After Two Years of Trump, A Major Change on the Horizon
The following document was adopted by the National Convention of Socialist Alternative in Chicago on October 20.
The two years since our last national convention have witnessed incredible political convulsions. From Bernie Sanders’ campaign and Trump’s victory to waves of mass protests and a level of political radicalization among young people not seen in decades, U.S. society is in profound ferment. This saw a distorted reflection in the 2018 primaries, where as part of an overall “blue wave,” there was also a “left wave,” including self-identified socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, delivering blows to the political establishment.
We now stand on the edge of a major change in the political situation after the midterm elections and the beginning of a wave of labor struggle sparked by the ongoing teachers’ revolt. Strikes have spread to hotels and there is the possibility of strikes in other sectors as well. These developments potentially mark a turning point away from labor’s long retreat in the U.S. though there are many complications in the situation. We are also rapidly approaching the next economic crisis though we still can’t be definite about the timing or what the trigger will be.
2019 is shaping up to be a year of mass struggle on a higher level than what we have seen to date where there will be major opportunities to build the socialist left and the forces of Marxism. In particular there is clearly the basis for building a strong socialist feminist wing of the developing women’s movement.
The Democrats could take control of the House and a number of state legislatures in November due to the desire of millions to punish Trump and the Republicans. This will be a boost to the expectations of progressive workers and youth and will encourage the development of struggle to a higher level. The Democrats’ corporate leadership in the House will come under enormous pressure to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump and to vote on Medicare for All while, at the state level, pressure will come to bear to pass single-payer legislation as well as to reverse cuts to education. Elected progressives and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members will also be put to the test. Along with the development of labor struggle, this changed political situation can create huge openings for the development of the left, for independent left politics, and for the growth of Socialist Alternative.
An underlying feature of recent years is the deep polarization of U.S. society. We reject the idea that there has been an overall shift to the right since Trump’s election. What has happened is a radicalization on both ends of the spectrum, driven by a profound social crisis and the loss of legitimacy of capitalist institutions, including both corporate political parties.The ramming through of the Kavanaugh nomination has caused further fury and questioning by women and youth. The millions of people, overwhelmingly young, radicalized in recent years by Occupy, BLM, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and then by Trump’s election continue to search for a way to fight racism, sexism, and the entire agenda of the right. Pro-socialist consciousness continues to spread reflected in the growth of the DSA.
2018 has witnessed enormous waves of protest. This began with the Women’s Marches on January 20 on a scale similar to those of a year before. This was followed by the mass walkouts and protests by millions of students against gun violence after the horrific massacre in Parkland, Florida. In late June, there were mass protests against Trump’s inhuman policy of separating refugee families. And while the housing justice movement is not on the same scale, the remarkable Tax Amazon struggle in Seattle, which we played a key role in organizing, reached a mass audience across the country.
In recent weeks, the whole country has been gripped by the spectacle of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings especially after women bravely stepped forward to tell their stories of abuse and assault at Kavanaugh’s hands. Millions were gripped with fury at what was revealed not just about Kavanaugh but the culture of the elite and there was a huge resurgence of #MeToo. But the situation also speaks to the profound weakness of the Democratic Party which was prepared to let Kavanaugh essentially sail through until Christine Blasey Ford stepped forward despite the threat that another reactionary on the Supreme Court poses to women, LGBTQ people, and working people generally. What remains painfully absent are mass organizations of struggle which could give expression to the enormous desire for change and push back against the Democrats’ capitulation to the Republicans on issue after issue. Of course, most progressives still see the Democrats as the lesser evil and hope to shift the party to the left.
State of Trump Regime
The Trump regime on one level remains mired in chaos and dysfunction. There is little reason to doubt the picture painted in books like Fear by Bob Woodward. At the same time, despite the threat posed by the Mueller investigation and moments of serious crisis – as in the wake of Charlottesville or Trump’s Helsinki press conference with Putin – there is little sign of Trump exiting in the short term and the odds remain that he will serve out his first term.
We have pointed to several factors which protect Trump, the most important being his consolidation of control over the Republican Party. This was not automatic but it is remarkable that polls show that Trump is more popular within his own party than any bourgeois party leader since Bush in the wake of 9/11. Of course at the same time his overall support remains stuck in the high 30s and low 40s with massive disapproval ratings. But the fact that he has effectively silenced Republican opposition means that, even if impeached in the House in 2019, he will not be brought down in a Senate trial where 66 votes are needed, barring catastrophic revelations. At the same time we must recognize it is in no way automatic that Democrat leaders will carry through impeachment proceedings in the House, in spite of the huge pressures for them to do so, because of their overriding concern to safeguard the institutions of American capitalism and not give further impetus to further radicalization and struggle.
