The Era of Trump: Enormous Volatility, Mass Radicalization
The following statement was approved by the National Committee of Socialist Alternative on December 11 and updated slightly later in December 2017.
It is one year since the election of the odious Trump, an event which radically changed the political landscape in this country. This document will begin with a review of some of the key features of the new situation and how the perspectives which we put forward at the end of 2016 and early 2017 have been largely confirmed. But the main purpose is to map out the variants for how the struggle against Trump and the Republican agenda could re-emerge from its current lull and the key features of political developments in the build up to the midterm elections in 2018.
Given that this statement has to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short space, it needs to be supplemented by reviewing other recent material we have produced including our recent articles on “How We Can Drive Out Trump” and on the #MeToo revolt.
Section 1 – Reviewing One Year of Trump
From the start we stressed the deeply reactionary but also chaotic quality of the Trump regime, as well as its very real authoritarian streak. All of these features have been confirmed over and over. Trump’s vicious and pathetic attacks on critics like the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico and those standing up against oppression like football players “taking a knee,” not to mention his defense of the “very fine people” among the white supremacist in Charlottesville will not soon be forgotten. We must also not forget that Trump was the most unpopular major party candidate in modern history who lost the popular vote by nearly three million. His popularity ratings have been dismal since taking office.
The bumbling incompetence of Trump was shown in his firing of FBI director Comey. This led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel which suddenly made “Russiagate” a much more real threat to his presidency. It cannot be excluded that Trump will try to get out of his difficulties at some stage by firing Mueller which would be reminiscent of Nixon’s desperate “Saturday night massacre” when he fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox. This would provoke a constitutional crisis. Depending on the revelations from Mueller, Trump could be forced out even in advance of the 2018 midterm elections, though it remains more likely that Trump will survive for a while longer, even if increasingly damaged. One way or another the enormous volatility created by the Trump regime will continue.
Trump and the Crisis of Capitalism
It bears repeating that Trump’s ascendancy is both a byproduct and a further cause of the degeneration and decline of American capitalism. Since 2008, the social crisis facing large sections of the working class – after decades of a one sided class war which led to unprecedented inequality – has become much worse. There is a complete rejection of the political establishment and a profound discrediting of the institutions of capitalism – with the possible exception of the military.
Trump pretended to speak for the “forgotten men and women” while pushing overt racism, sexism, and nativism. Tragically the other main choice on the ballot last year was Hillary Clinton who epitomizes the corruption of corporate politics. But there was another choice in 2016, namely the pro-working-class program put forward in Bernie Sanders’ campaign which was then blocked by the Democratic Party establishment. Donna Brazile’s new book has confirmed that the Democratic National Committee was essentially a subsidiary of Hillary’s campaign from the word go.
In all the endless talk of who is to blame for the rise of Trump, it is crystal clear that the blame for the rise of right populism lies first and foremost with the Democratic Party itself. But one year of Trump and the emboldening of the far right also underlines the serious mistake Sanders made in not continuing to run after his campaign was blocked in the Democratic primary.
The political polarization of the country has reached unprecedented levels. In the past few years we said that American society was broadly moving to the left, as evidenced by growing support for taxing the rich, single payer health care, a $15 minimum wage as well as progressive social measures like marriage equality. But does Trump’s victory – which provided cover for the emergence of white supremacists and nativists – show that society is now moving to the right? In a general sense no; what it has meant is a radicalization both on the left and the right.
This is a contradictory reality. Until recently, Trump’s core base has actually hardened in its support for him, seeing the attacks of the liberal media as confirmation that he is fighting on their behalf. It will take big developments a mass movement showing a way forward for the whole working class or serious economic crisis finally exposing the lie that he will be bring jobs back to lead to a more decisive collapse of his support. But it is also clear that most of the population rejects Trump’s racism and misogyny and sees the vicious cruelty of the Republican agenda for what it is. If anything there is now greater support for measures like Medicare for All than even a year ago. This is partly a reaction to the viciousness of Trump and the Republicans’ proposals.
In December, Trump’s unpopularity reached a new low with a Monmouth University poll in early December showing 32% approval and 56% disapproval. Other polls show a drop of support among evangelical Christians and Fox News viewers. The key factor in this further drop in Trump’s support, especially among women, is the reemergence of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Trump as well as his support for the predator Roy Moore.
There is also a generalized opposition to the Trump regime among tens of millions. There is a growing level of support for impeachment (up to 49% in a Public Policy Polling survey in late October). Four million (as of early January) have signed Democratic billionaire Tom Steyer’s petition calling for impeachment.
