, workers give a mandate to a party which will also attack them, thereby limiting their ability to wage struggles against all the attacks.
If workers, oppressed people, and their mass organizations are committed to supporting the party in power, this holds back their potential to organize mass protests and mass actions against the government’s attacks. That is why a Democratic president can sometimes get away with actions that would draw protests under a Republican. A classic example took place in the 1990’s, when Bill Clinton got away with “ending welfare as we know it” – a blow that the anti-welfare Republicans Reagan and Bush Sr. had been unable to land.
The Democratic Party has always been controlled by and loyal to the capitalist class, just like the Republican Party. But it acts more sympathetic to workers and oppressed people and it gives out a few more sops. It incorporates the leaders of the unions and other mass organizations, and through them it builds a mass base of support. Thus, when the capitalist system goes through a crisis, it turns to the Democrats and the union and community leaders who support it to divert the threat of mass struggles against the system into electoral campaigns.
An ugly and revealing example of this method has happened with the immigrant rights movement over the past six years. In the spring of 2006, millions of immigrants marched in cities across the country to protest a racist anti-immigrant bill sponsored by congressional Republicans. But the immigrant rights’ leaders advanced the slogan “Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote” and channeled the movement away from mass action and into the dead end of election campaigns for the Democrats. The opportunity for the immigrant workers’ protest movement to spark further struggles by American workers and strengthen the organization of both groups was lost, and instead the anti-immigrant and anti-worker attacks escalated.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the core provision of Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 law that requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop, if they have a “reasonable suspicion” the person is undocumented – an open invitation to racial profiling. All the liberal justices appointed by Democrats joined the conservative justices in making this racist ruling. But where were the mass protests against this decision? The leaders of immigrant rights groups didn’t organize them because they are focused on re-electing Obama this fall, and they and the Democrats are afraid that mass protests by immigrants will alienate anti-immigrant voters who the Democrats are trying to appeal to!
Just this summer, Obama announced the “Deferred Action” policy for undocumented immigrant youth. It promises the possibility that youth who meet certain criteria and apply for the program may, at the government’s discretion, not be subjected to deportation proceedings for two years. But it provides no legal guarantee protecting applicants from deportation. And young people who file an application could be setting themselves up to be more easily targeted in the future if Obama or another administration changes or rescinds the policy.
The huge protest movement in Wisconsin in early 2011 is another example of the way support for the Democratic Party kills mass protest against anti-worker attacks. When Republican Governor Scott Walker announced his bill to take away collective bargaining rights from public employees’ unions in February of last year, workers in Wisconsin launched a massive struggle. Teachers in Madison went on strike for four days, and workers and their supporters occupied the state capitol building for weeks. Calls for a state-wide general strike were popular.
But when Walker pushed the bill through the state legislature anyway, no union leader was willing to call a strike, and the national leadership of the AFL-CIO used its influence to subordinate the struggle to the Wisconsin Democratic Party. At a rally in Madison, one Democratic politician bluntly told protesters to “trade your rally signs for clipboards” – that is, stop protesting and start gathering petitions to recall Gov. Walker and Republican legislators and replace them with Democrats. That is exactly what happened, and because the movement lost momentum when the protests stopped, Walker even survived the recall vote this year. It is telling that his Democratic opponent Tom Barrett also attacked public employees’ unions as mayor of Milwaukee.
Barrett is just one of many Democratic Party politicians who are attacking public sector workers around the country. California Governor Jerry Brown, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, among others, have made it a point of pride to slash the benefits of unionized public employees. They are just as determined as the Republicans to make the working class pay for the economic crisis.
A closer look at Obama’s economic record shows clearly and concretely how his policies have consistently favored bankers and capitalists and harmed the working class. First, even before Obama was elected in the fall of 2008, he threw the weight of his campaign behind Bush’s massive bailout of Wall Street’s biggest banks with billions of taxpayer dollars. These tax dollars were mostly paid by workers – for as we’ve learned thanks to Romney, workers pay more taxes than capitalists do. It speaks volumes about the Democrats that so few of them in Congress voted against the bank bailout.
The bank bailout makes all the attacks on workers’ wages and benefits in recent years even more galling. Obama set the tone for the attacks in 2009 when, as part of the bailout of the auto companies, he pushed through a contract agreement that slashed the wages and benefits of UAW auto workers in half. The White House press office even bragged: “In virtually every respect, the concessions that the UAW agreed to are more aggressive than what Bush originally demanded.” The union leaders swallowed the deal out of loyalty to capitalism and the Democratic Party. And all Democratic politicians hail it without criticism.
