The two major parties are in a state of unprecedented crisis.
This document was passed by the National Committee of Socialist Alternative on February 20, 2012 and has been slightly edited for public publication. It provides the basic foundations for a socialist analysis of the politics of the 2012 U.S. elections and explains what approach socialists should take.
There is one element that requires updating and more explanation. The recent meteoric rise of Rick Santorum in these dizzying and bizarre Republican presidential primaries developed followed the drafting of this document in late January. At that time, Newt Gingrich had won the South Carolina primary and Santorum had failed to make a mark in that state.
Despite the document not addressing the specific features of the Santorum campaign, which developed steam after it was drafted, the document clearly lays out the underlying dynamics of the Republican primary battle – the major swing to the right within the Republican base, the hostility of large sections of the GOP base towards Romney, and how if the right wing could consolidate behind one candidate it would have a strong base of support, which Santorum’s rise is an expression of. As explained, this will further complicate attempts by the big business Republican Party leadership to ensure Mitt Romney is selected as a reliable pro-big business candidate who can protect their corporate interests.
The 2012 elections will dominate the mass media in the next year. With tens of millions out of work, facing foreclosures, or desperately trying to keep their heads above water, the debate around the 2012 elections will provoke a wider and more serious discussion of politics among workers and young people than is usually the case in non-election years, though it is likely this year’s race will have a lower level of political interest than the exceptionally intense levels generated in 2008 and 2004.
2011 was an extraordinary year. Decades of pain inflicted on working-class people and the poor found expression in a new social movement against the ruling elite – Occupy Wall Street. Occupy has overcome a number of obstacles, including media shutout and police violence. But 2012, an election year, offers new dangers and opportunities. Will Occupy and the left be able to keep building a dynamic movement in the face of a barrage of pressure from the liberal establishment centered around its demand that all progressives focus on electing Democrats?
The four-year cycle of presidential elections – along with a myriad of state and local elections – is a unique time in the U.S., when tens and hundreds of millions of Americans tune in to politics. Because of the level of prominence it has achieved, Occupy is in a unique position, if it runs its own candidates in this election year, to bring its message into the homes of tens of millions of Americans who are looking for an alternative to the corporate-dominated two parties in Washington.
Great Opportunity to Challenge Corporate Politics
The two major parties are in a state of unprecedented crisis. They have been exposed for their blatant pandering to the corporate elite, the 1%. Successive bank bailouts, tax cuts for the rich, failure to end the economic devastation, failure to solve the foreclosure crisis, a legacy of wars, and failure to protect the planet have all created a mood of anger. Issue after issue has piled up so that young people and working people can see politicians catering to the corporate interests that dominate Washington, D.C.
In a recent Pew Foundation poll, 77% of respondents said too much power is in the hands of a few rich people and corporations. 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy. As a result, two-thirds think most members of Congress should be replaced ( www.scribd.com/doc/75809246/Congress-and-Economy-Anti-Incumbent-Views-Pew).
Stan Greenberg, who worked for Bill Clinton in 1992 at a time when Ross Perot ran as an independent candidate, comments: “I can’t imagine that with 85 percent of the country thinking we’re on the wrong track that there won’t be a third-party candidate … There has to be. There’s too much opportunity, too much anger with politics.” (“Political Climate Ripe For A Third-Party Prospect,” Mara Liasson, NPR, 11/17/ 2011)
A huge political vacuum, which offers a great opportunity for the left to fill, is opening up in U.S. society. But if the left fails to do that, the danger is that the right wing will step in.
This is not what the ruling elite had planned for their political system. The system of two establishment parties with very public primaries was created and developed to ensure that anger was siphoned back into the two-party system. When the corporate policies of one party were discredited, the other party could be put forward to ensure the continuation of big business rule. In that way, capitalism would be safeguarded.
But all this assumed U.S. world dominance and the U.S. economy growing at a steady clip with the occasional short-term recession. The stability of the political system was based on its ability to create and sustain a sizeable middle class that had an expectation of rising living standards. The 35-year decline of U.S. capitalism, combined with the worldwide decline of capitalism, has dramatically undermined the middle class. The recession of 2008 brought real anger to the surface and exposed deep cracks in the political system.
Conditions are such that if a sizeable radical political party of the working class and poor existed, it could win significant support. A strong working-class candidate for president who already had a good base among the public could begin to lay the basis for transforming U.S. politics. The corporate agenda of the two main parties could be exposed on issue after issue. A clear program of demands that would rally working-class people and young people could be presented.
Faced with the emergence of a massive working-class alternative, both major political parties would have to offer social reforms to prevent such a party coming to power. Important victories could be won on a local, state, and national level. In the same way that capitalist politicians and media have been forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of the demands of the Occupy movement, a workers’ party would shift the public debate from what policies big business wants to which party could best provide for the needs of workers. Expectations would be raised and workers and young people would step into politics.
Unfortunately, a sizeable political party of workers, young people, and the poor does not exist. Yet the situation is ripe for a strong challenge by the left in this election. The two corporate parties should not be let off the hook. Socialists need to argue as strongly and widely as possible for the left to seize this opportunity by running a credible candidate and mounting the strongest possible campaign that can bring the message of Occupy into this election and thus shift the debate in this country.
