The Spark

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

U.S.A.:
Elections Reject Republican Policies, but the Democrats Don’t

Jan 20, 2007

By every measure, the 2006 elections marked a real shift toward the Democrats. Not only did they take back control of the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, they did it without losing a single seat they had previously occupied in either chamber. More than three-quarters of the 435 House districts voted more Democratic this year than two years ago.

On the level of state elections, the same move was obvious. In the 36 states which elected their officials in 2006, the Democrats took six governorships from the Republicans, losing none of their own. This was enough to put the Democrats at the head of 28 states, leaving the Republicans with only 22, most of them Southern states or states with little population. As for the state legislatures, the Democrats now control both houses in 23 state legislatures, while the Republicans control both houses in only 10 states; the rest of the legislatures are split, with one party controlling the state senate and the other, the house. (One state, Nebraska, has a supposedly “non-partisan” legislature.)

Finally, the Democrats made some important inroads in the Rocky Mountain states, which the Republicans had dominated until recently. Today, five of the region’s eight governors are Democrats, compared to none in 2000.

The magnitude of the Democratic sweep was partly obscured by the complicated U.S. electoral system, which elects only one third of the Senators every two years and only part of the state governments. Thus, when events rapidly change, and the desires of the electorate change accordingly, this staggering of elections helps prevent the “passions” of the population from weighing on the government, avoiding an “excess of democracy” – to use the expressions of James Madison, one of the “founding fathers.”

In any case, when you look at the final balance in the Senate, the Democrats have only the slimmest majority. But in order to get that majority, the Democrats had to win almost three- quarters of the 33 Senate seats voted on this year.

This hair-thin majority in the Senate couldn’t hide the fact that the elections were an extraordinary defeat for the Republicans. They found themselves on the losing end of a seven-million-vote margin in the 2006 Senate elections. By contrast, in 2004, Bush’s winning margin had been only three million out of the much larger number of votes cast in that presidential election. (The two elections aren’t directly comparable, but these figures give an adequate sense of the shift.)

Even Bush had to admit that the Republicans “got a thumping.” More than that – the elections were a repudiation of Republican policies, and more broadly of the policies of the whole government.

So, the question is, what motivated this repudiation?

What Happened since 2004?

Right after the 2004 elections, Bush prattled on about his crushing mandate; Republicans toasted the political genius of Karl Rove, Bush’s guiding light; and the bourgeois press busily explained that Rove had turned the Christian fundamentalists into a solid, popular voting base that would give the Republican Party enduring political domination, perhaps for decades. Democrats wrung their hands, talking about the need to ape the Republicans and express their religiosity more publicly.

But, in fact, the Republicans were not the dominant party that such nonsense implied. The 2004 electoral-vote-count map, with many more Republican red states than Democratic Party blue ones, may have given the impression of a very lop-sided electorate. What it actually reflected is the regressive and indirect way that votes are counted for the presidency, with small states getting significantly more electoral votes than their population should require, and big states getting fewer; and with ALL the electoral votes of each state going to the winner of that state. This sets up possibilities for the actual loser in the overall vote count to win the presidency, which, in fact, is how Bush himself got in office in 2000.

The actual vote margin in 2004 between Bush and Kerry was among the four smallest since the beginning of the 20th century, and another of those four was Bush’s 2000 win. The Republicans may have won 31 of the states’ electoral votes, but ten of these states were in Bush’s column by only small majorities. And in 2006, the Democrats were able to take over either the governor’s chair, a Senate seat or one or more House seats in eight of those states, not to mention others where Bush’s margin was much bigger.

Moreover, in 2004, Bush was still benefitting from fears created by the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center – fears that Bush successfully exploited with his war on terror, orange alerts, etc. By 2006, Bush’s appeal to terrorism had grown a bit stale. To the extent it still reverberated in the population, Bush had undercut himself by linking terrorism with the war in Iraq.

So, the Democratic sweep in 2006 revealed that the Republicans had not had a solid lock on the electorate coming out of 2004. But, beyond that, and more importantly, the election basically revealed the widespread anger in the population over the big issues of the day.