But there is an underlying danger in the situation: if a real mass movement centered on the social power of the working class is not built in the next period the space for the far right and even fascist forces, still numerically weak, can grow significantly. This is partly because the Democratic Party, even if it begins winning elections again, will not solve any of the key issues facing the working class.
Trump and the Ruling Class
We have pointed out that while Trump was not the choice of the ruling class as a whole, a large portion of them could live with him and his billionaire cabinet as long as he delivered on deregulation and tax cuts for corporations and the rich. Trump’s identification with white supremacists in Charlottesville, however, did cause a big section of the corporate elite to take a step away from Trump, not because of sudden opposition to structural racism but because they see a major exacerbation of racial divisions as bad for business at this stage.
Another section of the elite has from the start been more focused on the damage that Trump would do to the standing of U.S. imperialism internationally. On the campaign trail, Trump pushed his protectionist, “America-first” message relentlessly. After being elected, he delivered on his promise to pull out of the Trans Pacific Partnership. But his threats to go further by ripping up NAFTA and starting a trade war with China met with pretty firm opposition from corporate America. For a while, the pressure seemed to work and Trump appeared to be grudgingly accepting the “conventional wisdom” of neoliberalism. However, in the recent period Trump has been ramping up the “America first” rhetoric again, both domestically and on his tour of Asia. This has been welcomed by Chinese imperialism which sees U.S. isolationism as an opportunity to spread its influence. It is also putting Trump on a collision course with key sections of corporate America and the Republican establishment.
Under Trump, the U.S. has engaged in saber rattling against North Korea and has ramped up military intervention in the Middle East. Trump inherited Obama’s low-key militarism which by the end of his administration included bombing campaigns in up to seven countries in 2016. Trump has ramped things up a notch and let the generals off the leash. The world is right to fear that war on the Korean peninsula – with almost unimaginable consequences – is a real, if still unlikely, possibility. Now Trump is giving the green light to the Saudis to step up their regional conflict with Iran which also threatens to trigger full scale war at some stage. Both in the Middle East and East Asia, Trump’s incoherent policy is deepening the decline of U.S. power while contributing to potential disaster for ordinary people.
The same can be said for the Trump administration’s insane policy on climate change including pulling out of the Paris accord and appointing anti-science quacks to key positions. Trump has ripped up environmental regulation in the name of bringing back the coal industry which is a fool’s errand. But ordinary people in the U.S. can see that extreme weather and devastating hurricanes are on the increase, much of this due to climate change. Trump’s policies are laying the ground for an even more decisive rejection of the climate change deniers.
What Have Trump and the Republican Party Achieved?
When Trump took office we warned that he and the Republicans would go on the offensive against immigrants, people of color, women, LGBTQ people and the unions. We pointed to the potential for mass resistance and argued that, with a bold program and a focus on mobilizing the social power of the working class, the movement could hand Trump and the Republicans decisive defeats. But we also warned that, with control over the White House, both Houses of Congress and most statehouses, the Republicans had concentrated enormous power in their hands. Trump may be beatable but likewise the danger of major and demoralizing defeats is very real.
Trump has indeed launched attacks on a whole range of fronts including a number specifically targeted at women and transgender people’s rights and a whole series against immigrants culminating in the threatened termination of the DACA program. These attacks have cumulatively created a climate of fear in many oppressed communities. Now the Janus case in front of the Supreme Court (a replay of the Friedrichs case that only ended in a tie because of the death of Justice Scalia) is a major threat to the public sector unions.
But until December, Trump had little to show in major wins. Remember that he declared that he was going to deport millions of undocumented workers within months; build a wall on the Mexican border; repeal and replace Obamacare; rebuild the nation’s infrastructure; and “bring good jobs back” by renegotiating trade deals, “tax reform” and eliminating regulations.
Passing Trumpcare would have been a major victory for the Republicans and a major defeat for working people, especially the poor. While there is no doubt that Trumpcare, which included radical attacks on Medicaid, became politically toxic, and there was a real groundswell of opposition, it was not clearly defeated by a mass movement.
Furthermore, while the incoherence of the Republican effort on Trumpcare and the incompetence of the administration in pushing for the Muslim ban contributed to defeats for Trump they have also fed a degree of complacency and a widespread confusion about what it will take to defeat the right.
