THE 2014 MID-TERM ELECTIONS AND THE STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENT WORKING CLASS POLITICAL ACTION
By ALAN BENJAMIN (Editorial Board, The Organizer)
The November 2014 mid-term elections were not just one more case of the voters’ rejecting the twin parties of Big Business: the Democrats and Republicans. What took place on November 4 was a rout of the Democrats and an unprecedented repudiation of the two parties of the bosses.
E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist, wrote the following on November 17:
“Tens of millions who supported Obama two years ago were so dispirited that they stayed away from the polls this past November 4. This year, 36.3 percent of eligible voters — the lowest turnout since 1942 — gave Republicans their overwhelming victory. Many of the nearly two-thirds of voters who didn’t show up (they happen to be disproportionately young and Latino) had given up on Obama and the Democrats getting anything done.”
The editorial of the November 11 New York Times put it this way:
“The abysmally low turnout in last week’s midterm elections was the lowest in more than seven decades. In 43 states, less than half the eligible population bothered to vote, and no state broke 60 percent. In the three largest states — California, Texas and New York — less than a third of the eligible population voted. New York’s turnout was a shameful 28.8 percent, the fourth-lowest in the country, despite three statewide races (including the governor) and 27 House races.”
CNN conducted exit polls among those who bothered to vote, and even those who went to the polls were angry about the choice of politicians on the ballot. “A majority of Americans are dissatisfied or angry with President Barack Obama’s administration and GOP leaders,” CNN reported on November 5. CNN continued:
“About 8 in 10 Americans disapprove of how Congress is handling its job, according to a survey of voters outside of polling places on Election Day. And heading into the voting booth, 7 in 10 Americans said they were concerned about economic conditions.
“Most voters had a negative view of both parties, with the Democratic Party barely edging out the GOP. . . . Two-thirds of voters said they believe the country is headed on the wrong track, and only 22% believe the next generation of Americans will be better off.
“And voters’ confidence in the government has been seriously shaken, with only 1 in 5 voters saying they trust the government to do the right thing.”
Not a Rejection of a Pro-Worker Agenda
The mid-term elections registered a rejection of the Democrats and Republicans — not a rejection of a pro-worker agenda. The Washington Post called it “the great conundrum of Tuesday’s election returns.”
Indeed, while voters were sending Democratic candidates packing in key races across the country, they also approved numerous ballot measures supported by the labor movement and progressive community groups.
In Arkansas, Nebraska, Alaska and South Dakota, Democratic Senate candidates were soundly defeated while minimum-wage hikes passed. Colorado and North Dakota rejected a measure that would grant fetuses legal “personhood,” a measure aimed at curtailing abortion rights and contraceptive methods.
Massachusetts passed a paid-sick leave program while also electing a Republican governor. Californians approved sentence reductions for non-violent criminals as the state’s Democratic legislative majorities were trimmed.
The Washington Post (November 6) noted that, “There’s evidence for voters’ contradictory beliefs everywhere you look in the polls. Voters hate the Affordable Care Act but like its major provisions. They vote to hike the minimum wage at the same time they vote in politicians opposed to hiking it. They tell their local representatives, whether Democrats or Republicans, to ‘keep your government hands off my Medicare!’”
For its part, the New York Times reported that, “half the electorate said they believe illegal immigrants should get an opportunity to gain legal status in the U.S, while about 37% of voters said they want all illegal immigrants deported.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka also highlighted this “contradictory” message from voters in his post-election statement:
“The Democrats took a licking, but the workers’ agenda didn’t,” Trumka contended. “[W]hen voters did have a chance to choose their future directly — through ballot measures — their decisions were unmistakable.”
Trumka went on to cite the AFL-CIO-commissioned poll by Peter Hart Research.
The federation’s exit poll showed high support in the Senate battleground states for issues ranging from raising the minimum wage (62 percent-34 percent overall; 69-28 among union members) to higher taxes on overseas corporate profits (73-21 overall; 81-14 union members).
Conversely, the AFL-CIO-commissioned poll showed that respondents dislike the GOP agenda, including raising the Social Security retirement age (27 percent for-66 percent against overall; 17-78 unionists).
