The 2016 elections — A response to Baszak and Henwood
Platypus Review #85 | April 2016
In his February 2016 review of Doug Henwood’s new book, My Turn: Hillary targets the presidency, Gregor Baszak summarizes Henwood’s disdain for Hillary Clinton and his ambivalence toward Bernie Sanders. (See Gregor Baszak, “Book Review: Doug Henwood, My Turn: Hillary Targets the Presidency,” Platypus Review 83, February 2016. Available online at /2016/01/30/book-review-doug-henwood-my-turn-hillary-targets-the-presidency-new-york-or-books-2016/.) Baszak concludes the Sanders campaign is another step toward liquidating the Left into the Democratic Party, what some call the “graveyard of social movements.” He suggests the Left should exit the Democratic Party.
I believe both Henwood and Baszak express cynical views of the class and social dynamics taking place. One-sided assessments and undervaluing the agency of organized labor and its democratic allies prevents them from offering a viable path to effect social change. I’d like to suggest a broader strategy for the 2016 elections and how it might connect to longer term prospects for radical change.
The most dynamic force in the electoral arena is the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders. His campaign is also a movement that has greatly broadened political imagination, brought thousands of especially young people into politics, and stimulated a national discussion of democratic socialism.
Sanders is directly challenging the corporate domination of the Party.
The Sanders campaign is strengthening the Left, independent, and grassroots composition of the broad anti-extreme-right coalition. Many of those associated with the Sanders campaign are frontline activists in the anti-globalization, labor, Black Lives Matter, Dreamer, LGBTQ and environmental justice movements. They bring a higher level of consciousness, determination, and organization into the electoral arena.
The Sanders campaign is being propelled by the vast wealth inequality, long-term economic stagnation and declining wages and living standards.
Sanders gives voice to the resentments, economic anxieties and fears of millions. But his campaign is also propelled by the shifts in public opinion. New social movements are influencing millions at the grassroots, including the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, The Dreamers, reproductive rights, marriage equality, and climate justice activists.
Win or lose, US politics will never be the same again because radical new ideas have been discussed widely and new forces have energized the electoral arena.
Sanders and Clinton
Some have concluded that Sanders could win now and November without the Democratic Party establishment. There are also calls for Sanders to launch a third party bid if he doesn’t win the nomination.
This thinking doesn’t take into account the danger of the right. In my opinion, it overestimates the strength of the Left, underestimates the strength of the corporate forces and most importantly, the willingness of various constituencies to break with the Democratic Party at this moment. A split would likely pave the way for a rightwing victory and for those reasons Sanders has rejected it.
Hillary Clinton has deep ties to the neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party and foreign policy establishment. While she’s more hawkish on foreign policy, Clinton is no neo-con and supports diplomatic efforts like the Iran nuclear deal and the normalization of relations with Cuba.
A non-interventionist foreign policy that also advances equitable trade relations requires building far bigger peace and justice movements and global labor solidarity.
While I agree with Henwood’s assessment of many aspects of Clinton’s career, we shouldn’t ignore context and dismiss the fact she has been battling the extreme right for over 25 years including the Gingrich-led government shutdowns and drive to impeach Bill Clinton. She has been the object of their hatred, venom and misogyny.
Clinton is also motivated by democratic sensibilities and supports collective bargaining rights, reproductive rights, restoring and expanding voting rights. She has pledged to continue the Obama climate policies.
I’m suggesting we need a more nuanced view of Clinton, who is susceptible to pressure from below.
The CPUSA does not endorse candidates, but it goes without saying the Sanders program addresses the needs of the country and is closest to our own. My guess is most of our members support the Sanders campaign.
Presently, the forces necessary for victory over the GOP are fractured in their support between Clinton and Sanders. We consistently advocate unity around the issues and always keeping in mind the bigger goal—defeat the right. Whoever wins the primary fight will need the supporters of the other to win in November.
Independent of what side one takes, a lot is at stake in the outcome of the 2016 elections for the American people. The results will determine the post-election political terrain upon which future battles will be fought out and prospects for more radical change.
For starters, it requires a sober appraisal of objective realities, political dynamics and the balance of class and social forces. These constitute a particular stage of struggle.
In developing strategy and tactics, Marxists should seek to identify the most critical challenges the working class and people face in any given stage of struggle, that if overcome, can advance the entire movement. Lenin called it grasping the key link in the chain. Today’s most critical challenge is the danger posed by the extreme right to democratic rights and institutions, to social programs tens of millions depend on, and to life on this planet of ours. I believe we make a fundamental error in strategy and tactics if we discount, dismiss or underestimate this threat.
The 2016 elections offer an opportunity to deal a decisive setback to the extreme right wing grouped in the Republican Party and those allied with it, blocking their ascension to the White House, ousting their elected majorities in Congress and statehouses, blocking right-wing appointments to the Supreme Court and judiciary, and defeating their ideas in the court of public opinion.
Because the anti-extreme-right coalition sees the Democratic Party as the only viable electoral vehicle presently, the only realistic way to defeat GOP candidates is through electing their Democratic Party opponents.