Crisis of the Two-Party System
The two-party political system is facing its biggest challenge since the 1930s. With the exception of Marxists such as the CWI and a few other notable economists, no one was prepared for the deep economic recession of 2008 and the subsequent economic stagnation that has engulfed the country. There are no simple ways to get the capitalist system out of its present prolonged stagnation and crisis. The ruling elite nationally – and internationally – are at a dead end.
Obama’s stimulus package was very weak and thus failed to pull the economy out of the recession. It is possible a new stimulus package could still emerge if Obama can enact it into law. This would particularly be the case if a powerful movement began from below.
Both major parties, along with capitalist governments around the world, are following a policy of austerity in a drastic attempt to make their own countries more competitive than their rivals. Obviously, it is impossible for the capitalist class in each country to achieve this. The consequence of this present bipartisan policy of cuts has been a one-sided war on the working class and poor, pushing the economy towards a double-dip recession. With deficit reduction becoming the policy of both major parties, and with state and local governments facing endless deficits, the chance of any serious growth is low and the threat of a double-dip recession is very high.
Despite the heated rhetoric from both parties, neither party can get us out of the crisis. Obama is still holding out for an element of stimulus, but even if he could get a majority for his limited proposal of stimulus spending, it would be like trying to use a bucket to empty out an ocean of debt, deficits, and falling incomes. Even Roosevelt’s massive jobs and infrastructure spending program of the 1930s was only a temporary success. The economy fell into a new recession in 1937, and only massive war spending in preparation for U.S. entry into World War II got the U.S. out of the depression of the 1930s. Also, attempting to spend the economy out of the crisis will exacerbate the deficit and the national debt, storing up future problems.
The ruling elite understand the need to make U.S. capitalism more competitive with its rivals and that, to do that, they need to claw back gains won by the U.S. working class over the last 70 years. In order to succeed, they need their political system to deliver, but the checks and balances built into the system are designed to prevent sudden change. So, in order to attack the working class in the way they want to, they need to pressure both parties to act in a coordinated and ruthless fashion.
However, with mass anger from below pressing on both parties, this is harder to achieve. In fact, the breakdown in relations between the parties led to a complete collapse of attempts to slash entitlement programs during the last year. This happened despite Obama’s attempt to use his presidential office to forge some sort of agreement.
Recent events have also distorted the two-party political system. U.S. policies have been dominated by very specific sections of the capitalist class: finance capital and extraction industries, in particular oil. These capitalists have been able to make their short-term interests – access to oil markets, unregulated capitalism, and opening markets to free trade – the policies of the state. These policies have dominated the tops of both parties. However, these policies also led to massive inequality and the savaging of the middle class as the manufacturing sector, owned by another section of the capitalist class, was weakened. Facing a structural crisis of capitalism alongside the shattering of the middle class, not to mention ecological crisis and the potential threat of more extensive popular revolt, other capitalist voices, such as those of Warren Buffet, Paul Krugman, and Nouriel Roubini, are now being raised to curtail some of these recent excesses.
The Republican Party is a dysfunctional party as far as the ruling elite is concerned. Despite efforts by its leadership to fashion a budget deal, it was shot down in the House by Tea Party zealots. The Republican Party is suffering the consequences of courting the Christian right wing and, most recently, the right-wing fringe that dominates the Tea Party. Right-wing social policies on abortion, immigration, gay rights, and the environment, combined with anti-elite rhetoric, have created a massively dysfunctional primary process where Ron Paul can step forward as a major candidate in Iowa. At the same time, fierce anti-government, anti-deficit, and anti-tax policies have created a vicious anti-poor rhetoric.
The failure of the elites to find an experienced and reliable big business candidate able – and willing – to go through the primary process is being played out in the Republican primary fiasco. Not only has a fierce anti-government mood dominated the debates, but this has been combined with an anti-establishment and anti-wealthy elite mood as candidates try to appeal to angry Tea Partiers. Republican candidates have tried to circle the square of being anti-poor, anti-government, and anti-elite at the same time.
Each bizarre right-wing candidate has collapsed to be replaced by another, while Romney attempts to be the lone man standing. Yet the anti-Romney votes have been the majority in each primary. Clearly, there is a right-wing base in the party that is looking for expression with a candidate other than Romney. As of this writing, Gingrich has dented Romney’s candidacy and just won the South Carolina primary with 40% of the vote. In doing this, he has established himself as the strongest candidate for the right-wing vote. It is hard to say how long this race may go on and the damage this might do to Romney if he is the eventual candidate.
If Romney manages to sew up the primary race, as is still probably most likely, then there will be a base for a right-wing candidate. In the event of Gingrich or an extreme right-wing candidate winning the primary race, one can expect many sections of big business to look elsewhere for a guardian of their interests in the coming stormy period. This is already expressed in the creation of Americans Elect, which will be discussed below.
Pressure from Below
A new ingredient has been introduced into the political situation by the dramatic emergence of the Occupy movement. Socialist Alternative explained how massive anger at the 2008 and 2009 bank bailouts was the initial impetus for the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009-2010. But we also explained how this anger had a very distorted reflection in the Tea Party phenomenon. It is much better reflected by Occupy.
