April 29, 2016

A Definitive Guide To Exactly What Is Going On In The US Elections! Sort Of.

[I was asked by Rødt!, the theoretical organ of the Red Party of Norway, to write a short piece for interested Norwegians who trying to make sense of the US presidential elections. Given that who is running the US is a matter of great concern for everyone in the world, it seems like my internationalist duty to try. I completed it March 11, so it hasn't been completely falsified by more recent developments. I concluded my introduction to the article with this caveat:
Just one word of caution. We here are also alternately amused and horrified and perplexed and given hope by what’s been happening.] 

How Do Bourgeois Democratic Elections in the US Work?

A decade and a half into the 21st  century, the answer is that they work badly. Very badly.

The basic function of the government—what Marx called the general staff of the capitalist class--in bourgeois democracies is to keep the ruling class on top and the masses down, of course. To do this, it is preferable to convince the people that their interests are being represented in the government than just to crush them under then jackboot of the police and military. The government also has to act as referee when the ruling class is divided on how to tackle pressing issues. And it has to uphold the interests of the domestic capitalists against those of the ruling classes in other countries.

The theory of the US government is based on the “balance of powers” between different sections of the government. Every other year there are elections in every state to choose the 435 members of the national House of Representatives (the lower body of Congress) and one third of the 100 senators (who serve six year terms). Every four years, the president is elected and can serve only two terms. The nine justices on the Supreme Court are not elected and serve for life. When one quits or dies, the president chooses a replacement who must be approved by the Senate.

The President runs the state apparatus and the military, Congress sets government policy by passing laws and the Supreme Court rules on whether laws and government actions are legitimate according to the US Constitution.

There are a lot of obvious holes built into this structure. One is the inequality between the fifty states in the Union. Each state gets two senators, regardless of population, So urban, multi-racial and generally liberal California has 2 senators for 38,000,000 people. The twenty-two smallest states, mostly rural, combined have the same population--and 44 senators! Similarly, presidents are not elected directly, but chosen by an Electoral College where each state gets votes allocated according to the number of representatives and senators. What that means is that if the races go narrowly for one party’s candidate in enough states it can overcome big majorities for the other party in the other states and a candidate will be elected without winning a majority or plurality of the popular vote, as happened with George W. Bush in 2000.

There are three other problems baked into what US schools teach children is Our Democratic System: racism, money and the two party duopoly. Racism hardly needs comment. The two first victims of European settlement
of the New World, the First Nations and the enslaved Africans, were defined out of that democracy from its inception and only have won their way a small part of the way under its roof over the 240 years since the country started. The rights of property were protected in the Constitution and the laws enacted under it, and the more property one has, the better those rights are protected. Under the Supreme Court-issued doctrine of “corporate personhood” dating to the 19th century, corporations have many of the same rights as citizens.

Under the Constitution, US elections have been winner-take-all or first-past-the-post, which has made for a two party system for most of the country’s existence. The two parties, the Republican and Democratic, have remained in place since 1856, and sporadic third party and independent candidacies have had little effect. (The Green Party in the US exists at a national level, and has been running candidates since 1996, only once drawing more than 1% of the vote. At any given time, more than 100 Greens hold elected office in localities around the US.)

In the past 25 years, the role of money in the political process has become more and more pervasive and more and more obvious. Campaigns for national office require war chests in the millions of dollars, mostly for television and other advertising but also polling opposition research, lawsuits and more. Newly-elected US Representatives are instructed in training sessions to spend a minimum of four hours a day telephoning potential donors and asking for money for their next campaign. This “Call Time” exceeds the recommended time to be spent on the floor of the House and in visits from constituents combined.

A 2010 Supreme Court decision named Citizens United removed restrictions on the amount of money corporations can spend supporting candidates for office. Spending shot up. Meanwhile, corporations and interest groups (including trade unions) spend more than 3 billion dollars every year at the national level alone trying to influence Congress through lobbying companies, firms employing thousands of paid professionals who know the ins and outs of Washington and the legislative process. Frequently new laws are proposed in Congress which have been written entirely by lobbyists for affected industries.

