The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

U.S. Elections 2022:
What Answer in the Wake of Spreading Economic Misery?

Jan 28, 2023

Coming into the 2022 mid-term elections, polls showed Biden as unpopular as Trump. With the population increasingly distressed by inflation and other problems of the economy, the Democratic Party, holding all the levers of federal power, was expected to pay at the ballot box.

But Democrats dodged the electoral wipe-out that commentators had predicted. Not only did they keep control of the Senate, they added two more seats. Their close loss in the House of Representatives represented only a net shift of five seats out of 435. And they won several critical governors’ races. Democrats probably were helped by the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. And Republicans were certainly hampered by some oddball Senate and gubernatorial candidates in key states.

Overall, voter turnout in 2022 was apparently almost 48%, which ranks it the second biggest mid-term election in nearly a century, second only to 2018. And, yet, in the big cities, considered to be Democratic strongholds, voting was sharply down. In Chicago, where turnout in the 2018 mid-term election had been 60.7% of registered voters, in 2022 it was only 46.1%. The same story in Cleveland, where it went from 54.5% down to 46.1%; in Philadelphia, from 52% down to 47%; in Los Angeles County, from 57% down to 43.9%; and in New York City and in Detroit, both down from 41% to 33%.

Even though Republicans claimed only a slight House majority, the overall vote for House candidates gave the Republicans 3.5 million more votes than the Democrats had, a reversal of the usual voting pattern. And the increase in Republican votes was more or less evenly distributed across voting districts. While solidly Republican districts became still MORE Republican, solidly Democratic districts became LESS Democratic. [According to the FiveThirtyEight polling website.]

The headlines may have emphasized the Democrats’ favorable results, but the pollsters for both parties soon pointed out that the 2022 elections marked another sharp push to the right.

In fact, it’s abusively misleading to use the terms “left” and “right” to refer to Democrats and Republicans. These two big parties have shared out between themselves the political machinery of the bourgeois State for the last 166 years, the only parties to do that. Given the winner-take-all electoral system that militates against the development of a third party, “left” and “right” have become the standard way of referring to the differences between the rhetoric of these two bourgeois parties, and to the differences between who votes for them, with working people lined up behind the Democrats through most of the 20th century, and the well-off more privileged layers supporting the Republicans.

Nonetheless, working class support for the Democrats has been eroding. And by 2022, the trend of that erosion was plain to see. Overall in 2022, Democrats lost the working class vote by a margin of almost 15%. [All of the estimates on class voting come from the AP VoteCast survey.]

The slide of white workers into the Republican camp is not new. It goes back at least to the election of Reagan in 1980, if not before. But by 2022, Democrats were losing the vote of white workers by a margin of 33 percentage points, eight points worse than their deficit in 2020.

Although much less, the erosion of support for Democrats among Black, Latino and Asian voters was, in some ways, more significant. Those voters, overwhelmingly working class, have long provided the solid block of votes Democrats count on. But in 2022, with 80% of the Black vote going to Democrats, a still enormous share, this was down seven points since the last mid-term, and it continues the slow but steady fall-off since the period running between 2008 and 2016, when roughly between 90% and 97% of Black votes went to the Democrats. Latino support was about 60%, down ten points in four years; and Asian support, 64%, down seven points. While these ethnic classifications roll classes together in one bundle, the trend of these figures runs in the same direction as the results in specific districts with large numbers of Black, Latino or Asian workers.

A number of Democratic Party officials and pollsters discussed the problem openly this year. “If Democrats can’t win in Nevada, we can complain about the white working class all you want,” said a national Democratic Party pollster quoted in an October 26 article in Politico, “but we’re really confronting a much broader working class problem. We’re struggling with them, regardless of race.” To underline that point, Nevada’s Democratic Governor, Steve Sisolak, up for re-election, lost on November 8—in the state where Latino workers, reinforced by a sizeable number of Black workers, make up close to a majority of the electorate.