Trump’s popularity in the base and among “movement conservatives” is due to his continuing use of right populism, the strength of the economy, at least on the surface, and also because he is seeing as delivering on his deeply reactionary agenda. This includes standing up to “unfair trade” from other countries; “getting tough” on the border; filling judicial posts with reactionaries including two Supreme Court justices; undoing environmental and other regulations; and attacking LGBTQ and women’s gains. It is worth pointing out that a recession in manufacturing in 2014 and 2015 helped Trump present himself as the champion of working people and some gains on jobs, though exaggerated, are certainly helping him now. Trump and the Republicans also got through the massively regressive tax bill and have undermined Obamacare but these anti-working-class moves are less popular with the base.
Trump has also used “Russiagate” to create a powerful narrative that the “deep state” along with the “liberal elite” are out to get him at any cost. But the effectiveness of these conspiracy theories also reflects the pathetic nature of the Democratic campaign to prove that Russia was the cause of Trump’s election. While the Democrats dither and capitulate on issues like DACA and the Supreme Court, this reactionary regime is causing real damage to the interests of working people. There is also, under Trump, the beginnings of a dangerous racial polarization which he has actively encouraged. All of this underlines the urgency of the tasks facing the left and the workers movement.
A final factor that has helped prop Trump up is the support of important sections of the ruling class. While the foreign policy and intelligence elite and the heights of academia are very hostile to Trump, the CEOs of major corporations remain broadly supportive. As the Economist put it, “The people who run companies have made their calculations about the Age of Trump. On balance, they like it. Bosses reckon that the value of tax cuts, deregulation and potential trade concessions from China outweighs the hazy costs of weaker institutions and trade wars.”
Trump, however, is far from invincible. Besides the damage the 2018 election could cause the Republicans, the bigger threat to his support is the looming economic crisis. At the moment, Trumpians, including far-right elements, have managed to win many primaries. The “alt right” was dealt a huge blow in the aftermath of Charlottesville but white nationalists are regrouping inside the Republican Party around campaigns like that of Corey Stewart in Virginia. But in the medium term, Trump will damage and weaken the Republican Party. His right populism and economic nationalism also clashes with the positions of the Republican establishment. Once Trump is damaged they will reassert themselves which could set off a massive crisis within the party. But this is not on the cards now.
We have insisted that removing Trump will most likely require a mass movement. But while we have seen mass protests on a historic scale at several points in the past two years, we do not yet have an ongoing mass movement of the type which brought down two presidents, Johnson and Nixon, within ten years in the ‘60s and ‘70s. To state that Trump is likely to serve out his term, barring the development of such an organized and ongoing mass movement, far more serious revelations coming forward, or a 2008 type economic crisis (none of which are excluded) is in no way to imply a pessimistic perspective. There is an enormous potential to develop social struggle in the coming years and to build the forces of the left and of Marxism. But it is to recognize the general realities of the situation which have become clearer in recent months.
The U.S. economy is rapidly approaching a major economic crisis. There are many factors pointing in this direction. We don’t have the space for a detailed analysis here but would highlight the following factors: 1) The massive levels of personal debt which are now on a level comparable to the eve of the 2008 crash; this has created bubbles in student loan debt and auto loan debt for example. 2) Overheated financial and housing markets. Now there are indications of a slump in the housing market as ordinary people – whose wages have stagnated while profits have soared – cannot afford escalating prices. 3) Fiscal policy, like the Republicans’ tax cuts, pumping money into an overheated economy. 4) The danger of the impacts of the expanding trade war with China. 5) The potential of sharp downturns of “emerging market” economies sparking a global crisis. In a deeper sense, none of the underlying problems which caused the 2008 crash have been addressed. The bosses are not investing in developing the economy but are putting the bulk of their profits into stock buybacks and the financial market casino.
There are serious dangers in the Fed’s unwinding of the massive Quantitative Easing (QE) program (basically amounting to printing money on a massive scale) which was used to restart the economy after the Great Recession. In an extreme scenario, this could lead to hyperinflation if banks were to invest the huge amount of QE money they are still holding on their books.
More immediately, the raising of interest rates by the Fed has many consequences from raising the cost of mortgages for ordinary Americans to contributing to the crisis of “emerging market” currencies, including in Argentina and Turkey. Argentina was forced to raise interest rates to an incredible 60% in late August to defend its currency.
