|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 203 November 2016
Bitter US election and the need for an alternative
The US presidential contest has been the most brutal and personalised ever, further alienating people from two candidates who were already deeply unpopular. The recording of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women created an avalanche of anger, forcing Republican leaders to distance themselves from Trump; a level of division around a major party nominee for president not seen in living memory. At the same time, popular distrust for Hillary Clinton is only growing as the election drags on, especially after Wikileaks revelations brought her history of deep ties to Wall Street to the surface again.
If Bernie Sanders had run as an independent candidate – as Socialist Alternative urged – the debate would have been dominated by a discussion on inequality and Wall Street’s power over politics. This could have cut across Trump’s disgusting populist appeals and effectively exposed Clinton’s career as a corporate politician. Unfortunately, Sanders has provided cover for Clinton, just as Wikileaks revealed her hereto secret Wall Street speeches during which she says she has both ‘public’ and ‘private’ political positions and that ‘Wall Street should regulate itself’.
The personal nastiness in the contest reflects a weakened and divided ruling elite presiding over crisis after crisis. The political establishment oversees a stagnating economy, massive inequality, a relatively weakened position on a world scale, and a US population with a lack of trust in their institutions. This is not your ordinary election, and it has not been from the start. It shows a political system in crisis and a new generation that is rejecting ‘politics as usual’, illustrated earlier this year in the overwhelming enthusiasm young people expressed for Bernie Sanders.
Usually during election years, protest actions die down because liberal institutions and union leaders try to focus activists on mobilising support for the Democratic nominee. This year we see mass direct action by indigenous people against the Dakota Access Pipeline winning a temporary victory and continued Black Lives Matter protests throughout the country. There is widespread support for the actions of NFL players protesting during renditions of the American national anthem, while prisoners are continuing strike action against inhumane conditions. Five thousand nurses are striking in Minnesota, and another teachers’ strike was threatened in Chicago. These actions are only a prelude to the massive protests we will see in 2017, no matter who loses the election. In the meantime, the political establishment’s authority is diminished with every day this bruising contest continues.
After Trump’s sickening gloating about sexual assault, the Republican establishment faced a potentially disastrous dilemma. Not to mobilise support for Trump in the presidential race means their candidates for Congress will lose votes. However, if they support a floundering Trump campaign, they will lose support and credibility in those very same congressional races. Republican insiders faced with this rock and a hard place are now worried about losing control in both houses of Congress. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said that he will no longer defend or campaign for Trump in order to focus on defending the Republican House majority.
These divisions show a deeper problem for a party that has been unable to attract young voters or people of colour. Republicans have doubled down on their decades-long strategy of appealing to older white voters. Now, much of that shrinking traditional base is rejecting Republican policies, like free trade deals, ongoing wars abroad, and bank bailouts. That is how Trump stepped in with his populist demagoguery. The Republican establishment will do anything it takes to regain control but the divisions pose deeper questions about the party’s future.
Trump combines his racist scapegoating with a populist appeal against the politicians. His opposition to corporate trade deals and some wars strikes a chord with people, especially when combined with his exposure of Clinton’s donations from big banks and the super wealthy. Clinton cannot effectively fight back because she is complicit in declining living standards and corporate control of politics. She has never seen a war she did not like.
Even if Trump loses, we will need a strategy to fight against continued right-wing populism. A Clinton presidency overseeing US capitalism in decline will provide more political space to racist and sexist demagogues. The Democratic Party will not be an effective tool to fight against this phenomenon. We will need a working class centred movement that builds protests and direct action against racism while also linking up with demands for better wages, schools, healthcare, green jobs and women’s rights. The movement against a reactionary agenda would be strengthened by having independent candidates who refuse to take a dime in corporate cash.
Trump referenced quotes from Bernie Sanders throughout the debate. He is trying to build up his anti-establishment credentials by tying himself to Sanders’s ability to mobilise young people and working people against the corporate domination of society. Clinton waxed nostalgic about her primary contest with Sanders, even though the Democratic establishment used every dirty trick at their disposal to beat Bernie.
In the final weeks of Bernie’s campaign, Socialist Alternative member and Seattle city council member, Kshama Sawant, initiated a petition for Bernie to run all the way to November as an independent and for launching a new party for the 99%. The petition got over 125,000 signatures, showing a desire for an alternative. Unfortunately, Sanders did not take up this call and has supported Clinton. He provides left cover for her Wall Street speeches while putting forward the failing strategy of trying to reform the Democratic Party into a useful tool for working people. The ‘political revolution against the billionaire class’ cannot win in a party thoroughly controlled by billionaires.
If Bernie Sanders had continued his campaign as an independent, he would likely have gathered the 15% in the polls necessary to participate in the debates. In that situation, he would have been able to effectively cut across Trump’s demagoguery and also expose Clinton for being an establishment defender of war, Walmart and Wall Street. An independent Bernie run would have been a huge step towards establishing a new party of the 99%. Winning a mass base would have provoked a crisis in the ruling class and given tremendous confidence to union members and Black Lives Matter activists.
Understandably, many women, youth, workers and people of colour are horrified about the prospect of a Trump presidency and will vote for Clinton as the ‘lesser evil’. We should not mistake this as enthusiasm for her. Millions of people voting for her realise that she is an establishment politician, and know that they cannot depend on her to win fundamental change.
Activists voting for Clinton have raised fears that a Trump presidency would mean repression against social movements that would make it nearly impossible to build successful struggles. There is no doubt Trump would look to sharpen state repression. However, one of the main reasons the ruling class oppose Trump is because they understand that the clumsy use of blunt state repression would blow up in their face. A Trump inauguration would be greeted with one of the biggest protests in history, and movements would intensify from there.
We should remember that the Obama administration oversaw coordinated police repression across the country, with Democratic mayors ordering militarised police to destroy Occupy encampments. The Democratic Party has run most big cities in the US for decades, as police violence against black people went unchecked. Under Democratic mayors, Black Lives Matter protesters have been shot with live ammunition and rubber bullets, while facing off against cops. We would see a continuation of these policies under Trump, but resistance would continue against racism and inequality.
2017 will be a year of increased movements. To win these struggles, we will need strategy and demands that can mobilise people into action. BLM is the most dynamic social movement, and Shaun King’s proposal to launch in December massive boycotts targeted at cities and companies which have particularly egregious records in maintaining institutional racism could be an important step forward. For these campaigns to be victorious, we need to be clear about the role of the Democratic Party that seeks to keep our struggles in ‘safe’ channels that do not expose politicians or challenge the capitalist system that breeds exploitation and oppression.
Bryan Koulouris, Socialist Alternative