The Spark

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

2018 Elections:
A Working Class Campaign in Michigan

Jan 10, 2019

It’s no exaggeration to say that Trump has dominated political life in the United States since 2016. And he continued to do it in the 2018 election campaign. Appearing at one rally after another, he campaigned as much for himself as for the Republican candidates he supposedly was supporting. He needed Republicans to protect him from the Mueller investigation – this was the point of his speeches, one after another. Effectively, he made the elections a referendum on support for himself.

He was rebuffed in the vote for the House of Representatives, whose seats were all up for election, and the Democrats took a significant majority, rolling up nearly nine million more votes than the Republicans. But the Senate, with only one-third of its members up for election this year, stayed in the hands of the Republicans, giving them even a tiny increase in their control.

The Republicans continued to maintain their extreme right-wing base built around religious fundamentalists. And Trump kept a good part of the rural white workers he had attracted in 2016, based in part on his seeming to thumb his nose at the establishment, and in part on his demagogic appeals to racist attitudes. This counted in the vote for the Senate, whose members represent states, regardless of how big or small their population. The Republican margin was determined finally by the vote in the thinly populated rural states.

The Democrats were able to increase the participation rate of urban workers who usually vote Democrat – when they bother to vote. For many years now, they haven’t voted. A part of the increased Democratic turnout was certainly motivated by fear of Trump – particularly among black workers. And in the areas where there was a large increase in turnout since the 2014 mid-term election, the vote primarily favored the Democrats.

But the Democrats also benefitted from a large shift of voters who usually vote Republican: the well-off middle-class population, particularly women. Upset by Trump’s misogyny and his lack of “presidential decorum,” they voted Democrat this time.

The Democrats made the axis of their campaign turn around the question of “diversity”; that is, their candidates were supposed to more closely represent the population as a whole. In contrast to the Republicans who put up white men almost exclusively, the Democrats had many more women as candidates, a few more black people, a few more Hispanics, two Muslim women. (One of these Muslim women, however, gained the Democratic nomination by taking over a seat traditionally filled by a black Democrat. Calling her a “person of color” could not hide the fact that so-called “Muslim representation” was built on the loss of “black representation.”) Finally, among their new “diverse” candidates were 20 former military personnel.

The Democrats may call this “diversity” – but this kind of “diversity” simply hid issues of policy and of class. The fact the Democrats put up women, for example, did not even mean that all their new candidates backed full access to abortion for women. A number don’t. “Diversity” certainly didn’t mean that all their candidates were sympathetic to the march of the migrants through Mexico toward the U.S. border. In fact, some of their candidates used words as demeaning as Trump’s when he claimed that the migrants were a threat to “American prosperity” or “American jobs.” Three of the newly elected Democrats previously had worked for the CIA, and four more had held high military rank. In other words, their careers and training came in the activity to impose U.S. corporate control over the rest of the world.

As played out by the Democrats, “diversity” ignored the basic problems confronting working people, women and men. A few may have given lip-service to an increase in the minimum wage – but pegged at a level that would still leave a family of four in poverty. And who among these “new” Democrats even bothered to raise the bitter problems caused by the racism of this society for ordinary Black and Hispanic people?

There may be more women elected – still not equal to their share in the population – but women are as able as men to reflect the preoccupations of the middle class from which they spring. Or of the spy agencies! Women elected to Congress, financed by the wealthy bourgeois class that funded their campaigns, can as easily serve bourgeois interests as men do. (And these new Democrats had lots of money from the class that controls wealth today – more than did the Republicans!)

It was certainly not an election in which working class women and men could recognize themselves and their own class interests. Neither party really spoke to the social and political situation workers are confronting every day, and which from week to week gets worse.

As if to drive reality home, GM announced on the heels of the election that it was stopping production in five plants in the U.S. and Canada, cutting 14,700 jobs, axing two more plants in other countries. It was a warning directed to the auto workers, whose union contract is to be renegotiated this year, that more sacrifices will be demanded. Beyond that, it was a statement that GM is ready to tear up even its own productive apparatus, for the sake of the big investment houses, which hold important parts of GM’s stock. GM dared to say it has to accumulate capital for future investment in electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles. In reality, it needs still more profit to satisfy its stockholders today. They want even more than the 20 billion dollars GM gave them over the last three and a half years. GM is hardly alone in such destructive activity. In just the one year 2018, big companies bought back one trillion dollars worth of their own stock – while their productive machine continued to degrade, and their workforce was ground down in the push to squeeze more profit out of fewer workers.

To Speak for the Working Class

In the midst of the worsening political and social situation, Working Class Party again presented candidates on the ballot in Michigan. Its initial appearance had come in 2016.

The whole political situation had been in flux in 2016. The response to Trump himself was a proof of that, as was the response to Bernie Sanders campaigning for the Democratic nomination. On a much smaller scale, the response in Michigan to Working Class Party testified to the fact that people were looking for something outside the normal two-party election framework that represents capitalist interests in the United States. Overall, there were nearly a quarter of a million people who voted for the one state-wide candidate of Working Class Party, and more than a quarter of those votes came from areas of the state where Working Class Party had no roots and could not campaign. People often voted for the simple words that they first ran into when they opened their ballot: “Working Class Party.”

