The Spark

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

2016 Presidential Elections:
The Working Class Had No Voice

Nov 20, 2016

Donald Trump, who promised to create 25 million jobs, is president – winning the electoral vote while losing the popular vote by maybe two million. A number of states that often vote against the party of a sitting president voted Republican this year: Ohio and Iowa, for example. But what ensured Trump the election was the defection of three states in the industrial heartland that have long been “firewalls” for the Democratic Party: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Michigan and Pennsylvania had supported a Republican only once in the previous six presidential elections; Wisconsin, not even once.

Trump won Michigan by a very thin margin, about thirteen thousand votes, less than three-tenths of one percent, out of 4.8 million votes cast for president in the state. Last time, Obama won by 450,000 votes, about 9.5 percent.

Twelve counties that voted last time for Obama shifted to Trump. All of them, with one exception, are counties which are not particularly prosperous. Most are counties where factories have closed and many are impoverished rural counties. With one exception, their population is very large majority white, with a high proportion of working people. The shift from Obama to Trump in just one of those counties, Macomb – by roughly 64,000 votes – more than accounts for Trump’s margin of victory.

At the same time, Wayne, Genesee and Saginaw counties – traditionally Democratic counties with large proportions of black and Hispanic workers – had a drop in turnout from 2012. There were 48,632 fewer votes between them, compared to Trump’s statewide margin of 13,000 votes. In Saginaw – where turnout dropped from 66 percent down to 60 – the vote even shifted to Trump, by a very tiny margin.

Similar patterns showed up in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which Trump also won by razor thin margins. In 2012, Erie County, home to a giant GE plant in Pennsylvania, gave Obama a 16-point margin, more than what he needed to win the whole state. In 2016, Trump won that same county by two points. Wisconsin, which Trump won by a bare 27,000 votes had a big decrease in voting turnout, with the biggest drops coming in the areas of Milwaukee that are predominantly black.

The Democratic Party’s traditional working class “firewall” collapsed. If just these three states – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – had remained Democratic, Clinton would have had the electoral vote also, and thus the presidency. But similar results occurred elsewhere – they just could not be seen as clearly.

Trump maintained most of the Republican party’s usual base among the well-to-do and among the fundamentalist Christian population. But put together they don’t nearly approach a majority of the electorate. Trump won because of a shift of working class voters. It’s important to remember than even though it was most strongly a shift of white workers to Trump, he also got a small share of black workers, and a somewhat larger share of Hispanic workers.

So the question is, what drove this shift by working class voters?

Eight Years under Obama – A Continuation of Bush

Eight years ago, Obama was elected with many workers’ hopes pinned on him. The nation was caught in the midst of a financial crisis tied to the mortgage crash, which had decimated large neighborhoods of big cities, while leaving the banks reeling. The productive economy tanked.

For eight years, Obama moved to alleviate the crisis – by defending the interests of the banks, the corporations, the big insurance industry and the wealthy class that controls them.

The banks were bailed out at enormous taxpayer expense, which led to a previously unimaginable overhang of government debt, used as the justification for cuts in funding for and restrictions on social services, public services and education.

The auto companies were bailed out at the expense of workers’ wages and jobs. The terms of the bailout required that auto workers give up large wage and benefit concessions and that “unprofitable” plants be closed. The drastic changes in auto then spiraled through much of the rest of industry. Within less than a decade, industrial work, which had been relatively high-paid, became low-paid.

Neighborhood schools serving working class children were closed, and experienced teachers pushed out of poor districts, under the pretext of the corporate-inspired testing program established by the Bush administration, but continued under Obama. That program was a kind of Trojan horse in the public schools, working to drain education money into private accounts, even to privatize the schools.

Social Security payments stagnated, under the watchful eye of the federal government, whose statisticians declared there was no inflation – even as the prices seniors paid for medical care skyrocketed.

Young men, for whom this system could provide no jobs, were rounded up, shunted off to prison under so-called “criminal justice” programs that transformed petty violations, or just the suspicion of violations, into major crimes – a program that has led to an extraordinary level of incarceration never before seen in a so-called “democratic” country. It also led to the increase in killings by cops of people on the streets, many of whom, but not all, are black. Of course this vast incarceration project did not begin with Obama. It goes back to George W. Bush, before him to Bill Clinton, before him to Ronald Reagan. But Obama continued it, and saw fit through most of his presidency to lecture black men for not taking care of their children – the same black men condemned to prison by a “justice” system spinning wildly out of control.