The passing of the Republicans’ tax bill should be a wake up call. This will mean a massive redistribution of wealth to corporations and the super-rich, exacerbating the record levels of inequality which already exist. It will create pressure in many states and municipalities to enact further cuts to education and social services. By ending the Obamacare mandate it is also contributing to undermining the ACA, increasing premiums and potentially leading to 13 million losing health coverage over the next decade according to the Congressional Budget Office. And the Republicans plan to go more directly after “entitlements” including Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare, next year. None of this is popular. The tax plan is supported by only 29% according to Quinnipiac (CNN.com, 12/5/17). But failing to achieve anything would have been an even worse political setback for the GOP.
If DACA is fully rescinded next March without major struggle this would also be a major defeat for the immigrant population and for all those who want to see this regime defeated. It is urgent that anti-Trump activists, especially the left, draw the right conclusions from this year’s developments.
Crisis of Republican Party Deepens
There is no doubt that the Republicans’ difficulties up until now have been to a significant degree self-inflicted due to serious internal divisions and Trump’s inept “leadership.” There is the more ideological right in Congress which refuses to “compromise” in its drive to destroy social benefits while another group, especially in “purple” districts, fears the wrath of voters disgusted by the attacks on Medicaid or a tax plan that overwhelmingly benefits the top 1%.
On top of that we have seen Republican figures like Bob Corker and Jeff Flake openly attacking Trump as “unfit” for office. But what Corker and Flake have in common is that they are not running for reelection. Almost all other critical Congressional Republicans have gone silent, fearful of the “further right” forces whom Steve Bannon has been mobilizing against anyone perceived as “disloyal.” This includes the credible threat of primary challenges.
Bannon himself is really only the tip of this iceberg. As we have pointed out, the organized reactionary “grassroots” forces around the Republican Party like the Christian Right, the NRA and anti-immigrant groups are now fiercely committed to Trump and he has carefully nurtured their support. They may represent a distinct minority of the population and even a minority of Republican voters but their supporters are a big chunk of Republican primary voters. There is also a more general loyalty of the Republican base, beyond the organized reactionaries, to Trump as stated earlier. This dynamic has led a number of commentators to say that the Republican Party has been “captured” by Trump. There is a degree of truth in this but it is very far from a completed process.
With the 2018 midterms increasingly on legislators’ minds and the threat of a big swing to the Democrats, a number of Republican representatives, especially in “swing districts,” are retiring or preparing to distance themselves from Trump. And if Mueller’s revelations are serious enough, a whole wing of the Republicans could desert him. Roy Moore’s candidacy for the vacant Senate seat in Alabama became a proxy war in the desperate battle between the party establishment represented by Senate leader McConnell and the Bannonites. McConnell saw clearly that a party decisively associated with the predators Trump and Moore was headed towards electoral annihilation if not in 2018 then in 2020.
The defeat of Moore in the Alabama special Senate race represented both a rejection of Trump’s agenda and of sexual abuse. It was certainly a blow to the Trump/Bannon wing of the Republicans but also a warning to the party as a whole of the fate that could await them in the 2018 midterms. It was the first time a Democrat won a Senate seat in Alabama in 25 years. The Democrats are scrambling to get on the right side of this issue after years of looking the other way and clearly seek to head into 2018 as the party of #MeToo. But the aftermath also shows once again the political weakness of the Democrats. After defeating Moore, Democrat Doug Jones promptly went on CNN and stated that Trump should not resign because of his history of harassing and assaulting women – outrageously claiming that people need to “move on” rather than fight back.
The extremely sharp divisions in the Republican Party point to the real possibility of the party splitting or partly disintegrating in the next few years, even before 2020. But while the crisis of the Democratic Party is less acute it is also, as we discuss below, on a similar path. The ground is being laid – as pointed out in a recent document produced by the Committee for a Workers Intenational (CWI) with which Socialist Alternative stands in political solidarity – for 3 or 4 major parties in the U.S. including “center right” and “center left” establishment parties as well as far right and clearly left parties. Trump’s presidency has speeded up this process on the right and slowed it down on the left but not indefinitely.
Section 2 – Economic Perspectives
While the economy has continued to grow in 2017, there are definite signs of overheating. Quantitative easing and the pumping of massive amounts of liquidity into the economy with the goal of keeping interests rate super low (though the Federal Reserve is now trying to “unwind” QE) has contributed to the reemergence of bubbles in property, stocks and the financial markets. As Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management recently pointed out, “Asset prices from stocks to real estate have never been this expensive simultaneously,” (New York Times op ed, 9/14/17).
We have pointed out before that quantitative easing, while helping to get the economy out of the deepest recession since the 1930s, did not lead to significant levels of productive investment by big business. Rather the corporations plowed super-profits right back into the casino of the financial markets.