Given the underlying weakness in the U.S. economy, raising interest rates could well be the immediate trigger of the recession. However, from the point of view of the Fed and other central banks internationally, raising rates and ending QE are necessary to prepare for the next crisis by restocking their “toolkit.”
The emerging market currency crisis also shows how developments in the world economy could contribute to pushing the domestic economy over the edge. Another clear danger is the rapidly escalating trade war with China. For a period of time, Trump seemed determined to pick fights on trade with almost every major trading partner including the EU, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Canada and China. But Trump has concluded deals with Japan and South Korea and now he has concluded a deal to replace NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, the U.S.’ largest trading partners. A deal with the EU may also be on the cards.
It is now much clearer that the main fight is with China. Trump has imposed tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods which has led to extensive retaliatory tariffs. The U.S. has threatened to increase the tariffs if their demands are not met and even to extend them to the entire $500 billion worth of good China exports to the U.S. each year. Currently there are no negotiations underway with the Chinese government and Trump’s calculation seems to be that the tariffs will hurt China more than the U.S. and eventually force them to come to terms.
The ruling class broadly agrees with Trump’s pushback against China and the goals of protecting U.S. technology and reducing the trade deficit but they generally don’t agree with tariffs as the means of advancing this agenda. What underlies the ruling class’ position is alarm about about the acceleration of China’s rise and the threat to the dominance of U.S. imperialism. Events point to a deepening conflict.
Internationally, from ripping up the Iran nuclear deal to attacking NATO and promoting far right regimes in Eastern Europe, Trump’s moves have further destabilized the neo-liberal order while exacerbating the declining position of U.S. imperialism. Of course the decline has been underway for some time. Even Trump’s protectionist policies are only a sharpening of a protectionist trend internationally in the wake of 2008 as different powers jockey for position. But what is very clear is that if another 2008-type meltdown happens internationally, the ruling class will be far less able to respond effectively. Who can imagine Trump doing what Obama did in 2009 and convincing the EU and China to carry out a synchronized response?
The coming recession – quite possible before the 2020 elections – will have a colossal effect on the consciousness of working-class people. It could well have an initial “stunning” effect, but coming after the catastrophic effects of the Great Recession from which many never recovered, it will also rapidly lead to a deeper and wider radicalization among working people. Already 40% of American households are facing poverty or near poverty conditions. Politically, it will enormously undermine Trump’s support given the claims he made about bringing good jobs and prosperity back to suffering working-class communities. But it is critical that there be a real left political force to build working-class struggles and direct the anger towards the system and ruling class because otherwise this will open the door to even more dangerous right-wing forces who will seek to divide society along racial and nativist lines.
Workers Beginning to Fight Back
2018 may well be remembered as an important turning point in the history of the American working class. The teachers revolt which began began with the nine-day walkout in West Virginia and quickly spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina electrified trade unionists across the country. By taking bold action around fighting demands in right to work states where strikes by teachers are illegal, they showed that the Janus decision does not have to be a death sentence for public sector workers.
There were, of course, specific factors involved in the teachers’ strikes including a revolt against the last 15 years of corporate education reform and the relentless cuts to public education imposed both in Democratic-run big cities and Republican run states. It was also a revolt against do-nothing trade union leaders. Teachers went around the union leadership, used social media to considerable effect and particularly in West Virginia they began to create an alternative fighting leadership with rank-and-file organizations of struggle in which open socialists played an important role. Beginning in West Virginia, teachers made a direct appeal to the wider working class. Most importantly, they held firm and won real gains. The teachers’ revolt stands in contrast to the last massive fight by labor, the Battle of Wisconsin in 2011 when public sector workers showed they were prepared to go to the end but were betrayed by the national union leaders and went down to defeat. Victories are far more inspirational than heroic defeats.
Labor Notes recently calculated that 376,800 K-12 education workers, 5% of the total public education workforce in the entire country, took strike action in the spring. This is by far the highest number in 25 years. Nor is the teachers’ revolt over. There were a series of strikes across Washington State in September after the legislature agreed to increase education funding. Some locals won wage gains of 20% or more. There is now a serious possibility of a strike by teachers in LA. Labor Notes described the “general exuberance” on the Washington State teachers picket lines: “Picket lines and rallies attracted longshore workers, Teamsters, firefighters, carpenters, health care workers, electricians, and school marching bands.” This is a very telling illustration of the desire of the wider working class to fight.
And the exuberance is spreading. 53,000 higher education workers at the University of California went on strike in June. 6,000 hotel workers went on strike in Chicago in September. Now 2,500 Marriott hotel workers are on strike in San Francisco. Hotel workers have voted to authorize strikes in other cities as well. A recent 17-day strike by crane operators – driven by the rank and file – shut down construction sites across Western Washington State. 30,000 steelworkers at Arcelor Mittal and U.S. Steel have passed strike authorization votes.