Short of such a defeat, it is impossible to see winning substantial victories in the economic and political arena, let alone radical democratic reforms or socialism.
In fact, were Donald Trump to win, it would likely mean the ascendancy of a right-wing authoritarian government whose aim will be to dismantle accustomed democratic norms. In one way or another Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Gov. John Kasich express support for a national right to work law, unbridled racism, misogyny, hatred of transgender people and immigrants, elimination of any curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, further rollback of reproductive rights, and militarization abroad and home.
Rise and domination of right wing extremism
The most recent rise of the extreme right began in the 1970s when sections of the U.S. ruling class—grouped around the oil, military and banking interests—launched an all out effort to undo the gains of New Deal, Civil Rights and Great Society Programs and reassert U.S. global, economic and military domination.
This new era coincided with the end of the postwar economic boom and beginning of growing extreme wealth inequality. These forces captured the Republican Party and engineered the nomination of Ronald Reagan, employing racism and the elaboration of the “Southern Strategy.”
All along, the GOP, in tandem with the Koch brothers and other plutocrats, has waged total obstruction against President Obama in an effort to block his agenda including raising the minimum wage, gun control, infrastructure repair, student loan relief, hiring more teachers and first responders, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, extending protections of undocumented youth and their families through DACA and DAPA, closing the Guantanamo Prison, and now blocking his ability to appoint a Supreme Court nominee that will alter its political balance.
The GOP victory in the 2014 elections heightened the extreme right danger. It extended right-wing Republican domination of Congress, guaranteeing a House majority until at least 2022.
The GOP now controls 11 more statehouses and 31 governorships. Republicans control 67 of 98 partisan state legislative chambers and has total control of governorships and both chambers of the legislature in 24 states. The GOP can obstruct progressive legislation at the federal level and in at least half the states. The GOP has gone all out to lock in their power through redistricting and passage of voter suppression laws. It is now estimated that 3 to 5 million people were prevented from voting in 2014.
Want to know what a right wing authoritarian government looks like? Check out Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Indiana, Illinois, and elsewhere, and the kind of legislation being passed: right to work laws, voter suppression, anti-LGBTQ, anti- reproductive rights, anti-immigrant, etc.
In most cases, GOP governors and state legislators have taken directly from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) playbook and its cookiecutter legislation backed by the Koch brothers and their ilk.
Fight against extremism
The CPUSA was one of the first organizations to raise the alarm over the rise of the extreme right in 1980. We called for an “all-people’s front” to combat it, a modern day version of the united front policy first articulated by the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov.
This battle has been waged over 35 years through election cycles, in the legislative arena and the battle to sway public opinion. Since 1980, several new factors have emerged, raising the level of danger and urgency of defeating the right. First, the re-emergence of oligarchy and extreme concentration of wealth, and its impact on politics resulting from the Citizen’s United decision. The New York Times reported in October that 158 families provided half the early money to presidential candidates. Of that, 138 supported GOP candidates. The radically magnified influence of a relative handful of billionaires greatly increases the threat to existing democratic institutions, imperfect as they are. Secondly, the emergence of the planetary ecological crisis and its existential threat to humanity and nature. The fossil fuel industry is a main bulwark of the extreme right.
We see the role of our Party in helping to build maximum unity of the diverse forces in the democratic part of the coalition, build its breadth by helping bring in new activists and movements, deepen its consciousness by promoting the most advanced positions and candidates and arguing for the strategic aim to defeat the extreme right and its connection to longer-term more fundamental change.
Our role extends to the grassroots, engaging with voters, particularly white working class voters and men, who may be influenced by racist, sexist, and reactionary ideas.
Broad unity and multi-class alliances
What has emerged in the course of this struggle is a broad understanding of the danger posed by the right and with it a loose multi-class alliance which includes the labor movement, communities of color, and democratic reform movements of all kinds. This alliance is multi-generational, unites left and center political currents and a section of capital in conflict with the extreme right.
For those who recoil at the notion of a multi-class alliance consider that our nation’s history is replete with such examples. Recall the fight against slavery and the alliance of northern industrial capitalists, slaves, working masses and abolitionists. Or the struggle against fascism, the splits in the US ruling class, and the multi-class alliance built to defeat it in the 1930s and 40s.
Today, splits in the ruling class have appeared over the climate crisis. A section of capital who sees an existential threat to capitalism is objectively aligned with the environmental movement.
So this is nothing new. And in fact, for Lenin, multi-class alliances and exploiting fissures in the ruling class was a given. The Bolsheviks advocated alliances between the nascent proletariat and vast peasantry and with the small bourgeois class to overthrow the czar.
Class struggle within
We have to play the cards dealt as we fight to change the rules of the game. Politics is conducted in a two-party, winner-take-all system, institutionalized since the Jacksonian era. Third parties have arisen during times of sharp crisis or political realignment, as the Republican Party did in the fight against slavery. In such instances they supplant one of the two dominant parties.
Until radical reform allowing parliamentary democracy or fusion politics, the prevailing circumstances don’t allow for more than two viable national parties.