Lobbying has been taken a step further by The American Legislative Exchange Council, an outfit initiated by the Koch Brothers, oilfield billionaires, which provides a full service operation—it writes bills pushing a variety of right wing issues for use at federal state and local levels. Many are designed to reduce taxes and privatize public institutions, like utilities or parks, but ALEC has also been a major pusher of laws to make it harder for poor and minority citizens to vote. This is a major concern for the Black and Latina/o communities, who are seeing the right to vote, won through such bitter struggle in the Civil Rights Movement, stolen away.

The naked role of money has promoted a deep cynicism among people in the US. In the 2012 Presidential election, only 53.6% of the voting age population voted (in Norway’s 2013 election, it was over 78%). Meanwhile six years of gridlock in Congress promoted by Republicans intent on thwarting any initiatives by the Obama administration or Congressional Democrats has dropped that institution to record lows in the polls, with some reporting that citizens hold 80% unfavorable opinions of Congress! All this is a big part of the backdrop to the rise of Donald Trump and of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries.

Is Donald Trump a Fascist?


But that is mainly because he is not aiming to build a fascist movement for the seizure of power and he does not have a tight cadre around him and an organizational machine under his leadership which would be necessary to create such a movement.

He does hold and espouse views which are completely compatible with classic fascism. He is an authoritarian, frequently announcing what he is gong to make other people do, for instance, declaring that he will order the US military to commit war crimes and deal harshly with them if they refuse. He is an extreme nationalist, declaring his intention to impose the US will on countries around the world. He is a sexist, who talks of women, if at all, in terms of their physical attractiveness, and usually to disparage them. Most of all, he is a racist, denouncing Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, calling for banning Muslims from entering the US and encouraging his supporters to beat up Black Lives Matter protesters.

He is also an ignorant vulgarian, a narcissist, a bully, a whiner and a compulsive liar, born rich and spoiled rotten. How did this man seize control of the Republican Party’s primary process and throw the US conservative movement into disarray?

For one thing, it is important to understand that he is a major cultural figure in the United States, and better known here, thanks to the celebrity-obsessed media, than any of his Republican rivals. He has portrayed himself as a billionaire builder/entrepreneur and as a savvy and decisive businessman. Of the highest importance, he had a reality television show, The Apprentice (including a spinoff, The Celebrity Apprentice) that promoted exactly this myth on the air every year from 2004 to 2015 and gave him a weekly audience of millions during those years.

Using that image, he waltzed into the Republican candidate selection process last fall and hijacked the mass base the Republicans have been building for decades. Since the ‘60s conservatives had been following a strategy of uniting various forces into a conservative front that would accept a corporate economic agenda that was not in the interests of many of its members. It included Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals, older people threatened by social changes like the normalization of gay and lesbian relationships, workers whose incomes have fallen or vanished as real wages fell and corporations moved production to the Third World, people freaked out by 9/11. Mostly, though it united a lot of white people in various class locations who felt that their white privilege, their birthright superiority over other Americans, is threatened.

A concerted effort by right wing media, especially Fox News and talk radio and an interlocking set of internet sites created a information bubble in which fear is stoked and people’s sense of victimization reinforced. Two developments in 2008 made the year a nodal point in the creation of this reactionary base. First, the housing bubble and the financial Ponzi schemes based on it imploded and triggered the Great Recession. A long period of economic growth in the US shuddered to a stop and affected tens of millions of people, who lost jobs, lost homes, lost pensions. Their panic was exploited by the Tea Party movement, which blamed poor people and the government for a collapse actually caused by the big banks and investment companies, and galvanized hundreds of thousands of people, maybe more, into political activism for the first time. 

Second, broader and more aware sections of the population voted decisively to end the Republican control of the presidency and elected the first Black president ever, Barack Obama. For those already fearful and unsure of their footing in an uncertain world, this seemed catastrophic. Hatred for Obama was fed by stories that he was not actually born in Hawai’i, a US state but in his father’s native Kenya, and that he is a secret Muslim. This scarcely coded panic over the fact that he is Black was fed by Donald Trump, who became a prominent “birther,” as these conspiracy theorists are known.