In a recent Pew Foundation poll, by a 44% to 35% margin, more Americans support than oppose the Occupy Wall Street movement overall, and by 48% to 30%, more say they agree than disagree with the concerns the protests have raised ( www.scribd.com/doc/75809246/Congress-and-Economy-Anti-Incumbent-Views-Pew). Occupy has heralded the beginning of a response from the working class to decades of pro-corporate, anti-worker policies. While the future direction of Occupy is unclear, this accumulated class anger will find new vehicles and expressions in the coming period, one way or the other.
This emergence of the anger of the dispossessed 99% is a rude awakening for the richest 1% to the consequences of their failed policies. With their system in crisis, a working class whose living standards have been devastated, and a whole generation of young people growing up on poverty wages with almost no benefits, they only have a discredited two-party system to protect them. They will look for the best methods to safeguard their interests.
Obama and the Democrats
Obama was the preferred candidate of key sections of the ruling class in 2008. He was elected as a result of anger at Bush’s failed policies and the 2008 financial collapse and recession. Yet in 2012, Obama could well be the next casualty of the recession.
Political leaders around the world are being swept from power, whether they are nominally left-wing or right-wing capitalist parties. A victory for Republicans in 2012 would be a further example of voters “kicking the bums out” of power. It would not represent any fundamentally increased support for the Republicans, who are as discredited as Democrats. Nor would it represent a rejection of the left, as would be trumpeted ad nauseam by the corporate media. Instead, it would be an indictment of Obama for his failure to solve the economic problems and his failure and refusal to stand up to Corporate America.
The fact that there is no primary in the Democratic Party means that Obama has not had to face the anger of workers and his social base in the unions and progressive movements. It also means he hasn’t yet had to offer any concrete promises to attract votes from his progressive base.
But after serving big business so well after his election, he is clearly exposed. Anger has grown among labor and the left after his capitulations to the corporate agenda and the Republicans time and again. There is also huge dissatisfaction with his failure to turn around the economy among large sections of workers and the poor.
No sitting president has been re-elected since Roosevelt with the economy in such a bad state. It is far too early to see how the election might turn out in 2012, but clearly Obama is in a much weaker position than in 2008. To get elected, Obama is already trying to reposition himself in an attempt to offer some new hope to those who voted for him in 2008.
Obama’s present re-election strategy is to stake out a somewhat different position than the Republicans on certain issues while ignoring the areas where he has agreement. His emphasis on repealing Bush’s tax cuts for the rich has again featured in his re-election campaign. The fact that this was promised in 2008 remains unspoken.
Obama’s New Left-Populist Rhetoric
Obama is trying to tap into anger at the 1% expressed through the Occupy movement. Consistently now, he is presenting themes emphasizing his candidacy and policies as benefiting the hard-working 99% in contrast to the richest 1%. In a defining speech in Kansas on December 6, he stated: “It’s wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker, maybe earns $50,000 a year, should pay a higher tax rate than somebody raking in $50 million.”
Referring to Teddy Roosevelt, Obama stated: “And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, ‘The fundamental rule of our national life,’ he said, ‘the rule which underlies all others – is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.’ And I believe America is on the way up.”
But in case anyone thinks he has adopted a new, radical approach, he states: “This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare. It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefit the middle class, and those fighting to get into the middle class, and the economy as a whole.” (articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/06/news/la-pn-text-obama-speech-kansas-20111206)
In his January 24 State of the Union address, he stated: "Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires. In fact, if you’re earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn’t get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98% of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up." ( www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/01/24/us/politics/state-of-the-union-2012-video-transcript.html)
While he has rolled out a more populist rhetoric, he has put forward very few concrete policies. In his State of the Union speech, he called for Congress to put into place his “Buffett Rule” – named after billionaire Warren E. Buffett – where people making more than $1 million per year would pay a minimum effective tax rate of at least 30 percent in income taxes. He also called on Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and state attorneys general to expand investigations into abusive lending. The new unit, he said, “will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.”
In an attempt to woo labor, he proposed to allocate half of any savings from ending the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan to be used on infrastructure projects, and the other half to be used to reduce the deficit. But no mention has been made of changing the laws to make it easier to organize unions, as he promised in 2008.
At the same time, he proposed an energy plan that the NY Times described as an “expansion of domestic energy supplies, both from traditional fuels like oil and natural gas and from cleaner sources like wind and the sun. He singled out the rapid growth of domestic natural gas production through the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.” (1/25/2012)
Like his mild health care and bank regulation bills, the new rhetoric of Obama doesn’t threaten the interests of big business. In fact, it is in accordance with the views of those members of the ruling elite who see the need to clip the wealth of the very rich a little in order to prevent the social chasm in U.S. society becoming too large and threatening to undermine the system. His emphasis on the rich paying their share can give hope to tens of millions that the system is not completely rigged in the interests of the richest 1% and the banks. Without this, the possibilities of massive explosions of anger are very real.