First of All, the War against Iraq

It came as no surprise that anger over the U.S. war against Iraq was one of those issues the Republicans couldn’t dodge.

The war has exacted a high price from ordinary layers of the population. In the first place, the politicians have justified cuts in education, social programs and public services by blaming the colossal amount of money going to the war. In fact, the two aren’t directly related. During the Viet Nam war, the force of the black movement made the bourgeoisie pay for both “guns and butter,” to use Johnson’s term. But for many people, the war is behind all these cuts.

But above all, there is the human cost, the three thousand killed and the 150,000 suffering some disability.

As of this month, between the regular armed forces and the National Guard and Reserves, 1.4 million people have served or are still serving in Iraq – 1.4 million potential witnesses, many of whom have already brought the horrible reality of this war back home.

If the Democrats, even as the minority party, had resolutely opposed going to the war, most importantly by refusing to fund it, Bush could not have gone – any more than he could increase the troops and funding of the war today. The Republicans would not have carried out this war only on their own responsibility. But the Democrats only talked against the war, while continuing to vote every authorization Bush needed.

Nonetheless, Iraq is Bush’s war in much the same way that Viet Nam was Johnson’s war. Both presidents may only have fronted for decisions made by the whole political class to carry out the wars, but to the population, they represented these wars.

Moreover, Bush proudly pretended the war was going well almost up to election day, antagonizing even those who had supported his decision to go to war. Those people who disapproved of the war in Iraq – 55% of the electorate – voted nearly three to one for the Democrats.

Second: An Economy which Throws Millions of People Aside while Enriching a Few

Bush may have bragged about how well the economy is doing, but post-election polls showed that the economy ranked right up there with Iraq in motivating people who voted against the Republicans.

This was no great surprise either. Hourly wages today are lower than they were in 1970, adjusted for inflation. Not only are jobs part-time and/or temporary, they are even becoming “on-call.” 47 million people are without any medical insurance, up seven million since 2000. Almost exactly half of all people working in the private sector have no pension at all, and only 20% have a defined benefit pension, down from 40% in 1980.

At the same time, the degree of wealth accumulated in the hands of a tiny minority has increased spectacularly. In 1970, the average CEO made 30 times the wage of the average worker; today, that average CEO makes 300 times the worker’s wage. The share of income going to the richest one percent of the population is higher today than it’s been at any time since the end of the Great Depression, and it equals the total family income of the bottom 57%. And this tiny wealthy minority has more than doubled its share since 1980.

Thus the gap between the very wealthy and everyone else has been increasing for several decades, but it has speeded up spectacularly since 2001. By 2005, corporate profits were more than double what they had been just four years before, even while one company after another continued to use the fiction of bankruptcy to discard pensions and health care for its work force. The economy may have entered a new “recovery” in 2001, but poverty continues to increase and the minimum wage continues to fall behind inflation, worth less today in real terms than it was half a century ago.

Certainly, Bush is not responsible for this entire rotten situation, but his arrogant stance made him the prime target for workers’ resentment. In Bush’s 2000 election campaign, he made one of those off-hand jokes he is famous for: “I guess you could say that I represent the haves and the have-mores.”

He has acted on that basis ever since – which, after all, wouldn’t make him any different than all the other politicians, Republican and Democrat. But he’s continued to crassly draw attention to his wealthy friendships as the situation of the working class has grown markedly worse. His good-buddy relationships with the Enron thieves right up to their indictment, his open support for the oil companies’ monster profits in the midst of the Iraq war, his joke in the midst of the Katrina disaster about how much he had enjoyed his wilder younger days in New Orleans – such arrogance only served to inflame working people’s anger.

So it’s no surprise that the working class, which traditionally votes Democratic, voted more heavily Democratic this year.

Across the board, the lower the income, the higher the vote for the Democrats. People making under $15,000 a year gave nearly 70% of their votes to the Democrats this year, compared to 65% in 2004 – at least according to post-election polls. Union members gave 74% of their vote to the Democrats, compared to 68% in the last off-year election. And the black population, which in its great majority is working class or poor, once again gave the Democrats about 90% of their votes, providing the most solid voting block in the electorate, and the Democrats’ most dependable base.

