SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 200 July/August 2016

US elections 2016

Polarised, radicalised, deeply divided

This article is based on material produced by Socialist Alternative, the US organisation in political solidarity with the Committee for a Workers International, including a statement approved at its national convention in June – edited and updated by BRYAN KOULOURIS, Socialist Alternative national organiser.

There is a massive political polarisation in US society reflected in this election. Donald Trump is the most disliked presidential candidate in modern history, Hillary Clinton the second most! According to the polling blog, FiveThirtyEight, "Clinton and Trump are both more strongly disliked than any nominee at this point in the past ten presidential cycles". (5 May) The dynamic of this election will be a competition for who will end up being the most disliked. "About 47% of Trump supporters said they backed him primarily because they don’t want Clinton to win… Similar responses prevailed among Clinton supporters. About 46% said they would vote for her mostly because they don’t want to see a Trump presidency". (Reuters, 9 May)

The primary victory of the right-wing populist Trump and the outpouring of tremendous enthusiasm for the self-described ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders is nothing short of a political earthquake in US society. The Trump and Sanders primary campaigns were polar opposites in many ways. Trump whipped up racism, sexism and anti-immigrant posturing while opposing capitalist free-trade deals and simultaneously saying he would ‘destroy’ Islamic State (ISIS), while calling for a more isolationist foreign policy. Sanders, on the other hand, mobilised millions of young people with his call for a "political revolution against the billionaire class", his refusal to accept money from corporations and his pro-working class programme. Trump and Sanders have one thing in common, though: they were bitterly opposed by the leadership of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

From voter fraud to coin tosses, illegal campaigning and attempted sabotage, the Democratic Party leadership pulled out all its undemocratic tools to stop Sanders. It also used the capitalist media alternately to ignore and attack Sanders, and even the police to stop his supporters at the Democratic Party meeting in Nevada. Despite this, Bernie Sanders says he will work with Hillary Clinton to stop Trump and to "transform the Democratic Party". Meanwhile, millions of Sanders supporters are looking for a way forward to continue his proclaimed ‘political revolution’.

Kshama Sawant, a Seattle City councilmember and leader of Socialist Alternative, initiated #Movement4Bernie and its petition calling on Sanders to run all the way to November and form a new party of the 99%. This petition has nearly 120,000 signatures at the time of this article (23 June), and support for this call is growing. In one CNN poll, Jill Stein, the left-wing Green Party candidate, is polling at 7% of the vote with most of this support coming from people who have been ‘feeling the Bern’. While this poll comes before the tidal wave of lesser evilism against Trump hits left-wing voters, it shows the current search for an alternative among Sanders supporters.

The Orlando tragedy

The horrific massacre at an Orlando gay nightclub was the worst mass shooting in US history, and ISIS claimed responsibility. Millions of people worldwide have demonstrated their solidarity and outrage at this heinous attack carried out against LGBTQ and Latino people. Many expected Trump to cynically capitalise on this tragedy with anti-Muslim rhetoric, while pointing out that he has opposed recent Republican attacks on LGBTQ rights – through the passing of ‘bathroom bills’ requiring transgender people to use toilet facilities on the basis of the gender assigned to them at birth – which have been provoking protests. Instead, Trump blundered in his response. He thanked people for supporting his anti-immigrant policies without expressing sympathy for the victims. He overstepped in an attack on Barack Obama after the massacre. Trump’s poll numbers have dropped since then.

Hillary Clinton called for a stepped-up US bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. She has echoed Republican rhetoric of waging a war against ‘radical Islam’. In this we clearly see the role of the Democratic Party which supported George W Bush’s wars, expanded the use of missile-bearing drones under Obama, and supported and initiated countless other imperialist adventures. This pro-war approach was combined with Clinton and Democrats contrasting themselves with the Republican record of anti-LGBTQ legislation and its backing from the hated National Rifle Association. Democrats carried out a sit-in for gun control legislation on the floor of Congress in an election-year stunt to contrast themselves with the right-wing. This can contribute to the lesser-evil Clinton campaign mobilisation against Trump.

What does Trump represent?

