Chapter 15: Democrats: the Lesser Evil? Fighters for Women’s Rights?

The question of the role of the Democratic Party and whether it is or can be an instrument in the fight against women’s oppression needs to be squarely addressed when we face such a serious threat from the right. Women and the oppressed generally cannot afford fake friends when the stakes are so high.

There are of course important differences between the two major political parties in the U.S. on women’s rights, with the Democrats frequently opposing the worst attacks as the Republicans are often pushing forward legislation that blatantly reinforces women’s oppression.

But we have to be clear that the position of the Democrats is reactive at best. They direct the anger of millions, of budding movements, into purely electoral channels, often with the support of the leadership of mainstream women’s organizations. Unfortunately, the leadership of the party overwhelmingly combines basic talking points for equality alongside a compromising, backsliding approach.This is because the party is primarily concerned with the interests of its corporate funders who profit in myriad ways from the oppression of women – all other concerns are secondary. The Democrats’ approach has acted to paralyze existing mainstream women’s organizations from organizing the mass resistance necessary to take on the onslaught from Republican politicians and a section of corporate America.

The Democrats and Cuts

The massive cuts to social services at the federal, state, and local levels during the Great Recession, most of which have not been restored, carry devastating consequences for a whole range of programs that provide crucial services for women and people of color. Under Trump, new cuts are being implemented or threatened to funds for public housing, Medicaid, etc. While Republicans went further in pushing austerity, the Democrats often supported these cuts or initiated them where they were in control, especially at state level, which contributed to demoralizing their base and contributed significantly to the party’s political retreat across the country.

For example, it came as a shock to many in 2018 to see the state of schools in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and North Carolina where teachers, overwhelmingly women, revolted against the savage cuts to education. They were also revolting against years of sexist disrespect from male politicians who used them as a punching bag while pushing the corporate agenda of privatizing education. The teachers sent photos of textbooks that were falling apart while explaining how they had to work second and third jobs to make ends meet.

But it turns out that in many of the “red” states where this revolt centered, the Democrats had played a big role in the cuts. In West Virginia, the Democrats were in charge of both houses of the state legislature for an uninterrupted 84 years from 1930 to 2014. In North Carolina, they were in charge of both state houses and the governor’s mansion from 1999 to 2010. In Arizona, as Socialist Alternative described, “After the 2008 recession, Arizona faced one of the largest budget cuts of any state in the country. Under Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano, the spending for the Arizona Department of Education contracted by over $330 million when revenues were lower than expected in 2008. But this shortfall was partly caused by a $500 million corporate tax cut approved by Napolitano in 2006 while Arizona was in a $1.5 billion budget surplus.” Meanwhile at the federal level, President Obama led the charge for privatizing education, supporting charter schools and high stakes testing all of which did massive damage to public education.

This came on top of all the other betrayals of working people by the Democrats during the neoliberal era. While these policies might seem like self-inflicted wounds from a political point of view, this is what the corporate interests which dominate the party and fund its candidates demanded of them.

Likewise, while the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) did include some important gains that particularly benefited women – including removing insurers’ right to deny coverage to people with “pre-existing conditions” and the expansion of Medicaid – it also blocked even a limited “public option.” This was specifically demanded by the insurance companies who made big profits from the state exchanges created by Obamacare and was done despite enormous support for the public option that could have been a stepping stone for Medicare for All. In reality, Obamacare did not go nearly far enough. Obama, since leaving office, has apparently awoken to the idea of Medicare for All, but during his presidency actively tried to undermine that struggle.

No Fighting Strategy for Women

While Democratic politicians have generally spoken out against the most blatant legislation attacking women’s rights both at state and federal level, some quite forcefully, their party’s defensive strategy has allowed Republicans to define and dominate the debate on women’s rights for decades. This was on display in 2013 when, in the face of an unprecedented wave of state legislation attacking women’s reproductive health care access, President Obama himself overturned the FDA decision to make emergency contraception available over the counter.

Even the legacy of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which banned the use of Medicaid funds for abortions and effectively took away the genuine right to choose for many poor women, can be partially laid at the feet of the Democratic Party. While the Hyde amendment was a Republican initiative, the House of Representatives had a 291 to 144 Democrat majority when it was passed. Even worse, the Hyde amendment is still in place – renewed even in the years when Democrats had full control. In 2010 Obama used an executive order to include Hyde language into the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the Affordable Care Act, as a political maneuver to secure Rep. Stupak’s vote. Even as Republicans have led the charge on the most brutal legislative attacks on women, Democrats have played politics with women’s lives while covering the real anti-women effects of their policies with their rhetoric about women’s rights.

Women’s Lives Over Profit

Equality is more than legal status. The economic and social oppression of women is alive and well; it underlies and reinforces systemic violence, exploitation, and discrimination. But inequality is profitable for big business. Equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leave, paid family leave, publicly funded childcare, a living wage, all of these things would disproportionately benefit women and working-class families while cutting into corporate profits. On top of that, sections of big business profit quite directly from sexist beauty standards and the objectification of women.

To win real victories for women, and for the entire working class, we must fight against the interests of big business. This is where the irreconcilable difference between the interests of working-class women and the Democratic Party lies. Their leadership puts forward no strategy to end sexism because that would be in fundamental opposition to the corporations who profit from inequality and fund their campaigns.

