Political Polarization Deepens

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) businessman Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and former Gov. Florida Jeb Bush clap before the start of the Republican Presidential Debate, hosted by CNN, at The Venetian Las Vegas on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

In the waning days of 2015, the corporate media has been filled with wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump’s call to prevent any Muslims from entering the U.S. While the vast majority of ordinary people reject Trump’s racist rantings, there has been a shift in the mood of the population in the wake of the Paris and San Bernadino attacks carried out by ISIS supporters. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll in early December, “Americans are more fearful about the likelihood of another terrorist attack than at any other time since the weeks after September 11, 2001” (12/10/2015). Another recent poll shows a majority support sending ground troops to Syria.

While there is a growing fear of terrorism and support for military action, it does not negate the deeper overall shift to the left in society that we have seen in the whole past period. This is reflected in the increasing openness to socialism – according to Gallup, nearly 60% of Democratic voters now say they would be prepared to support a socialist for president – as well as overwhelming support for a $15 minimum wage, increasing taxation on the rich, and for progressive social reforms like marriage equality. Since Occupy burst forth in 2011 in revolt against corporate domination and massive inequality, there has been a re-emergence of social struggle. The sharpest expression of this today is the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, which have created a real crisis for the establishment, particularly in a number of major cities. Even the growth of right populism can be a spur to building a fight-back on the streets in this highly polarized environment.

Obama’s Foreign Policy Falls Apart

One of the factors which is giving the right its current opening is the Obama administration’s incoherent policy in the Middle East. While the Republican candidates for president ratchet up the rhetoric on who would be tougher on ISIS – while having to take no responsibility for the consequences – Obama is trying to avoid being sucked further into the Iraq/Syria quagmire, with all its tripwires. As Socialist Alternative pointed out in its statement after San Bernadino:

“Precisely what ISIS wants is to draw the West into a full-scale military intervention into Syria and Iraq. It also welcomes right-wing attacks against Muslims in the West because it believes this will help draw alienated young Muslims toward their reactionary campaign. In this sense, the right and far right in the West and the jihadists have complementary agendas.”

The problem is that U.S. capitalism and its representatives, like Obama, have no solution to the underlying causes of the conflict after fifteen years of nonstop military intervention in the region, which has led to massive chaos and helped create reactionary jihadist organizations like ISIS. Instead, the administration fights “half a war” in Iraq and Syria through aerial bombing, which will only bring further recruits to ISIS while not satisfying those who want tougher action. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, Obama has committed to keeping nearly 10,000 troops in the country as the threat from the Taliban grows.

Trump in the Spotlight

Since San Bernadino and his incendiary remarks about Muslims, Trump’s poll numbers have gone higher. The Republican establishment now faces an acute dilemma. It is not likely that Trump can win the nomination outright, but they are worried that Trump could remain a factor all the way to the Republican convention. In the absence of a clear candidate who has establishment support and can rally sections of the Republican base, this makes for possibly crippling internal division.
But if the establishment moves to block his path decisively, Trump is threatening to run as an independent, which could take large numbers of votes away from the Republicans in November 2016. This is a credible threat and even more worrying for the party establishment. At no point in recent political history has the formation of a hard-right political formation with a mass base seemed such a real possibility.

Fighting Right Populism

The crisis of capitalism has created massive social dislocation, including for large sections of the white working class. The rising fury against the establishment has caused a crisis in both major parties.

But it is not inevitable that this anger leads to the growth of a more virulent form of right populism. In fact, it is the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party which, over time, has created the space for the right by abandoning the working class as a whole after the 1970s, supporting massive cuts in social programs and trade deals that destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs. It is also the result of the lack of a working-class party that can put forward a clear alternative to corporate politics.

Supporting the corporate Democrats in elections and simply calling those workers who are supporting right-wing populists “crazy” will not work. As we have consistently pointed out, the way to fight right populism is to build a mass movement, centered on the social power of the working class, which unites all those it targets, including racial minorities, immigrants, trade unionists, women, and LGBTQIA people. Such a movement, starting as a fight against racism, xenophobia, and sexism, could become a challenge not just to the right but to the entire capitalist elite and its incessant attacks on working people and the poor. A recent example of a working-class-centered movement that helped to push back reactionary views was the mass mobilizations of immigrants in 2005-2006.

The Sanders Challenge

The divisions in the Democratic Party primaries may not be as sharp as in the Republican race, but they are, nonetheless, very real. Bernie Sanders’ call for a political revolution against the billionaire class has found a massive echo among young people and a broad layer of workers. It is striking that he has higher favorability ratings among Republican voters than Hillary, and he has held huge rallies in “red” states. This shows the attraction of an explicit appeal to working-class interests.

Even if Sanders’ campaign were to end now, his popularization of “democratic socialism” to an audience of millions would represent a breach in the neoliberal wall and a massive step forward. But the fact that there have now been over 2,000,000 individual contributions to a campaign that refuses to accept corporate money points directly to the potential to build a new, independent political force representing the interests of the 99%. This is twice the number of individual contributions that Obama had received at this stage of his 2008 campaign!

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has tried to bury Sanders under a corporate media avalanche that presents her nomination as inevitable. She has also done her utmost to repackage herself as a born-again progressive and to steer attention away from her record and all the corporate money behind her. But despite all this, Sanders’ campaign has not been dented, and he remains ahead in the polls in New Hampshire.

As we explain elsewhere in this issue, we want to see the sharpest challenge possible to the Democratic Party establishment develop from Sanders’ campaign. This requires beginning to build a new political force now around his campaign which can ignite the type of upheaval that is the only possible road to defeating Hillary. This would represent the outlines of a new left political party.

Social Struggle in 2016

The eruptions of anger by black people in Minneapolis after the police killing of Jamar Clark and, in Chicago, after the suppression of a video showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times show that the status quo is not viable. That Rahm Emanuel, “Mayor 1%” and Obama’s former Chief of Staff, is now facing widespread calls to resign is the clearest expression of this.

Now, the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on strike in 2012 against Rahm with massive community support, has voted overwhelmingly to authorize strike action again, this time to stop the attempt to make teachers pay for the city’s artificially created pension crisis. The fight in Chicago and Illinois against the drive to demolish the remaining power of the public sector unions by Republican Governor Rauner, backed to the hilt with massive amounts of hedge fund money – and seconded by Democrat Rahm – is crucial for workers around the country. This could shape up into the biggest battle for the labor movement since the fight against Scott Walker in Wisconsin in 2011.

The labor movement faces other critical challenges in 2016 including the Friedrichs case in front of the Supreme Court that would turn the entire public sector “right to work.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which threatens jobs, workers’ rights, and the environment, will also be up for a vote in Congress in the coming months. This threat in particular should be met with massive mobilizations by trade unionists, environmental organizations, and young people.

On top of that, the biggest legal challenge to women’s reproductive rights since Roe v. Wade will be heard by the Supreme Court before June.

All of these issues could bring tens or even hundreds of thousands onto the streets. Hillary will seek to take advantage of the situation while acting alongside the labor leaders to keep things “from getting out of hand.” And, of course, in the wake of the major party conventions, there will most likely be a huge “lesser evil” mood to stop the Republicans that will lead large numbers of labor and progressive activists to focus on the elections. Historically, presidential elections have repeatedly cut across movements and struggles.

But we are definitely not at that point yet. And at the moment, despite the shift in the popular mood because of the threat of further terrorist attacks, the left in the U.S. has huge opportunities to push back and develop a challenge to the establishment on many fronts. Socialist Alternative will be a part of all these fights, aiming to help win victories for our class and all the oppressed and to win the best fighters to a full-fledged socialist program.