Then last fall, Trump took command of the Republican primaries with his promise to build a huge wall along the 2000 mile border with Mexico border and to deport every undocumented worker inside US borders. All eleven million or so of them. This was a master stroke, which shows how he has taken control of the process.

First and foremost Trump appealed to racism, claiming that Mexican and other immigrants are bringing drugs and crime to the US, that they are rapists and killers. Second, he shrugged off criticisms that the whole thing was deeply unserious. Mexico would pay for the wall, he said, he’d make them. Third, he would develop a massive new “deportation force” to carry it out. Fourth, he would end birthright citizenship—the Constitutional guarantee that any child born in the US has automatic citizenship. All this in the first two years of his administration.

This plan won him rabid support from a big chunk of the hardcore Republican base, who cheered wildly and chanted “USA! USA!” every time he spoke about it. Pollsters reported that he has surged to the top in their ratings. Here was a plain-talking tough guy with real world experience, who was telling them what they wanted to hear. And best of all, Trump was ignoring the “political correctness” these white folks feel repressed by and thus giving them permission to ignore social pressure not to spew racist and sexist and homophobic nonsense in public. He sneers at media folks and rivals who say he is dependent on “low information voters”

His main rivals for the nomination are actually little different on policy issues except that they are more calculating and surrounded by campaign professionals advising them. So they have tried to keep up with him and even flank him to the right. The chief challenger as I write this is Ted Cruz, a Christian fundamentalist who declares that he will follow God’s law if it conflicts with US law and answers questions about US policy in the Middle East by promising to have ISIS-held areas carpet-bombed until he finds out if “sand can glow in the dark.” Cruz, who had danced around the immigration issue before Trump took control of it, responded to Trump’s plan by criticizing him for saying some of the 11 million deportees might later be legally readmitted to the US: “He’s advocated allowing folks to come back in and become citizens. I oppose that.”

While the prospect of a Trump presidency is genuinely frightening (and so is a Cruz one), he is certainly doing serious damage to the Republican Party. By constantly proclaiming that he is self-financing his campaign and hence isn’t beholden to any donors, he exposes the utter dependence of his rivals on big money from rich right-wingers. His campaign has unleashed the white reactionary forces that the party bureaucracy and planners had worked so hard to collect and cohere, and they are under his leadership. And this comes at a time when that base is no longer sufficient for the Republicans—Latina/os from various countries make up the fastest growing minority group in the US. Add in African Americans, Asians and other people of color, non-whites (as currently defined) are approaching majority status in the US. The Trump campaign, and the failure of any of the other campaigns to challenge his racism, has shredded any chance of any significant sections of any of these communities being incorporated into the Republican base.

The Republicans also fear that Trump will alienate many of their own voters and drive away independent voters in droves in the general election, but every step they take to try and hamper him from winning the nomination enrages his supporters who are very passionate and may well bolt the Party if they think he has been treated unfairly.

Is Bernie Sanders a socialist?

He says he is, calling himself a “democratic socialist” or just a “socialist.” What’s more, he calls for a “political revolution” in the US.

In every election he has run in, since he was first a candidate for mayor of Burlington Vermont in 1981 and won, he has run as an independent and proclaimed his socialism. This time he is running as a Democrat and promising to support whoever the Democratic nominee is.

The main issues he is running on—take the money out of elections, tax the rich, break up the big banks, rebuild the social safety net, free higher education, single payer health care, end privatization of the commons and much more in this vein—are certainly things many European Social Democratic parties would at least claim to support. And they would certainly revolutionize American society if there was a way to get them enacted.

Taken as a whole, what they really are is the program of Occupy Wall Street! And OWS! was not explicitly socialist (though plenty of us who congregated and even camped out at Zucotti Park and in scores of other cities were, and are). Though the Sanders campaign is mainly a response to the same outrages that OWS! was, I would argue that it--and especially its viral and lasting 99% vs 1% message –helped lay the actual foundation for Bernie’s run. In that way, it could be seen as a parallel development to the role the Tea Party has played in the Republican Party.

