In the past couple of years, we have seen the growth of mass resistance in the U.S. Some sections of the ruling class, fearing the power of the people, have endeavored to co-opt this resistance. By painting Trump as the problem and Democrats as the solution, they frame the 2020 election as the people’s chance to change things. In this article, we hope to expose the charade of U.S. “democracy” and the need for really revolutionary change.
The dizzying number of candidates in the current Democratic primary is reflective of the deep division and inability of the Democratic Party to put forward a viable candidate.
This summer, the 2020 presidential election race heated up. Donald Trump has been president of the U.S. for the past three years, and has used this time to cement his hold on the Republican Party (GOP), while advancing a plethora of reactionary policies and laws. During this time, the Democratic Party has maneuvered to retake the seat of power by painting itself as progressive and pro-worker, while also trying to get a handle on its own internal divisions. With over two dozen Democratic candidates all wrestling for the same prize, the hope of a perfect contender “rising above the fray” to take on Trump has instead become a frenzied attempt by a divided Party to hash out an internal power struggle and avoid another humiliating electoral defeat.
After nearly three years of Trump in power, it may seem like a Democratic candidate will be a breath of fresh air, a hope to put an end to the Trump administration’s attacks on the working-class, immigrants, women, Muslims, the environment, and more. At the very least, we are uninspiringly told that even if the Democrats are a corrupt disaster, we must vote for them as a “lesser evil” to oust Trump. But this approach ignores a basic reality about American “democracy”—that it is a democracy for the rich and powerful, but not for the broad masses of people—it is a democracy for the capitalists. Both Republicans and Democrats represent powerful financial and corporate interests. The politicians of both Parties rely on donations and support from the big capitalists in this country. As a result, both Parties are comfortably in the pocket of the ruling class, and at the end of the day both serve the capitalist oligarchs in their exploitation and oppression of working people.
The two-party system here in the U.S. is a particular form of capitalist rule. It allows for sections of the capitalist class—constantly in economic competition with each other—to compete with each other in politics. What’s more, it provides false alternatives to the people—who, sick and tired of one Party, can turn around and vote for the other. By distinguishing themselves on a few social issues such as gun control or abortion, the Parties can keep up the myth that they are “really different,” and keep the masses of people from taking up revolutionary politics. The Democrats in particular push the idea that they are a truly progressive alternative by proclaiming their “support” of marginalized groups like LGBT and Black people.
A significant percentage of Obama voters either didn’t vote or voted for Trump. This shows that people felt that Obama and the Democratic Party did not represent their interests.
But despite all the bickering in Congress and various flame wars on Twitter, the two Parties are in fundamental agreement about maintaining the current capitalist-imperialist system. In fact, the majority of Trump’s policies are continuations of Obama’s.
Trump was able to succeed in the 2016 election by playing off several contradictions in U.S. society. The Republican Party was unable to produce a viable candidate from the established politicians, and Trump was able to galvanize the GOP base to win the nomination. In addition, the Clinton campaign promoted Trump for the nomination, believing he would be easier to defeat than other Republicans. But Trump built a strong reactionary base against the Democrats. He stoked and capitalized on racist hatred of migrants and promised to “secure the border,” securing a white supremacist voting base. He portrayed himself as a savior of the working-class, claiming he would bring back jobs and opportunity to the millions of unemployed and disenfranchised in this country. He routinely pointed out the incessant corruption and hypocrisy of the Democrats in order to win over a section of voters. This was quite important in his victory against Hillary Clinton.
Many white working-class Trump voters had previously voted for Obama and supported the Democrats. After eight years of empty promises and never-ending recession and unemployment, these workers saw they had been sold down the river. As a result, many simply abstained from voting, and saw that both Parties were screwing them over—in 2016, voter urnout was only 55%. However, a section of workers only saw the Democrats, and not the ruling class as a whole, as the problem. As a result, some believed voting for Trump would be a solution, instead he has only led to further betrayal.
Since taking office, Trump has repeated the mantra that the economy is prospering tremendously and has never been better, but it has really only been improving for the upper crust of society. In fact, Trump’s economic policies have only led to greater poverty and instability for the working class. His Labor Department has made it easier for companies like Uber that hire “gig workers” to avoid paying minimum wage by labeling workers as “contractors” instead of employees.