Finally, among Americans older than 50, who had been voting Republican since 1994, there was a shift back into the Democratic fold. When Bush declared, on the morrow of his 2004 election, that he intended to “reform” Social Security, he helped the Republicans commit political suicide with this part of the electorate – which happened to make up just over half the electorate in 2006, an increase since 2004.

Obscuring Class Differences behind “Morality”

Both parties have, throughout their history, represented the interests of the bourgeoisie, even if they do it with different words, trying to address different parts of the laboring population.

Having only a choice between two bourgeois parties, most workers and other popular classes have tended to vote Democratic since the Great Depression. Essentially, that’s an accident of history. The popular movements of the 1930s and 1960s both eventually forced the bourgeoisie to step back; those struggles led to improvements in the standard of living of the laboring population, as well as to a series of new social programs and improvements in education. The Democrats happened to be in power both times when these movements broke out. Despite the fact that Democrats, like Republicans, had used the forces of the state to try to block or even crush these movements, when the movements were able nonetheless to push forward, the Democrats, appearing to cede to them, managed to take at least part of the credit for what the population had won for themselves.

The Republicans, able regularly to count on only the much smaller layer at the top of the income scale, have long presented themselves as the upholders of a puritanical morality, religion and other retrograde ideas – not to mention attempting to stoke racist or xenophobic ideas in layers of the working class. Of course, the Democrats are no slouch at this either, but it’s through such appeals that the Republicans have managed occasionally, especially in reactionary periods, to take control of Congress or the White House.

Sleaze Backfires

One of the big factors contributing to the Republicans’ defeat this year was their attempt to appease their Christian fundamentalist base. It backfired. Cloaking themselves in religious demagogy, the Republicans had managed to sweep this base in 2000 and again in 2004. But by 2004, fundamentalist organizations and churches were clamoring for results, not just words.

Attempting to answer these demands, the Republican party, in the three years since January 2004, pushed through ballot measures in 18 states pretending to uphold the sanctity of marriage – all of which were only slightly veiled attempts to dredge up homophobic sentiments in the rest of the population.

Although their attack on women’s reproductive rights goes further back, these attacks have reached such a point in the recent period that many women fear a total suppression of the right to abortion, or even to convenient birth control. In South Dakota, this past year, a Republican state legislature and governor made that fear a reality when it voted to make abortion completely illegal, excepting only when the life of the woman was clearly in danger. In Kansas, a Republican attorney general established procedures to require any woman seeking an abortion to submit first to a police investigation.

The Republicans also pushed to change education curriculums so as to reduce any discussion of evolution or similar subjects that challenge the Christian fundamentalist strict Biblical view of the world. A Republican Board of Education in Kansas went so far as to enshrine “creationism” on an equal footing with evolution. And in many districts, local Republicans took part in harassing teachers who dared to expose their students to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Of course, the Democrats were not innocent bystanders in all this. While usually they were not the ones who initiated such appeals to reactionary attitudes, more than enough Democrats went along with them to give them credence or help them pass. Even while portraying themselves as the defenders of women, or gays, etc., the Democrats tried to hedge their bets. They rushed, right along with the Republicans, to proclaim their religious credentials. And they purposely ran candidates who openly opposed abortion, for example.

By pushing such measures vociferously, the Republicans had counted on maintaining nearly as high an actual number of votes from the fundamentalists as they got in 2004. Karl Rove openly predicted that the Republicans could, on the one hand, increase their share of the fundamentalist vote this year; and, on the other, bring most of the 2004 presidential voters back to the polls. The Republicans assumed that in this non-presidential election, with its much lower turn-out, the fundamentalist vote would counter those people they expected to shift over to the Democrats.

They assumed wrong. Yes, the proportion of the electorate accounted for by the fundamentalists was nearly as high as in 2004, and nearly three-quarters of their votes went again to the Republicans. But their actual turn-out decreased by ten and a half million votes, tarnishing Rove’s reputation and Republican hopes.

On the other hand, the more open Republican appeals to the fundamentalists brought out a stronger vote against the Republicans over these same questions.

