US politics after the elections

Direct Action, January 14, 2013

By Barry Sheppard — One aspect of the recent presidential elections in the United States was the sharp racial divide. Nearly 60% of whites voted for Romney, and the number was higher among white men. Well over 90% of African Americans voted for Obama, and over 70% of Latinos and Asians did likewise.

In states where the Republicans are in control, obstacles were erected to make it more difficult for racial minorities to vote. The Republicans ran a barely disguised racist campaign, portraying non-whites as lazy and content to live on government handouts at the expense of “real Americans”. In addition, they appealed to anti-immigrant prejudice by attacking undocumented immigrants who are Latino or Asian (but not undocumented whites).

Blacks, Latinos and Asians reacted by voting against this racist campaign, often waiting in line for hours and hours to vote, in defiance of the attempts to discourage them.

The Republicans also ran an anti-woman campaign, targeting the right to abortion and contraception. Two of the most extreme rightist Republican senatorial candidates, who publicly asserted that women who were raped should be denied the right to abortion, lost in states where a majority voted for Romney. One claimed that women who were “legitimately” raped could not become pregnant, meaning that if a raped woman became pregnant, that was proof she wasn’t raped. The other claimed that if a woman who was raped became pregnant, that was “God’s will” and therefore she should be denied the choice of abortion.

There were gains for the right of gays and lesbians to marry in state referenda, reflecting a shift in public opinion. Also referenda won in some states easing restrictions on marijuana, a breach in the “war on drugs” and the ballooning prison-industrial complex.

Parties move to right

These and other reflections of voter attitudes indicate a shift to the left in a large section of the population. This was not seen in the positions of the two capitalist parties that dominate US politics — quite the opposite.

The Republicans have gone to the far right, while the Democrats have moved rightward in their wake, just not as far. The overall trend in bourgeois politics since the 1970s has been to the right, and that trend continued in the 2012 elections.

This trend can be seen in the current struggles over the federal budget. The real issue isn’t about the national debt, which is being managed. It is about the ruling class’s drive to make the workers pay for the economic depression that began with the financial collapse, the Great Recession and the anaemic recovery — that is, the workings of their system.

The bipartisan response to the financial collapse was to bail out the banks and other financial institutions deemed “too big to fail” to the tune of trillions of dollars in low or zero interest loans. Very little was spent to alleviate the disaster that befell the working class. Nothing was done to stop the massive foreclosures that hit working class homeowners with the collapse of the real estate bubble. Nothing of substance has been done to help homeowners who now owe more on their mortgages than the selling price of their homes.

Unemployment has been reduced but remains high in the anaemic recovery if correct statistics are used. High unemployment has resulted in falling wages for those employed.

While profits and the stock market are up, for the great majority it feels like the recession never ended. In this drawn-out depression, the gap between the wealth of the capitalists and the workers and middle class has widened even more than it did in the prior decades since the 1970s. It has widened even within the “one percent” — between the 0.1% and the 0.9%. The really rich are making out like bandits.

Social wage

On top of this, the ruling class is driving to slash the social wage. The differences between the Republicans and Democrats over the budget are not over the drive to cut the social wage, but how far to cut and how the cuts are to be distributed among various programs. Both agree that such austerity measures are necessary.

The Republicans are demanding deep cuts in the already miserly government pension for the elderly called Social Security, the inadequate government medical insurance for the elderly called Medicare and the stingy medical aid for the poor called Medicaid. From time to time, they go further and call for the elimination of these programs altogether. Obama has already indicated he is ready to cut these programs, but not as much as the Republicans want.

The fight is taking place in the parameters that emerged from the elections. The Democrats increased their seats in the Senate. The Republicans maintained their majority in the House of Representatives. While the ruling class was split on Obama versus Romney, most came to the conclusion that Obama was the best choice to further their interests. (A president Romney, sitting atop his hundreds of millions, would not be the most persuasive in selling cuts to popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.)

The Republicans can, from their control of the House, block any legislation. They can also block any legislation in the Senate because of a rule set up by both parties that the minority can quash any legislation that doesn’t have a super-majority of 60%, which the Democrats do not have. Thus the Democrats and Obama say they have to “compromise” with the Republicans on cuts to the social wage.

Artificial crisis

The “fiscal cliff” was supposed to be felt on January 1. But a band-aid resolution was passed to postpone for two months the drastic cuts in spending that are set to go into effect automatically under an agreement both parties made in 2011 if a compromise is not reached. The “crisis” is an artificial one set up by both parties, and its postponement just keeps the atmosphere of crisis alive.

The deal also raised the tax rates on the rich a tiny amount, back up to where they were under Clinton, although doing little to close all the tax giveaways for the rich that riddle the tax code. So Obama can say that his proposals for cuts in programs for workers and the poor are “balanced” by the small rise in taxes on the rich. That’s what passes for “equal sacrifice” in dealing with the depression. When Obama does agree to a “compromise” with cuts to social spending, he will be able to say, “The Republicans made me do it”.

Some pro-capitalist commentators are worried that the austerity drive may be going too far. Writing in the Financial Times, Wolfgang Munchau said, “When viewing the U.S. fiscal standoff from Europe, it all looks eerily familiar. The U.S. has become very European. But for me the main problem is not an inability to deal with the structural deficit, as the Economist argued in its latest cover story, but rather the contrary. I fear that the U.S. is blindly rushing into semi-automated austerity, which is exactly the mistake we have made in Europe. The problem is not the size of the national debt as such, which is manageable in both cases, but our policies in dealing with it.”

The US is looking more like Europe politically too. Europe’s politicians careen from one emergency to the next with stopgap solutions and bitter debate. That’s now the norm for the US too. In both cases there are no easy answers for the rulers on what to do about the economic stagnation and malaise, so the politicians thrash about.

And, as in Europe, the far right is stronger than a decade ago, reflected in the Tea Party in the Republican Party. It appeals to racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the context of the economic depression. It seeks to divert anger among white workers from being directed against the banks and Wall Street toward Blacks, Latinos and other minorities with the argument that “big government” spends too much on helping the poor, among which the minorities are over-represented. By “big government” they do not mean the bloated military or prison system. They try to appeal to white fears of being forced down the economic ladder, to the level of “them”.

No workers’ party

I’m sure that the reader notes that I have been talking about bourgeois politics. That’s because the big hole in US politics is the absence of a mass working-class party, even a small one, which could explain a real emergency program to defend working people in the face of the crisis of the capitalist system, including nationalising the “too big to fail” financial institutions that triggered the mess, halting all foreclosures of workers’ homes, cutting all home mortgage payments and rents to 10% of income, initiating a government program to hire the unemployed to fix the decaying infrastructure and rebuild our devastated cities giving priority to minorities, whose unemployment rates are twice that for whites, and so forth.

It could explain that the root of the problem is the capitalist system itself. Such a party could counter racism among white workers by proving that when the lowest workers are hit the hardest that brings down the wages of all workers and makes it more difficult for all workers to fight back.

We have seen outbreaks of fights back. In 2011 there was a mass mobilisation of workers in Wisconsin against anti-union laws. Later that year there was the spontaneous Occupy movement that exposed the “one percent”. In 2012, there was a strike of teachers in Chicago, under a class struggle leadership, fighting for public education, another target of those slashing the social wage. Out of these and other struggles like them, a working-class alternative can be forged, but we are far from that at present.

We also are saddled with a weak and shrinking union movement, shot through with a bureaucracy whose main policy has not been to mount a fight back, but to capitulate to the capitalists’ demands. But that is a whole other story.