The fight over the UPS contract, affecting 250,000 workers with a strategic position in the U.S. economy, is perhaps the most important expression of this mood to fight. UPS member voted 54% to reject this sellout deal but the Hoffa leadership is forcing this through on the basis that the majority of members didn’t vote. That was directly the result of a campaign by the leadership to demoralize the rank and file. However, the main opposition organized by Teamsters United, while advocating a no vote, also didn’t put forward a clear strategy for how to win a good contract including preparing for a strike.
2018 is already on course to having the highest number of significant strikes since at least 2000. In terms of the total number of workers taking action it may be the highest since the 1980s. Of course this is still at quite a low level compared to the levels of strike action in the late ‘60s and ‘70s or even the early ‘80s. Union membership in the private sector remains under 7%. Nor should we underestimate the danger posed by the Janus decision to public sector unions.
Nevertheless it is an enormous shift reflecting the desire of workers to fight back against stagnant wages, horrible working conditions, and the massive increase in the cost of housing while the billionaires have pocketed all the gains in the past period. A Los Angeles Times article cited a Gallup poll showing support for unions at 62%, the highest in 15 years states: “Like slowly simmering frogs, Americans have required some time to grasp just how dire their situation has become.” Support is even higher among 18-34 year olds at 65%. Further evidence of the shift in public opinion was the two-to-one vote to overturn a right-to-work law in Missouri this summer.
The biggest fear of the ruling class is that the revolt which has begun among public sector workers and some sections of the service sector could spread to the core sections of the industrial proletariat. As has been documented by Kim Moody in his book On New Terrain, the working class retains enormous potential social power despite all the changes caused by globalization.While “lean methods” of production require fewer workers in manufacturing, Moody points to new choke points particularly in logistics. “Just in time” distribution networks used by big companies such as Amazon and Walmart rely on thousands of workers in warehouses, shipping, delivery, and transportation.
Massive sprawling distribution centers have been concentrated in “nodes” or “clusters” in and around major cities. Moody estimates there are over 50 such hubs in the U.S., with Chicago, Los Angeles, the New York/New Jersey port, and Memphis having concentrations of over 100,000 workers each – up to four million workers nationally. The locations are based on their proximity to major urban centers (markets), docks, and airports. These are also areas with a high concentration of low-paid workers looking for employment, who are predominantly black, Latino, and Asian.
This helps to explain the decision of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to set a $15 minimum wage for all Amazon employees. There is of course the political impact of the victories for $15 in which we played such a crucial role. There was also the impact of the Tax Amazon struggle in Seattle this year in which Bezos’ bullying tactics and threat to cut 7,000 jobs put a spotlight on Amazon’s practices and further damaged its corporate image. Bernie Sanders had recently put forward a “Stop BEZOS” bill to tax Amazon and targeting other major employers whose workers relied on public assistance. There is also increasing pressure from labor shortages and competition for workers with other employers. But on top of that there is the threat of fired up young workers beginning to fight back. Already in Europe this summer there were several strikes in Amazon facilities.
The biggest obstacle to the rebirth of the labor movement is the horribly conservative leadership of most of the existing unions. There are of course some notable exceptions including the National Nurses United, the Chicago Teachers Union, and to a degree the CWA and the ATU. Again the West Virginia teachers are showing the way with the recent formation of a militant rank and file caucus, WV United. Socialists have a huge role to play in this process.
We should recognize that an economic downturn would significantly cut across this developing wave of class struggle at least temporarily. On the other hand, a continuation of economic growth for a further couple years would create favorable conditions for it to continue.
Women’s Movement and Social Struggle
Mass protest has emerged around a range of issues in the past two years including defense of immigrants and opposition to gun violence, but what stands out is the emerging women’s movement and the potential for the development of a mass radical youth movement. This has contributed to the rebirth of a broader activist layer in the U.S., including but certainly not limited to DSA with tens of thousands moving into organized struggle
#MeToo has brought the boiling anger at sexism and misogyny in society to a focal point. Having a self-confessed predator in the White House was obviously a catalyst. Now the Kavanaugh nomination has brought this to a new level, provoking further radicalization and struggle, as well as a discrediting of the institutions of American capitalism, including the Supreme Court.
The desire of millions to fight for an end to women’s oppression in our time is an enormously positive development. But the current situation also reveals a number of limitations in the movement as it is that must be addressed if real victories are to be won.