The raw material for Trump’s rise has been the deep-seated dissatisfaction and anxiety among wide swathes of white working- and middle-class people. Trump has so far been able to tap into this discontent, particularly among generally more conservative sections on a right-populist, nationalist and anti-establishment basis. This has been combined with an appeal to – and stirring up of – reactionary sentiments among key parts of this audience in a toxic cocktail of racism, sexism, Islamophobia and chauvinism.

Trump’s victory in the primaries has exposed deep fissures within the Republican coalition. The Republican political and foreign policy establishments, and the religious right, have all fiercely opposed Trump. Key sections of the ruling class which fund the Republicans have strongly opposed Trump and are alarmed by his success.

This reflects the fact that he has mercilessly attacked the Republican elite while challenging the holy doctrines of Republican ideology. This includes his opposition to free-trade agreements and unwillingness to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits, along with an isolationist US foreign policy. The Republican establishment fears his bombastic rhetoric and extreme policies, such as building a wall on the Mexican border, deporting eleven million undocumented immigrants, and banning Muslims from entering the US, would create enormous political upheaval and opposition within the US and internationally. They also recognise that this represents a serious threat to the ongoing electoral prospects of the Republican Party with an increasingly diverse US electorate.

For the Republican political caste, this presidential race has become a question of damage control for their party. They have calculated it would be worse for their electoral prospects if voters saw a Republican Party openly split. Reflecting this concern, major Republican donors are focused on fighting to maintain Republican control over the Senate, the House of Representatives and state-level races. At the same time, the Republican leadership has signalled with a wink and a nod that Republican candidates who face strong Democratic competition are free to distance themselves or even oppose Trump if it is necessary in their campaign. Some are even still toying with trying to stop Trump at the Republican Convention, and his presence as the presidential candidate will likely damage his party’s candidates running for Congress.

Defeating Trump’s racism

We sympathise with anti-Trump workers and youth, and recognise that there is truth when they say Clinton is a lesser evil to Trump on a number of issues. At the same time, we also need to understand why sections of white workers see Trump as the lesser evil against the establishment candidate, Clinton – for example, because of her support for free-trade deals. In this context, socialists need to put forward a strategy that can effectively defeat right-wing populism and undermine support for Trump’s reactionary ideas.

Socialist Alternative absolutely agrees on the need to fight Trump. Critical to this is building massive peaceful protests and direct actions against him which appeal to Black Lives Matter, the fight for $15 an hour, immigrant rights and other social movements. Again and again the best activists involved in such struggles will see that Clinton and the Democrats will oppose their efforts, arguing that it is a distraction from getting out the vote for Clinton.

We cannot defeat Trump and the right-populism he represents by relying on the Democratic Party. Its big-business policies directly lead to support for right-wing populism, such as the free-trade deals and bank bailouts it has championed. As we have pointed out repeatedly, an establishment icon like Hillary Clinton is the worst way to defeat Donald Trump in this election. If defeating Trump was truly the Democratic establishment’s top priority, why did it do everything in its power to stop the most effective anti-Trump candidate, Bernie Sanders?

Further, if Clinton wins this election, do we really believe it will put an end to the threat of Trump and right-wing Republicans? In fact, a Clinton presidency, which will likely preside over a new economic downturn, will prepare the ground for further gains by the right in 2018 and 2020, as we saw when the Tea Party benefited from the disappointment with Obama in 2010. Workers need to break out of this endless, destructive cycle and begin building our own political party. It is only a working-class programme that can effectively combat right-wing populism. That is why we demand that Sanders breaks from the Democratic Party and runs in the general election to begin building a new party that can combat both right-wing populism and the corporate-controlled Democrats, rather than letting Trump become the only well known (and supposedly) ‘anti-establishment’ candidate.

Sanders supporters at a crossroads

The Sanders campaign has given political expression to the working-class anger, particularly among young people, that we saw in the Occupy Wall Street movement and beyond. In a certain way, the campaign has been a glimpse of what is possible for working-class politics in the US. Over 1.5 million people have attended Sanders rallies. Without taking a dime from corporations, Sanders competed with Clinton in fundraising due to the excitement and commitment of working people. He raised over $200 million from over a million separate donors, and his average donation was $27. This shows the potential for what could be done to continue his ‘political revolution against the billionaire class’.

