Do the 2010 elections really represent a right turn in US politics?

by John Leslie

Following the Republican victory in last month’s mid-term election, most of the media have pointed to a right turn in U.S. politics. They assume that working people showed by their vote that they reject “big government” and the “liberal” policies of the Obama administration.

Some Republicans claim a “mandate” for their reactionary policies, but other, more sober, members of the GOP caution against over generalizing.

Some have said that this rightward shift represents a white reaction to the first Black President. Racist attitudes toward Barak Obama are a reality. But how do we explain the fact that many white people who voted for Obama in 2008 repudiated the Democrats in 2010? Were they racist in 2010 but not in ’08?

The ultra-right Tea Party did secure a high level of influence in the Republican Party. The Tea Party leadership rests in the hands of reactionary and even white racist forces; but the base of the movement is more complex. Many at the base are older, white “middle class” people concerned with rising taxes, who were manipulated by claims of a “government takeover of health care” and government-controlled “death panels.” Some of them, because of their reliance on government programs like Medicare and Social Security, might be won to a broad defense of these programs against the coming wave of austerity measures and cutbacks.

The truth is that both capitalist parties campaigned on a program of austerity and budget cutting. This goes for the incoming “liberal” Democratic governors of California and New York—Brown and Cuomo. It should also be noted that no major party candidates made an issue of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats could have urged a shifting of war dollars to creating jobs at home, funding education and health care, and rebuilding the infrastructure, but that was not on their pro-corporate, pro-imperialist agenda.

The Democrats have accommodated themselves to right-wing attacks on Muslims and stepped up attacks on immigrant workers. For example, an incumbent Democratic state representative in Pennsylvania went so far as to visit construction sites to check the papers of workers. Democrats included language about “getting tough” with so-called illegal aliens in their campaigns.

Polls show that the Tea Party has the support of about 18% of the population. Interestingly, other polls show that about 30% of the U.S. population thinks that socialism is a good idea. Of course, many of these folks don’t understand what socialism means. This represents an opportunity to explain more fully what the socialist alternative would look like.

These numbers show not so much a rightward swing in U.S. politics as a lack of clarity amongst working people and the middle classes. The election does not represent a massive turn into the Republican Party. Instead, it appears that the mass base of the Democrats, demoralized and unmotivated, stayed home. On the other side, the ultra-right turned out its supporters. But the truth is that only 40% of the electorate bothered to vote, which shows a lack of faith in either capitalist party to solve the problems we face.

Without a firm political anchor in a working-class program and organization, voters will always tend to swing back and forth to punish those in power. I would caution against writing a premature obituary for the Democrats. In 2006, voters rejected the policies of the GOP by giving the Democrats a majority in both the Senate and the House. This majority was further enhanced in the 2008 election when Obama was elected. Afterward, the talking heads on TV talked about the “end” of the Republican Party and other such nonsense.

This trend shows that neither capitalist party is capable of offering any solutions to the crisis; only a continuation of war and austerity. This is why we have to link the “war at home” (one-sided class war against workers and the oppressed) and the war over there. This is what makes the building of the United National Antiwar Committee (UNAC) so crucial. The contradictions of this system are sharpening, and we are presented with the opportunity to build a fightback on issues that millions of working people feel are important to their lives.

We also need an uncompromising fight for independence from the parties of the ruling class. The Democrats are as much a part of the institutional set-up of U.S. capitalism as the Republicans. While the Republicans tend to be more reactionary on the surface, the Democrats have the function of disorienting and confusing opposition. They attempt to draw the leadership of mass movements into a relationship based on “access” and “influence,” and the working class gets sold out. To put it bluntly; the Democratic Party is where the peoples’ movements go to die.

In the recent election, the pro-Democratic Party “left” tried to play up the boogieman of an impending right-wing takeover led by the likes of Glen Beck and Sarah Palin. But how do we stop the far right? Certainly not by accommodating ourselves to their program at every turn.

After the election defeat, Obama said he hoped to work with the Republicans to move things forward. He spoke favorably about seeking a “bipartisan” unity to balance the budget and “fix” programs like Social Security. Concretely, this means an all-out offensive against programs that millions of people depend on. This is the purpose of the Obama Deficit Commission—to sell major cuts in programs like Social Security and Medicare in the name of fiscal responsibility. Forget raising taxes on the rich or solutions that favor working people.

More than anything, this election reflected a reaction by the mass of voters to the perceived inaction of the party that promised “change” and then did little to achieve it. Millions have lost jobs and millions more fear the loss of their jobs. They see the foreclosure crisis and bank bailouts while nothing is done for the most vulnerable. They see an economy that creates few jobs; and those it does create are low-wage, no benefit jobs—often part time.

They see a union movement that gives millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours to the Democrats but has done little to oppose concessions and trade deals or to defend the interests of the broader working class. There was no fight for EFCA, no fight for a substantial increase in the minimum wage, no mobilization for a real health care bill and no opposition to the wars that are draining this economy. After all, we can’t embarrass our “friends” the Democrats!

Bourgeois elections decide very little. The mass activity of the working class and the oppressed on the other 364 days of the year is what makes the difference. The way forward is not easy. We have several key interlinked tasks ahead of us—to build a mass antiwar movement that ties the social and economic crisis at home to the wars over there, to rebuild a class-struggle wing in the unions, and ultimately to form a mass party of working people and the oppressed that is capable of struggling for political power.

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