Even women’s rights, which Democrats pretended to defend in the election campaign, were put on the back burner during the eight years of Obama’s presidency, just as they were under Bill Clinton. Much of the attack on abortion may have come in Republican-led states, but the Democrats did little to stand up to that savage assault. And Obama’s medical insurance reform legitimized it. He carefully excluded abortion coverage and limited access to birth control, particularly for teens. The argument given by Democrats for excluding abortion was typical Democratic subterfuge: we have to forego abortion in order to get the rest of the program passed. This was in 2010, when Democrats controlled not only the White House, but also both houses of Congress, and thus should have been able to pass what the Democratic leadership wanted.

Obama presented the “Affordable Care Act” as a program to give people access to medical care. In fact, it was a program requiring people to buy medical insurance from private companies, most of which are for-profit. That should have come as no surprise since the program was literally written by representatives of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries – as the Democratic administration subsequently acknowledged. Yes, people whose income was below a certain level could apply for subsidies. But those subsidies, in effect, are payments to the insurance companies. And they don’t cover the large deductibles associated with the least expensive plans – amounting to over $6,500 per family in 2015. This meant that a family had to pay $6,500 out of pocket before insurance began to pay – which is the reason many people still didn’t go to the doctor. Deductibles alone increased by an average of 63 percent since the “Affordable Care” Act was initiated in 2011. Furthermore, the plans that people can “afford” are often set up with a very small circle of doctors or medical facilities.

Finally, U.S. wars in the Middle East and Africa were continued and expanded, providing enormous profits for the war materials and construction industries, not to mention defending the interests of Big Oil in the region – but draining money out of public services and education. Those wars also produced the deaths or mental and physical destruction of many of the young people who volunteered for the military as a way to escape the pervasive unemployment they faced.

The policies of the Obama presidency were essentially a continuation of policies laid out by the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush.

An Economic Expansion, Whose Benefits Escaped the Working Class

Hillary Clinton vowed during her campaign to “build on the progress President Obama has made” in expanding the economy.

Progress? It’s true the Gross Domestic Product has increased for the last seven and a half years. And wealth has increased rapidly. But 95 percent of the increase in income over the Obama years accrued to that wealthiest “one percent,” while Obama continued most of Bush’s tax policies that helped that process along.

Yes, there are jobs – about nine million new jobs created since 2009. But that nine million increase in the number of jobs was accounted for almost completely by jobs that were part-time, temporary or very low-wage full-time – or by jobs for the already very well-off.

Even if there has been a slight increase in the industrial work force in the past two years, there are still nearly 1.5 million fewer industrial workers today than when Obama took office, and nearly five million less than in 2000. The disappearance of what used to be the base of employment in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin is what Trump played on during the election – over and over again.

Obama and Clinton pointed to steady improvements in the official unemployment rate. They left out of their pep-talk the fact that fewer people of working age are in the labor force today: less than 63 percent, compared to 66 percent when Obama took office in 2009. That three percent difference accounts for 15 million more people who have been pushed out of a labor market that has no openings for them. All told, there are now 95 million people who are of an age to work, but aren’t working.

Median family income continues to fall backward to less than it was 16 years ago, adjusted for inflation. The income of those without college degrees has fallen the furthest.

Instead of acknowledging the ominous situation facing the working population, Clinton simply asserted that “things were getting better.” And that cast the die for this election.

Things getting better? Maybe they were for what the Democrats call the “liberal middle class” – that is, the privileged layer of professionals, liberal arts practitioners, denizens of Silicon Valley, etc., that Clinton’s campaign rested on.

But for the vast majority of the working class and for the rural poor, for the small businesses owners, no, they weren’t. Things are NOT better. And a good number of them gave their vote to Trump as a way to say that.

A Vote for Change?

The New York Times quoted a GE retiree in Pennsylvania who said he voted for Trump for “change.” He added, “That’s why I voted for Obama. I thought he was going to do something. He didn’t do anything.”

People who voted for Trump may have hoped thus to thumb their noses at the banks, the lobbyists and the “establishment,” they may have hoped they were voting for “change.” But they were also voting for something else – and that is the virulent racism, despisal of women, and venomous condemnation of immigrants that Trump espoused and normalized. Maybe some of them voted for him intentionally because of those ideas. Probably more thought they could just ignore this fundamental core of his message because he talked about jobs.

But Trump is a package deal: a billionaire, who bragged about cheating on his taxes; a casino owner who sought out immigrant workers forced to work for the lowest pay; a scam artist who set up a “university” aimed at draining the pockets of young working people who hoped for a better job; and a vile entertainer who bragged about firing people.