When Sanders was still considering running for president, Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative urged him to run as an independent when they spoke on the same panel at a mass meeting during the New York climate change protests in September 2015. Throughout Bernie’s campaign, there has been a clear contradiction: he is running a campaign of strident opposition to corporate America within a party controlled by those same corporations he is fighting. Now, that contradiction is coming to a head.

Sanders supporters have been galvanized into action by realising that millions of other people across the country were also angry at the billionaires and wanted to do something about it. Young people, including women, voted for Sanders at record rates. This is a generation that knows nothing but economic stagnation and crisis; the best educated and most diverse yet most indebted generation in history. The majority of young people in the US now prefer ‘socialism’ over ‘capitalism’, even if their idea of socialism is limited and confused. This is not just a passive preference, though. Young people are moving into action through the Sanders campaign, the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Black Lives Matter, and struggles against sexism and homophobia.

Socialist Alternative participated in the Sanders campaign and initiated #Movement4Bernie to organise marches of thousands of people and meetings around the country to discuss political issues and build on the campaign’s momentum to fight against the injustices of US capitalism. In this environment, we pointed out the need for a new party of the 99%. This got an echo due to the experience Sanders supporters had in being slandered and sabotaged by the Democratic Party leadership. Nearly half of Sanders supporters in a CNN poll say they will not be voting for Clinton. This will change when the prospect of a Trump presidency gives the Democratic Party leadership (and Sanders himself) more of a basis to whip up a lesser-evil Clinton vote. However, the polls show the immediate possibilities to win Sanders supporters to independent left politics.

Can the Democrats be reformed?

In responding to allegations of violence by his supporters at the Nevada Democratic State Convention, Sanders said: "The Democratic Party has a choice. It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change – people who are willing to take on Wall Street, corporate greed and a fossil fuel industry which is destroying this planet. Or the party can choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big-money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy".

Just weeks later, Sanders said he would work with Clinton to defeat Trump, and his recent speeches are all about reforming the Democrats. Socialist Alternative argues that trying to transform the Democrats is a failing strategy. The Democrats, historically, were the party of the slave-owning class. Then, after the abolition of slavery, it became funded and dominated by big business. Beginning in the 1930s it came to be seen as the party most tied to the interests of organised labour, black people and women. But all the way through the 1960s it still had a ‘Dixiecrat’ wing that fiercely defended Jim Crow segregation in the south. At every point in its history, on every essential issue whenever the class interests of the corporate elite were at stake, it has taken the side of that class against the interests of the 99%.

In the crucial area of US foreign policy, the Democrats have been loyal spokespersons of corporate interests overseas. The Democrats initiated the US imperialist wars in Korea and Vietnam. They supported Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama has continued US involvement in these wars. On 15 May, The New York Times wrote: "President Obama, who ran as an anti-war candidate, has now been at war longer than any other American president".

At present, Clinton is relying on fear of Trump to secure the nomination. Sanders and most liberals will argue that the Republicans are the key obstacle to progress. It is absolutely true that the Republican Party since the 1970s has consistently championed policies to undermine the public sector, make the rich even richer and attack the gains of workers, black people, women and LGBTQ people. However, what is left out of the narrative is that during the bulk of the past 40 years there has been a division of power in Washington DC between the Democrats and Republicans. For most legislation to pass, it needed to be supported by sections of both parties. In other words, Democratic Party votes were needed to pass so-called Republican policies during the last four decades.

While Democrats like Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s, or John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson in the 1960s, are often given credit for many positive reforms won during those decades, the truth is that labour and social movements won those victories. Roosevelt called in the National Guard on striking workers more than any other president. Kennedy and Johnson started then escalated the Vietnam war. It was actually under the right-wing administration of Richard Nixon that abortion rights, environmental regulations and countless other reforms were begrudgingly granted by capitalism. This was due to the power of working people getting organised and fighting for their interests.

