The Spark

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

Reagan’s Victory:
A Defeat for the Union Bureaucrats, Not for the Workers

Dec 31, 1980

Reagan’s sweep into office is generally being characterized as the mark of a new conservative tide sweeping the country. The most insistent on this point have been the trade union and civil rights leaders, as well as many of the black politicians of the Democratic Party.

As far as the trade union leaders are concerned, not only did they express strong disappointment at the results–but also toward the American workers for voting the way they did. The response of Sol Chaikin, president of the ILGWU, was typical: “Workers voted out of frustration and anger. They didn’t vote on the issues. They voted against their own self-interest, in fact.” Glen Watts, president of the CWA, blamed the workers’ repudiation of Carter on their growing tendency to feel animosity toward welfare recipients. Michael Harrington, chairman of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, and adviser to a number of the more social-democratic trade union leaders, went even further, when he said that the election results showed that “a lot of workers are social conservatives.”

Was Reagan’s victory a landslide and a mark of a new conservatism in the U.S.? Especially among the working class?

Certainly, it was a landslide if we consider only the electoral college vote. That is, on the level of the electoral college vote, Reagan won 489 to 49, while capturing 44 states, which appears to be an enormous gap. In reality, this gap between the two candidates is explained by the fact that the total number of electoral votes from each state is given to the winning candidate in that state, regardless of the margin of victory. The electoral votes are not apportioned according to the vote, and so they don’t accurately measure it. The vote for the Senate, where a Democratic majority of 59 to 41 was reversed to a Republican lead of 53 to 47, is counted in a similar, non-proportional way.

On the level of the voters, themselves, many people point to the fact that Reagan won approximately 10 per cent more of the popular vote than did Carter. In fact, what the figures show is that Carter lost a lot of votes–and not that Reagan gained a lot over the showing of Ford in 1976. There was an increase of 14 million in the number of eligible voters, that is from 146.5 million in 1976 to 160.5 million in 1980. Reagan’s total of 43.2 million votes accounted for 26.9% of those eligible in 1980; Ford’s total of 39.1 million accounted for 26.7% of those eligible in 1976. The main difference is in the vote of Carter who received 40.8 million, or 27%, in 1976, but only 34.9 million, or 21.7%, in 1980. The bulk of the votes which didn’t go to Carter, either abstained or went to Anderson, Clark and Commoner, who together accounted for 6.7 million votes, or 4.2% of the total.

In fact what the election statistics measure more than anything else is a disgust with both bourgeois politicians, felt by the population as a whole, and especially by the workers and black people.

The percentage of the actual number of voters continues to decline. It was the lowest turnout since 1948, when only 51 per cent of the voting age population went to the polls. In the five presidential elections from 1952 through 1968, the vote registered right around 60 per cent. But in the last 3 elections, there has been a steep decrease from that figure. The actual turnout this November was only 52 per cent. Less than one-half of the potential voters voted for both of the major party candidates taken together, and Reagan was the winner, with only 26.9 per cent of potential voters.

Perhaps even more telling, is the fact that at a time when the overall vote declined, the black vote declined even faster. ABC estimated that in 1976, the black vote was 11 per cent of the total, whereas in 1980, it had declined to only 7 per cent of the total. If we can judge by the first rough estimates of turnout in the important working class cities such as Detroit and Chicago, the same decline probably also occurred among the blue collar vote.

Again, if we can judge by the first estimates from the major cities, we see that there was an increase in the vote in the middle class suburbs, while the vote in the working class centers declined. We could also infer that the working class vote declined from the fact that the total vote increased markedly in the states of the rural West, while it decreased in the industrial states of the Mid-West and North East.

The thing above all that is clear is that a significant majority of the working class did not vote this year.

There Was Nothing to Recommend Carter to the Workers

The defeat of Carter may have been a defeat for the union bureaucrats who tried to mobilize the working class vote for Carter, but it didn’t change anything for the workers. When we look at the last 4 years, we can understand why. The workers have suffered through 4 years of ballooning inflation, coupled with growing unemployment, while Carter occupied the White House and the Democrats dominated the Congress and most of the state governments. Violent attacks against black people have been on the increase. Social programs were cut back, while Carter initiated a new round of war spending.

When the trade union leaders today begin to make hair-raising predictions about what will happen under Reagan, they say that Reagan is a war-monger, who will attack the workers’ standard of living, who will sanction, if not organize, violence against black people, and who will put women back in the kitchen. When they say this, what they forget to say is that Carter has already begun these attacks. We have just lived through 4 years of them.

Is it any surprise that the biggest section of the working class saw nothing to recommend Carter to them? In fact, if we can believe a CBS-New York Times poll on voters’ attitudes, we see that in 1980, among those people who didn’t vote, only 32 per cent saw any difference between Reagan and Carter. No wonder they didn’t vote. But more surprising is that even of the people who bothered to vote, only 49 per cent believed there was any important difference.

