It’s a long way from Abraham Lincoln’s Grand Old Party and the war to end slavery to today’s Republicans and their relentless attacks on immigrants, women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and the labor movement. It is not news that the modern Republican Party leadership has perfected the art of racist “dogwhistles” and using “social issues” like abortion and gun rights to distract attention from an agenda that is squarely about serving the interests of Wall Street, corporate America, and the super-rich.
In November, the Republicans attained their greatest dominance of American politics since 1928 with control of the presidency, both houses of Congress, 33 governors and full control of 32 state legislatures. But after a few months in control of Washington, the Republicans are floundering, internally divided and facing mass opposition in the streets.
How did the Republicans manage to get this far with an agenda that is so out of touch with the interests of working class people? One can, of course, point to the disastrous Democratic campaign in 2016 where they nominated Wall Street ally Hillary Clinton who focused on Trump as an “existential threat to the Republic” rather than making the case for real change that would benefit working people. But one has go deeper and further back to understand the situation we are in now.
From Nixon to Reagan
The Republican Party, as we know it today, was defined by the social upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Under Richard Nixon, the party adopted the “Southern strategy” that aimed to win conservative Southern white voters reacting to the social change caused by the defeat of Jim Crow segregation policies. At the same time, the Civil Rights and the antiwar movement were putting pressure on the Democrats and especially its arch-segregationist right wing from the left.
This was the beginning of the long demise of the “liberal Republican” establishment embodied by Einsenhower and the Rockefellers. Of course, the Republicans had always also had a hard right wing that temporarily got the upper hand when Barry Goldwater won the party’s nomination in 1964 before losing badly to Lyndon Johnson.
While the hard right was rebuilding, Nixon came into office in 1968. He carpet bombed Southeast Asia and was eventually thrown out because of Watergate. However, under pressure he also brought in important domestic reforms including the Clean Air Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It was under his administration that abortion was legalized. He was even willing to countenance some form of universal health care.
All of this reflected the role of powerful mass movements and the intensifying class struggle. The ruling class – facing a potentially serious threat to its rule – felt the need to make concessions.
The sharp economic crisis of the mid-1970s began the end of the postwar economic expansion and brought a shift away from the Keynesian (welfare state) policies that both Democrats and Republicans had broadly supported. The ruling class now sought to push back the gains made by working people and to massively cut social services. This was the beginning of the neoliberal agenda of privatization and globalized “free trade” that sought to restore the bosses’ profit margins on the backs of working people. This agenda actually began under Democratic President Jimmy Carter in the late ‘70s even though Reagan’s election in 1980 is remembered as the key turning point.
Ronald Reagan broadened the base of the Republicans by appealing to conservative white workers in the North and Appalachia disillusioned with the Democrats’ abandonment of any pretense to represent their economic interests. The Reagan years saw the full flowering of modern Republicanism. Combining a reactionary social agenda and an increasing role for the Christian right, Reagan went on the offensive against the labor movement and sought to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement.
Meanwhile, the Democrats also veered rightward on economic policy. When Clinton was elected in 1992, he proceeded to deepen the attacks of the Republicans, passing the job-killing North American Free Trade Agreement and then “dismantling welfare as we know it.” The difference was that while the Republicans were overtly racist and anti-labor, the Democrats still pretended to be friends of labor and people of color.
Bush and the Road to Disaster
The Bushes essentially followed Reagan’s script. Bush Jr.’s presidency from 2000 to 2008, however, more fully revealed the degeneracy of contemporary capitalism and the dysfunction of the political system. The oil interests and Wall Street ran the White House more directly, there were massive tax cuts for the rich, while the neo-conservatives were allowed to pursue their crazed plans to recast the Middle East at the cost of trillions of dollars. All of this ended with disaster in Iraq, the virtual collapse of the world economy in 2008-9, and the opening up of a full scale economic, social and political crisis of the system which continues to reverberate.