The collapse of large parts of the retail sector is also a warning sign for capitalism. The only growth in retail is at the high end, luxury stores and discount stores aimed at the poor and near-poor. But retail giants which were aimed at the “middle class” (including big sections of the working class) have collapsed reflecting the long term decline in wages. This fall in the purchasing power (effective demand) of a big section of the population also points to a deeper problem of overproduction/overcapacity. The growth of debt is a temporary fix but, as we saw ten years ago, this is another bubble that will collapse. The explosion of student debt has been followed by the explosion of credit card debt, to over $1 trillion, the highest level in U.S. history (MarketWatch.com, 8/8/17). Total household debt stands at $12.7 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, higher than in 2008 before the credit bubble burst (NY Times, 5/8/17).
In the past couple years there has been growth in real wages, but quite limited for an economy allegedly close to full employment. As we have pointed out before this also reflects the weakness of the labor movement. The underlying reality for majority of the American working class is they have been going backward for a long time. A recent large-scale study showed that working men in their prime working years from 25-55 are now earning $250,000 less cumulatively, adjusted for inflation, than their counterparts 50 years ago. A key reason for this drop in lifetime income, according to the study, is the lack of decent jobs for young people entering the job market. $250,000 is the purchase price of a medium size house in many parts of the country. A bit of temporary wage growth will not change this reality (NY Times, 9/17/2017).
It is still not possible to be definite about when the next recession will begin but it is likely to be a sharp downturn. If this occurs before the 2020 election and Trump is still in office it could lead to a collapse of his core support.
Section 3 – The Movement against Trump
The mass demonstrations at the start of Trump’s presidency, first and foremost the women’s marches and the protests at airports against the Muslim ban, opened up a period of intense political activity and organizing. Meetings to discuss strategy in fighting Trump were held in communities around the country. The town-hall meetings of Republican representatives were filled with ordinary people fired up, particularly by the Republicans’ threat to health care. Networks of resistance were also developed in a number of cities against the threat of mass deportations which would have entailed wholesale raids on workplaces and communities. Native born activists were stepping up alongside immigrants. The wave of protests, some of them on a very large scale, continued until May. There were also important discussions about strike action and some work stoppages, particularly by immigrant workers, around May 1.
This intense phase of activity in many ways reminiscent of the late ‘60s or the early stages of the movement against the Iraq War in 2003. But without a clear leadership, strategy and organizations of struggle in which ordinary people could really participate, there was always bound to be an ebb. As we pointed out the movement also won a partial victory when the expected wave of mass deportations did not materialize (ICE has been unleashed to go after a much wider part of the immigrant population; the result is a rise in detentions but deportations are actually down).
As we stated in the perspectives material at the February National Committee meeting, “Obviously the current pace of demonstrations and mobilizations will not last indefinitely. At some point the movement will hit a lull either because of a clear defeat, a clear victory that brings this phase of struggle to a conclusion, or simply exhaustion. This stagnation could happen as early as the summer of 2017 although it’s impossible to be definite at this juncture.” However, some of our material in the spring exaggerated the potential for strike activity nationally.
Extended Lull in Mass Protests
Since the beginning of the summer, there has been an extended lull in mass protests which was cut across temporarily by the events in Charlottesville and the attempt of the alt-right and the fascists to come on to the streets. 40,000 marched in Boston at short notice and the threat of similar mobilizations in major cities across the country pushed back the alt-right leading them to cancel dozens of rallies. At the same time, smaller but significant protests have continued to occur in many cities, and there is no doubt that 2017 overall has been a historic year of struggle which has witnessed an acceleration of the radicalization of millions on the left in society.
To underline the point made earlier: the movement has suffered no decisive, demoralizing defeat in a stand up fight with Trump and the Republicans. At the same time, it did not win a major, clear cut victory over the past 10 months. Grassroots mobilizing, which exacerbated Republican divisions, played a key role in defeating Trumpcare but this victory was not the result primarily of mass actions.
The result is that there is a large amount of confusion among activists and those prepared to fight Trump. Many people do not see how an endless series of protests will bring down Trump. Neither the labor movement, the traditional women’s and civil rights organizations nor the immigrant rights organizations have to date provided the leadership needed. New mass organizations of struggle have not yet developed. And while Bernie Sanders remains with good reason the most popular politician in the country and played a generally good role in the Trumpcare fight, including introducing his Medicare for All bill, he has not built protests in the streets or used his authority to build an anti-Trump organization with a working-class appeal that can impact the debates in society.