Certainly, polls, even the most accurate ones, are not the best measure of the workers’ consciousness; we have to take them with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, sometimes they give some indication of what the population, or a section of it, is thinking. And clearly, the big majority of the working class was disgusted by Carter and the Democrats. If a certain number of workers who ordinarily would vote Democratic voted for Reagan this year, it is probably not because they hope for something better from Reagan, but because they wished to kick the bum out–in this case, the bum was Carter.

The working class saw no advantage in keeping Carter in office in place of Reagan. It was obvious to them after the past 4 years with Carter and the Democrats in office, that there was little to hope for from the Democrats. If workers continued to vote for the Democrats, in big part it was because they were afraid of Reagan. And this fear seems to have become somewhat stronger since the election. Certainly, it is this fear which the trade union leaders and the black Democratic politicians have been trying to build up. Since the election, they have been bombarding us with one dire prediction after another about how bad things will become.

Reagan – an Excuse for the Union Bureaucrats

It’s very possible we are about to enter a difficult period for the working class and for black people.

We have an idea of what the next 4 years can be like, when we look at the last 4. In fact, it’s possible that the next period can be worse. Already we have some indication of that. If the economic crisis deepens, we will see a worsening of unemployment and an aggravation of the inflation. If the economic crisis deepens, we can be sure that the bourgeoisie will try in every way to make the working class, and black people especially, pay the cost of this continuing crisis. We can be sure that the bourgeoisie will make use of the Klan, if they feel they need it to keep black people in order and keep a racial division in the working class–already we see signs that the Klan is being given more room by the bourgeoisie, and perhaps even some encouragement.

But if we see a worsening of the workers’ situation over the next 4 years it will not be because Reagan was elected. It will be because of changes in what the bourgeoisie wants. The condition of the economy today is a reflection of a worldwide economic crisis resulting from the inability of the international bourgeoisie, headed by the American bourgeoisie, to make its own system run efficiently. That inability comes from basic defects in the economic system. And neither Carter nor Reagan has the magic wand to wave over it, even if they were interested in changing things. If the condition of the working class and of other oppressed sections of the population continues to worsen, it will be because the bourgeoisie is trying to maintain an expected level of profitability at the expense of the working class–and because the working class has not yet chosen to fight back.

If attacks are made on the working class, if the violence increases against black people, it will be because of the will of the bosses: a will to make the workers pay. Reagan will be the tool for helping the bourgeoisie to carry this out–just as Carter would have been. In fact, Carter has already been the tool in laying the groundwork for what will come in the next 4 years. The Democrats are the same as the Republicans: servants of the bourgeoisie.

In fact, when we look at the history, we see that the most reactionary of policies have usually been carried out, either under the Democratic banner or in bi-partisan fashion. The reason is simple: the supposedly liberal Democrats often have more of the confidence of the masses of the population who might decide to struggle; because of this, the Democrats also have more possibility to circumvent a struggle when a reactionary policy must be imposed. Johnson was more useful than the supposedly conservative Goldwater for guiding the nation into a war. In fact, when the nation has been dragged into war, it has usually been with Democrats in office. Truman was more useful than a conservative for initiating the McCarthy period. The Democrats were the party used to enforce segregation in the South, while the Northern Democrats wrung their hands, made promises–and cautioned black people to wait.

If the working class, if black people are not to pay the cost of the crisis, it is necessary for them to fight. And it’s just as possible for the workers to fight if Reagan is in office as if Carter were there.

This is why all predictions made by the trade union leaders and others like them can be damaging. For when they say that the next four years will be worse simply because Reagan is in office, they make the workers believe that Reagan’s election has put the working class in a more difficult position to fight. In effect, they counsel the workers to wait, to do nothing. In effect they say that there is nothing the working class can do–except to wait for 4 more years until the next election, and then to vote correctly, to vote for whom the trade union leaders want to put forward, probably Kennedy.

If the working class follows their advice, the workers will end up accepting every single thing that the bourgeoisie wants, every single thing that Reagan and the rest of the government will try to compel them to accept. In fact, it can be a repeat of the last 4 years, when the workers waited–and accepted every thing that Carter imposed on them for the benefit of the bosses. It can be a repeat, except that conditions may continue to get worse.

The advice trade union leaders give is wrong. The workers are in the same position, no matter whether it is Reagan or Carter in office. What matters is whether or not the working class decides to fight, whether or not black people decide to protect themselves against the racist violence. It is not the elections that count. The real problem is whether the oppressed are ready to fight. And every illusion the workers hold–whether it is the illusion in the past that the Democrats were the friend of working people, or whether it is today’s fear that the election of Reagan will allow more attacks on the working class–every single illusion stands in the way of the working class deciding to fight.