It is very important to remember that with a huge swing in the 2006 midterms the Democrats retook control of the House as Bush’s popularity plummeted. This was followed by Obama’s victory in 2008 on a wave of hope for change including mass support for the idea of taxing the rich to pay for a decent health care system and high-quality public education. The labor movement expected the Democrats to deliver legislation that would make it easier to organize and begin the reversal of decades of retreat. There was huge hope for overcoming racial divisions.
Instead the Democrats under Obama – while delivering some stimulus and a very flawed health care reform – also bailed out Wall Street at a cost even greater than Bush’s wars and did nothing as millions lost their homes and millions more lost good manufacturing jobs. The Democrats did nothing for the unions while Obama’s Education Department specialized in bashing the teacher unions and making teachers the scapegoat for the disastrous state of public education in many areas. Obama deported more immigrants than all previous presidents combined and while his Justice Department did respond to the revolt of black youth against police violence, he left with little achieved in terms of real reform.
The disillusionment of Obama’s voters opened the door to the Tea Party gains in 2010 but it also sparked a reaction from working people and youth, first of all in the 2011 revolt against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker which the Democrats then did everything possible to move into “safe” electoral channels.
Polarization and the Shift to the Left
We have consistently pointed out that American society in the last period – while increasingly polarized – also broadly shifted to the left on a range of economic and social issues. There is a widespread understanding that the “American Dream” has died for large sections of the working class, especially for young people who face far greater economic insecurity than their parents. The shift to the left was given visible expression by Occupy Wall Street, and continued with the enormously popular fight for a $15 minimum wage and the Black Lives Matter revolt. But it was the huge appeal of Bernie Sanders open support for “democratic socialism” and his call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class” that showed most clearly the potential for a new working-class politics that could challenge the dominance of corporate power. Unfortunately, Sanders threw his support behind Clinton who embodied the Democrats’ ties to Wall Street. This only helped to open the door further to Trump’s demagogic right populism.
What is less recognized is that the revolt against massive inequality and the devastating aftermath of the Great Recession also had a distorted reflection within the Republican Party. Donald Trump won the Republican nomination to a significant degree because he attacked Republican nostrums on issues like trade, talked about bringing jobs back, “draining the swamp,” and upholding the “forgotten men and women” of the heartland. Unlike the mainstream Republicans, he promised to not touch Social Security and Medicare. This is in is no way to deny the appeal of his nativism and misogyny to a section of the white working class and middle class, but to point to how class issues are finding their way to the surface in U.S. society and can be cynically tapped into by the right if the left leaves a vacuum.
To many progressives it was obvious that Trump’s promises were a con and this is now being revealed on issue after issue. But from Jimmy Carter through Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, the Democratic Party, while raising hope, has utterly failed to deliver meaningful change. Inequality continues to grow and working-class people of all colors keep losing ground. While the Republicans focus on social “wedge issues” to keep their base loyal, the Democrats focus on corporate identity politics, promoting the alliance of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and the youth as the wave of the future. But the real appeal of identity politics for big business Democrats is precisely that it allows them to appear progressive while promising very little to ordinary people that will really affect the corporate bottom line.
Two Parties in Crisis
As revealed in 2016, the American political system is in profound crisis. The Republicans may have achieved their strongest electoral showing in nearly 90 years but they have no mandate for their profoundly reactionary agenda. Furthermore, they would never have made these gains were it not for the complete bankruptcy of the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party. Now, under intense pressure from their base the Democratic leadership is being forced to put up some resistance but they will go no further than their big money donors will allow.
But Trump’s administration – the embodiment of capitalist crisis and the Republican Party’s profound dysfunction – has also sparked a mass resistance which will not be easily stopped. A mass working-class centered movement built around a program that speaks to the real needs of the 99% can lay the basis for a fundamental realignment of politics and a mass party of working people and the poor. Socialists, who are growing rapidly in numbers in Trump’s America, have a key role to play in helping to develop the strategy that can lead the movement to victory against the billionaires and reactionaries.