On top of that we are already in the beginning stages of the 2018 midterm elections which will tend to cut across building a mass movement in favor of an electoral push to wrest the House and statehouses from the Republicans. Even now, there are thousands of liberal and left activists whose focus has become almost entirely electoral and this will increase sharply by the middle of 2018.
How Struggle Can Redevelop
But this effect should not be exaggerated. In 2016 we continued to see struggles – like the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline – develop in spite of the enormous energy poured into the election campaigns. And while the Democrats are clearly opposed to building a movement from below, this does not mean that they will not use mass rallies at certain points to supplement their electoral efforts. This happened in 2004 when “anybody but Bush” reached peak intensity. There was a women’s march to defend reproductive rights in Washington D.C. in April, 2004 with hundreds of thousands participating which turned into a rally for the Democrats. Later that year half a million marched outside the Republican National Convention in New York which the antiwar leaders allowed to also become a de facto rally for the Democrats.
We cannot decisively say whether and for how long the lull will continue. However, in the extremely volatile political conjuncture we are living through, any number of issues could spark extensive protest. For example, if Trump fired Mueller this would almost certainly reignite the movement in the streets. Likewise if no legislative solution is reached on DACA there could be major mobilizations at a certain stage. It is significant that Sanders and a number of other members of Congress (including possible presidential contenders Kamala Harris and Corey Booker) threatened to not vote for a government funding bill December unless Dreamer legislation is included. The bill needed 60 votes in the Senate to avert a government shutdown. But despite a lot of bluster, the Democratic leadership walked away from this fight preferring yet again to rely on the hope of negotiating a deal with the Republicans on DACA. This shows their complete spinelessness but the whole issue will be posed again in January as the bill just passed only funds government operations for a month. If the DACA issue is not resolved at the start of 2018, it seems increasingly clear that some immigrant groups will seek to organize mass protests.
We must also bear in mind that almost every major development in social struggle in recent years – from Occupy to BLM to the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline – has happened outside of the “traditional organizations” of the labor movement or the oppressed. This is also of course part of their limitation.
We also have a new phase of the mass women’s movement which was first ignited by Trump’s unapologetic misogyny and predation. The exposure of Weinstein and now a series of other Hollywood figures and politicians through the #MeToo collective upheaval is a major development. The name and shame approach has been very effective and has forced a discussion around the issues of sexual assault and harassment in society on a scale previously unseen.
Even before the anti-Trump protests that kicked off 2017, there has been a steady flow of resistance from women to their abuse under capitalism. The Slutwalks, Carry that Weight, and #YesAllWomen all showed that young women are ready to fight back against sexism and abuse. These movements, as well as #MeToo, are part of an international revolt by women from Latin America to Eastern Europe.
Because the main focus at the moment is on abuse in the workplace, it is also raising the question of the need for collective action to fight back. This is of course especially true for working-class women who do not have famous bosses. In the restaurant, farm work, and hotel sectors, women face relentless harassment on the job. This points to a major opportunity to rebuild a fighting labor movement if the labor leadership had the imagination and drive necessary. As Sarah Leonard recently pointed out in an op-ed piece in the New York Times (11/17/2017), those organizing women workers against harassment today stand in a long tradition: “The first female-led American labor struggle was started by teenage girls working in mills in Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1830s. One of their central complaints was sexual harassment and assault by supervisors, which left them humiliated, enraged and often pregnant.”
The labor movement, as already stated, is also facing a critical threat from the Janus case in front of the Supreme Court. If upheld this would remove the ability of unions in the public sector to get dues equivalent (agency fee) payments from non-union-members covered by a union contract. This would effectively be imposing “right to work” on the entire public sector, seriously weakening unions in the area where they still retain significant influence. We have argued for a massive effort by the entire labor movement to push back against this threat but at the moment the union leaders appear to have concluded that defeat is inevitable. The unions could also galvanize much wider support if for example they made it clear they would wage an energetic struggle against racism and sexism in the workplace. As we state in the November issue of the paper, “Unions have direct needs to break out of their isolation and take a proactive, visible, social union approach to defeating Janus, opposing Trump’s unpopular agenda, and re-energizing the labor movement.”
The massive impact of BLM on U.S. society, especially on consciousness, has and will continue, the most recent example being the high profile “take a knee” protests by NFL players. However, the movement on the streets is clearly in decline. The decline of big BLM protests predates Trump’s election, showing that demoralization around Trump’s election wasn’t the key turning point for BLM’s current phase of development. However, the process was compounded by Trump’s election which upended BLM’s expectation of extracting concessions from the liberal establishment. As with the lull in anti-Trump struggles, the weakness of leadership plays a huge role in BLM’s decline.
