Big Gains for Republicans while Voters Support Progressive Ballot Measures
The significant gains made by Republicans in the mid-term elections, in particular taking control of the U.S. Senate, have caused alarm for working-class and progressive people across the country. The Republicans also solidified their control of the House of Representatives. Most shocking, however, was the re-election of a number of right-wing governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan who had presided over relentless attacks on the working class.
But Republican gains cannot obscure the fact that the whole political establishment is discredited. This election showed frustration and disappointment with the Democrats – not support for Republicans. Before the election, one poll showed 70% supporting the idea of throwing out all incumbents. The gap between the frustration of working-class people and what´s on offer from reactionary Republicans and pro-corporate Democrats will inevitably force working people to find other ways to express their needs. We can expect struggles on a range of fronts.
The election result stands in sharp contrast to the shift to the left in U.S. society in recent years reflected in broad support for increasing the minimum wage, for marriage equality, addressing climate change and against military adventures abroad. In fact, ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage passed in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, the latter two reliably “red” states. In San Francisco voters passed a referendum for a $15 minimum wage by an overwhelming 77% margin. In Oregon, Alaska and Washington DC, voters approved measures to legalize possession of marijuana. Two of the three anti-abortion measures proposed at the state level failed. So voters in many cases supported positions rejected by the right wing while not voting for Democrats.
Huge parts of the electorate sat this one out. Broadly the voters were older, whiter and more conservative than in 2008 and 2012. In contrast to the low voter turnout, these were the most expensive mid-term elections in history with $4 billion being spent. Unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, corporations and reactionary billionaires tried – to some extent successfully – to buy the vote. This is a serious obstacle for any candidate rejecting the corporate agenda. In addition, gerrymandering has helped the Republicans, particularly in House races. There has also been widespread voter suppression by Republicans in some states aimed at reducing the African American vote.
What Happens Now?
The Republican leadership, particularly Mitch McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, are very keen to demonstrate that they have learned from the government shutdown in 2013 – which they triggered – and that they will keep the Tea Party “in its place.” Since the Democrats’ election meltdown, Obama and McConnell have been making conciliatory “non-partisan” noises. This is not good news for working people. When the politicians in Washington talk about the need to “get things done” and “end the gridlock,” they are partly reflecting the popular anger at the government’s dysfunction – but also expressing the ruling class’s frustration that their agenda is not being addressed.
However, it is not only possible, but probable, that provocations by the right wing will lead to new sharp struggles – as happened after the 2010 elections where the Republicans made major gains and then thought they had a mandate to run amok. 2010 was followed by the uprising in Wisconsin and Occupy in 2011. Similar developments are possible now.
The Democratic Party Is the Issue
The real issue is how the Democrats, after six years of the Obama presidency, have so disillusioned progressive workers and young people that large numbers of them stayed home even in the face of the threat from the right.
The Democrats say they should be receiving more credit for economic growth. But the bulk of jobs being created are low wage, and the benefits of the “recovery” have gone overwhelmingly to the richest 1%. Millions of homeowners are still underwater. Latinos who turned towards the Democrats during the Bush years are incensed that Obama has sharply increased deportations. Young black people see no end to harassment from the police. Women’s rights have been under systematic attack, especially in the South.
Despite rhetoric about climate change, Obama has approved the massive expansion of oil and natural gas production in the U.S. This administration has also expanded surveillance and continued endless war in the Middle East. Add to this the role of many Democrats, especially at the state level, in supporting vicious austerity — attacks on public education and social services — and it’s no wonder that disillusionment is so strong.
The problem is the lack of a credible left alternative on a national level which can mobilize to defend the rights of working people, women, people of color and the poor. Unfortunately, conservative leaders of most unions, women’s, civil rights and environmental organizations covered up for the failures of the Democrats and continued to present them as the only barrier against the Republicans.
This did not mobilize, but demoralized people, and they stayed at home – despite widespread disgust about the Republican agenda amongst many working people. If the money, effort, and political power of labor was not wasted to promote Democrats, but used to help candidates who reject corporate money and run left independent campaigns, what huge steps forward towards a real fight-back for workers´ rights would be possible!
Building a New Political Force for the 99%
Where there were credible left candidates in these elections, they often did very well. In the Washington State House race, Socialist Alternative candidate Jess Spear received 17% of the vote against Frank Chopp, one of the state’s most powerful corporate politicians. Spear ran on a program to make Seattle affordable for ordinary people by ending corporate bailouts, taxing the rich, and rent control. The campaign demonstrated again the roots that Socialist Alternative is developing in Seattle, where SA city councilmember Kshama Sawant won a citywide race a year ago, and then led the first successful fight for $15 in a major city.
In New York State, Howie Hawkins, a UPS worker standing on the Green Party ticket, calling for a $15 minimum wage, a ban on fracking, and a “Green New Deal” received 175,000 votes, or 5% of the total. This is the highest vote for a genuine left wing candidate in New York since 1920. It reflects in large part the anger of the base of the Democratic Party at Andrew Cuomo who has ruled the state for four years in the interests of Wall Street.
In Milwaukee, an African American socialist, Angela Walker, received 21% (61,000 votes), running for county Sheriff. For a campaign with very few resources, this is a very impressive result. Walker explicitly opposed mass incarceration and police brutality and called for an end to the austerity agenda. Meanwhile in Richmond, California, all the candidates of the independent Progressive Alliance won their races for City Council.
All of these results show what is possible when there is a real alternative representing the 99%. The interest in a potential run of Senator Bernie Sanders as an independent in the 2016 presidential elections could be used to discuss a broader strategy on the left to build towards such a new mass alternative. As a recent letter signed by Kshama Sawant and Howie Hawkins stated, “Large, well-attended events in different parts of the country, connecting social movements and independent left politics, could lay the foundation for the strongest-ever left political challenge to the establishment in decades.”
However, as many working people may see no way to change politics through elections for the moment, they may be more focused on what can be done through struggle. Socialist Alternative will be there to help to build these movements, to fight tooth and nails for workers´ rights, living wages, to defend women´s rights and fight racism. These battles will help lay the basis for a new mass party of the 99%, armed with a socialist program. Join us in the struggle – join Socialist Alternative today!