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

Is Reagan Worse Than Carter?

Sep 30, 1980

All the major opinion polls now indicate that if the presidential elections were held today, Ronald Regan would be the winner over Jimmy Carter. Although many things could happen between now and November, Ronald Reagan looks as if he could very well be the next president.

The thought of Ronald Reagan in the White House sends chills down the spines of some people. Naturally the Democrats are worried about their jobs. But there are others, like the trade union officials, and some leftists, who claim that Reagan and the Republicans would carry out more attacks than Carter would against the working class, against black people, and against women. Reagan, they claim, would shift the government to the right.

Those who pretend to fear Reagan’s election today counsel the working class to vote for Carter. Not because Carter’s presidency has benefitted the working class, but because it is the only way to stop Reagan from taking office. Carter may be bad, but Reagan would be worse.

In fact, Reagan’s election, by itself, does not necessarily imply anything one way or the other about the future policy of the bourgeoisie. There could be more attacks in the coming years; but during Carter’s four years, there has already been an increase in attacks against the workers. It will make no difference if it is Reagan or if it is Carter in office; the question of the government’s policy will be decided in the function of the bourgeoisie’s needs and interests. We shouldn’t confuse the policies of the bourgeoisie with the electoral campaign of its politicians.

Why Did the Republicans Nominate Reagan?

The goal of the politicians of both bourgeois parties is to be elected. When the parties nominate a candidate, it is because they think this candidate has an appeal in the population and can win the necessary votes, not only for himself, but also for the candidates for many other offices.

Ronald Reagan’s appeal apparently is his conservative image.

At the beginning of the primary election process, it was exactly this conservative image that made many Republicans hesitate about Reagan. They feared a repeat of the Republican Party past.

Back in 1964, the Republican party nominated another spokesman for conservativism, Barry Goldwater. But the election produced near disaster for the Republicans. Goldwater won only 5 states. In the same year, the Republicans lost 37 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Results in state and local elections were just as bad for them.

After seeing these results, Goldwater was pushed aside within the Republican Party. When they saw that Goldwater’s campaign was a big loser, the Republican Party swore never to let the party get caught in that kind of situation again.

Yet today the Republicans have once again nominated a conservative spokesman. By the time of the Republican Convention in Detroit, Reagan had the overwhelming support of the Republican Party, the same party that had been burned by the conservative campaign of Goldwater.

If today the Republicans have once again nominated a conservative spokesman, it is because they believe – rightly or wrongly – that in order to win the election in 1980, their party has an interest in appearing more conservative. They believe that the opinion of the population is shifting to the right. Under such a condition, Reagan’s conservative image could win the Republicans votes, and not lose the votes as Goldwater did.

The Republicans are not alone in their evaluation of a rightward drift in the population. The Democrats have, in fact, drawn the very same conclusions. Finally, it is why they chose Carter instead of Kennedy, despite all they will have to try to overcome in defending Carter’s record of the past four years.

In the opinion of both of these parties, 1980 is not the time for liberals, it is the time for conservatives. It is the time for Reagan versus Carter, and not for Anderson versus Kennedy.

The Two Faces of Reagan’s Campaign

Today, the fact that it is the Democrats who are in office makes the campaign of the Republicans easier. The economic crisis and the energy shortage can be depicted as the results of Carter’s policies. And a series of embarrassments on the international level can be used to make Carter seem incompetent.

For the Republicans, this situation gives them an opening. As the party “out of office” they can claim that everything is the result of the Democrats’ policies. And they can appeal to the population, claiming that they have the solutions, if only they are able to get into office.

Above all, the Republicans can bank on the fact that the mood in the middle classes, which are the traditional base of support for the Republican Party, has become more conservative in the last years. The middle classes have also found their way of life threatened by the crisis. To all the deterioration they see around them, Reagan offers the restoration of the “good old days.” Reagan talks about the old virtues of the family, the home, the stability of the world, and of U.S. dominance. These are the conservative images that Reagan holds out to the middle classes as solutions to their problems.

Winning the vote of the middle classes is not, however, a guarantee for Reagan to win the election. He also needs to pull some of the traditional base of the Democratic Party away from Carter.

First of all, Reagan can hope that some sections of the working class and poor layers of the population will be open to the conservative appeals he is making to the middle classes. He hopes that they, too, will respond to the call for the good old days of unchallenged U.S. dominance over the rest of the world.

Second, Reagan has played on the racist views many white workers hold. During the campaign, Reagan has gone out of his way to snub black leaders and affront black organizations. For example, Reagan was the only candidate to refuse an invitation to speak before the NAACP. When it was even just a question of addressing the black members of his own Republican Party, Reagan showed up over 20 minutes late, and had virtually nothing to say.

By taking these actions, Reagan wanted to demonstrate that he is independent of these black organizations and leaders. He wanted to show that he was different from all those politicians who want to give the appearance of being concerned about black people. Reagan hopes this will help win him some votes from a part of the working class.

In part he can play this role because he has no hope to attract the vote of black people anyway. The best he can hope for is an abstention. And such an abstention is likely given the perception of Carter by black people today. The big majority of black people who voted pulled the lever for Carter last time. But for the last four years, they have seen no results from their support. If the economic crisis has meant hard times for the working class as a whole, it has meant a doubly hard time for black people.

But Reagan’s campaign is not wholly based on his conservatism. Reagan is also trying to appeal to the working class in a different way. He is trying to touch all the bases he can. Reagan talks about jobs, about inflation, and about high taxes. He talks about the economy as if he could magically turn everything around and end the crisis. Of course, he proposes nothing. Everything, he says, is simply the fault of Jimmy Carter and the Democrats.