Representing Wall Street and representing women are mutually exclusive; again and again, the leadership of the Democratic Party has chosen a side. That’s the side of corporations that happily pay women less than men, discriminate against us for the ability to bear children, and refuse to pay people of all genders the living wage that they deserve. Why do they do these things? Because they’re profitable and because maintaining divisions in the workforce along gender and racial lines, even if done more subtly than in the past, is part of how they maintain control.

This contradiction was a feature of Hillary Clinton’s presidential election campaign in 2016. The prospect of the first woman president in U.S. history inspired many. But for millions of women who experience everyday the brunt of poverty, cuts to social services, violence, and discrimination, having women in positions of power is more of a symbolic achievement if these positions are not connected to a struggle that delivers real change.

We opposed Clinton because of her long record which placed corporate interests over those of ordinary people, including women. Clinton supported mass incarceration policies in the ‘90s; sat on the board of anti-union Walmart for many years; voted for the Iraq War as a Senator; and oversaw the catastrophic U.S. intervention in Libya as Secretary of State. This is not to mention taking hundreds of thousands for speeches from banks like Goldman Sachs.

Millions of Americans were not inspired to vote for Clinton’s status quo, corporate agenda and this contributed directly to her defeat. Hillary’s weaknesses also helped Trump trick millions of people, who were outraged at the establishment, into believing that somehow he would bring back jobs, improve their health care, and “drain the swamp.”

Growing Challenge to the Democratic Establishment

Since the election of Trump, large sections of the base of the Democratic Party have been demanding that the leadership stand up and fight back. In general, they have miserably failed the test, backing down from a fight to defend young immigrant Dreamers threatened by Trump and Jeff Sessions and failing to wage a decisive fight against Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

In the case of Kavanaugh, Chuck Schumer basically gave up the fight before it began in his calculation that forcing all Democratic Senators to vote against Kavanaugh would hurt several of them in their reelection bids. It was the heroic stand of Christine Blasey Ford that forced them to put up some opposition. But still they failed to make the case that the appointment of Kavanaugh, by shifting the balance of the court further to the right, was an objective threat to LGBTQ rights, voting rights, workers rights, the environment but most especially to women’s reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade.

The weakness of the Democrats, which opened the door to Trump, has led many to look to left, progressive and democratic socialist candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Julia Salazar. Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib have now been elected to Congress and Salazar to the New York State Senate.

The mainstream media has focused on the record number of women standing for Congress and winning, the bulk of them Democrats. This is indeed a step forward. What is even more of a step forward are the women, men, and people of color running on a clear left platform and not taking any corporate money, following the example of Bernie Sanders.

There is a very sharp contrast between women like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib on one hand, and the utterly corrupt establishment of the party, including women like Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein on the other. The day after the midterms Pelosi declared that she would to take a “bipartisan” approach and “seek common ground where we can” with the Republicans. This is with a party now completely under the control of the racist, sexist Donald Trump who ran a campaign focused on whipping up hatred of immigrants.

Ocasio-Cortez meanwhile participated in an occupation of Pelosi’s office demanding action on climate change from the new Democratic majority. She has gone on to boldly advocate a “Green New Deal” as well as a 70% marginal tax rate on income over $10 million both of which have massive support. She has managed, along with Bernie Sanders, to help define the political debate in the U.S. at the moment with the Republicans using her as a hate figure and the establishment Democrats fuming that their “centrist” message is not being heard.

But while the victories of these new left candidates are a huge step forward, there are also significant limitations. Ocasio-Cortez and the other “democratic socialist” public representatives accept the framework of the Democratic Party and argue for pushing it to the left. While the corporate establishment can, and certainly should, be put under pressure, turning the party into a “people’s party” would require breaking with corporate money, standing up for clear pro-working-people policies and being held accountable by membership-based democratic structures. The neoliberal wing which dominates would split rather than accept these conditions. One way or another, a real left agenda points to the need for a new political party based on the needs of working people and the oppressed.

Kshama Sawant has shown what can be achieved by a fighting independent representative of working people who bases herself on movements in the streets and workplaces. After helping lead the fight to win the first $15 minimum wage in a major city, Sawant and Socialist Alternative led successful struggles for renters’ rights, for Indigenous People’s Day in Seattle and to get the city to divest from Wells Fargo for its role in the Dakota Access Pipeline. In 2018, Sawant and the housing justice movement in Seattle forced the City Council to pass the “Amazon Tax,” a tax on the city’s biggest companies to pay for affordable housing. Amazon pushed back hard and most of the city’s Democratic councillors caved and disgracefully withdrew the tax.

In the wake of the victory for $15 in Seattle, a number of cities and states on the East and West Coasts followed suit. However, in the heartland, the battle took longer. 15 Now, formed out of the Seattle struggle went national and had its greatest success in Minneapolis. After organizing in fast food and at the airport among baggage handlers, the movement won the first $15 an hour minimum wage not on either coast. This was due to the consistent pressure that the movement put on the city council by holding marches, rallies, and delivering over 20,000 signatures for a ballot measure.

Ginger Jentzen, national director of 15 Now and member of Socialist Alternative, who helped lead the fight for $15 in the Twin Cities, ran for Minneapolis City Council in 2017 and came very close to winning. Her campaign focused the out-of-control increases in housing costs and the politicians’ handouts to big developers. She posed the question of affordable housing as a class issue and a women’s issue. This campaign again showed the potential to develop independent working class politics and challenge the domination of corporate interests in the U.S. today.