If opinion polls show Obama and the Democrats not doing well, we must be prepared for the possibility of their swinging to the left, ramping up left-wing populist rhetoric, and even attempting to pass a few left-wing policies. Obama has already begun to swing to the left, Similarly, after slashing $10 billion from Washington state’s public services and programs, Washington state Democrats have announced this election year that they intend to legalize same-sex marriage, which would make Washington the sixth state to do so in addition to the District of Columbia. This is clearly a calculated election ploy intended to exploit the hard work of the LGBTQ rights movement, which as of 2011 succeeded for the first time in history in convincing a majority of Americans to support the right to same-sex marriage.
The disconnect between Obama’s increased left rhetoric and his refusal to propose any radical policies that would actually address the problems facing working-class and poor people is likely to continue. While wanting to win votes, he will attempt to avoid making any promises that will make his corporate sponsors unhappy. His campaign is being run by very conservative elements, determined that Obama present himself as the “moderate centrist” candidate compared to the “radical” Republicans.
Because of the intensity of the social and economic crisis, ordinary working people are desperate to find a politician who can reverse the present situation. In a situation where, according to a recent Pew poll, “two-thirds (67%) think most members of Congress should be replaced,” many will latch on to any candidates or campaigns that seem to be a break from the mold, even if they may not agree with all the ideas of those candidates ( www.people-press.org/2011/12/15/section-1-congress-the-parties-and-the-anti-incumbent-mood/). The U.S. public has very little experience in politics and will need to learn from its mistakes. This creates the possibility of political mavericks or right-wing demagogues, like Ron Paul, building a base of support.
As the 2012 election campaign unfolds, members of the corporate elite will continue to search for the best representative for their interests. Clearly, Obama has proven very loyal to those interests as a whole. On the key issues, he has refused to bend to pressure from below or from the left. However, more arrogant and voracious capitalists, like the Koch brothers who backed Governor Walker in Wisconsin, are looking to use this recession and the weakness of the unions to achieve a more drastic shift of resources to their side, and in particular to their own pockets. They resent any idea of “fairness” as socialism and a betrayal of their interests. Other capitalists are looking for a more dynamic and determined leader in the White House who will push through the unpopular policies they demand. They are looking for a better option than Obama, but they could live with Obama if they can’t succeed.
“Americans Elect” Presidential Alternative
Fearing that Republicans will fail to deliver such a candidate, a small section of the capitalist class, many supposedly linked with the Republican Party, have launched an independent route to picking a presidential candidate called Americans Elect. Americans Elect’s website will allow “the public” to participate in an online “convention” in June to pick a presidential candidate to run in the 2012 race. Writing in the British Guardian on December 9, Paul Harris reports that the group has already raised $50 million and is well on the way to getting their organization on the ballot in all 50 states. By that time, he says, “more than 300,000 people had registered online to become Americans Elect delegates and so get a vote in the group’s June convention.”
He writes: “The original funding for the project has come from 50 or so wealthy individuals, including Ackerman’s father, Peter Ackerman, the head of wealth management firm Rockport Capital. Other known backers, such as Kirk Rostron and Melvin Andrews, are often also from the world of finance, especially hedge funds. Another backer is Jim Holbrook, president of a trade association that lobbies for the marketing industry. Many other backers remain a secret due to the group having registered itself as a non-profit and thus having no obligation to reveal donors.” ( www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/09/americans-elect-group-gaining-steam)
While the group will attempt to present itself as above “politics as usual,” it is clearly corporate-backed and linked to mainstream, corporate politicians. Under its rules, if the presidential candidate is picked from one major party, the vice presidential candidate must be picked from the other party. Also, Paul Harris states: “There is … a proviso that if the emerging candidate is not seen as balanced enough then a committee within Americans Elect can veto it, subject only to overturn by two thirds of delegates.” This clearly limits the kind of democracy that will be allowed in this process.
The corporate funders behind Americans Elect are trying to play on general dissatisfaction with both parties; they will attempt to present a clean warrior to ride in and clean up the political mess in Washington. This is not unlike the role Ross Perot tried to play as an independent in 1992, when at one point he had over 30% support in the polls. Perot’s entry into the race forced both major parties to address more fully the mounting budget deficit. We can’t rule out Americans Elect having a similar kind of effect and a possible Americans Elect candidate getting quite high numbers of supporters, especially from independents.
Divisions in Republican Party and Ron Paul
As the Republican Party staggers along under the weight of its corporate backers and its right-wing dominated ranks, we need to begin to ask whether we are approaching a period of readjustment in U.S. politics. Considering the present discontent with both parties, we are in a period when new formations will start to emerge. It cannot be ruled out that new capitalist parties might develop out of the bones of the Republicans. There is also the possibility of new parties forming on the left and the right. The question is open about how the Republican Party will develop out of its current crisis.
It can no longer be ruled out that a very messy primary weakens the party, or that the party becomes even more a creature of the right wing by electing an unreliable candidate like Gingrich, which causes a major part of its big business base to look elsewhere. We can’t even rule out new candidates emerging to “rescue” the Republicans from an embarrassment. Recent history saw the complete collapse of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Japan and the formation of a new capitalist party in its wake. This issue is not posed now, but we will need to be open to new possibilities and follow events as they unfold.