As we have explained in our material, if it were not for one woman, Christine Blasey Ford, the Kavanaugh nomination would have sailed through, probably with the votes of several Democratic senators facing tough races in states that Trump won. This is despite the clear danger presented to the rights of women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, black people, and working people generally by putting another reactionary on the court.
Furthermore, even when tens of millions became focused on the nomination hearings, the Democrats, as well as key women’s organizations like NOW and NARAL, refused to organize mass protests around the country. In the final days, it was left largely to left organizations to fill this void.
And as important as it is to take a stand with millions who say “I believe her” and against Kavanaugh’s clearly lying testimony, reducing the whole question to this means that defense of reproductive rights and the many other threats posed by a reactionary nominee have been deemphasized. The Democratic Party leadership is happy to wrap itself in #MeToo for electoral gain as long as this entails no broader commitment to fight to defend women’s rights or the destabilization of the institutions of capitalism.
Narrow bourgeois feminism is a dead end, and the unwillingness of the existing women’s organizations to adopt a fighting strategy are an outright obstacle to building the new women’s movement. As we said in our article on the Kavanaugh nomination in the new issue of the paper, “From fast food restaurants to the highest court in the nation, a movement that utilizes the traditions of the working class – mass protests, direct actions, and strikes – can force the ruling class and political establishment to make serious concessions on women’s rights. This movement also needs a program that challenges the ruling class and capitalism which perpetuates sexism, racism and mass inequality. We stand for a socialist feminism that points towards an egalitarian society where a privileged elite would no longer exist.”
It is very clear from the enthusiastic response our speakers received on recent protests that there is a layer of radicalized young women who are very open to the points we are raising. This layer will play a critical role in building the left in the next period.
The potential for the reemerging labor movement to play a leading role in the fight for women’s right is clearly indicated by the vanguard role of heavily female workforces and unions including teachers, nurses and hotel workers. Not just the composition of the labor force but the labor movement itself is increasingly diverse. The recent McDonald’s strike against sexual harassment was a brilliant example of the kind of struggle needed to make real change in the lives of working class women.
What is also urgently necessary both in the fight for women’s rights and in other struggles is building mass organizations of struggle where the discussion on strategy and tactics can involve wider and wider forces. In the revolt of young people against gun violence this spring it was very striking that not only did they rapidly proceed to bold action, including a national student walkout, but they also developed clear demands for basic gun control measures, more resources for schools and for the NRA to get out of politics. This in turn pointed to the corporate domination of the Republicans but also the Democrats. The protests also became a way for young people of color in urban areas to bring to the fore the very different threats of violence they face while standing in solidarity with the students of Parkland. It was an incredibly powerful expression of the potential for a mass youth revolt to shake the system as it did in the ‘60s. The NRA was temporarily put on the back foot in a way not seen in decades. But at the same time, the protests have not led to a more developed organizational expression with many activists now focusing largely on getting Democrats elected.
In this period of social upheaval there can be explosive unpredictable rapid shifts in mood and sudden developments of struggle, as we saw with the youth protests against gun violence earlier this year. There has also been a profound transformation around gender norms, sexuality, and LGBTQ issues among young people in particular, and with Trump’s ongoing bigoted attacks there is the potential for sharp struggles to emerge.
While the environment has not provoked major struggles since Trump came to office and the Standing Rock protests ended, there is the potential for serious struggles to reemerge as the effects of climate change increasingly takes a real human toll, as with the growth of wildfires, hurricanes, and other extreme weather. This points to the vital importance of our call for a massive public investment, creating millions of jobs, in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure based on environmental sustainability and renewable energy.
It is important to underline that while some sections of the population who are suffering due to the attacks of the right have been fighting back, many sections of the working class have not been engaged in mass struggle in the Trump era. This applies particularly to the black and immigrant working class.
BLM at its height did engage a section of black working-class youth. But the failure to win a substantial change on the core issue of police killings or other tangible victories to improve the lives of black people put BLM on the defensive even before Trump came into office. There have been some notable exceptions to this, with a notable increase in investigations around police killings, and recently with a conviction in the case of Laquan McDonald’s killer in Chicago.
One clear effect of Trump’s ascendancy was to embolden racists, whether the alt right or other elements. The alt right was pushed back dramatically last year after Charlottesville but the black working class still faces a situation where the road forward appears blocked in the context of a growth in the right wing of the Republican party, the open expression of racist ideas, and a perception that racism is rising. There is little confidence, justifiably, in the existing labor leadership or certainly the Democrats to fight for meaningful change. But if even a small workers party existed this would provide a rallying point which simply does not exist today. This in itself shows how serious Bernie Sanders’ mistake was in not taking his campaign outside the Democratic Party and laying the basis for a new political force.