Obama is largely responsible for the widespread attacks on public employees by state and local governments as well. His “stimulus” bill, featuring a package of corporate tax breaks, deliberately gave hundreds of billions of dollars less to the public sector than was needed to cover its debts and expenses. As a result, state and local governments’ budgets were squeezed, pressuring them to slash their employees’ jobs, wages and benefits – and the vital public services that many working-class and poor people depend on.
Obama’s campaign denounces Romney for his running mate Paul Ryan’s budget proposal that would effectively privatize Medicare and Medicaid, leaving millions of people’s health at the mercy of the market. This is true, but Obama’s own Affordable Care Act was also an attack on working people’s health care. It cut $700 billion from Medicare reimbursements to doctors and hospitals (which would be passed onto patients in the form of cuts to services and hikes in costs), and it forces the uninsured poor to choose between paying hefty fines or buying state-subsidized plans that demand high out-of-pocket expenses and will therefore be too expensive to use.
The drive to pass this bill in 2009 is typical of how the Democrats and their allies operate. Liberals and leftists first pushed for “single-payer” government insurance – “Medicare for all” – the plan that despite serious omissions had the widest public support. This was rejected out of hand by the administration and Congressional leaders (all Democrats at the time). So the liberals and labor leaders pushed for a “public option” to compete with the private insurance companies. But this too was abandoned by Obama and the Democrats, who bowed to the insurance industry profiteers. Now the same liberals hail Obama’s plan, even though on balance it is no gain for working-class and poor people. Their approach of trying to persuade, not confront, Obama and the Democrats is a proven failure.
During a year of huge forest fires, record-breaking heat and droughts and flooding storms, we are reminded of Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to approach the devastating problem of climate change based on science, not political horse-trading. Instead, capitulating as always to Wall Street and the energy corporations, he has committed to a policy of further environmental destruction, expanding the use of even the most environmentally poisonous methods of energy production like shale gas and fracking, on national forest lands, offshore and in the Arctic. This flouts the recommendations of the majority of scientists who, while tending to be wary of radical political change, find the earth is on track for a global temperature rise that will be catastrophic for human civilization. The Republicans’ Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan openly disdains climate change warnings; the “lesser evil” Obama says the opposite but does the same in practice.
The Republicans and Democrats are both capitalist parties of racism, imperialist war and anti-worker austerity attacks. That is more clear now, after all the disappointments of Obama’s presidency, than it was four years ago. But many workers and youth are likely to vote for Obama anyway, because they see no alternative. If Obama and Romney appear to be the only choices, it is understandable that people would choose Obama as the lesser evil.
We revolutionary socialists say that there is an alternative. There is no choice for workers in this election, but there is a vital political message that revolutionary-minded workers and youth can explain to our fellow workers looking for political answers.
The working class needs to begin to prepare itself to fight against the current and future attacks on its living standards. The capitalists are determined to carry out those attacks – workers cannot stop them unless we are equally prepared and determined. But the working class cannot be prepared to fight the capitalists if their mass organizations continue their strategy of passive electoralism and their support for a capitalist party with a policy of economic austerity, even if it is less severe than the other party’s version. In the end, supporting the “lesser evil” holds back the entire struggle against all capitalist evil.
What the working class needs is its own political party, completely independent of the capitalist class. It must be a revolutionary socialist party in order to successfully struggle against all of the capitalist attacks. It cannot transform society in a way that benefits workers by winning elections. Only a socialist revolution that dismantles the capitalist state and replaces it with a workers’ state can meet all the needs of workers and oppressed people.
No such party with a mass base of support exists in the United States today, and no one can pretend that it will be easy to build one. But there are no simple or easy answers to the enormous crisis the working class faces. The struggle to break from the capitalist Democrats and Republicans and build the revolutionary party of the working class will include in particular a struggle within the labor unions, against the pro-capitalist union leadership.
To challenge capitalist exploitation and imperialist oppression both in the U.S. and around the world, there is no substitute for mass working-class struggle. In the wake of the never-ending economic doldrums, workers are getting more fed up with the status quo than they have been in many decades, but so far their leaders have held their struggles back. This cannot last forever. Revolutionary socialists have a vital role to play in raising working-class consciousness and cohering a force of politically advanced workers; the kernel of a revolutionary party needs to be built today in order to provide leadership when mass workers’ struggles break out.
This is what we in the League for the Revolutionary Party fight for. We urge workers and youth who see that the Democrats and the voting game are no answer to the crisis of capitalist society to contact us so we can discuss how best to build the revolutionary alternative the working class needs.