Where Trump seemed to, Bernie really did come out of nowhere. When he started to run in mid-2015, a majority of Americans had no idea who he was, although he had been outspoken in Congress for two decades. He disrupted the plans of the Democratic Party machine to anoint Hillary Clinton, a woman who has not been out of the public eye for 25 years.  

Let me pause to remind Norwegians how remarkable this is. For the last 65 years, at least, socialism has been taboo, a forbidden concept, in the US. Now, shocked newspapers report on a poll taken by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Folks aged 18-26 rate socialism higher than capitalism by 58% to 33%.

The favorable ratings for socialism do not, alas, come from any below-the-radar network of rigorous Marxist study groups across the US. In fact, much of this new-found support is a response to the right wing. When they attack public education, national parks, restrictions on firearms, unemployment insurance, same-sex marriage, school lunches, access to birth control and abortion, and all manner of other desirable things as “socialist,” it’s hardly surprising that many young people think, “Gee, I guess socialism doesn’t sound so bad.”

Those favorable ratings transfer directly to Bernie. Unlikely as it may seem, this 74 year old has the most passionate youth following of any candidate from either Party. His rallies have been large, young and enthusiastic. In the Iowa caucuses he took the 18-29 vote by margins like 84 to 14! (Clinton took seniors by margins almost as high.)

There are two important things to say about the Sanders candidacy. First, he is running as a left populist in American political terms. This means he is focused principally on economic issues and the idea that all sections of the working class and even middle strata will rally to a program that serves their objective interests. The problem with left populism is that, in the US, is that it downplays the oppression of African Americans and other oppressed peoples. In particular, we are a year and a half into a heartening revival of the Black struggle in this county, centered around the Black Lives Matter movement. Sanders has some very important support from folks in the African American left but still has not succeeded in addressing the issues of the Black community in a way that can convince them he deserves their support more than Clinton, who has been courting the Black community for a long time. In some early primaries in 2008, she beat Obama among Black voters!

Second, even if Sanders wins the nomination and the general election, there are serious limits on what he can do to implement most of his program. But he himself recognizes this:

And now let me tell you something that no other candidate for president will tell you. And that is no matter who is elected to be president, that person will not be able to address the enormous problems facing the working families of our country. They will not be able to succeed because the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of campaign donors is so great that no president alone can stand up to them.

That is the truth. People may be uncomfortable about hearing it, but that is the reality. And that is why what this campaign is about is saying loudly and clearly: It is not just about elected Bernie Sanders for president, it is about creating a grassroots political movement in this country.

Is Hillary Clinton a Progressive?


She is a classic neo-liberal. Her financial support comes from big capital, especially giant Wall Street institutions like Goldman Sachs, which backed her 2008 campaign and the current one. Her foreign policy in particular is of great concern. When she served as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State in his first administration, by all accounts she was the figure who pushed most strongly for the disastrous US intervention in Libya that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi and plunged the country into a disaster where it still remains.

To be sure, her response to the challenge posed by the Sanders campaign has been to tack left. She shares the approach her husband Bill Clinton employed to run for office and serve as president, “triangulation”—combining elements of program from the left and right of the bourgeois political spectrum and positioning oneself as floating above them. She has changed position several times and adopted rhetoric which parallels Sanders’ on such important issues as the need to defeat corporate “Free Trade” agreements. The problem is that no-one, even her supporters, really believes that she holds these positions sincerely or that she won’t abandon them to “swing to the center” if she gets the nomination.

What Of The US Left?

What left?

Or if that seems too cynical, what do you mean by the left?

In the United States, the explicitly socialist left is tiny. There is probably not any organization with more than 1500 members and only a handful number in the hundreds. There is a much larger socialist and communist milieu which includes many people who have spent time in or around a left organization, and many more who have never even been that close.

Traditionally, that far left has been divisible into three camps:

There are those, mainly Trotskyists and anarchists, who refuse to have anything with the two bourgeois parties as a matter of principle. Some call on people to abstain from elections, some favor third party campaigns and some run their own members for high-profile positions like president, to try and build their name recognition and, they hope, recruit more new members than they burn out in the course of the campaign.