More recently, Bill Clinton’s administration ushered in free-trade agreements, the destruction of welfare and the era of mass incarceration of black men known as ‘the new Jim Crow’. Obama came to power with Democrats controlling both the Congress and the Senate, riding a wave of mass popular support. Yet, he spent hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the big banks while social programmes were cut and wars continued. While socialists should be sympathetic to people excited about the prospect of the first woman president, we should also note that Obama’s presidency has overseen a deterioration of conditions in the black community.

The attacks on the Sanders campaign by the Democratic establishment show the undemocratic anti-worker character of this party. From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kucinich, populist Democrats have tried time and time again to change this situation, and they have failed. Unfortunately, Sanders supporters who opt for this route of struggle are up against a rigged institution fundamentally controlled by the billionaire class.

Possible outcomes

With the tumultuous nature of US society, economics and politics, any clear prediction of what will happen on 8 November would be premature. Polls have shown a close election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. However, Trump’s campaign is currently in disarray, and Clinton will have the backing of Wall Street and most of the rest of the ruling class during the general election. She will likely have Bernie Sanders and his authority among young people in her corner as well. Many Republican billionaire donors are refusing to back Trump, and their party is deeply divided. Still, Trump can pose as the main anti-establishment candidate against the career corporate politician Clinton who is also prone to blunders.

In a close election, the votes for candidates outside of the two-party system would likely be squeezed. However, if Clinton opens up a sizable lead, then the tremendous anger at US capitalism could find an electoral expression. Gary Johnson of the right-wing Libertarian Party got the strongest ‘independent’ vote in 2012, and he is polling upwards of 9%. He has picked a former mainstream Republican governor, William Weld, as his running mate to help him pick up anti-Trump Republican voters. There is a real danger that the Libertarians will emerge as seeming to provide an ‘alternative’ for people disaffected with the two major parties.

On the left, Jill Stein of the Green Party is the strongest presidential candidate. Socialist Alternative has gathered support for the idea of Sanders running alongside her all the way to November to continue the fight against the billionaire class. Stein has a left-wing programme and is gaining some name recognition. In the 7 June California primaries, she correctly called for a vote for Sanders in the Democratic contest.

If her campaign had taken this position much earlier, it would have given her a bigger profile and authority with Sanders supporters. Still, Stein will almost certainly poll better than in 2012, and a strong showing with millions of votes can give confidence to movements and become an important step towards a new party of the 99%. At Socialist Alternative’s National Convention in June, we agreed to support Jill Stein’s campaign while building the socialist movement necessary to end the poverty, war and misery of capitalism.

After the elections

Whoever wins the election will enter the White House as a regime of immediate crisis. Obama enjoyed a honeymoon after his electric campaign following eight years of the Bush disaster. The incoming president will not have that luxury. Trump’s inauguration would be met with mass protests across the country, and his presidency would come into collision with renewed movements against racism, bigotry and inequality.

A Clinton victory would produce an audible sigh of relief on the grounds that Trump did not win. However, she would come to power on the basis of being a lesser evil, and even many who vote for her will understand that they will need to struggle to improve their lives. Either way, 2017 will see a year of mass movements and continued political awakening in US society. This will likely be compounded by renewed economic crisis after years of a shallow recovery that mainly benefited the super-rich. Millions will be open to socialist ideas and will want to get organised to fight back.

If Clinton wins, then the Democratic Party will be overseeing a system in crisis and carrying out attacks on working people, youth and the oppressed. Movements would then come into conflict with the establishment Democrats, while Sanders pushes people to ‘reform’ the party. These contradictions would provide possibilities for independent left and working-class politics. To fully prepare for the immense opportunities in the future, socialists must skilfully but boldly stand up against lesser-evil pressures and put forward a strategy and programme to win victories for working people.

Socialist Alternative made a breakthrough for independent working-class politics and socialist ideas by getting Kshama Sawant elected twice to Seattle City Council. We led the way on the movement for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and we were a socialist pole of attraction in the Sanders campaign. This was preparatory work in advance of the mass upheavals coming in US society which will provide tremendous opportunities to organise for the socialist transformation of society.

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