Younger women, those most directly hammered by the restrictions on abortion, birth control, etc., gave only 36% of their votes to the Republicans this time (the lowest in the quarter century since post-election polls have been taken). In South Dakota, the anti-abortion measure pushed through by Republicans was broadly overturned by a referendum put on the ballot by women’s organizations. Was it just coincidence that the Democratic candidate for South Dakota’s one U.S. House seat, a woman who publicly opposed the law, won by 69% to 29%? In Kansas, the attorney general who attempted to investigate women who wanted an abortion was voted out of office.

This same Kansas, long considered the very bedrock of Republican conservatism, turned out the state Board of Education, which had given creationism equal billing with evolution. And – more to the point for the Republicans – Kansas gave two of its four House of Representative seats to the Democrats.

Finally, three-quarters of the vote from gays and lesbians went to the Democrats. And in Arizona, where the ballot included a referendum outlawing any kind of union other than “marriage” between one man and one woman, the referendum was defeated when unmarried heterosexual couples living together, a significant part of the population today, finally came to understand that their interests were also under attack.

Supporting Themselves on Xenophobia, the Republicans Crash

Worrying about the 2006 elections, one part of the Republican party carried out another vile campaign, attempting to blame immigrants for the problems faced by the rest of the working class. They pushed through a series of state measures preventing immigrants from accessing programs such as unemployment insurance, medical care and schools, and in the U.S. House, they made a series of demagogic or repressive proposals on the federal level. Again, the Republicans were not the only ones to vote for, or even propose such measures, but they were the ones who rushed to appear most strongly against the immigrants.

Bush and other Republicans had in the course of several prior elections managed to attract an increasing percentage of the Hispanic voters, in part by playing to reactionary religious sentiments in that milieu concerning abortion or homosexuality. In 2004, the Republicans racked up nearly 45% of the Hispanic vote – an all-time record high. But while most Hispanics who vote are either Catholic or fundamentalist Protestant, they are also people who immigrated not so long ago, or are the children of immigrants. After more than a year of anti-immigrant propaganda by Republicans, the Hispanic vote for Republicans shrunk to only 30%. Perhaps most striking, two virulently anti-immigrant Republicans, running in House districts from Arizona that had been Republican, unexpectedly lost.

It’s not to say that this xenophobic demagogy didn’t get a hearing in the population, nor that it can’t serve in the future to divide the working class further. But, this time at least, it came back to bite the Republicans.

Even their Wealthy Pals Deserted the Republicans

This year, the turn-out was skewed as usual toward the parts of the population with higher income. Twenty-three percent of the voters this year had family incomes above $100,000 a year, compared to only 18% of the families in the country with such an income.

The fact that the wealthy layers turn out in bigger numbers ordinarily works in the Republican’s favor – since they usually vote heavily Republican.

But this year, the Republicans even lost ground at the wealthy end of the economic spectrum. While globally all those people whose income was over $100,000 a year split 52 to 48 for the Republicans, that was much less than the 58% to 42% margin Bush enjoyed in 2004. In the Northeast, there was a much stronger shift toward the Democrats, and at still higher incomes. For example, voters in the Northeast earning between $150,000 and $200,000 went 63% to 37% for the Democrats this time, shifting from a 50% to 48% Republican majority only two years ago. And even people earning $200,000 and above split slightly for the Democrats.

This is hardly the bourgeoisie. And, of course, the post-election polls are notably silent on how the bourgeoisie vote. But there is one indicator of how they think – and that is the money they give to the two parties. This year, in contrast to their usual heavy contributions to the Republicans, the wealthy gave more money to the Democrats – as did those linked to corporations.

The very wealthy certainly had no reason to be unhappy with the way the Bush administration had helped them increase their share of the wealth. But the popular discontent that Bush’s functioning provoked worried many of them – not to mention his inability to do something about Social Security, or the real imbroglio that Republicans created over immigration, or of course the disaster in Iraq.

Thus, it appears that a significant part of the wealthy classes are ready to let the Democrats run the country for them for awhile.

The Democrats Rush to Reassure the Bourgeoisie

The Democrats certainly made it clear that the wealthy have nothing to fear from them. Even during the campaign itself, the Democrats repeatedly insisted that, if elected, they would govern from the “center” – that is, from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie. Those who work for a living are the big majority of the population, but their interests are treated as though they are only a “special interest,” nothing but a minority of the population to be dealt with in turn.