The situation facing the Latino immigrant population is even more dire. A regime of terror – already in place under Obama – has become even worse with ICE completely unleashed by a president who spews anti-immigrant hatred on a regular basis. Despite the inspiring example of the mass immigrant rights movement of 2006 we must understand that this movement did not end in a meaningful victory of any sort of immigration reform but rather in an endless wave of repression. What there is of a movement in immigrant communities is very much NGO driven. All of these factors contribute to the lack of mass mobilizations of immigrants in the recent period despite so many attacks. The mass demonstrations against family separation in June did bring out many Latinos but they were not comparable to the immigrant rights movement mobilizations in 2006. There is no meaningful leadership and therefore no strategy or perceived path to win real gains despite seething frustration.
Despite these real difficulties, we need to redouble our efforts to win black and immigrant workers and youth to our ranks and develop a solid Marxist base in these communities. This will play a critical role as a bridge to a wider layer when social upheaval begins in the most exploited sections of the working class – which is inevitable.
Deeper Undermining of Bourgeois Parties
The underlying dynamics of the political situation in the U.S. have not fundamentally changed since 2016. The social and political crisis of capitalism has deeply undermined support for the bourgeois political establishment. For years, the Republican Party has been challenged internally by right populism. Under Obama, the Democratic Party seemed more stable but its failed neo-liberal policies led to them losing control of Congress and a massive swing to the Republicans at state level even before Clinton lost the 2016 election. The party is in a long-term, profound crisis but this crisis inevitably will play out in a variety of ways.
The Committee for a Workers International, with which Socialist Alternative is in political solidarity, in its 2017 world relations document, pointed to the possibility for three or four major parties in the U.S. in the next period including “center right” and “center left” establishment parties as well as far right and clearly left parties. Nothing we see right now contradicts this broad perspective.
The left in the Democratic Party has grown significantly. Thousands of activists worked to support progressive candidates running as Democrats in the primaries. Those forces could play a key role in establishing a new party not beholden to corporate interests in the future, but are currently looking for different solutions. They are focused on the Democratic Party primaries today, but tomorrow they could try something else.
This is why we need to maintain a flexible tactical approach consistent with the “Bernie tactic” we adopted in 2015 and 2016. This approach has historic precedents in the tactics of the Comintern and Trotskyism to contradictory political formations. Of course while the Bernie tactic was first and foremost a response to the important changes in objective reality, a response rooted in our historical approach, it also reflected the change in our own organization, including our much higher profile after 2013 and our ability to reach a much wider audience not only in Seattle but nationally. While flowing from the same Marxist principle of fighting for working-class political independence, the tactics sufficient for a smaller revolutionary organization are not sufficient when it becomes a real factor in events.
A central point that informs our tactical flexibility toward these campaigns at this point is that the situation in the Democratic Party is not the same as it was even ten years ago. The difference is not in the general direction of the leadership or a fundamental weakening of the corporate domination of the party. Despite, for example, many Senators and Representatives signing on to single-payer legislation, under the pressure of the base, there is no underlying shift to the left by the leadership of the party. Of course, under more extreme pressure, the leadership could be forced to shift further on a number of issues. This could indeed happen during the 2020 presidential primary.
At the same time, there have been some limited further developments around independent politics, including the expansion of Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) into a statewide phenomenon in California; the Movement for a People’s Party (MPP) developing out of Draft Bernie; and the discussion about an independent “left alliance” or other collaboration of SA/DSA campaigns in Seattle in 2019. All of these developments have been cut across, however, by lesser evilism driven by a Trump White House and also by the larger developments of Justice Democrat, DSA and other left and socialist candidates who ran on Democratic Party ballot lines.
But faced with the change in mass consciousness since the Great Recession and the existence of a radicalized layer of workers and youth numbering in the millions, the control of the establishment is increasingly challenged. This is an international phenomenon, as we have seen most clearly in the rise of Corbyn as the leader of the British Labour Party, where the Socialist Party has adopted a similar tactical flexibility.
The mechanisms used to keep the left isolated in the Democratic party are increasingly under strain. However, the Democratic Party will make some limited concessions to pressure from below. Moreover, social democratic politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be co-opted or moderated by the Democratic Party. The leadership of the party may be in crisis, but under some circumstances it may also be temporarily strengthened should it succeed in presenting the illusion that it can be reformed. That is, these anti-establishment insurgencies do not inevitably entail that the corporate leadership will lose control. On the other hand the Democratic Party may be forced to resort at a certain stage to much cruder methods that will deepen the division much further. In short, we are in no way dealing with a stable formation and the possibility of a split or even disintegration is very real, but is not inevitable. To abstain from this process would be a serious mistake.
