|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
US 2008 – voters demand change
THE PRESIDENTIAL primary elections are taking place against the backdrop of a fast-developing mood of anger and anxiety throughout US society. Economically squeezed, fed up with the war in Iraq, and angry at the skyrocketing costs of healthcare and other necessities, seven in ten Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the US (Gallup Poll, 6-9 December 2007).
George Bush is one of the most hated presidents in US history, while Congress’s approval rating is even lower at 18% (NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 14-17 December 2007). The deepening economic crisis has emerged in recent polls as the top concern of US voters.
The new election buzzword is ‘change’. The majority of voters in the early New Hampshire and Iowa primaries said the top quality they were looking for in a candidate was someone who could bring about change, and all the major candidates have rushed to recast themselves as ‘change agents’. These trends show an electorate looking to shed the legacy of the Bush administration and strike a blow against the establishment of both parties.
In fact, the primaries provide only a pale and distorted glimpse of the discontent among wide layers of workers and youth. The entire primary process is fundamentally undemocratic. Like the general elections, the primaries are controlled by big money. Rather than reflecting the real spectrum of political opinion in society, the ‘viable’ candidates have all been vetted by big business and the corporate media long in advance.
While turnouts were much higher this year – particularly among Democratic voters – still only a very small percentage of Americans vote in the primaries, and they tend to disproportionately come from more affluent sections of society.
Barack Obama’s early victory in Iowa, as well as John Edwards’s second-place finish, were the product of the anti-establishment mood and a voter revolt against Hillary Clinton. As late as November, Clinton had a commanding 20-point lead over Obama in national polls and was seemingly invincible.
However, many see Clinton as a leading representative of the right-wing, pro-big business, Bush-lite policies of the Democratic Party, most of all for her vote to authorise the Iraq war in 2002. These voters are looking to get past the Bush and Clinton dynasties and punish those politicians most closely associated with the establishment.
Obama has presented himself as a fresh face, as the candidate representing ‘hope’ and ‘change’, highlighting his opposition to the Iraq war before it started and attempting to distance himself from Clinton. Obama’s win in Iowa and his strong showing in New Hampshire owed in large part to his popularity among young and independent voters. Obama won 57% of votes cast by 18-29 year olds in Iowa (CNN entrance poll, 3 January 2008) and 60% of voters 18-24 in New Hampshire (CNN exit poll, 8 January 2008). Despite his lofty rhetoric, however, Obama’s actual programme offers no change at all from the usual corporate politics. He has earned the praise of the Democratic Leadership Council, the most right-wing, pro-corporate section of the Democratic Party.
Panicked by their defeat in Iowa, the Clinton campaign took cues from both Edwards and Obama – raising the ‘change’ slogan and making rhetorical jabs against the rich and powerful – and recovered to win the New Hampshire primary.
An astounding 98% of voters in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire said they were worried about the state of the economy. Unemployment increased nationally from 4.7% in November to 5% in December, after 31,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in December alone.
Edwards, who beat Clinton in Iowa and came in third in New Hampshire, has strongly railed against corporate power and actively courted the union vote. In his speeches, he has attacked the power of the oil, drug, and health insurance companies, and the influence of corporate lobbyists.
This is not the first time a Democratic candidate has used populist rhetoric to attempt to win the nomination, yet the support he has gathered is an indication of the anger building up against the corporate stranglehold over the country. But Edwards’ radical rhetoric is not matched by his actual record or policies.
Edwards makes no radical proposals like slashing the massive Pentagon budget or instituting public works programmes to provide living-wage jobs for all. Like Clinton and Obama, he supports the continuation of the for-profit healthcare system. He calls for stronger unions and a stronger enforcement of labour laws, but says nothing about the anti-labour Taft-Hartley Act. He proposes an increase in the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2012, which in reality is still far below a living wage.
As long as Edwards operates within the confines of the Democratic Party, his campaign is a trap for progressive workers, youth, and activists, pushing them behind a party controlled by and reflecting the interests of a tiny corporate elite. Edwards’ campaign is a vote-gathering exercise, not capable of seriously challenging corporate power.
The real task, in order to take on the corporations and abolish poverty, is to build our own independent mass movements and political voice and break the influence of the Democrats over the working class, trade unions, and radical social movements.
Class anger is also reflected in the Republican primaries. The victory of former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, in Iowa represented a repudiation of the big-business GOP (Grand Old Party) establishment candidates. While the media has attempted to portray Huckabee primarily as the candidate of the Christian right, his appeal is also based on economic populist rhetoric, alarming the Republican establishment.
Appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on the eve of the Iowa caucus, Huckabee took a jab at Mitt Romney and others, saying, "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off".
However, the corporate media and Republican leadership rallied successfully for a John McCain comeback in New Hampshire and a revival for Romney in Michigan, aiming to box out Huckabee on ‘Super Tuesday’, the 20-state contest on 5 February.
To compete in these races, candidates will require record amounts of money and support in the corporate media, favouring the candidates who have been thoroughly vetted by big business. The 2008 elections will be the most expensive in US history, with over $1 billion expected to be spent, even outstripping 2004 which smashed all previous records.
The Republicans remain in deep turmoil, with none of the establishment candidates able so far to excite or unite their base. Corporate backers have shifted much of their donations to the Democrats, betting on a Democratic victory. The leading Democrats, Clinton and Obama, have each brought in over $100 million, far ahead of the top Republican candidates.
No matter who wins the nominations, the domination of Corporate America over the political system will ensure that the two major presidential candidates both support the expansion of the military, the massive half-a-trillion dollar military budget, and the continuation of the ‘war on terror’, including leaving troops in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely.
They will also support the continuation of the disastrous for-profit healthcare system and a host of other policies that benefit Corporate America at the expense of the majority of the population.
Unlike the mirage of change promised by Obama and the rest of the pack, workers and youth need a real alternative in the elections. The heating up of the elections underlines the burning need for a strong independent left candidate to challenge the tired corporate consensus of the two parties.
If a credible left-wing alternative is not built, or delayed until after the primaries, it will only allow candidates like Obama, Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich to funnel the genuine desires for change into the big business-dominated Democratic Party. It also leaves space for the right-wing populist, Ron Paul, to step into the vacuum and channel some of the anger against the war and the attacks on civil liberties behind his racist, anti-immigrant, pro-capitalist campaign.
In contrast, an independent, anti-corporate, anti-war campaign would help encourage mass struggle from below - the key way to win change. It could lay the basis for future mass challenges to the two-party system and the formation of a party of the millions of working people in this country, not the millionaires.
Socialist Alternative (CWI USA)