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

United States:
A Push to the Right, but Who Did the Pushing?

Nov 12, 1994

In the November 1994 U.S. elections, not a single Republican incumbent lost his seat in the U.S. Congress. This reflected the magnitude of a sweep which put the Congress into Republican hands, for only the third time since 1932.

In the U.S. Senate, where only 35 of its 100 seats were scheduled for election, 8 Democrats were defeated, and Senator Richard Shelby, elected as a Democrat from Alabama, suddenly discovered the day after the election that he felt "more at home" in the Republican party. The 12-vote Democratic majority became a 6-vote Republican one, 53-47. (If Democrat Diane Feinstein loses her very slim current lead in California, it could be an 8-vote majority.)

In the U.S. House of Representatives, where all 435 seats were up for election, control shifted from the current 78 vote Democratic majority, with one independent, to a 20 vote (227-207) Republican majority, with the same one independent (if the 8 close races go as expected).

But the sweep extended into state government, for the first time since 1932. In the 36 states where governors were elected, the Republicans held onto all 12 of their seats which were up for election, and took at least 11 more from the Democrats, and perhaps 12. (As of this writing, Maryland, currently headed by a Democrat, was too close to call.) The overall margin of the state governorships, shifted from 29-19 (with 2 independents) in favor of the Democrats, to 30-16 (with 2 independent and 1 undecided), in favor of the Republicans. This is not just a question of an artificial majority based on the smaller rural states. Of the 9 biggest states California, Texas, New York, Florida, Penn-sylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey, which by themselves account for somewhat more than half the total U.S. population, only Florida is still headed by the Democrats.

Even the state legislatures reflected this shift. Fifteen of the nation's 99 chambers shifted from Democratic to Republican control. None shifted to Democratic control. Today, for the first time since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, the total number of state legislators of the two parties has come close to being comparable: 3391 Republicans to 3847 Democrats.

Finally, a number of the Democrats' big names were defeated: Governor Mario Cuomo in New York; Governor Ann Richards in Texas; Thomas Foley, speaker of the House of Representatives; Dan Rostenkowski, the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; and Jim Sasser, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

The day after the election, Haley Barbour, chairman of the Democratic Party, described the rout, "We got our butts kicked!"

A Push to the Right

Other commentators may not be quite so elegant in their use of language, but they make the same point: this was a spectacular repudiation of the Democrats and a move to the right.

There were a number of voter referendums passed, which reflected this move to the right: the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in California, which among other things would forbid the public schools from teaching the children of "illegal" immigrants; the "2 Strikes and You're Put Away for Life” sentencing bill in Georgia; toughening of criminal statutes in several other states.

Obviously, the platform around which the Republicans campaigned promised a move to the right. The so-called "Republican Contract with America", which 300 Republican House candidates had signed before the election, contained promises to: pass a balanced budget amendment and line item veto (thus making it easier to reduce entitlements such as social security, medicare, medicaid, unemployment, grants to the cities and public education, etc.); cut social spending in order to build more prisons; lengthen prison sentences and increase the use of the death penalty; cut welfare benefits and deny additional welfare to women who have additional children and deny all welfare to unmarried women under 21 who have children; increase spending on the military; give tax incentives to business; cut taxes for the so-called "middle class" (the biggest cut of which would be a cut in the inheritance taxes paid by the wealthy); reduce regulations on business; reduce the liability of business for punitive damages and make it harder for individuals to sue businesses.

Of course, in reality, this platform is not new. The direction of these proposals, that is, to improve the situation of the wealthy by attacking the standard of living of the working class and the poor, has been the direction of domestic policy during the last four administrations, both Democrat and Republican. The difference is that the Republicans openly proclaim their intentions to attack the poor, while the Democrats hide behind their protestations of concern for the "plight of the downtrodden".

Exactly Who Pushed to the Right?

Obviously, this is a platform for addressing the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois layers of society. And, if we can gauge by the exit polls, these are the layers which, in changing their vote from 1992 to 1994, were a major factor in this move to the right.

They were the people, essentially, who voted. The first estimates of overall turnout indicate that at least 61 or 62% of the total voting age population did not vote. And the first indicators show that the rate of abstention was disproportionately higher in the working class.