Many people who protested around the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner feel that protesting hasn’t delivered, and there is some truth in this. While there are now indictments of killer cops which didn’t happen until the BLM movement, the police are almost always acquitted. People feel that the protests are not achieving justice on this central issue. In this context, a section of BLM activists are turning towards electoral politics which is a classic example of struggle being blocked in one avenue and moving toward another.
Another example of how BLM can take a new form are the plans to relaunch Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign. Led by Rev. Liz Theoharis and Rev. William J. Barber II – one of the principal leaders of North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” movement and a former leader of the state’s NAACP – they plan to conduct 40 actions around the country in 40 days starting in May 2018. When launching the original campaign shortly before his death, King declared: “[When] profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people … we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values” (The Nation, 12/4/2017). This new project has real potential to mobilize tens of thousands of people against the attacks of the Trump administration and the Republican controlled Congress.
Section 4 – The Democratic Party and 2018
The results of the recent off-year elections were undoubtedly a relief to the Democratic Party leadership after a string of losses in special elections earlier this year which nevertheless showed a swing in their direction. The results in Virginia were particularly significant. The Democrats won a big majority of the vote and came close to recapturing the lower house of the highly gerrymandered legislature for the first time since 2000. The Democrats now also control both houses of the legislature and the governors’ mansions in Washington, Oregon, and California, creating a “big blue wall.” Of course the results should not be exaggerated. The Republicans still control the bulk of state governments around the country.
The results in Virginia also point to the specific political dynamic in parts of the South where the Democratic Party after many years of retreat is asserting itself in the era of Trump. This is a process to a large degree driven from below with thousands of people now prepared to knock on doors, etc. This is also evident in the Alabama special election. This is politicization from a generally very low level although a DSA member, Lee Carter, was elected to the state legislature in Virginia, defeating one of the state’s top Republicans. An Our Revolution candidate, Randall Woodfin, was elected mayor of Birmingham, Alabama. There is a significant space opening up for radical politics in parts of the South. The potential for social struggle has been evident in the fight around Confederate symbols but also in the long-standing Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina. The role of the NAACP there is an exception to the general rule of struggle coming outside the traditional organizations in the past period. The outcomes of the November off-year elections and the Alabama special election point to the potential for a significant swing to the Democrats in the 2018 midterms. These will likely be the most politicized midterms in recent times, even more than in 2006 or 2010, which were major swing years for the Democrats and Republicans respectively. There will be an enormous desire among the politicized layer to use the election to deliver a major blow to Trump and the Republicans, particularly by taking control of the House of Representatives as well as a number of state legislatures. The Senate races are less favorable for the Democrats but the Democrats could potentially win control of the Senate as well.
Obviously if the Democrats can keep the focus on Trump, given his slumping popularity, and on the Republicans’ most unpopular positions, including on health care and taxes, this is very favorable terrain for them. As already pointed out they will also seek to use #MeToo for electoral gain, and despite their serious shortcomings on this, figures like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will have real credibility. But there remain many unknowns including whether Trump will even be president in November 2018.
But even if there is a strong swing to the Democrats, it will be more difficult for them to regain control of the House than in 2006. This is partly because of the extent of gerrymandering but it is also due to the higher geographical concentration of the Democratic vote in urban areas as opposed to the past. This is a factor we have previously discussed.
It is clear that the Democratic leadership intends to focus its attention in the 2018 House races on winning suburban, largely middle class districts. They have no plans to seriously try to win back the sections of white working class which voted for Obama and then for Trump. Nor frankly do they have any serious plan to inspire black and Latino workers. Big sections of the black working class sat out the 2016 election and could sit out this election as well.
The Growth of the Left in the Democratic Party
While the results of the recent elections are cheering to Schumer and Pelosi, a number of downticket races point to the growing strength of the left inside the Democrats as well as the potential for the further development of independent left politics. 27 out of 59 candidates endorsed by Our Revolution were elected. As of August, there were 75 elected officials backed by Our Revolution; now there are over 100 (The Nation, 11/8/2017). The DSA saw 56% of the candidates they supported elected compared to 20% in the last electoral cycle. Of the 23 candidates they ran or endorsed, 9 ran as Democrats, 3 as Greens and 11 as independents.