Assessing the Outcome of the Primaries
During the primaries, reflecting the highly politicized mood in society and the mass, and entirely understandable, desire to use the elections to punish Trump and the Republicans, many states like New York experienced record-breaking voter turnout. In addition, there were a record number of successful women candidates for major parties, the bulk of them running as Democrats (256 in congressional races and 16 in governors’ races). There are also over 500 teachers running as political candidates on the back of the teachers’ revolt.
There were a number of key victories in the Democratic primaries by progressive challengers to the establishment. However, these challengers do not represent any sort of cohesive ideological bloc. They range from Democratic Socialists of America members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar in New York to Ayanna Pressley in Boston who adopted a Berniecrat program but has a record as a mainstream Democratic city councillor.
If Bernie Sanders had adopted the approach – which we advocated – of turning Our Revolution into a membership organization which built a movement in the streets as well as at the ballot box, a far bigger challenge to the corporate Democratic establishment could have developed in 2018. Of course the resistance from Schumer and Pelosi would have been ferocious and this would have pointed more clearly toward the need to break from the Democrats altogether and establish a new party. In this sense, 2018 was also a missed opportunity but the dynamic points to a sharper conflict between the corporate leadership and the radicalizing base in the next period.
Despite the limitations, these primary and likely subsequent general election victories for many left and socialist candidates represent a very significant development. Socialist Alternative called for votes by registered Democrats for both Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar and we were active in their campaigns. Despite our disagreement with them running within the Democratic Party, we recognized that a victory for these self-identified socialists with their large, active support base standing on a pro-working-class program would represent an important defeat for the establishment.
Furthermore, their campaigns have the potential to lay the basis for a wider struggle for key demands like Medicare for All, abolishing ICE, fully funding K-12 education, and tuition-free college. We also pointed out that if victorious they would come under fierce pressure by the establishment to moderate their policies and that to counteract this pressure they will need to use their positions to help build and be accountable to a sustained movement of working people. The debate around how socialists should use elected office and how DSA and movements can hold Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar accountable will likely be an key feature going forward in 2019.
While Our Revolution failed to take advantage of the major opening for left challenges in 2018, similar broader organizations like Justice Democrats, Yes We Can, Brand New Congress, and WFP did play a key role in a broader challenge in the elections alongside DSA. Now there is the possibility of a new left caucus developing in the House, as Ocasio-Cortez has indicated she might pursue, which could then have the potential to hold the balance of power in some key votes.
Another significant development has been the emergence of a new wave of black progressives winning primaries including former NAACP head Ben Jealous in Maryland and Andrew Gillum in Florida. This reflects the political shift in the black community since the 2016 Democratic primary, when over 70% of the black vote went for Hillary Clinton. However, young African Americans, affected by Black Lives Matter, had no enthusiasm for Hillary and have largely rejected the traditional black leadership in the Democratic Party.
Perspectives for Midterms and 2019-2020
For the past several months we have been pointing to the developing “blue wave” and the likelihood of the Democrats taking control of the House. Even the Senate seemed in play though that is more of a reach for the Democrats. But we must note that less than three weeks out from the election, the Democrats’ weakness including in their response to the Kavanaugh nomination is creating a complication for this perspective. The Republicans and Trump have systematically created a narrative that the Democrats and the “deep state” (and George Soros) are engaged in a massive conspiracy to bring down Trump. The truth is that the Democratic leadership is opposed to trying to impeach him. Now the Republicans are weaving the Kavanaugh nomination into this narrative. At least one poll suggests that the “enthusiasm” gap between likely Democratic and likely Republican voters has considerably narrowed. The likelihood of a weak turnout had been a major problem for the Republicans up to this point.
Another clear obstacle facing the Democrats is gerrymandering and widespread voter suppression efforts in Republican led states, directed largely at African Americans. This includes voter ID laws, purging voters from the roles, laws that prevent ex-felons from voting and closing polling stations in largely minority areas. 1.5 million people were purged from voter rolls in Georgia alone between 2012 and 2016. Of course Democrats are not above using voter suppression and other anti-democratic tactics when it suits them as they did against Bernie in the 2016 primary. Voter suppression could play a real role in close races this year but we must also note that given the concentration of the Democratic vote in urban areas, it is possible for the Democrats to win the overall national vote by a significant margin and yet not win control of the House.