His administration has also launched attacks on public sector unions and workplace safety. For example, the number of OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] safety workers is at its lowest point in history following funding cuts by the Trump administration, allowing workplaces to maintain unsafe and dangerous working conditions and practices that lead to injury or even death on the job. All of these policies make it harder for working people to survive and collectively fight for their interests. At the same time, Trump’s 2017 tax cut bill allowed for corporations to pocket even more of the profits they make off the backs of workers.
In response to this, and in an attempt to maintain their increasingly progressive voting base, the Democratic Party has tried hard to paint itself as a pro-worker Party by pushing for meager minimum wage increases and getting support from big unions. But when we take a look at Obama’s actions, a very different picture emerges. During the 2008 financial crisis, Obama supported the $700 billion bailout of banks (at the expense of taxpayers) and a whole series of related policies which ultimately led to over $29 trillion being given to big banks by the Federal Reserve.
Obama let bankers and Wall Street executives walk away unscathed from the crisis they created through speculation and gambling on the market. All the while, wages are falling1 debt has increased, millions of homes were foreclosed on, and millions more people were left unemployed and out on the streets. In short, the ruling class used the 2008 crisis to stage a robbery of the working people in this country, and Obama drove the getaway car.
Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visiting a concentration camp for migrant children in 2014.
The Obama administration also pushed hard for so-called “Free Trade” agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership that would encourage capitalists in this country to export capital and production to other countries, leaving more American workers unemployed and out in the cold. Not only would these “free trade” deals make life harder for American workers, they would force thousands of poor people in countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines into sweatshop conditions for the profits of American oligarchs. Although Trump scrapped the TPP, he has pursued many other free trade policies and the continuity between Trump and Obama exists in nearly every field of policy.
For example, take the situation at the border, which has sparked a great deal of outrage at the Trump administration. Trump has emboldened the most white-supremacist and fascist sections of U.S. society and helped to whip up racist hatred against migrants. His administration has overseen a marked worsening of conditions in migrant concentration-detention camps, and has made a show of large-scale mass deportation raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE]. But the deportation machine was not created by Trump, it is part of the long-standing policy of the ruling class to oppress and exploit migrants.2
The militarized form this takes today—with a huge repressive police force in both ICE and the Border Patrol, numerous detention camps, etc.—was perfected during the Obama administration. Obama massively increased the budgets for ICE and the Border Patrol, allowing them to become the militarized forces they are now. His administration deported roughly 3 million people, more than any president prior, and at a much higher rate than Trump.
Or, to take another example, we can examine the environmental record of both presidents. Trump has opened up large swaths of public land to exploitation by oil, gas, fracking, and mining corporations. His administration has loosened regulations on toxic air pollution and pulled out of international climate agreements. This has also sparked a good deal of protest. Many protesters are calling for Obama-era regulations to be put back in place, but ignore Obama’s own lackluster record. It is true that Obama introduced a number of regulations, but these were nowhere near sufficient to address climate change. What’s more they were relatively toothless, and a drop in the bucket compared to the regulations he slashed to green-light fossil fuel projects in the U.S. And in fact, Obama set the precedent for Trump’s pro-oil and pro-gas policies with his “Pivot to the Pacific”.
The “Pivot to the Pacific” was a strategy of the Obama government to move military and economic resources from Afghanistan and the Middle East to the Pacific in order to more effectively counter the rise of Chinese imperialism. This entailed increasing domestic oil and gas production, to not rely as heavily on oil producers in the Middle East. As a result, American oil and gas production rose rapidly under Obama’s tenure, which lead to the United States becoming the top oil producer in the world by 2018.
While there are some differences between Obama and Trump, they are united in their efforts to preserve the present unjust social system in this country and around the world.
The similarities between Trump and Obama do not end there either. Trump has continued drone warfare, surveillance, jailing whistle-blowers, imperialist interventions, and more anti-people policies which also defined the Obama years. While the Democratic Party tries to paint the two politicians as completely different, the reality is that both Obama and Trump, as heads of the U.S. state, pushed forward very similar anti-people policies. This is how the U.S. government and state functions and has functioned in the past—to maintain the rule of a handful of capitalist oligarchs against the interests of the people.
That being said, there are real differences between Trump and Obama, and they reflect different interests and ideas among the capitalist class. But these differences do not mean one is better than the other. They are differences concerning how best to maintain the rule and profits of the ruling elite—how best to exploit and oppress the masses of people at home and abroad. What is important to understand is not that Trump and Obama are the same, but that they represent the same class interests. And furthermore, it is not just that Trump and Obama are bad people (although they certainly are), but that our entire political and economic system is set up to benefit the rich at the expense of the working masses.