In Macomb County, Michigan, what used to be both a UAW and Democratic Party stronghold, local Democratic officials not only pointed out the problem, they reproached the national Democratic Party campaign committees for shifting campaign resources and money away from traditional working class areas like theirs in Michigan, as well as in the states of Ohio, Florida and Texas—three states where there has been a noticeable move away from the Democrats in Latino working class districts. The Macomb Democrats reproached the national party for focusing its attention and money on the wealthy suburban middle class areas that have become a mainstay of Democratic electoral hopes, a priori writing off what had once been the Democrats traditional base among working class voters.

The Democratic Party’s Big Tent

The Democratic Party had begun as the slaveholders’ party and still, far into the 20th century, it rested to some extent on those roots. But in the 1930s, it began to reconstitute itself as the party of reform, moving to incorporate various social movements, answering some of their demands, at the same time pulling them within the framework of procedures that tied them to the bourgeois state. The burgeoning movement for the CIO was pulled into the big Democratic Party tent, as were the movements of Southern sharecroppers and a section of poor Northern farmers. By World War II, they were joined by a Black population fighting not only for civil rights, but for access to jobs and better housing. The movement of the Black population for recognition of political rights and the access to the decent life that bourgeois society had long denied them set in motion similar movements among the different oppressed nationalities that made up the variegated American working class.

The Democratic Party claimed responsibility for the series of reforms and benefits that the movements themselves had wrenched from the bourgeoisie during the long period when the dominance of U.S. imperialism over the whole world provided an extra amount of wealth that could be distributed. Whatever tensions and antagonisms there were—and there were many—this massing of the different working peoples in the big Democratic Party tent seemed to offer a road down which everyone could pursue “progress.” In the long period, from 1932, right up to 1980, the Democratic Party dominated the political scene—with Republicans not able to play much of a role except in the McCarthy period interlude.

With the advent of the economic crisis in 1971, and its worsening by the end of the 1970s, the situation facing the working people began to contract. The bourgeois state no longer engaged itself to distribute crumbs, attempting to maintain social peace. Hit by the crisis, the capitalist class looked to the state to help it maintain its profits. That meant the workers’ standard of living had to be reduced. Social programs and public services created during the long post-war boom needed to be rolled back. The Democratic Party, loyal bourgeois party that it was, was right there in the forefront, leading the attack. The bankruptcy of New York City in 1975, carried out at the expense of city workers and of all the social programs and public services the city provided for the population, was one of the first important attacks, and it was overseen by two Democratic mayors, one after the other. It was followed by the well-plotted demands for concessions from auto workers carried out in a series of contracts starting in 1978—79, continuing on into the 1980s. Those temporary concessions, which were long ago made permanent, were rapidly passed on down to the rest of the work force. Those contracts, also, were ushered through with the help of Democratic politicians, who spoke of “saving auto industry jobs.”

Workers needed to be “discouraged” from pressing their wage demands in ordinary labor disputes. Both parties lined up to do it. In 1981, Ronald Regan used the bourgeois state to break the strike of air traffic controllers. According to the Democratic Party/union apparatuses, Republican Reagan opened the door to the steady decline still going on today. In fact, the door was opened in 1978 when Democrat Jimmy Carter tried to use the McCarthy period’s Taft-Hartley Act to break the 110-day coalminers’ strike. Workers’ disgust with Carter over this betrayal opened the door for Reagan to waltz into the White House in 1980.

The Gap between Working People and the Wealthy Classes Becomes a Chasm

In the midst of the economic crisis that has endured for half a century, the working class has watched its standard of living be shredded.

If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since its real value peaked in 1968, it would have been $12 an hour in 2022. Instead, it was only $7.25 an hour. If it had kept pace with productivity growth during the years since 1968—as it had in the three decades before 1968—it would have been almost $26 an hour. [Figures in this and following sections come from the Economic Policy Institute.]

What happened to the minimum wage is simply one more indication of the gap that has grown ever larger between the working class and the wealthy layers in this society over the last half century. Almost all the gains of economic growth since the crisis broke out have been absorbed by profit, and by the multitude of ways that profit is distributed to the wealthy classes of capitalist society.

That evolution continued right up to the last election. In 2021, the last full year before the election, the net corporate profit margin was 9.5%, the highest value ever recorded. In that same year, the average CEO in the 350 largest corporations was paid 399 times as much as the average employee in those industries. In 1965, the CEO/worker ratio had been 20 to 1.

