The Spark

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

Presidential Primaries:
Jackson and Kirkland at Bat for the Democrats

May 31, 1984

Many of the news commentators and Democratic Party officials have noted that there seems to be an increase in both interest and voter participation in the 1984 Democratic primaries. While it is always in the interest of such people to encourage a belief in the viability of the electoral process, the statistics from the primaries seem to show this is true. This can be seen most significantly in the black population where the voter registration has been increasing twice as fast as that of whites. The NAACP already has reported that as of January, 750,000 new black voters registered, probably in anticipation of the primaries and in response to local black election campaigns of the previous year. The Joint Center for Political Studies pointed to an increase in black registration in the South: up 12.4 per cent in Georgia, 13.4 per cent in Louisiana, ten per cent in Mississippi. In the last six months the number of black registered voters increased by 15 per cent in North Carolina. In Washington D.C., between November and the primary in May, black voter registration also increased by 15 per cent. There were increases in New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania; and in Ohio, 60,000 black people registered in the weeks leading up to the primary there.

There is also a substantial increase in black voter turnout. In Louisiana and Tennessee, record numbers of black people voted. Black people represent 28 per cent of the electorate in Louisiana, but the black turnout was 40 per cent compared to an overall turnout of 16 per cent. In New York the number of black people voting in the primary was over a third higher than the number which voted in 1980, and black people in NYC represented 32 per cent of that city’s turnout compared to 23 per cent in 1980.

There also seems to be an overall increase in the working class vote in these primaries. It is more difficult to measure since the statistics are given less clearly and are less readily available than those on the black vote. Nevertheless, one can infer an increase by looking at several different factors. First of all the increase in the black vote obviously includes a high percentage of workers. But this does not account for all of the increase. In some states the vote is tabulated for union households and while this includes white collar and professional as well as blue collar workers and their families, still it is an indicator of the working class vote. In the Pennsylvania primary, for example, where union households represent less than 35 per cent of the electorate, they made up 49 per cent of the voters in this primary. Repeatedly in the big industrial states, the working class cities had a higher turnout than did the suburban or rural areas. Thus in Michigan this year, for example, 135,000 people voted in the caucuses, almost double the primary vote in 1980, with the heaviest turnouts in Detroit and the other working class areas of the state.

The primary turnout seems to reflect a change from the voting patterns of the last several presidential elections. Considering that primaries in general have a lower voter turnout and, moreover primary voters more typically come from the middle class white professionals than from the black population or other sections of the working class, this makes the comparison between today’s primary election participation and the trend of participation in recent general elections even more striking. In 1980, only 53.95 per cent of the eligible voters, voted. This represented the lowest turnout since 1948, when only 51 per cent of the voting age population voted. In the presidential elections between 1952 and 1968, about 60 per cent of the electorate voted. From 1972 onwards, the percentage declined. The black vote declined by ten per cent, between 1964 and 1976, and the blue collar voting rate declined by 16 per cent in this same period. It dropped another 2.3 per cent in 1980.

This voter decline reflected a loss of illusions in the government held during the early 1960s. In addition, Viet Nam, Watergate, governmental policies in the crisis, all have increased the already longstanding sentiment in the population that politicians are corrupt and elections are a waste of time.

This trend of voter apathy seems to be reversing itself today: if so, it is due no doubt to the current disgust with Reagan and especially his economic policies, and a will to get rid of him. But it also reflects a renewal of illusions held by the working class and the black population that the Democratic Party will be able to improve the situation.

Certainly most notably responsible for this illusion is Jesse Jackson. According to Robert Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, “Jesse Jackson has had a larger impact on American politics than either he or anyone else anticipated.” Jackson’s appeal can be seen in his primary results. Jackson has managed to win about 17 per cent of the popular vote. He won primaries in Louisiana and Washington D.C., the caucuses in South Carolina, and the popular vote in Virginia. He got over 50 per cent of the black vote in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. And he did even better in the big industrial states, getting 89 per cent of the vote in New York, 74 per cent in Illinois and Pennsylvania. In many other states he carried major cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Gary and Memphis.

The second reason for the increased voter turnout is probably due to the concerted efforts of the AFL-CIO, which for the first time campaigned directly in a primary election. The AFL-CIO raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mondale through union Political Action Committees. It provided additional support through mailings and union operated phone banks, like the ones used in Illinois to reach 800,000 labor voters. They provided the legwork for the campaigns in the big labor states.

In addition, the AFL-CIO played on the workers’ fears that Hart might be the nominee. They emphasized his vote against the Chrysler bailout, and pictured him as an enemy of labor. Thus after Hart won the early primaries, including New Hampshire which had only two thirds of the normal turnout, the working class vote swelled in the big industrial states that followed and led to a series of Mondale victories.

If Votes Were Money in the Bank, the Workers Would Be Rich

According to Jackson, the increased black voter registration and the black turnout for him means that more pressure will be exerted on the Democratic Party to force it to change. Already, according to Jackson, “Blacks will never again be taken for granted” by the Democratic Party. Describing the change he said, “We moved from a relationship of paternalism to one born of power.” “Voting” is for Jackson “the new black power” of the 1980s.

A big part of the U.S. left seems to have accepted Jackson’s view of his candidacy. Thus the Communist Party describes Jackson’s candidacy as a means to put pressure on the other Democratic candidates and as a way “to raise advanced positions on central issues.” The Guardian sees Jackson’s campaign as giving “meaning for the politically rejected of this country.” And Workers World Party praises Jackson’s campaign as a way “to fight racism.” This part of the U.S. left instead of offering the working class or black people a political alternative, simply tails after the Democrats.