For example, according to exit polls in California reported by The New York Times, only 27% of the voters had family income less than $30,000 a year. But U.S. Census Bureau figures (which put median family income at $31,241 last year) mean that roughly 50% of the voters should have had family income of less than $30,000. At the other end of the scale, a whopping 43% of the voters came from families with incomes greater than $50,000 a year. Other indicators of class (for example, education, which showed that 44% of those voting had college degrees, as compared to only 21% in the population) confirm the same thing.

Of course, these are only rough indicators, but the differences in income and education are sizeable enough to show that it was the wealthier layers of society which dominated this electorate. To the extent that the working class affected the election, it did so more by abstaining than by anything else. The workers may not have felt it was worth their effort to go to the polls and give their vote to the Democrats, but, so far anyway, that hasn't brought

many of them to vote for, much less put their hopes in, the Republicans either.

Why Were the Workers Angry at the Democrats?

What is certain in the current situation is that the working class is angry today. And with good reason.

The economy might be picking up somewhat, but its benefits are not being shared throughout the population.

There are more jobs, yes, but what jobs? More people than ever before are forced to take part-time jobs, while the level of overtime in factories is higher than it has been at any time since World War II. And what about those new jobs? In 1993, there were 3.66 million more jobs — after subtracting job losses from jobs created — than the year before. But, of those 3.66 million jobs, 2.8 million were either in ... executive or professional positions. Among working class occupations, the largest increase, 1.19 million jobs, came in the service occupations, paying on average only $215 a week, not much more than minimum wage. Meanwhile, the better paying production and laborers' jobs decreased by 1.44 million.

While the top 5% of the population continued to see their share of the total income increase, receiving more than 20% of the population's total income in 1993, the bottom three-fifths of the population saw their share drop. Median yearly wages of full-time workers dropped last year, for the fourth year in a row. Average hourly wages are at their lowest point, corrected for inflation, since 1964.

Obviously, this situation is not caused by the Democrats alone, or even mainly by the Democrats. Most of the problems are the result of a long, continuing process. But, if the workers turned their backs on the Democrats, apparently not caring if they were reelected, it's probably because the Democrats make, and then break, more promises to the working class.

The Unions Can't Break their Addiction to the Democrats

For several years before the 1992 elections, the trade unions had focused the hopes of the workers on a Democratic party victory, particularly for the presidency. They insisted that a Clinton victory would translate into a series of important reforms: a striker replacement bill, increase of minimum wage, reform of the procedures for gaining union recognition, extension of medical care to the whole working population and that the Democrats would protect jobs by defeating Bush's proposed North American Free Trade Agreement. Instead, the Clinton administration pushed NAFTA through a recalcitrant Congress, but then couldn't find the way to get a single one of the unions' priorities passed, despite Democratic control over both houses of Congress.

It is somewhat ironic that the unions today consider the current Republican majority as a massive one, able to move the country far to the right, yet they never seemed to notice that the Democrats, when they had even greater majorities in Congress, as well as the presidency, could not find the way to deliver anything of substance to the labor movement. Of course, it's likely we will see a continuation, and even increase, of the attacks on the population with the results of the election used as justification; but if so, these attacks will be carried out as they always have been, with the complicity of the Democrats.

The fact that even in the current situation the unions find nothing to propose to the working class other than to go on supporting the Democrats, in the face of this dismal Democratic record, means that the unions give the working class no political prospects at all. And it's here where the greatest danger lies of a real move to the right, including in the working class.

While the workers are angry, there is no one who really speaks to that anger, no one whose language even is the least bit radical, no one, that is, other than a few extreme right demagogues. In the future, we could see a good number more of these demagogues, with the workers beginning really to listen to them. Already today, parts of the working class are ready to take up reactionary positions, such as support for California's Proposition 187, which pits native born workers against immigrant workers; or support for the death penalty for the petty-criminals produced by the workings of the capitalists' economy, instead of opposition to the capitalists themselves.

In a time like this, the workers need answers. They need to understand that there could be a way out, that it is possible to break with the bourgeoisie's two parties and all its politicians, Democrat and Republican. But instead of giving the workers any prospects or ideas of what they could do, that is, to start building their own political organizations and fight for their own class interests, the unions just repeat and repeat, "Vote Democrat, Vote Democrat...." At best, this makes the unions irrelevant to the needs of the working class. And worse, it opens up the road to the radical right-wing demagogues, and to a real disaster for the working class, unless the American working class finds the way to break with the policy of the unions ... and the Democrats.