The condition of working people is worsening not only relative to the vastly improved situation of the wealthy classes; it’s worsening in absolute terms. Inflation has sapped wages of their increased dollar value. According to the U.S. Labor Department, the real median hourly wage is where it was in 1973. To the extent that wages increased, almost all of the increase went to those in the top 10% of the income scale. Those in the bottom 40% saw their wages fall. But government statistics don’t begin to tell the tale of what has happened to people’s actual income, first of all, because the tinkering with government statistics on inflation distort what wages actually are. But beyond that, this government figure on wages ignores all the other ways that people’s real income has been slashed, starting with the elimination of pensions and of other social benefits once assumed to be part of the wage bill, as well as the enormous increase in medical costs that reduces income.

Reality does not reside in government statistics. Witness unemployment figures, which officially stood at 3.5% of the “labor force” going into the 2022 election. But the fact is, 37% of the working-age population was excluded from what the government calls the “labor force”—by child care responsibilities in a country with no publicly supported child-care facilities; or by lack of skills and education needed for the available jobs in a country where the public school system is unable to teach 40% of the children in big city schools to read; or by disabilities caused by workplace accidents and illnesses; or, in the last years, by “long covid,” which has impacted millions of people, preventing them from working in the country with the worst rate of death by Covid of any developed country; or by being “too old” for companies to hire although you are not yet old enough for Social Security. The companies of this new IT economy, particularly the warehouse and delivery companies, want young, strong, agile—and fast—workers, a large proportion of whom are being relegated to temporary or part-time work, or contract work, or Door-Dash-style work.

The difficulties in people’s own immediate situation were reinforced by the degrading of public services and elimination or privatization of social services. At the time of the election, there were almost a million fewer workers in the public services than there had been just before the pandemic. The capitalist class, intent on increasing its overall profit, pushes to absorb an ever greater part of what government used to spend for infrastructure, social programs and public services. Hidden inside this “great, wealthy American democracy,” lies the reality of a country with little legislation limiting hours of work, with even less legislation requiring paid sick days, and none at all requiring paid vacations. Such “luxuries” depend on the “good will” of each boss. What that is worth was seen during the long Covid shut-down when half of all workers in so-called “essential” industries never got a paid day off. It is a country increasingly dependent on a privately run medical system which can—and does—deny medical care to those who can’t pay.

This is reality as faced by the laboring population today, and it has had deadly consequences. Average life expectancy decreased almost two and a half years since 2019, following a two-year decrease in 2015—16. Yes, part of the reason was death by Covid, but only a part. There are all the other deaths, many of which the media call “deaths of despair”: suicides, homicides, drug overdoses, alcohol abuse—often in the milieus peopled by soldiers returning from one of U.S. imperialism’s wars, declared and undeclared. There are the deaths of young people shot down in the streets, pulled into gangs by the lack of prospects reinforced inside their communities, generation after generation. There are the five thousand or so people killed in industrial “accidents” each year, and the many thousands more who die the slow deaths caused by fumes inhaled, chemicals used, toxic substances left in place. There are the tragedies of “domestic violence,” which effectively are the “canary in the coal mine,” attesting to the unspeakable pressures visited on the daily lives of the laboring people.

An Encouragement of the Extreme Right

For a long time, the electorate, deprived of any other way of expressing its dissatisfaction, simply voted against whomever seemed to be running the government. But with Democrats playing the chief role in imposing concessions, and in the absence of a working class party, the door was opened for a demagogue like Donald Trump.

Donald Trump played to the resentment many people felt about their growing impoverishment, their resentment for being tossed aside like worn out trash, despised by those with privileges. In so doing, he touched the deep nerve of people’s dismay in the middle of a growing economic crisis. He tapped into the anger and frustration of working people by deriding those institutions in polite society that weigh on working people’s lives: the leaders of both political parties, the media voices, the universities and their “experts,” government agencies and bureaucrats, sometimes Hollywood, and so on. He derided everyone except the ones whose control of society has led to the crisis: the capitalist class, who accumulate their wealth by exploiting the working class, which has no way to survive other than by selling its labor power.