There are those, mainly social democrats and some who call themselves communists, who do much of their political work inside the Democratic Party. In some cases this has been justified as a necessity imposed by the danger of right-wing electoral gains, especially of control of the White House. More recently, an important trend sees work in the Democratic Party as a necessary precondition for a split, in which a big chunk of the party leaves to the left in order to form part of the core of a new third party.

There are those who do not prioritize electoral work but take part in some electoral campaigns, usually Democratic, mainly on the local or state level, when doing so has an organic relation to other political work they are doing, in the trade unions, or in communities or in the environmental movement, for instance.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has shaken things up in a big way. As recently as two years ago, few on the left would have predicted such a dramatic and central role for socialist politics in the US. It’s particularly surprising that this took place not in response to a large or prolonged upsurge in the social movements in the US (like that we experienced in the ‘60s and ‘70s), but as the result of one person correctly reading the deep current of anti-corporate, pro-justice sentiment and openness to socialism among the people of this country.

This new situation demands of all sorts of left forces that they contemplate their isolation, rethink their traditional positions and figure out how to respond (even if it’s only by writing lengthy polemics explaining, patiently or impatiently, that what Sanders is talking about really isn’t real socialism at all, not really).

In part, this is because Sanders has put socialism back in the map of mainstream political discourse in the US. He has enlarged and shifted the Overton Window, a concept describing the hegemonic and acceptable ideas in a society at any given time. To put it another way, we now have a whole unexpected layer of the population who say—and have been given a reason to say--“Socialism? I’m okay with that.”

In part, it is because he has galvanized young folks, especially college students. In 2008, Barack Obama had an extremely professional operation organizing on campuses, around his campaign’s general themes of Hope and Change! The Sanders campaign has a whole different feel to it, more spontaneous, more determined, even more optimistic—and responsive to the call for “political revolution” oriented to socialism.

As mentioned above, Bernie Sanders says explicitly that he cannot, by himself, bring about the changes he is calling for, even if he is elected president. That is a clear call to build organization, whether it be by taking over the Democratic Party apparatus in whole or part, or by building independent forms of organization. This is similar to the Rainbow Coalition strategy employed by Jesse Jackson as a candidate in the Democratic primaries in from the beginning of the 1984 campaign to the end of the 1988 campaign.

As my old friends and my comrades try and figure out how it makes sense to apply our very small forces to have the maximum impact in this crucial moment, we are also keeping an eye on what Latin American theoretician Marta Harnecker calls “the social movement left.”

In particular, the young people at the core of the Black Lives Matter! eruption against police brutality, murder and impunity have played a fascinating role in the election season so far. The obvious racism of the Republican candidates, most spectacularly Donald Trump, has meant that these demagogues are regularly faced with silent protests and vocal challenges at their campaign stops.

But the activists have also targeted both Clinton and Sanders, demanding that they take up issues of crucial importance to the Black community. While many older African Americans, especially women, tend to be very supportive of Hillary, their younger activist children and grandchildren hold her feet to the fire, citing things in her record like her support of and complicity in President Bill Clinton’s destruction of the welfare system and her 1996 description of Black youth:

They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'super-predators.' No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about how they got that way but first we have to bring them to heel...

Bernie Sanders, as pointed out above, espouses a left populism which identifies the banks and corporations as super-predators who must be brought to heel, but tends not to pay as much attention to key social questions like the racism experienced by the Black community. He has responded well to criticisms and won a measure of guarded support from important young Black thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander.

Still, until the primaries are over, the Black Lives Matter forces, broadly defined, can be expected to use the stage provided by the 24/7 coverage of the primary season to fight to build their movement and it is unlikely they will subordinate it to any particular campaign. They deserve support.


Unknown said...

Superb detailed political analysis!

Meizhu Lui said...

Excellent 101 on US elections, and concise synopsis of how the current top candidates achieved their success and how all this should be approached by the US left. Very useful to more than Norwegians!

Jack said...

Honestly i have kind of lost faith in the Us elections ever since Donald Trump can into power. I mean how do you justify a system that elects that dude as the president of the most powerful country ? Its rigged and flawed!