According to Lane Kirkland, looking at the voting results, the AFL-CIO’s new strategy of endorsing Mondale in advance of the two conventions has paid off. Mondale, pictured as a true “friend of labor”, will hopefully be the Democratic nominee, and he will owe the AFL-CIO for the support they gave him to win the nomination. If he wins in November, the AFL-CIO will finally again have a “friend of labor” in the White House, which the AFL-CIO hopes will mean appointments of other “friends” and a more cooperative attitude by Congress and the courts to labor’s needs.

Both Jackson and Kirkland tell black people and the workers that they can get the Democratic Party and the government to be what they want them to be if the black people and the working class come out in sufficient numbers to vote for the Democrats, and therefore show that they are key to a Democratic victory. But if this were sufficient, the Democratic Party would have been theirs already decades ago.

The Democratic Party, since the end of the last century, based itself on its city machines and their ability to tie each new group of immigrant workers to its apron strings. This was translated into a support from the whole working class, organized by the labor unions in the 1930s, and maintained by them ever since. The union officials have traditionally depicted the Democratic Party as the “friend of labor” in order to gain the support of the working class for the Democratic Party.

The idea of the black swing vote as a pressure tactic is equally old and worn out. Since the 1930s, those black people who could vote, voted for the Democratic Party. This tradition was reinforced in the 1960s by the Civil Rights Movement leadership. In both 1976 and 1980 while the rate of black voter participation was less than what it had been in the 1960s, nonetheless in 1980 black voters accounted for 21 per cent of Carter’s vote, double its percentage in the population, and in 1976 it provided Carter with his margin of victory.

There were periods in history when the working class and the black population were able to force the Democratic Party to listen to their demands, and even to grant some of them. But it was not due to bigger votes on their part as a pressure tactic. The Democratic Party passed social measures and gave concessions to the working class in the 1930s, and passed civil rights legislation in the 1960s, it’s true. But in the 1930s it was the social movement of millions of workers who occupied factories, went on general strikes, massed in the streets; in the 1960s it was the millions of black people who demonstrated, sat-in, rioted in the cities that forced this change.

If the Democratic Party gave concessions at times to such social movements it was not because the Democratic Party was different then. The Democratic Party was then, what it is now and what it will no doubt continue to be – a bourgeois party, run by and in the interest of the ruling class. Its finances, leadership, even its officeholders have always reflected this. The vast majority of Democratic presidents have either been millionaires or come from bourgeois families, like Roosevelt or Kennedy, for example. Cabinet members, too, most often come from the rich or the corporate and banking establishment, like Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy, who was the former head of the Ford Motor Company, or Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State under Carter, who came from one of the most prestigious law firms on Wall Street.

A study in 1972 when the rules of financial reporting of political campaigns were changed, showed that 66 per cent of the Senators and 74 per cent of the Representatives came from a tiny fraction of business and professional families, only three per cent in the House came from labor union backgrounds, and only 2.6 per cent were black.

The unions may give millions of dollars this year to the Democratic Party electoral campaign. They may provide the foot soldiers to turn out the vote. They may turn over their resources to the Democratic Party. But this will not mean the Democratic Party will be responsive to the needs of the workers. It simply means that the unions are going to do what they have done for years: be the lackeys for the Democratic Party.

The Only Beneficiaries Are a Few Democratic Politicians

Once again as in the past, the only real beneficiary of an increased black voter registration, and an increased black and labor vote will be the Democratic Party. Of course, this assumes that Jackson can turn over the vote he won in the primaries to someone else in November, and that the unions can increase the working class vote in November proportionate to what they increased it in the primaries. It also assumes that black people and other workers will not be so tired of elections from the primaries that they pass on voting in November. And lastly it depends on the international situation, and the economic recovery, all of which are beyond the Democrats’ control.

Maybe Jackson will end up with a new position in the Democratic Party hierarchy, or even a cabinet post if the Democrats win. Maybe a bigger share of the pie will go to black politicians and the black petty bourgeoisie in the Democratic Party structure. Perhaps they will grant some of the reforms that Jackson demanded from Charles Manatt, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in their April 23 accord, like increased black committee posts, and increased minority business at the Democratic Convention. Maybe the AFL-CIO will have more positions in the Democratic Party structure, as the UAW now has in Michigan. Maybe it will have so-called “friends” on the NLRB, OSHA, etc. But even these small crumbs are by no means guaranteed.

For Jackson and Kirkland, support for the Democratic Party is perfectly logical. They defend the capitalist order, and accept thus the political framework that limits the working class and black people to electoral politics and the choice between two capitalist parties. They are both willing servants of the ruling class, and they both have their places, though small ones, in the smoke-filled chambers of the Democratic Party.

But what do the renewed illusions in the Democratic Party mean for the working class or for black people? It could mean that they wait and hope exactly when they need to begin to fight. The working class and black people will not get what they need and want by voting in primaries or electing Democrats in November. Illusions can get in the way of preparing to fight, they block and camouflage the path forward, at best they are a detour. A confidence in your enemy is never a step forward, but a step towards disarming yourself in the face of danger. But even assume that the illusions held by the workers and the black people in the Democratic Party don’t prevent them from fighting. If a social movement of the working class, of the black people does develop, but if the workers and the black people have illusions in the Democratic Party, those illusions can serve to derail the movement much as they have before.

Black people and workers need to learn again to rely on and have confidence in themselves and not on bourgeois politicians who pretend to be their friends. If they want to solve their problems they will have to see that the solutions depend on them and on what they do, and not on the ballot box and the Democratic Party.