While it is very hard to be definitive in such a fluid situation, most indicators still points to significant gains for the Democrats including possibly retaking the House. The desire to punish Trump and the Republicans could well lead to record turnouts for a midterm election. This will broadly favor the Democrats despite their leadership’s complete and utter refusal to articulate any program for real change for ordinary people, essentially ceding to Trump the claim to speak for working people. On the other hand, the dynamics of the Senate elections are quite different and it is very possible that the Republicans could emerge unscathed or even with a bigger majority.
If the Democrats do win control the House and some state legislatures, this would be seen as a defeat for the vile Trump regime and open the door to a ramping up of popular resistance against Trump and his right-wing cronies. Both in Congress and at state level, Democrats will then be tested, coming under pressure to resist the attacks of Trump and the Republicans and to pass progressive legislation. The elected progressives and DSA members will also be tested. On the other hand, if the Democrats fail to take the House this will have a demoralizing effect on wide sections of progressive workers and youth but it could also push a significant number to reject the electoral road in favor of more determined struggle. In this scenario, the internal struggle inside the Democrats would also intensify.
Big struggles spearheaded by women, young people, and sections of the working class could push the Democratic leadership beyond what it wishes to do around health care, immigration, impeachment, and other issues. Already there is a debate about whether Pelosi should be Speaker of the House for the Democrats after elections or should step out of the way.
However to achieve what’s possible in the next period, it will take turning the programs of left progressives and socialist candidates into real fighting campaigns around different issues like Medicare for All, as well as constructing a cohesive, organized force to fight for them. Ocasio-Cortez and DSA in particular could play a key role in this process though, as with Sanders, this is far from guaranteed and will require sustained pressure from her supporters.
Any sort of move in this direction will immediately come into collision with the Democratic Party leadership and expose the limits of trying to “reform” the Democrats into a party in the interest of working people. The Democratic Party establishment showed its teeth in its vicious and unsuccessful campaign against DSA member Julia Salazar in New York. They will try to co-opt some of the new left elected officials and may be forced to tack a bit to the left but they will also fight ferociously to keep the party as a tool of corporate rule.
This process will continue to play to out in the 2020 presidential primary. In reality, the presidential campaign will begin the day after the midterms. On the Democratic side this is not likely to be a simple repeat of the 2016 Hillary vs. Bernie battle, with a host of Senators and others being named as possible candidates. Nevertheless, the battle between the new left and the “centrist” corporatists will be very much reflected in the presidential primary, and if a strong Sanders 2020 challenge were to emerge, the Democratic establishment would take measures to block him which could provoke deeper fissures.
As in 2016, opportunities can open up to make the case for independent left politics in a way that will resonate with millions.This has been partially cut across by the #DemEnter struggle to pull the Democratic Party left as well as by the lesser-evil dynamic inherent in the fight against Trump and the Republicans in power. But the struggle within the Democratic Party will be further intensified the further explosion of social struggle in 2019, the demands on Democrats should they take the House, as well as with successful left candidates and the polarized debates around the 2020 presidential race about the strategy to defeat Trump and the Republicans.
This coming confrontation poses big questions for organizations like DSA who argue the “inside/outside” strategy is viable and portray this as a question of being “pragmatic.” But in order to develop a decisive challenge to corporate power, the only possible way forward is an independent mass party based on the interests of the working class alongside a fighting labor movement and other mass social struggles. Even initial moves in the direction of independent left politics by significant figures and forces would have an electrifying effect on millions of people who hate the establishment, want to fight to change society and are embracing the idea of socialism.
The mood exists nationally and internationally for a serious pushback against the right-wing agenda but, as Sanders himself pointed out in his recent call for a new “international progressive front,” maintenance of the status quo at any level is not a viable basis for progressive politics. 2019 will be full of opportunities that progressives, activists and socialists need to seize upon to fight for real systemic change.
The coming year of struggle and increasing radicalization in 2019 and 2020 will open huge opportunities for building the left and socialist movement. It will be period of intensified social upheaval and polarization with explosive developments that will be a testing ground for working class struggle and socialist strategies and tactics. The outcome of the 2018 midterms, whether the Democrats win or lose, will provide a further impetus to struggle, either exposing the bankruptcy of the Democratic establishment if they lose, or emboldening further struggle if they win.
The outcome of our own uphill reelection campaign in Seattle will also have an impact on the left, which could have discouraging and disorienting impact if we lose, though there will be rich lessons for the left regardless with a likely broad layer of DSA closely watching the race. While the potential for the socialist movement is huge, the further development of right wing forces is also dangerously posed in the present period, particularly if broader and more organized mass movements of the working class and youth do not develop.