At present, there is no established big business candidate in the Republican Party race who is both a seasoned and trusted corporate candidate and can also ignite the party’s right-wing base as Reagan and Bush did in the past. Clearly, the Republican establishment is trying to push through Romney’s candidacy. But he is a weak candidate and his links to the richest 1% have been further exposed with the publication of his tax return, showing he paid less than 15% on his millions in wealth. The fact that this was exposed by fake “anti-establishment” attacks of consummate insider Gingrich shows how the class anger brought to the surface by Occupy has also begun to find expression even in the Republican primaries!
Romney has clearly been weakened by these attacks. We will have to see whether he can overcome it and continue as front-runner. If he is nominated, he could be quite a weak candidate. Also, if his anointment comes as a result of millions of dollars spent on attack ads and the meddling of the Republican establishment, this could lead to mass disillusionment among the right-wing base of the party. While at present Republicans are united in hatred of Obama, this could create unbridgeable divisions. It’s very possible that Ron Paul could run on the Libertarian Party ticket or launch some other new party. Also, it not ruled out that another such figure could break from the party and run as an independent.
In the present mood of anger at Wall Street and the elites, a candidate like Ron Paul could run as an independent in 2012. His furious attacks on bank bailouts and his opposition to U.S. intervention in the Middle East can attract angry workers and young people. Many can be confused and ignore his underlying vicious right-wing free-market libertarian policies, under which social programs would be jettisoned since they are considered an impediment to profit and individual rights.
Tapping into people’s economic fears, the Tea Party and individuals like Ron Paul will look to divert public anger into a right-wing agenda of blaming immigrants, using thinly cloaked racism. This is a real warning to workers and people of color of the agenda of the right wing. It is also a warning of the kind of political direction America will take unless we build a political alternative that puts the blame clearly on big business and organizes the working-class majority. The right wing can create huge divisions among workers, allowing big business to push through its agenda of cuts in living standards and to defeat unions and other organizations capable of fighting back against its agenda.
Socialists need to firmly expose the idea that Ron Paul is some kind of progressive alternative. If no left candidate is able to challenge him in the election, he could garner a considerable level of support and increasingly legitimize right-wing ideas. Already, Glenn Greenwald, a sharp left critic of Obama, published an article that, while not endorsing Paul, put forward a number of arguments for why he is a better choice for the left to support than Obama.
The superiority of Marxism as a method of thought is that it looks beyond the issue of “political independence from the two parties” and grounds its understanding of political candidates and political trends by focusing on their underlying class ideology. Ron Paul supports an unregulated free market. He is an advocate of the stripping away of obstacles that might prevent individual capitalists from further exploiting labor and the environment. As a result, he is a class enemy of the working class. But Glenn Greenwald’s comments demonstrate the possibility of serious confusion about Paul’s candidacy. If he ran as an independent candidate, we would need to aggressively unmask his right-wing economic and social policies. This is another reason why it is essential that a strong candidate on the left runs in 2012, to offer an alternative to angry, radicalizing youth who might be pulled into Ron Paul’s campaign.
Marxists and Elections
Genuine socialists and Marxists oppose all corporate and right-wing political parties. Both Democrats and Republicans are political parties created by and controlled by big business. Much confusion has been built up on the left about the Democratic Party. However, the use of left-wing phrases by the Democratic Party reflects its desire to win working-class votes, not its politics. In the last 70 years, the Democrats have adopted the role of deceiving working-class and progressive voters in order to entrap them in the corporate two-party political system. The Democratic Party entraps social movements and then defangs them, turning them into appendages of the party and its candidates. In this way, it prevents social movements from building a working-class party as an alternative to the two-party system.
Socialist Alternative stands for the creation of a mass working-class political party. Marxists see a working-class party as completely different from a big business party. The working class needs a political party that can organize its struggles against big business and capitalism. This means uniting different sections of workers into struggle, clarifying the program of the party, spreading that program widely to the working class, exposing the corporate agenda, and building working-class power in the workplaces, labor unions, schools, local communities, and the streets. As part of this work, they should contest elections to expose the corporate agenda in the electoral arena. The election of candidates into office should be used to promote working-class struggles, to build up confidence, and to win concessions where possible. Ultimately, electoral campaigns are tied into an overall strategy of organizing the working class to take power and build a new socialist society.
A working-class party is essential to build the cohesion and strength necessary for the working class to contest big business for power. Because different sections of workers and young people come into a working-class and socialist consciousness at different times, the political party is an important vehicle to educate and train workers and youth into becoming effective working-class and socialist activists. A working-class party would need to have nothing in common with the cynical election campaigning undertaken by the two corporate parties.
Historically, Marxists in the U.S. and most advanced capitalist English-speaking countries (like Britain, Ireland, Australia and Canada) have seen the development of a powerful working-class party as linked to the participation of important sections of the trade unions. However, the weakening of the trade unions, the decline in their social weight, the increased obstacle of the conservative union bureaucracy due to their further political shift to the right, and the increased stranglehold over the internal workings of the union by this conservative leadership means unions will not be playing that role in the immediate future. There is not one national union today that calls for a break from the Democratic Party and the formation of a party of the working class.