In 2018, the situation was markedly different – Trump weighed on the scene in ways that worried many people. The people campaigning for Working Class Party certainly heard that on the street. A number of people said that the working class needed its own party, only to add, “I agree with you, but you know this year, I have to vote for the Democrats to stop Trump.”

The results for Working Class Party corresponded to that statement. A mid-term election like 2018 can’t directly compare with a presidential election. Nonetheless, some things did stand out in Michigan. The Republican percentage of the votes went down a little from 2016, but the Democratic percentage went up a lot more. And a part of the Democratic increase came at the expense of the five “minor” parties on the ballot, including Working Class Party. Even if Working Class Party still had the highest vote of the minor parties for its state-wide candidate, her vote went down, not only numerically, but also in percentages.

The change in the political atmosphere made it all the more important that Working Class Party fielded more candidates this time, eleven instead of three two years ago. It had candidates in one-third of Michigan’s Congressional districts, as well as four candidates for the Michigan State Senate, and two candidates for State Board of Education: a teacher and a student. And one of the State Senate candidates came from Grand Rapids, the other big metropolitan area in the state.

Once again, there was little access to the big media, but with more candidates, usually very enthusiastic, there were more interviews in secondary outlets. The candidates appeared in more debates, and had more questionnaires to fill out, and that gave wider coverage – as well as experience for the new candidates, most of whom had never done something like this before. Above all, there were more candidates speaking in more districts for the idea that workers need their own party.

The campaign rested on the kind of activities where person-to-person contact was key. Working Class Party candidates went to parades and fairs, where people had time to stand and talk. They went to a community Halloween party, for kids, where the parents mostly stood around, and were ready to talk. They went to state offices where people have to come to renew their driver’s license or other official authorization. The lines were long – not only did people have time to talk, they were mad because they had to wait so long! Working Class Party candidates were invited to speak at a black veterans’ club, and to a motorcycle club, and the homes of people who invited friends and family to come meet the candidates. Working Class Party campaigners were invited by a few pastors to stand by the door of their churches when services got out. And they went to ethnic festivals, an art fair and street fairs. Some of the candidates set up tables in community colleges where they knew people.

Friends and families of the candidates took stacks of flyers to give to people they knew. Others bought the button, which said simply, “Working Class Party,” or the cap or the T-shirt, and wore them to work.

Spark militants campaigned for and introduced some of the candidates at the gates of workplaces where Spark has newsletters or is known.

Overall, Working Class Party scores ran from 1.2% on up, with most of the candidates at or somewhat above 2%. But in the 5th Congressional district that includes Flint, Kathy Goodwin had 12,643 votes, or 4.57%. And in the 13th Congressional district that includes the heart of Detroit, Sam Johnson had 21,978 votes, or 11.35%. In both of these districts, Working Class Party ran counter to the general trend of losing votes to the Democrats.

In the 5th district, there are a number of small towns whose GM factories have mostly closed. And the experience of the state-run water system in Flint, which poisoned Flint’s children with high levels of lead, means that a certain part of the population has no confidence in either party, Democrat or Republican. But Working Class Party had another advantage in the district. Kathy has long-standing roots there, having grown up and gone to school there, with family and friends who still live there and campaigned personally for her.

Finally, in the 13th district, the size of Sam’s vote is in part due to the enormous number of links he has – with workers at many auto plants during the time when he worked at Chrysler; through his very large family that links him to many other people; and with people in Detroit neighborhoods who have known him for years. But there was another issue in this district, which was the traditional district of black Detroit, one of the first Congressional districts to have a black Congressperson. In the August primary, the black vote had split among four candidates, opening the door to someone else. The woman who won, Rashida Tlaib, was backed by big money coming from Democratic left-wing PACs and she slid into the nomination with only a very small plurality. Today, she may be one of the stars of the newly styled Democratic Party, feted by the national media, but in a city where well-off whites are pushing black people out, it seemed to many people like just one more indignity. The resentment that still existed in the city after the August primary expressed itself in the November election. Sam’s candidacy gave people a choice that let them express not only their anger, but also their class interests. Moreover, his campaign, resting on a working class basis, attracted a very high vote in a number of working class precincts in the nearby suburbs that also make up the district, even averaging over 30% in Garden City, where he spoke on its municipal TV.

In 2018, the working class found itself split between two bourgeois parties, once again demonstrating the dangers proceeding from the lack of a real working class party. Without a party based on the workers’ own class interests, speaking to them and for them, working people can be pulled behind the political instruments of their class enemy.

The American working class has never had its own party. The closest thing to it came in the five election campaigns that Eugene Debs carried out a century ago, when he used his candidacy for president in order to speak to the vital problems confronting the working class: the need for workers to organize their own party; the necessity of opposing World War I; the importance for American workers of identifying with the Russian revolution of 1917; and the need and possibilities for socialism. Debs campaigned across the country, often from the back of a train stopped in a train yard, discussing with working people that they have the capacity to run a society in their own class interests, and thus serve the needs of humanity.

But Debs’ last campaign was almost a century ago.

The campaign for Working Class Party can’t claim to have stepped into this enormous gap, not even in the one state of Michigan, and as for the other 49 states, it didn’t appear at all. But in Michigan, by its very existence it raised this basic issue: the working class needs to build its own party. It is the key issue facing the American working class. At least in parts of Michigan this year, more voices for this necessity were heard.