The Republican Party is trying to break from the image of being the party of the rich. It is trying to claim legitimacy for Reagan’s campaign in the eyes of the traditional supporters of the Democratic Party.

During his nomination-acceptance speech, we heard the Republican presidential candidate claiming that he is the real follower of the Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He wants to appear as the friend of labor and the poor, ready to propose radical solutions. We have seen Reagan hold meetings with officials of the UAW. And we have seen the Republican Party holding its convention in the industrial city of Detroit.

If the Republicans are able to pull votes away from the Democrats’ traditional base, as the polls indicate they may be able to do, then Reagan could win the election.

But even if Reagan doesn’t gain many votes from the working class, he may still win the election. What he needs is simply for a significant section of the Democrats’ traditional base to abstain. If the Republicans are at least able to give Reagan’s candidacy enough legitimacy so that the Democrats are not able to mobilize the working class vote as a vote AGAINST Reagan, then Reagan could take the White House.

This is why the Democrats, and the labor leaders who are tied to them, try to raise fears about Reagan. It is why they talk about the government moving to the right if Reagan wins. The labor bureaucrats know that if the Democrats are going to have a chance to win in November, they will have to turn a significant section of the working class out to vote. And they know that they cannot mobilize this vote on the basis of what Carter and the Democrats have done for the working class; that is, implicitly they know that Carter is not better than Reagan. But they claim openly in their speeches that Reagan is worse than Carter.

Carter may be bad, but Reagan will be worse – this is what they will say. Worse and worse. They will tell workers that if they don’t want a Barry Goldwater-type madman in the White House, then their only choice is to vote for Carter. They will try to convince the working class that this election could make things substantially worse for the workers if Reagan wins, when in reality all these labor leaders and the Democrats are out to do is save their own skins and their own favored positions.

Both Reagan and Carter Are Ready to Play the Role the Bourgeoisie Needs

The candidates and those tied to them may worry about the results of the elections. For them there are important consequences. But the bourgeoisie knows that the Democrats and the Republicans are both their parties, and that Carter and Reagan are both their men. They know these politicians can change their tune as fast as chameleons can change their color.

Just look at today’s election. John Anderson is campaigning in the image of being a liberal alternative. Yet Anderson has one of the most conservative voting records around. Reagan himself has changed in the past. He was a registered Democrat until 1962, and better known in Hollywood during the 1950s as a union man, president of the Actor’s Guild, than he was for his screen performances.

Today, while Reagan plays the role of a conservative, he also claims to be the new FDR. Reagan, like the other politicians, has made it clear that off the stage, as well as on, he can perform any role that is assigned to him.

For the bourgeoisie, the electoral campaigning of these different politicians has meaning only in so far as it helps to reinforce and maintain the illusions in the electoral system. They want the working class to believe there are real choices in the elections. They want the working class to believe that who gets in office is of great importance.

Today this illusion is getting harder and harder to maintain. It is not at all that the working class is ready to put forward any other solution. But a strong disillusionment in the electoral system does exist. It’s why it’s important that the election seems to offer different political alternatives. It’s why, today, when there are two candidates who are essentially the same, they try to make one appear much more conservative than the other.

It’s why also the political maneuvering of Edward Kennedy and John Anderson is useful. No matter what happens in the election in November, Kennedy and Anderson have already set themselves up as poles of attraction for those who are disillusioned with both Carter and Reagan. Anderson and Kennedy are being held in reserve for the 1984 election, if they are needed. If people are disillusioned now, or if they become so after November, Kennedy and Anderson can claim they are the real alternatives...if only they are elected to office. The merry-go-round continues to spin.

The more people believe they have chosen the government, the easier it is for the bourgeoisie to have this government carry out its policies – whatever they are.

If there was a direct relationship between the campaign promises of the politicians and the policies they carry out once in the government, then in the 1964 election, the bourgeoisie certainly should have supported Goldwater. Goldwater was the candidate talking about the necessity of having a stronger military posture and the readiness to go to war. Goldwater’s opponent, Lyndon Johnson, was the peace candidate. As is all too clear now, the policy of U.S. imperialism was to go into a full scale war in Viet Nam after the 1964 election.

Yet in the 1964 election, the bourgeoisie overwhelmingly supported Johnson, the peacenik. In a most unusual way, the big money contributions that usually go to the Republican Party went to Johnson’s campaign instead. Of the officially reported private contributions of over $500, 69 per cent went to Johnson in 1964. In 1968, to show the difference, the Republicans received 70 per cent of such donations.

No, the bourgeoisie knows that the campaign rhetoric of the candidates has little to do with the policy they will carry out once in office. Its importance is to make the population trust in the future president, that is in the man who will impose the bourgeoisie’s solutions. For example, in 1964, the bourgeoisie knew that Goldwater or Johnson would have carried out their wishes, but they preferred to have liberal Johnson send half a million troops into Viet Nam; just as they preferred to have the anti-communist Nixon be the one to open up relations with China.

So today, even if Reagan wins the election, it does not automatically imply anything about the direction the bourgeoisie will take in the coming years. Its government, either with Carter or with Reagan, will make its decision based on other factors, such as the state of the economy, and the international situation, and in reaction to the activity of the working class or other oppressed layers of the population.

Who is in office makes no difference for the working class either. What matters for the working class is simply its readiness to fight and the level of its mobilization.

In this regard, all those who counsel the working class that the elections will make a difference, all those who call on the working class to vote for Carter, under the pretext that Reagan is a right wing politician, put up obstacles to the struggle of the working class because they perpetuate illusions held by the working class. If the working class listens to this advice, it will only further bind it to the electoral system which is used to help oppress it.