Through their ownership and control of the education system, media, and dominant culture of society, the ruling class in this country has established a democracy of the rich, where the masses are given the illusion of free choice in elections to prevent them from rising up against a clearly twisted system. The ruling Parties distinguish themselves on a couple issues and will often speak as if they represent the interests of regular people, in order to convince the people that “the system works.” This prevents people from taking up revolutionary politics or thinking outside the bounds of bourgeois elections and the two-party system. But this cannot prevent people from resisting. In fact, discontent among the masses of people has reached such a degree where a section of the bourgeois politicians of this country—long some of the most anti-communist in the world—are supporting self-proclaimed “socialists” in their bids for election. Many politicians now have to denounce systemic racism and voice support for workers in order to remain politically viable.
While this change in the Democrats’ rhetoric reflects a growing progressive political consciousness among the masses, it does not mean that this political party is a solution to the problems in our society. In fact, the Democrats (and the ruling class as a whole) work very hard to prevent the progressive masses from turning to revolutionary politics which aim to overthrow the ruling class and put the workers and oppressed peoples in control of society. Even as the Democrats respond to real outrages people have—about the situation at the border, sexual assault, environmental destruction, poverty, etc.—they propose change only insofar as it does not threaten the fundamental workings of the exploitative power structure.
Presidential candidate Joe Biden has a long history of groping women, including young girls.
The Democrats are united about maintaining the status quo of the white supremacist capitalist power structure in this country, but they remain deeply divided on how to do so. The large number of candidates running for president reflect these divisions, which are themselves indicative of divisions among the ruling elite as a whole. The Party is increasingly torn between the “mainstream” Democrats, who want primarily a return to a “pre-Trump America” (while maintaining monopoly capitalist domination), and the “progressives”, who want to increase social welfare and pass a few reforms to convince people that the system can be changed from within. These divisions, and the unwillingness of most of the ruling class to give basic concessions to the masses (in the form of reforms like Medicare for All or relieving college debt) provide a serious challenge for the Democrats in 2020, but also provide openings for revolutionaries to put forward an alternative to the current system.
The mainstream Democratic candidates, in their competition with each other, attempt to portray themselves as the most progressive candidate. They are simultaneously juggling the reactionary interests of their capitalist backers with the increasingly progressive demands of their base. Demands for universal healthcare, student loan forgiveness, anti-racist policies, etc. have forced entrenched representatives of the status quo like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren to make bombastic—but ultimately hollow and insufficient—“plans” to solve all the issues in this country. The competition between them becomes a question of who can win over the progressive vote while not alienating “middle of the road” voters. Kamala Harris criticizes Joe Biden for opposing busing, Pete Buttigieg is criticized for not doing anything in response to police brutality in his town, Kamala Harris is then criticized in turn for her record as District Attorney, supporting truancy laws, and so on.
What has been exposed in these debates is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the real reactionary nature of these politicians. Joe Biden is not only an old-style racist, but a misogynist pig who has a long record of sexually harassing women, including many young girls. Elizabeth Warren cheated affirmative action policies by falsely claiming that she had Indigenous ancestry in order to get ahead in the system. Kamala Harris even back-pedaled her recent criticism of Joe Biden and refused to stand by federally mandated busing to desegregate school. The progressive posturing of the Democrats in these debates is little more than a cover for their actual unwillingness to change the status quo.
This has proven to be a big problem for the Democratic Party and for the mainstream politicians in particular, as they struggle to keep the favor of the capitalist class amid a more progressive and younger base of voters. As a result, candidates will speak one day to Wall Street brokers and billionaires, and the next day condemn Trump’s tax evasion and corporate tax cuts. They will criticize the jailing of immigrant children at the border, and the next day will speak to executives of top military contractors who profit off the murder of children in Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, contributing to numerous refugee crises around the world.
“Socialist” AOC claimed a $4,500 pay hike for Congress members (who already receive $174,000 a year) was a “cost of living” increase that would help close loopholes for corruption.
This blatant doublespeak will buy some people over, but as the economic situation worsens day after day, and as the Trump administration continues to advance reactionary and oppressive policies in the most ham-fisted manner, more people will see through this shallow “opposition” the Democrats are putting up.