All parties reflect coalitions of class and social interests and the Democrats and Republicans are no different. They are vehicles through which these forces fight for their agendas. In the battle being fought in the political realm, some see no difference between the Democratic and Republican parties, painting them with a broad brush as creatures of Wall Street. For sure, both are dominated by corporate interests.
But we can’t leave it there; real life is far more complex. For starters, both have vastly different social compositions. While the Republican Party is led by the most reactionary sections of Wall Street capital, including the energy extractive sector and military industrial complex, it also consists of extreme right-wing elements including the Tea Party, white supremacists, social conservatives, right-wing evangelicals, climate deniers, anti-reproductive rights groups, etc.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is at this moment home to organized labor, African Americans, Latinos, other communities of color, the women’s equality movement, many young people, and a wide range of other social and democratic movements. A wide political spectrum exists in the Democratic Party including a substantial current of self-described democratic socialists. These constituencies exert influence and hold leadership positions at various levels. They see the Democratic Party as the most viable means within the two party system to advance their agendas at this moment. Any establishment of a people’s party requires these very forces at its core and until they are prepared to bolt, it is not yet a viable prospect.
Because Democrats embrace a multi-class constituency, it is beset with internal contradictions. The class struggle rages within, between what are loosely the Wall Street and the progressive or pro-labor wings. Establishment and machine elements clash with independent forces.
This is reflected in part in the competition between Clinton and Sanders, but similar clashes play out on a local level. For example, the 2015 electoral challenges waged by Chuy Garcia against Mayor Rahm Emanuel and independent candidates seeking to unseat machine incumbents.
There may be cooperation in the fight against the extreme right, but the class struggle is never suspended; these same forces battle daily on economic, political and ideological fronts. This is seen in many cities where Democratic mayors seek to impose neo-liberal policies like privatization and gentrification. Extreme wealth concentration is and will continue to deepen class divisions and tensions within the Democratic Party.
A “political revolution” can transform politics if labor, its allies and the broad left put their stamp on the multi-class alliance, shape its politics and frame the issues debated for the elections.
Such is the nature of class contradictions!
Majorities make change
Any “political revolution” will be fueled by ongoing shifts in public attitudes. Majorities of Americans now favor taxing the rich, raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, abortion rights, marriage equality, criminal justice reform, and action to curb the climate crisis.
A political revolution is based on the idea that majorities make change. It is not enough for majorities to believe in an idea, they must actively fight for it. While important shifts against the ultra right have taken place on key issues, the electorate is still deeply divided, with a substantial section misled, disillusioned and disengaged. To be transformative, a movement must have an organized expression in every community. It must fight uncompromisingly against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant attacks and all efforts to divide.
White working-class communities are considered a key demographic for the GOP and are targets of the worst kind of racist and reactionary ideas. They cannot be abandoned to the embrace of the extreme right and its ideology of hate. A political revolution calls for a 50-state strategy including turning red states and districts blue and defeating the GOP in its stronghold—“the Deep South.”
The loose coalition that presently aligns itself with the Democratic Party, including organized labor, organizations and movements in communities of color, women’s, immigrant and LGTBQ rights, students and environmental movements, is in constant motion, changing in response to real life experiences.
Intertwined with the fight against the right is the ongoing process of political independence. Here I disagree with both Doug Henwood and Gregor Baszak. Far from being liquidated into the Democratic Party, I see the labor-led democratic movement increasingly assertive, growing in influence and establishing politically independent structures in and outside the Democratic Party. The AFL-CIO no longer gives directly to the DNC but funds its own voter education and mobilization efforts, develops its own strategic outlook and is increasingly training and running trade union activists for public office. There are rich examples of the growth of independent structures including MoveOn, Democracy for America, Progressive Democrats of America, and Working Families Party.
Politically independent movements are beginning to take root in Chicago. Developments include the establishment of several independent political organizations working in and outside the Democratic Party and an increased number of independent challenges to machine candidates. This process is in its early stages and foreshadows the eventual establishment of a real people’s party.
A defeat of the right and especially winning the Senate and House could constitute a political turning point, creating new possibilities for advancing the struggle. It would create more favorable circumstances to reform the electoral system itself, build the labor movement, broader and deeper coalitions, and bigger and expanded movements.
Out of decisive turning points come new stages of struggle, including for more radical reforms.
If either Sanders or Clinton are elected, their administrations will face unrelenting pressure, and in Sanders’s case, obstruction from Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, fossil fuel industry, right-wing think tanks, mass media and, of course, right-wing elements in the oligarchy. In addition, the Democratic Party neoliberal establishment will reassert itself especially in the post-election period, casting aside elements of the program upon which the election pivoted. Therefore voters and movements must remain engaged. When President Obama was elected in 2008 voters thought they had done their duty and went home. The void was filled by GOP obstruction and the Tea Party. Low voter turnout in 2010 and 2014 led to GOP control of Congress and statehouses across the country.
The challenge before labor, communities of color, women, youth, the LGBTQ community, climate justice and other democratic forces is to continue to build the biggest, broadest, most diverse and tactically mature movement possible to win in 2016 and set the stage for bigger victories ahead. |P