If there were a powerful activist current in the labor movement, this would offer the possibility for an early transformation of major sections of the unions in the direction of breaking from the Democrats and building an independent working-class political party. However, at present the activist forces in the unions are very weak.
That being said, events are preparing the conditions for a revival of radicalism in the labor movement. Decades of concessions have created anger in the ranks of labor and among unorganized workers. The emergence of Occupy activists has also inspired and emboldened the majority of union activists. Under the continual hammer blows of the economic crisis in the coming years, the transformation of unions will speed up. At a local level, especially, sections of labor will be moving in the direction of militancy, looking to build fighting unions and to take this fight into the political arena to square off against corporate attacks. But the process of transformation will pass through a number of phases before really powerful forces emerge for a workers’ party in the unions. We need to participate in this process, taking initiatives where possible to speed it up.
Building a Workers’ Party and the Issue of Left Populism
The current blockage of the trade union route to a mass working-class party means that the movement toward independent political action will most likely take a different and more complicated course. We have explained previously that it will most likely come from activists from a number of different movements involving left populists, youth activists, anti-war activists, labor activists, socialists, and other forces. The explosive emergence of the Occupy movement introduces a new and powerful force that can be a catalyst for a new left political party. We should also identity activists fighting against cuts in education and social services as a new force that can play an important role.
Unfortunately, at present there is no organized force on the left or in the unions that has the authority and strength to initiate the development of a new left party. Also, there is enormous confusion on the left over the need to do this and how to do it. Even the socialist left is very confused on the need to build a mass workers’ party.
As a result, the most likely prospect is for political development to be on the lines of what Marxists describe as “left populism.” Populist movements, both left and right, have occurred repeatedly in U.S. history. They are a reflection of a new, emerging political movement that has not yet differentiated itself based on class. The predominant political character of Occupy is that of a left populist movement, since it has not yet developed a distinctly working-class character.
This means we can expect to see left populist candidates who are against the excesses of capitalism and its political elites. Such candidates will campaign for progressive – and sometimes radical – reforms. But they often will have illusions that these reforms can be delivered by more enlightened representatives being elected, and they will not understand the need to mobilize the mass of the working class to achieve fundamental changes. Historically in the U.S., populist movements have often been the first political expression of an emerging class consciousness. We should remember that at the end of the 19th Century, Eugene Debs and a whole layer of radicalizing workers first entered politics through the populist movement, and on the basis of their experience came to see the limitations of populism and the need for clear working-class and socialist policies and went on to found the Socialist Party.
The words of Marx’s collaborator, Frederick Engels, on political development in the U.S. are still very relevant: “There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than to learn by one’s own mistakes. … And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical and so contemptuous of theory as Americans.” (Marx and Engels on the United States, Progress Publishers, 1979, p. 314) “That it should proceed gropingly, in a clumsy, uncertain, inexperienced manner, is unavoidable. All that will be cleared up; the movement will and must develop through its own mistakes. Theoretical ignorance is a characteristic of young nations, but so is also rapid practical development.” (ibid., p. 305)
Many might question whether Marxists should be looking to build a mass workers’ or left party when the ultimate goal is socialism. Marxists would enthusiastically embrace building a mass socialist party if that was the best way at this stage for a mass radical working-class political party to be built, and that would clearly be preferably from our point of view. However, the political consciousness of U.S. workers is not yet at a stage where a sizeable section of workers and youth would embrace a mass socialist party. There is, though, a huge section of workers and young people who would embrace a political party that is clearly anti-corporate, pro-worker, and willing to fight for the interests of workers against the power of Wall Street; in other words, a broad left-wing party that represents a decisive step forward by breaking from the Democrats as a big business party and begins to attempt to articulate the interests of workers and ordinary people.
Taking into account current consciousness and the concrete forces that exist (or do not) currently, it is necessary for U.S. workers to pass through the experiences of left populism and reformism in order to gain the political experience to understand the limitations of capitalism and the need to embrace a clear socialist alternative.
To quote Engels again: “Unless I am greatly mistaken, the Americans will astonish us all by the magnitude of their movement, and also by their enormous blunders, which will help them achieve clarity in the end. As regards practical matters they are ahead of everyone else, and still in swaddling clothes in theory – that’s the position and one cannot expect it to be different. … The movement will by no means follow the classic straight line, but will zigzag and at times seem to be moving backward.” (“Letter of Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge,” 8/8/1887, ibid., p. 319)
“The masses must have time and opportunity to develop, and they have the opportunity only when they have a movement of their own – no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement – in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn from their experience.” (“Letter of Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge,” 11/29/1886, ibid., p. 312)
In the last four election cycles, Socialist Alternative has critically supported Ralph Nader’s left-populist campaigns as the strongest left-wing independent presidential candidacy. At the same time, we have been very open about our politics, criticizing Nader’s reformism and mistaken methods and bringing forward our calls for a new independent party of workers and the poor and for socialism. In this way, we have been able to participate in the overall political debate with the broadest layer of activists and individuals, support a left-wing independent challenge to the two corporate parties, and also build the socialist movement.