One prominent candidate endorsed by both DSA and Our Revolution was Larry Krasner who was elected District Attorney in Philadelphia on a platform of racial justice in policing and working to end mass incarceration. Krasner has a serious record as a civil rights lawyer but of course in power he will be put to the test. Nevertheless his election is still a remarkable sign of the continuing shift to the left at least in parts of the country and the ongoing impact of BLM.
In addition to Ginger Jentzen’s historic vote in Minneapolis, there were other votes that pointed to the potential for independent left politics, including two members of the DSA: Jon Grant who received 40% running for City Council in Seattle and Jabari Brisport of DSA who received 29% in a city council race in Brooklyn, New York.
As explained earlier, the Congressional Republicans are caught between two fires and the party is deeply divided. But the Democratic Party only looks more stable when compared with them. In reality the sharp division between the establishment and progressive “wings” which opened up last year is set to develop further in the next period.
It is very clear that the Sanders phenomenon has radically changed the internal dynamic of the party with Berniecrats backing Keith Ellison’s challenge for DNC chairman and seeking to take over the party machine in California. In the wake of the recent election results there was a lot of talk of “unity” of the party against Trump in 2018 but this comes in the wake of Donna Brazile’s revelations and a number of Berniecrats being purged from DNC. The DNC will also soon decide the rules for the 2020 primary. If, for example, the DNC insists on keeping the superdelegate system intact this will sharpen divisions further.
The previous Democratic Party “left” – including figures like Bill de Blasio, Betsy Hodges and even Elizabeth Warren – has been diminished as the base radicalizes and demands more. Now even mainstream types who are considering presidential runs like Kamala Harris and Corey Booker are being forced to go further than they want, for example by signing on to support Medicare for All.
The 2018 Democratic Primaries
As we have said, since Trump’s victory, the main energy on the left is now centered on the struggle to “reclaim” the Democratic Party. One major question is how far can this challenge to the establishment develop in 2018, particularly in the Democratic primaries? It is still too early to give a full picture but there are some points we should consider.
There are clearly issues that could become points of contention in the primaries. For example, in particular races for state legislatures, individual Democrats who have helped block state-based single-payer proposals could be targeted.
Another example is the question of impeachment. A minority of Democrats in the House are prepared to support and agitate around impeachment while Nancy Pelosi and Tom Perez are explicitly opposed. Pelosi recently said that impeachment “is not someplace I think we should go,” (Newsweek, 11/15/2017). But the pressure from below is still shown by a vote on impeachment being forced onto the House floor in early December with 58 Democrats voting in favor.
Our Revolution’s plans for 2018 are not clear – for example, will they focus mainly on state races or also endorse a slate of candidates for House seats? – though they are definitely building momentum. But this is still not a “party within a party.” They are not a membership driven organization with accountable structures. They have 300 local chapters plus statewide organizations in Texas, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Wisconsin. They also have important links in the unions through Labor for Our Revolution which is a continuation of Labor for Bernie and includes: ATU, CWU, NNU, Postal Workers (APWU), ILWU, UE, and the Massachusetts and South Carolina AFL CIO.
Many of the candidates endorsed by OR are pretty soft even in comparison to Sanders’ approach and program in the presidential election. Many, for example, are not fully clear on refusing developer or other money from business interests. This was obviously true of Steve Fletcher, Ginger Jentzen’s opponent in the Minneapolis race and endorsed by OR.
We also need to pay attention to the Justice Democrats who have a member in Congress, Ro Khanna from California. Their politics can be characterized as radical petty bourgeois and anti-corporate and they echo many parts of Sanders platform. They are currently fielding 32 candidates for Congress; what is less clear is if any of these candidates are viable.
We should not conclude from all this that important further steps can’t be made in 2018 in the development of independent left politics especially in local and state races. We need, for example, to maintain our links with the Movement for a People’s Party which continues Nick Branna’s Draft Bernie initiative. They intend to run candidates across the country.
From a different point of view, the resolution passed at the AFL-CIO convention, calling for a break with “lesser of two evils” politics, is an admission of the bankruptcy of the labor leadership’s political strategy based on near-total dependence on the Democratic Party. However, we should not be holding our breath waiting for a dramatic political initiative from this quarter.
Finally it is important to note that Bernie Sanders appears to be making moves to prepare the ground for another presidential primary run in the Democratic Party in 2020.
Our Tactical Approach
As we have done over the past year, we need to continue with a friendly approach to the considerable forces who seek to turn the Democrats into a “People’s Party” while spelling out what this would require: that all Democratic candidates would refuse to take corporate money; would be required to campaign and vote for a radical pro-working-people program; and that the party would put its resources behind building social movements. This is clearly not possible given the entrenched position of corporate interests in the party.