The fact that the Democrats attacked Bush means nothing – so did many Republicans. He has become the convenient scapegoat toward whom both parties are trying to direct the disgust of working people. But even on this question, the Democrats showed how little their bluster is worth. Having vilified Bush, the new Democratic leaders of the Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, announced, on the day after the election, that their number one priority was to find the way to work with Bush.

And whereas eliminating “Bush’s tax cuts” for the wealthy was one of the main Democratic campaign promises, that promise was taken “off the table” the day after their victory.

Then there was the miraculous about-face of the Democrats toward what they had been calling “Bush’s war” in Iraq, “Bush’s crime,” etc. The day after the election, John Dingell, the most senior Democrat in Congress, declared, when asked what he would propose to do in Iraq: “I think that President Bush should propose a plan around which the country can rally.”

Bush has now proposed his plan – that is, to increase U.S. forces in Iraq by at least 20,000 or 30,000 more troops – something which was opposed by 83% of the electorate in November. And how did the Democrats, now controlling Congress, respond? Even while these additional troops were already disembarking in Iraq, the Democrats talked about holding hearings to “examine the question closely,” that is, with all the deliberate lack of speed for which Congress is famous. Democratic leaders asserted they would take what they called a “symbolic vote” against the troop increase. Unfortunately, the war is anything but “symbolic.”

To mark their supposed break with the former Republican Congress, the Democrats started a “100-hour clock” running. With a fanfare appropriate to the Academy Awards, the Democrats announced that legislation would rapidly pass through Congress within the first 100 hours of their rule... only to have the clock shut down!

Undoubtedly, in their “first 100 hours,” the Democrats will make a few symbolic gestures, raising the minimum wage a trifle, for example, while leaving it far behind even just the $9 an hour it should be if it were simply to be the equivalent of what it was at its highest point in 1968. They have already passed a law on stem cell research aimed at putting Bush into a corner, forcing him to veto it if he wants to hang onto the Republicans’ Christian fundamentalist voters – who oppose this medical field, just as they oppose abortion. And Democrats will undoubtedly pass bills about medical care and drug costs that Bush will be forced to veto, which the Democrats then expect to use, much like their symbolic vote on the troop increase, during the 2008 election campaign.

In other words, the next two years will be spent with workers being asked once again just to wait, while electioneering goes on. Yes, the war will be worsening the situation of the Iraqis and grinding up all these additional troops – but just wait two years. Yes, the situation of larger layers of the working class will be still more desperate – but just wait two years. The fact that the Democrats are positioning themselves this way speaks volumes about whose interests they serve.

And What for the Working Class?

The meaning of the elections couldn’t have been clearer. It was a complete repudiation of the Republicans and the policies they have implemented. It was a call on the Democrats to initiate an abrupt, 180º turn on the big issues of the day.

The Democrats have made it clear already that they intend to ignore the electorate’s call, that instead, they will continue to carry out policies very similar to those carried out by the Republicans, with only a slightly different veneer. Today, when the elections give them a really crushing mandate, when they could box Bush in a corner so badly he couldn’t stop them, they rush to pull back from any commitment.

Nonetheless, this election did have some importance for the working class. It put the lie to the idea that even if things aren’t going well for you, they are going well for the majority of the population. Not true – and vast numbers of workers said it in the ballot box. Even with a skewed electorate that under-represents the number of working people, the elections demonstrated anger at a situation that damns the laboring population for the benefit of a tiny minority. Even with an electorate in which opposition to the war is under-represented (55% in post-election polls oppose the war, compared to 70% in the regular polls at the same time), the population’s disgust was made evident.

But if workers are to see the results they want from this election, they can’t wait for those results. Looking to the Democrats is a trap. The Democrats have made it clear they have no intention to oppose the basic direction in which the Republicans have taken the country. To gain satisfaction of their own demands, to improve the situation of that very big majority that provides the labor running the country, workers will have to depend on their own strength, on the mobilization of their own forces, the vast forces they command, to impose what they want.