Occupy and Politics
The Occupy movement has brought the struggle against the 1% onto the agenda. It has managed to organize a broad layer of activists and win support from tens of millions more. However, it does not have a clear political alternative beyond organizing struggles. While the initial impetus came out of Adbusters, the leading elements are different in each local area. But the most widespread political trends in leading circles of Occupy are anarchist and liberal ideas. They also have dynamic energy and have drawn new individuals into political activity who are looking for a serious and effective method of struggle against the 1%.
Occupy has not developed an approach to the 2012 elections, a crucial issue for the next 12 months. There are millions of people who support Occupy and who are ready to step up and support a powerful political alternative to the 1% if a lead is given. A huge potential exists for Occupy, especially if we consider the stormy political period we are entering and the chance for a swift shift in consciousness in the next few months. Remember: On September 1, 2011, Occupy did not exist.
Occupy activists have begun to respond to the 2012 elections. One direction has been to protest the undemocratic electoral process outside the Republican primaries. Other plans have begun to focus on structural obstacles to free elections. Calling for support for Occupy Rigged Elections, Victoria Collier and Ronnie Cummins write on www.truth-out.org: “Democracy is our birthright, but it has never been fully realized. We’ve had to fight and die for the right to fight and die for it. It’s a dream, a shared vision, a work in progress that has been derailed.” And: “American elections are not going away any time soon. They are rigged, and we must end the rigging.” (“Occupy Rigged Elections: A Call for the Second American Revolution in 2012,” 12/27/2011)
While it is positive to expose the rigged nature of the elections, it does not allow Occupy to bring its political message to the tens of millions of Americans who need to hear it. Moreover, this activity is not a threat to the Democratic Party, especially since it allows the focus to rest on Republican attempts to disenfranchise poor voters and people of color. It will be interesting to see if such actions are taken against Obama or Democratic candidates. Only by linking the fight against political disenfranchisement and the corrupt political system with an actual challenge to that power in the electoral arena can the movement avoid such activity being co-opted by the Democrats into a reason to vote for their party.
Occupy movement activists, along with other activists in unions and on the left, need to step up and challenge the 1% in the electoral arena in 2012. If a sizeable section of the Occupy movement and the left took this step, they could provide an important left alternative to corporate politics. If well-known left figures and labor and community organizations joined the effort, they would have the authority to speak to tens of millions. With the backing of important sections of Occupy, they could break through the usual media blackout of progressive candidates and force big business to open up the presidential debates to them or face a wave of protests, which would do more than anything else to concretely expose the undemocratic nature of this “democracy” to millions of ordinary people in the U.S.
Unfortunately, at present there are no strong signs that such initiatives are developing among left or Occupy activists. A number of left-wing third party candidates have announced they are running for president. However, at present it does not appear that any of them has the prominence or enough support from progressive organizations to make a breakthrough into the national debate. This underlines the strength of the Ralph Nader campaigns in 2000, 2004, and 2008. Despite his political limitations, Nader has been by far the most prominent left figure in the recent period who was willing to boldly challenge the Democrats and run a vigorous presidential election campaign that was able to reach a broad audience of workers and young people.
Left Candidates – Rocky Anderson
The candidate who has received the most publicity is former (2000-2008) Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. He recently founded the Justice Party. He was formerly considered a liberal Democrat. Wikipedia states that he was a proponent of “national and international causes, including climate protection, immigration reform, restorative criminal justice, GLBT rights, and an end to the ‘war on drugs’. Before and after the invasion by the U.S. of Iraq in 2003, Anderson was a leading opponent of the invasion and occupation of Iraq and related human rights abuses. Anderson was the only mayor of a major U.S. city who advocated for the impeachment of President George W. Bush, which he did in many venues throughout the United States.”
Announcing his resignation from the Democratic Party in 2011, he stated, “I’m done with the Democratic Party. As I said on Amy Goodman’s show a couple years ago, I’ve put my ‘Proud Democrat’ coffee mug in storage. I think now I’ll just throw it in the garbage and have done with it.” He also stated that “the Constitution has been eviscerated while Democrats have stood by with nary a whimper. It is a gutless, unprincipled party, bought and paid for by the same interests that buy and pay for the Republican Party.” (rockyanderson2012.tumblr.com/ post/16589120187/rockys-letter-to-the-democrats)
At the same time, while mayor of Salt Lake City he was a fiscal conservative, emphasizing balancing the city budget. He put an emphasis on local businesses over out-of-state businesses. He still stresses his position of fiscal conservatism.
After announcing his presidential campaign, he stated on Democracy Now!: “The failure – in terms of every major public policy issue – to serve the public interest can be attributed to that corrupting influence of money.” He noted, “Just follow the money, and you’ll see why Congress and the White House are pursuing these policies that are so inimical to the interest of the American people.” Also, he stated: “We know that the public interest is not being served by anyone in the system right now, particularly the two dominant parties who have sustained this corrupt system and who are sustained by it.”