“Voters want an economy that works for them and their families,” Trumka said. “On issue after issue, they wanted a choice, but many got a false choice. . . . Mid-term election voters stressed jobs and the economy in casting their ballots. But Democratic candidates did not — and that’s why they lost the 2014 mid-term election.”
A clarification is in order here.
Democratic Party candidates didn’t ignore the issue of jobs and the economy, as Trumka suggests. As labor historian Stan Phipps noted:
“The American people were not fooled [by the Democrats’ rhetoric]. For the most part, the Democrats’ happy talk concerning the economy backfired. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Democrats persistently pointed to the economy’s recent growth. But they did so at their own peril. The harsh reality that 95 percent of the income growth since the recovery began had been grabbed by the wealthiest 1 percent, as University of California at Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez has documented, made the Democrats’ emphasis on the supposed economic recovery ‘strike most Americans as news from a faraway land.’” (“The Perils of Lesser-Evil Politics,” http://www.socialistorganizer.com)
Calls to Make Dems “More Responsive” to Workers
Following the mid-term elections, the Center for Labor Renewal published three articles by labor and progressive political leaders assessing the “debacle of November 4” and putting forth strategic proposals to advance a pro-worker agenda. All agreed that the Democrats had failed to articulate a vision and a program that appealed to working-class families, and all called for reforming the Democratic Party.
Bill Fletcher (The Black Commentator), the first of the three authors, lamented that “the Democrats keep falling back into running technocrats and bipartisan healers” — instead of progressive populist candidates. He pointed to organizations like Democracy for America and Progressive Democrats of America, which publicly call for taking over and “reforming” the Democratic Party, as a reference-point for moving the struggles forward in the period ahead.
Robert Borosage (Campaign for America’s Future) put forward a “strategy for revival” and looked to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for a roadmap.
“Sen. Elizabeth Warren has it right,” Borosage wrote. “Voters are cynical; they think government is corrupted and doesn’t work for them — and they are right. If the country is to deal with the real challenges it faces . . . we have to stand up and fight. Democrats will have to make it clear that they are ready to join in.”
For his part, Richard Trumka (AFL-CIO) reiterated the points he made in his post-election statement, stressing that in the future Democratic Party candidates at all levels must offer “a genuine economic alternative to [working people’s] unhappiness and very real fear of the future.”
But can the Democratic Party be reformed?
Old Debate Over “Lesser-Evilism” Re-opened
One week after running the articles by Fletcher et al, the Center for Labor Renewal opened its columns to activists with differing views on the Democratic Party. One author, Jonathan Nack, wrote the following:
“Bill Fletcher writes that a lack of progressive direction resulted in the Democrats’ loss of the election. Why did that happen?
“I propose the answer is because the Democratic Party is a top-down corporate capitalist party controlled by rich people, and that at the top of the party’s hierarchical structure, progressive Democrats have little representation and less influence.
“Fletcher proposes that progressives double down and get even more active in Democratic Party circles, by building grassroots progressive organizations such as Democracy for America. Fletcher recommends that such groups concentrate on fundraising and resource gathering, even though he concedes that the way the game is stacked, it’s impossible to compete with the money of the rich and super-rich.
“[T]he strategy Fletcher proposes, which is nothing new, looks less and less promising.”
Ed from Salem, Oregon, replied in a similar vein:
“There are those who think we can successfully take over and reform the Dems. Some progressives think this is possible. I don’t believe they will succeed.”
And the reason they won’t succeed is that the Democratic Party is one of the twin parties of Corporate America. It is funded and controlled by the very same corporate interests that fund and control the Republican Party. The role of “progressives” inside the Democratic Party, moreover, has always been the same: to prevent the disgruntled labor-Black-Latino base from bolting from the Democratic Party; their role is too woo this base back into supporting the Hillary Clintons of the world in the general elections. That’s the role today of Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Labor historian Stan Phipps put this question in historical perspective in his article on “Lesser Evil Politics.” He wrote:
“One of the most negative aspects of the 1930s and 1940s labor upsurge in the United States was the failure of labor leaders to embrace independent political action through a class-based labor party. Rather than independent political action, the leaders of the AFL and the CIO chose to cultivate so-called ‘friends’ in the two business parties — the Democrats and Republicans, but mostly the Democrats.