This is a big reason for the growing influence of the so-called “progressives” and “socialists” in the Democratic Party. This section of the Party is certainly much smaller than the mainstream politicians. However, since Bernie Sanders’ run in 2016 and the election of several young Congresswomen in 2018, this section has had a considerable amount of influence over the Party by appealing more to the young and progressive base. The growth of this section is the main reason candidates like Biden, Harris, Warren, and others have been pushed to take up progressive-sounding slogans and policies.
The so-called “progressives” make much more far-reaching promises than their mainstream counterparts, taking up slogans such as “Abolish ICE” and “Medicare for All.” They are more openly critical of many policies supported by both Republicans and the mainstream Democrats. This allows for them to build up considerable popular support among Democratic voters. However, despite the calls for a “political revolution,” these Democrats are not serious about opposing capitalism or U.S. imperialism, but instead they aim to build a marginally more inclusive form of the white supremacist capitalist power structure in this country.
For example, this section of the Democratic Party is more openly critical of “money in politics” and “the billionaire class.” These terms address part of the problem with our current system but ignore the fact that the state is an instrument of class rule and class oppression. With their wealth and countless ties to politicians and the parties, the ruling class is able to maintain a strong hold over the machinery of the state—that is, the bureaucracy, military, police, elected officials, courts, prisons, etc.
As Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote in his work State and Revolution, “The state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’, which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.” The reformist section of the Democratic Party seeks to do nothing more than “moderate” the class struggle, get a slightly “better deal” for some members of the working-class, redistribute some wealth and create some welfare programs which will serve as a band-aid to a bullet wound. They also seek to capitalize and personally benefit from their positions of power and corruption. For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently called for a raise for Congress people—who already a received a six-figure salary—with the ridiculous justification that giving them more money will make them less corrupt! Ultimately, these faux-socialist politics are another dead end which prevent people from taking up revolutionary politics, another attempt to convince them that the present system is the only thing possible.
Furthermore, these reformists in the Democratic Party ignore the fundamental conflict of interests between the working class and the capitalist class. Capitalism relies on the vast majority of people to toil their lives away for the wealth and prosperity of a few at the top. The majority of people face either wage-slavery and living paycheck to paycheck, or homelessness and starvation. The capitalists, on the other hand, are able to live in luxury and excess off the labor of working people. These reformist Democrats such as Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez do not seek to overturn this twisted system. While they call themselves “socialists,” they only seek to pass some meager reforms and keep the underlying power structure in place.
Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin saw through the false claims of “liberty” in capitalist countries like the United States and led the people of Russia towards real socialist democracy of the workers and oppressed people.
However, the Democratic Party mainstream (and the ruling class overall) is so reactionary that they are reluctant to give even small concessions like welfare to the masses. Instead, they prefer to force poverty and austerity down our throats so they can continue to profit and live luxuriously while the economic situation for the people worsens. As a result, these more “progressive” politicians are viciously opposed by the mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike. The maneuvers by the Democratic National Committee to cheat Sanders out of the nomination in 2016 are thus not just indicative of the corruption of the ruling elite, but also of the opposition of the elite to even relatively minor reforms.
As the people become more and more fed up with the present system, the ruling class will become more and more desperate in its attempts to keep people believing in it. They promote a slew of ideas that justify the current oppressive power structure. One notable example is the idea that that even if both candidates for president are bad, we should still vote in order to prevent the Republicans and/or Trump from stacking the Supreme Court with right-wing and reactionary judges, or to keep the Court “independent.” But these pleas rely on the false claim that the state is neutral and does not protect the interests of the ruling elite.
The Supreme Court, like every part of the state, is in the hands of the ruling monopoly capitalists. Its “independence” is a sham. In fact, the reactionary judges such as Brett Kavanaugh get along quite well with the liberal ones, as already both Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg—both liberal “justices”— disgustingly embraced the rapist pig Kavanaugh as “one of the family.” The reality is the court system, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, pushes forward reactionary and anti-people rulings unless the masses of people struggle hard against it. The court is already “stacked” with representatives of the ruling class against the working and oppressed masses.3
Another tactic of the ruling class is to co-opt mass movements in order to confine them to reforms and electoral initiatives. One recent example is the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
The ruling class was able to crush strong mass movements like Black Lives Matter by funneling them into electoral politics, strangling the militancy and creativity of the masses.
The uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities sparked a wave of mass protest against white supremacy across the country. However, the leadership of BLM was divided between more radical elements who wanted to expose the systematic oppression of Black people and link it to the white supremacist capitalist power structure in this country, and reformists who wanted to link the movement up with the Democratic Party, pass a few changes like body camera laws, and have more “Black faces in high places” (i.e. more Black elected officials). With organization generally only at the local level, these divisions were sharp enough that they could be exploited by the state.
More radical leaders were sidelined and even murdered under mysterious circumstances (likely by local police and/or the FBI), and the reformist elements gained control of the movement as a whole and aligned it with the Democratic Party and U.S. state. As a result, the movement was reoriented to focus on representation in the white supremacist system, election campaigns, and the like.4 Though this is disheartening, history shows us that a disciplined revolutionary movement with clarity of purpose can guard against these maneuvers by the state and ultimately win victory for the people.
From the perspective of the ruling elite as a whole, co-optation is a beneficial strategy, as it drives the people away from the streets and into the ballot boxes. They can drain movements of their militancy and radicalism and turn them into toothless get-out-to-vote initiatives. The Democrats seize on people’s outrage as a way to build support in the election, while doing nothing to address the fundamental root causes of the issues, and while convincing people that their Party is not part of the problem.
So then, what is the way forward? It is clear that the election of a different politician will not be a way out of the deepening economic crisis, or the endless wars, or white supremacy, or patriarchy. People are more and more recognizing this is a fruitless endeavor, but most do not see another option, and are then overcome with pessimism and nihilism. The American ruling class has used the two-party system as a highly advanced system of bourgeois dictatorship, where a single beast with two heads can promote the illusion that we have a real choice in the elections. They promote the lie that the current system is the best we’ve got, and that our only hope for change is to choose between two evils on a ballot slip every four years, to choose which representative of the ruling class will oppress us.
The entire political system in the U.S. is based on the logic of voting for the “lesser-evil”.
We do have a choice in this election, but it is not between Democrat or Republican. We can either put our heads down and accept the current system where the vast majority of people have no control over their lives and are confined to wage-slavery and oppression, or we can come together and struggle for a better world. We can either buy into the high-sounding but ultimately shallow promises of candidates backed by the wealthy, or we can organize to overthrow this twisted system.
When we look at the history of this country, we see that not a single progressive gain came by voting for this or that candidate, but through people’s struggle. It is only through massive upheavals and sustained rebellion that the ruling class has given any concession to the people. It was only through a militant and well-organized labor movement that the American working class won the 8-hour day, the weekend, and other labor protections (the right to unionize, safety regulations, etc.).
It was only through the threat of real revolutionary upheaval by the working class in the midst of the Great Depression that the New Deal was passed. It was through the civil rights movement and Black Liberation struggle that Black people won civil rights and ended legal segregation in the 1960s. The list goes on. Of course, all these basic rights and concessions granted by the ruling class are gradually chipped away at, rolled back, and under attack, because they are in contradiction with the long-term interests of the ruling elite.
Therefore, our political struggles cannot limit themselves to achieving basic gains and concessions from the ruling class, but instead must aim at the overthrow of the whole anti-democratic capitalist system. As revolutionaries, we must join in the daily struggles of the people and other movements and provide conscious leadership to oppose co-optation by the ruling class. We must expose how the ruling class spreads lies which justify a parasitic system that survives on the blood, sweat, and tears of the people. We must build up a strong and vibrant revolutionary movement which can organize the people to smash the current white supremacist, capitalist power structure. This task may seem daunting, but the ruling class continues to demonstrate its unwillingness and inability to actually represent the interests of the broad masses of people. No matter who wins the next election, the people will lose. By uniting in struggle against this unjust system, we can win freedom, and build a new, pro-people, and socialist society from the ashes of the old.
U.S. media often tells us that wages are increasing, little by little. In fact, real wage growth (wage growth adjusted for inflation) has been falling since a tiny boost in 2015, and the wages being given out are not keeping up with the prices of commodities. In 1968, the minimum wage was $1.60 ($11.80 in 2019 dollars), compared to $7.25 now. And those is only the tip of the iceberg since the official inflation numbers do not reflect the real inflation people face. ↩︎
For more, see “Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court: Two Tools of Ruling Class Reaction” in Red Star #2. ↩︎
For more details, see Black Lives Matter Cincinnati/Mass Action for Black Liberation’s article “Why BLM Cincinnati is Changing its Name”: https://libcom.org/library/why-black-lives-matter-cincinnati-changing-its-name ↩︎