“It seemed that the notion of justice – economic justice, social justice, environmental justice – that’s what the people in this country want,” he said. “They want an equal playing field. They want the laws to apply to everyone equally. And they don’t want our Congress and our president simply serving the interests of the economic aristocracy in this country any longer.” ( www.democracynow.org/2011/12/13/ex_salt_lake_mayor_ rocky_anderson)
On his website, he “supports increased tax on investment income; immediately ending the Bush tax cuts; cutting defense spending significantly; offering tax incentives to firms who hire U.S. workers and disincentives to those that don’t; splitting up too-big-to-fail banks; and he opposes hiring ex-financial executives as advisors to the president on economic policy.” He also supports a system of universal health care and marriage equality. He prides himself on being “a leading and unflinching opponent of the wars of the Bush-Obama Presidency” and having been “one of the top 20 activists in the world on climate change.” He has pledged to limit individual donations to his presidential campaign to $100 per person.
While Rocky Anderson has put forward many issues and policies that will resonate with voters, he is still very much an unknown among the broader public. While he comes from a liberal capitalist political background, he is moving in a left-populist direction, is breaking from both parties, and is looking to promote popular reforms to the capitalist system. His biggest weakness in terms of his demands is his emphasis on fiscally conservative economic policies and a lack of bold demands to raise workers’ living standards, such as a dramatic increase in the minimum wage, massive public works programs to create jobs for the unemployed, repealing Taft-Hartley and other anti-union laws, etc.
Despite his break from the present two-party system, he does not have a base in social movements. Also, he does not have an organization and is relying on social media to build his campaign. His website is www.voterocky.org. Socialists need to watch to see if he is able to connect to the Occupy movement and build a base among activists that would enable him to become a real force in the election.
Left Candidates – The Green Party
The Green Party is also preparing to nominate a candidate for president in July. Two candidates so far have announced they are running. Rocky Anderson was invited to put his hat into the ring as a Green Party candidate, but declined. Before we review possible Green Party candidates, we need to review some recent history of the Green Party.
The Green Party came into prominence and dramatically grew in membership around Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign as a Green Party candidate in 2000. His campaign brought around it large sections of the anti-globalization movement. At one point, it had the potential to make an important breakthrough. However, a relentless “lesser-evilism” offensive by the Democratic Party in the fall of 2000 was able to strip away sections of Nader supporters and reduce the vote he received down to 3%, about 2.7 million votes.
In the aftermath of the Democrats’ smear campaign blaming Nader for the election of Bush, sizeable sections of the leadership of the Greens – “right-wing” Greens – drew the conclusion that it was incorrect to back a strong candidate who might jeopardize the election of Democrats. This wing took control of the party apparatus and, through its control of small states, has controlled the party’s convention ever since.
Since then, the Green Party has been ineffective. In 2004, they used undemocratic maneuvers to block support for Nader and ran an unknown, David Cobb, as a candidate who would not threaten the Democrats. In 2008, the Greens ran a weak, ineffective campaign in support of their candidate Cynthia McKinney, at a time when Nader ran a more dynamic campaign. Cynthia McKinney later criticized the Green Party for its lack of support for her campaign.
The most prominent of the candidates running for the Green Party nomination in 2012 is Jill Stein ( www.jillstein.org). She has a history of running in a number of campaigns in Massachusetts, some of which we have supported critically, and seems to be building a more dynamic campaign around five strong platform points.
Her first call is for “Jobs for All with a Green New Deal” to guarantee a job for every American willing and able to work. She supports jobs programs that will employ “millions of workers to provide socially needed public infrastructure and public services like education, health, child care, elder care, youth programs, and arts and cultural programs.” She emphasizes “sustainable energy, transportation, and production infrastructure,” specifically renewable energy generation, energy efficiency, mass transit, railroads, bike and pedestrian traffic, clean manufacturing, and regional food systems based on sustainable agriculture. This is quite an effective position on jobs ( www.green-rainbow.org/content/jobs-all-green-new-deal).
Jill Stein’s other four main points are: a Medicare-for-all system; forgiving existing debt and providing free education for all; ending home foreclosures and requiring banks to adjust mortgages to reflect the current market value of homes; and ending the wars and bringing the troops home.
Jill Stein’s program is to the left of Rocky Anderson’s and stronger on class and economic issues, though still limited. Her five main programmatic points are quite strong and would resonate among many Occupy activists and other workers and young people. However, her overriding weakness is that she is not well-known nationally in the activist movement, and certainly not among the general public.
Politically, she is from a left-populist tradition, similar to Ralph Nader and the left Greens. She has not put forward a clear critique of capitalism or a decisive orientation to the working class as the key force to fight big business. Also, she does not have a base among labor activists. She obviously has potential to make an impact but, again, there are many obstacles that she would need to overcome to achieve this.
It should also be noted that, unfortunately, numerous different socialist organizations are running their own presidential candidates. For 2012, Socialist Alternative argues for socialists to unite behind the strongest independent left-wing candidate and utilize the campaign to popularize socialist policies as part of a broader left-wing challenge to big business politics. If there is not a viable, broader left-wing campaign that socialists can participate in, then there should be a united campaign of the different socialist groups to build the strongest campaign, profile and vote for a socialist presidential candidate. While w