The only way forward for Our Revolution, as for Bernie Sanders’ campaign last year, is to begin to turn itself into the microcosm of the party they seek to create. Of course this will put them on a decisive collision course with the Democratic elite. But it will then pose the question of creating a new left party alongside forces already outside the Democrats. Such a party, especially if Sanders were at its head, would immediately have hundreds of thousands of supporters.
Our tactical approach must be flexible and relate to the changing reality and be targeted toward assisting and hastening this development which would be a huge step towards a mass workers party in the U.S.
But the decisive battles will probably not take place in 2018. It is possible, however, that if the Democrats regain control of the House, that 2019 could be a year when things do come to a head. This would certainly be true if a number of more genuinely left Democrats were elected to Congress and effectively held the balance of power as the Tea Party did in the Republican Party after 2010. There will also be a serious reckoning if – despite favorable headwinds – the political timidity of the Democratic leadership and their refusal to even pretend to address the issues facing working people leads to them losing in the midterms.
Section 5 – The Socialist Left
One of the key political developments of the past few years since Occupy has been the massive growth of interest in socialist ideas. Young people in particular have been searching for an answer to capitalism’s deep crisis. This was given an enormous boost by Sanders’ campaign and his advocacy of “democratic socialism” which in turn contributed to the growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and ourselves. Trump’s election then made more people decide to commit to joining left organizations.
DSA has now reached 30,000 members. This may not be huge in historical terms but it certainly is a big change from the past few decades in the U.S. to have a left organization of this size. After this huge influx of members and a national convention in August, DSA remains social democratic in its politics, although it has been pushed a bit to the left. It remains formally wedded to the idea of reforming the Democratic Party although many of its new members reject the idea that this is possible. Some see standing in elections as a low priority as opposed to “base building” while others say the Democratic Party ballot line should be used in a “hostile” way while also being prepared to run independent candidates. Generally there is little understanding of the need for a mass party of the working class.
We need to engage in the important discussions happening in and around DSA on electoral strategy but we also need to engage their members in discussions on broader theoretical and international questions including on whether capitalism can be reformed, the need for a revolutionary party, the legacy of the Russian Revolution etc. We need to be clear that there different political views in their ranks as in the broader left as a whole. Some consider themselves Marxists but there are also are very strong currents of reformism, disguised idealism and neo-Maoism, the latter overlapping with or at least accommodating radical identity politics.
It is also worth commenting on the social composition of the layer being drawn into radical politics. As another recent document from the Committee for a Workers International points out, many of the important new left formations in Europe at this stage including Podemos, the Left Bloc in Portugal and Momentum in Britain do not have a base in the industrial working class. Rather their membership is drawn largely from young middle class layers or the young “precariat”. This has also been part of our growth in the U.S. The CWI goes on to point out that, “One of the consequences of the economic crisis of 2007/8 was a devastating assault on the middle class in many countries. This has very dangerous implications for the ruling class in undermining its social base of support. A significant section of these former petty bourgeois layers have been radicalized to the left which is a positive development.”
We have tested the idea of calling on DSA to launch a “new socialist party.” For the time being this will no longer be our public position, while we continue a discussion internally about this.
We should articulate what a mass force can do in the current context of Trump’s reactionary administration. We need a new party involving Sanders, fighting unions, and the socialists as the backbone of a determined struggle against Trump to bring him down. A new working-class party to fight the right is a more ambitious call, reflecting what is actually needed, then just regroupment of the socialist left.
There is no doubt that the DSA could continue to grow but at some point there will be serious conflict between the different trends which are still not fully formed. Out of this may come extremely important opportunities for building Marxist forces in the U.S. as a section move towards a genuinely working-class, revolutionary orientation.
But we also need to search for those sections of the working class who may move into motion independently of DSA in the next period. This is more likely to be around groups like Our Revolution but only if they become a membership driven organization which takes an active role in social struggle.
The past four years have seen the rapid development of our organization as a revolutionary socialist pole on the broader left, demonstrating in practice the role of Marxism in winning tangible victories for working people, first and foremost in Seattle. Now, coming off Ginger Jentzen’s brilliant election campaign in Minneapolis, we have the potential to establish a second major base for Marxist politics in the U.S.
The next period will witness further tumultuous events on the political plane and also in the streets. The struggle against the agenda of the right has only begun. Most importantly, the opening to build a mass or semi-mass left party, pointing towards a mass workers party, which closed somewhat with the election of Trump could open up again in a dramatic fashion after the 2018 election.