Trump served the capitalist class by pulling out into the light of day all the violent and demeaning ideas that have always run just below the surface of the ideology with which this society has invested itself: white supremacy, anti-immigrant nativism, misogyny, intolerance toward how people live their most intimate lives, hyper-masculinity and violence. In other words, implicitly goading people into attacking each other. And he wrapped it all up in the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Christian cross, which decorated his rallies.

None of this started with Trump. Witness the beginning of local union meetings, held in halls marked by the American flag. Those meetings start with a prayer from a local minister, usually Christian, and the Pledge of Allegiance—that patriotic drivel dredged up to reinforce the attack on communists and union militants during the McCarthy period. Every union meeting that starts this way brings the workers to pledge their subservience and their loyalty to the very forces leading and reinforcing the attack on themselves and the rest of their class.

Trump may have transformed the Republican Party—whether temporarily or permanently, the Republicans themselves haven’t figured out. But the issue goes beyond the Republican Party. Trump gave those who support him a program of sorts, that is to defend themselves by attacking all those “others.” In so doing, he consciously courted the extreme right. When he said after the 2018 extreme-right rally in Charlottesville—and repeated many times since—that there were some “fine people” in that crowd, he was rolling out the welcome mat for the KKK, the Nazis, and the Proud Boys.

The issue is not just Donald Trump, and certainly not essentially him. The fact that in an increasing number of countries there are demagogues exactly like him, playing a very similar role, speaks to the fact that something in the current international situation, political and economic, is producing this move to the right, reinforcing extreme right formations that might already exist.

In this country, those organizations have always been with us: KKK, Nazis, Black Legion, Know-Nothings, Mafias, street gangs, etc. Most of the time they have been somewhat marginal, but they have always been there, summoned at different times to reinforce the violence of the state: in the South to reimpose slavery during the long decades of Jim Crow; in immigrant neighborhoods to maintain an order the police were unable to impose; in Chicago, where the Blackstone Nation street gang lined up with Richard J. Daley to drive Martin Luther King’s SCLC staff out of the West side ghetto; in the coal fields where the Pinkertons killed miners like the Molly Maguires; or in California where the American Legion killed IWW militants and two decades later in Minneapolis where it killed strikers; or in Michigan, where the Black Legion killed UAW militants. And then there are all those, running from Jimmy Hoffa to Dow Wilson, who were killed by the Mafia.

They have always been with us, these marginal forces, but Trump gave them credibility in the eyes of some working people. When times worsen, still again, that credibility could play a role allowing them to attract one part of the working class to join in an attack on another part.

In this country, the lack of a working class party, one representing both the immediate and long term interests of the working class, provided an enormous opening not only for a demagogue like Donald Trump, it could also play a role in the possible growth of the extreme right inside the working class itself.

A Voice for Working People

Since the time of Eugene Debs—more than a century ago—there has been no political organization able to address the whole working class, speaking of both their own immediate and long term interests. The Socialist Party of Debs’ time was not that, but it gave Debs a podium from which he addressed the working class throughout the country, and he did so in terms of the problems it confronted and of the possibilities it carried. He said he had confidence in the capacity of working people to “destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and re-create them as free and humanizing institutions.” In the trial that ended up with him in federal prison for speaking against the U.S. intervention in World War I, he declared himself: “I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist.... I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul and that is the world-wide war of social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.”

Today, there still is no party of the working class, even less than there was in the time of Debs. But the goal remains the same: those who want to create another world and have confidence in the capacity of the working class to do that have to find the way to address the working class, speaking about the workers’ immediate problems, but doing so from the perspective of the fight the working class must carry out that will lead to the building of socialist society.

That is exactly what the militants were trying to do who used the elections in 2022 in Michigan, Maryland and Illinois to speak for a Working Class Party. This handful of people didn’t pretend to be the revolutionary party that is needed and doesn’t exist. They certainly can’t pretend to do what Debs, based on his own experience of working class struggle and on the activities of a whole generation of militants, was able to do.

But the people campaigning in 2022 for Working Class Party in these three states were at least able to say what needed to be said about the worsening situation facing the working class, about the growth of right wing forces, and about the possibilities embodied in the working class because of the key position it holds in the very midst of the productive economy and all the institutions tied to that.