To believe that good-paying jobs are his goal is to turn your back on what he has shown himself to be: a slimy speculator out for his own gain, a demagogue who viciously played on one prejudice after another, as a way to climb his way into the White House, and a man who believes his money gives him the right to put his hands on any woman he wants.

There is no way forward for working people unless they organize together, work to confront their problems collectively, fight for the only “change” that could benefit all of them – that is, fight to put their hands on the money that has been stolen from them and their labor for decades. Fight against the greedy class of which Trump is a prime example.

The coming months may well see a growth of these reactionary ideas and reactionary actions – but that’s not just because of Trump or his campaign. The same kind of extreme right nationalism, laced with the racism that Trump rested on, has appeared in almost all the so-called “advanced” societies. All these countries have been hit by the same economic crisis which has ravaged the U.S. In all of them, the capitalist class, seeking to ensure its hold over the wealth of society, pushes to divide the working population into ethnic segments isolated from each other, even opposed to each other, sometimes violently – a working class weakened in the face of a growing attack by a voracious capitalist class.

The situation would not be better today if Clinton had been elected. The fact that she was ready to salute Trump as the new president, the fact that she calls on her supporters to now come together behind him for “the good of the nation,” shows exactly how she would have acted as a president in the face of the growing racism. She would have counseled “patience” to those who would act against it. She would have asked her attorney general to “look into it,” “study it,” “offer suggestions of how to deal with it” – with reproaches for those who don’t want to wait.

In the most basic sense, this 2016 election is marked by a deep demoralization of the working class, which has not found the way to fight for itself in the midst of this crisis, has not found the way to organize its forces together for decades. A vote for Trump, hoping he would do it for them, was a mark of that demoralization, but so was the vote for Clinton, who promised only more of the same.

Renew the Democratic Party?

A day after the election, a scheduled AFL-CIO press conference was cancelled. “Everybody is reeling from this,” said a leader of the USWA. Union polls had shown that only half the union members, in some cases less, voted for Clinton in the “swing states.”

And why did so many vote for Trump? “It’s 30 years of getting screwed by both parties, Democrats and Republicans. They were willing to take a chance on anything.” So said the head of the AFL-CIO Building Trades Council, Sean McGarvey.

Richard Trumpka, AFL-CIO president concurred: “Voters in both the primary and general election have delivered a clear message: Enough.”

Calling the results of the election a “repudiation of the American power structure,” Robert Reich, who served as Labor Secretary in Bill Clinton’s first administration, asserted: “The Democratic Party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades the party has been taken over by Washington-based fundraisers, bundlers, analysts, and pollsters who have focused instead on raising campaign money from corporate and Wall Street executives and getting votes from upper middle-class households in ‘swing’ suburbs.”

Sam Riddle, another Democrat and often referred to as “a well-known Detroit political consultant,” had this to say: “... the children of Detroit and urban America have suffered the malignant neglect of the Democratic Party that we have blindly been giving our votes to, and they’ve delivered nothing to us.... The Democrats got what they had coming and now we have to rebuild the Democratic party.”

Bernie Sanders, who ran a primary campaign which he styled as an attempt to take back the Democratic Party from the power elite, reiterated that same idea, five days after the November election: “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.... I think a lot of people do not think the Democratic Party is standing with them. That has got to change.”

In one way, or another, these “left-wing” Democrats all propose the same thing: “transform the Democratic Party.” They all pretend that a party that has systematically defended policies in the interests of the capitalist class could be transformed into a party of the working class. All they need is a magic wand and a wish-bone from the Thanksgiving turkey!

The Democratic Party these Democrats decry did not just stem from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. And the loss this time was not simply produced because Hillary Clinton did not “feel the pain” working people feel. The Democratic party has always been part and parcel of that “power structure.” And it has performed its greatest service to the capitalist class by diverting the working class and other ordinary people away from mobilizing and building their own political organizations – which is exactly what all these “left-wing” Democrats are trying to do..

There was a missing factor in this election, as in so many others going back for the better part of a century: the working class has no party of its own, no way to express its own class interests. This is the basic problem of our day. This is what has to be addressed. The working class needs its own political organization – one that would give workers a voice of their own, speak to their problems from their own class viewpoint; one that would offer policies based on what would serve them and most of the population, one that would work to build and reinforce human solidarity inside the working class and other ordinary layers of the population, one that would stand with working people in the fights they begin to make.