“This fundamental failure continues to haunt the modern labor movement, which has to look for supporters among elected officials in a two-party system that tends to define the well-being of the wage earner to be subordinate and inferior to the necessity of maintaining a good ‘business climate’ for bankers and investors. Rather than a labor party, U.S. labor leaders have limited their political options to identifying which of the business party candidates constitutes the lesser evil.”
“Lesser-evilism” is a scourge that has plagued the labor movement for far too long.
The Fight for Independent Political Action Today
The day after the mid-term elections, the Labor Fightback Network issued a statement focused on “What Way Now for the Labor Movement?” It reads, in part:
“But what about the Democratic Party, supposedly the party that represents the interests of workers? It was repudiated by millions of workers who either stayed home on election day or cast their ballots for the Republicans.
“In 2008, Obama was elected president, and Democrats won control of both Houses of Congress. Hopewas in the air. But in short order, the Democratic Party betrayed its promises to labor — without whom the Democrats could never have won the election.
“No legislation guaranteeing full employment was enacted. No infrastructure funding was approved. No labor law reform was passed. No ‘card check’ (Employees Free Choice Act) saw the light of day. No end to deportations and the breakup of families transpired.
“Instead, a bill on health care authored by the very conservative Heritage Foundation was pushed through Congress without even a promised public option, making the insurance companies happy but leaving vast numbers with no health care or patently inadequate coverage. And anti-worker trade bills were relentlessly pursued, wars and occupations in faraway countries were escalated, and more recently Democrats joined Republicans in allowing unemployment compensation for the long-term unemployed to expire while food stamp funding was cut further by $8.6 billion.
“In short, the President and Congressional Democrats, with the exception of only a small minority, turned on labor and in the process fueled the disillusionment that led to Tuesday’s vote. Tens of millions of workers have had it with the Democratic Party. According to the latest Gallup Poll, 58% of the U.S. population has concluded that a new party should be formed.
“A CBS exit poll taken on election day reported that 63% of Americans believe that the economic system favors the wealthy. Dissatisfaction with the status quo is very widespread, and disgust with both major parties runs deep.
“All that is missing is leadership that only the labor movement and its community allies can provide to bring a new party into existence. Unfortunately, up to this point, too many labor leaders have doggedly stuck with the Democratic Party. But the rank-and-file increasingly reject this strategy. So the generals in labor are losing their army as the labor movement sinks ever more deeply into crisis.
“Today labor is a junior member of the Democratic Party’s coalition. But it is the big corporations and banks which continue to control that party. (Seventy percent of the Democrats’ funding comes from the big corporations and some millionaires and billionaires.) To be sure, Wall Street gave the Democrats more money in the 2008 elections than to the Republicans, but this time around they gave more money to the Republicans. When the Democrats win, Wall Street wins. When the Republicans win, Wall Street wins. But either way, labor loses.
“We have to ask: What in the world is labor doing in the same party as the corporate elite?
“Tough times lie ahead for the labor movement. . . . What is urgently needed is a debate throughout the labor movement regarding what we must do in the political and electoral arena from this point on. Let advocates of sticking with the Democrats have their say. But let advocates of independent labor/community political action have their say as well.
“There is no time to waste. The labor movement can be revitalized if we adopt as our slogan ‘The Bosses Have Two Parties — We need One of Our Own!’ and take the concrete organizational steps to bring such a new party into existence. The alternative is for labor to continue to suffer further horrendous defeats and disappear as a viable social movement. The choice is ours to make, and it will determine where we in labor go from here.”
The Organizer newspaper agrees with this LFN statement and is opening the pages of its labor supplement, Unity and Independence, to the discussion about how best to advance the fight for a Labor Party based on the trade unions and the progressive community organizations.
A Labor Party rooted in organized labor is the tough battle that ultimately must be won.