They told the truth: they said that there is no answer to the spreading misery until the working class girds itself for battle.

They said that the working class needs its own political party. There is no substitute for that party. It doesn’t exist today. But it can be built, working people have the capacity to do that.

But working people cannot rely on politicians from the two big parties nor on the government, with its whole massive state apparatus. To respond to all its problems—those of wages now, as well as of the kind of world they want their children to live in—the working class has to organize itself independently of other classes and their political henchmen.

It has to bring its own forces together. The capitalist class attempts to drive wedges between workers; to infect working people with racist and jingoist and sexist propaganda. But workers are divided today by other factors. Their struggles traditionally have been confined to one industry, or even one company or even one local plant.

The more workers overcome the divisions between themselves and other parts of their class, the more powerful they can become.

This is the perspective on which the 2022 campaigns for Working Class Party rested. The militants active in the campaign warned that elections are not going to overcome the crises the working class faces—and this would be true even if Working Class Party was a much bigger party, and even if it had received a much bigger vote. The crises, the problems will be overcome only through struggles carried out by the working class assembling its own forces.

The Results

Working Class Party presented 14 candidates in the 2022 election: 11 in Michigan, where it has been on the ballot since 2016; two in Maryland, where it gained ballot status in 2020; and one candidate in Illinois, where it qualified in 2022.

In Michigan, Mary Anne Hering, the Working Class Party candidate for a state-wide office, received votes from 135,789 people. In Maryland, David Harding and Cathy White, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, received 17,154 votes. In Illinois, Ed Hershey, candidate for U.S. Congress, received 4,605 votes. In other words, at least 157,548 people voted for a Working Class Party candidate. (The results of the ten other Michigan candidates appear below.)

Maybe the vote for Working Class Party doesn’t seem all that much, when compared to the vote rolled up by the two big parties who live on billions of dollars doled out to them by the capitalist class.

But the possibility to vote for WCP gave some workers in these three states a way to express their agreement with a working class perspective, to say they wanted their own party. At least 157,000 people grabbed that opportunity, voting for at least one Working Class Party candidate. In a country where there has not been even the semblance of a working class party for more than a century, this can be a down-payment on the future.

Certainly, Working Class Party benefitted because people could vote for it simply as a way to protest against the two big parties. But in both Michigan and Maryland, there were other minor parties: in Maryland, the Libertarians, an extreme right wing party, and the Greens. In Michigan, where there were four other parties, including the Libertarians and the Greens, the Working Class Party candidates with one exception had a better score than those of all the other minor parties. And, the one WCP candidate in Michigan for whom everyone in the state could vote, Mary Anne Hering for State School Board, not only came out ahead of candidates from the other four minor parties in the total vote, she did better than the other four in 80 out of the state’s 83 counties.

So, to some extent, when people voted for Working Class Party, they were not only voting against the two big bourgeois parties, they were making a choice about what their protest meant.

These campaigns planted a flag, one based on the commonality of interests of the whole working class, one that exposed the racism, nativism and misogyny that both parties spout—Trump openly, the others insidiously. These campaigns were an affirmation that Donald Trump will not have a monopoly on addressing workers outraged by the situation, that the Democrats will not be left free to attract the workers’ vote because “no other choice” exists. These campaigns showed that the working class can have its own voice.

The people active in them have confidence that the working class will find the way to build its own political organizations. They believe they have taken a step along that road.

* Other Votes in Michigan *

Liz Hakola, Congress district 1—5,510 votes, 1.42%.

Lou Palus, Congress, district 3—4,136 votes, 1.24%.

Kathy Goodwin, Congress district 8—9,077 votes, 2.71%.

Jim Walkowicz, Congress district 9—6,571 votes, 1.76%.

Andrea L. Kirby, Congress district 10—5,905 votes, 1.81%.

Gary Walkowicz, Congress district 12—8,046 votes, 2.9%.

Simone R. Coleman, Congress district 13—8,833 votes, 3.77%.

Larry Darnell Betts, State Senate district 2—1,632 votes, 2.57%.

Linda Rayburn, State Senate district 3—10,243 votes, 14.33%.

Kimberly Givens, State Senate district 6—3,396 votes, 3.12%.