I have slogged through uncountable commentaries on the mid-term elections. Many have offered useful insights on an event that will no doubt shape the political direction of the next two years. Yet, there is little to surprise in the outcome for anyone following recent and long-term developments in the US political system.
Two years ago, I projected that the Obama presidency would likely follow the pattern of the Carter presidency. Both came after a deep crisis of legitimacy: in one case, the Nixon debacle, in the other, the disastrous Bush presidency. The candidates postured as outsiders and in both cases they made impassioned pleas for change with a vague commitment to a “progressive” agenda. But in the end, the two administrations proved to be shaped by and acquiescent to a ruling-class agenda. The election of both candidates energized, protected and promoted a two-party system in need of credibility.
In another contemporaneous post, I drew upon the venerated I. F. Stone, who, groping for understanding of his disappointment with the Kennedy tenure, wrote of the enormous institutional forces that blocked any deviancy from the ruling-class agenda in the unlikely event that any President should truly want to stray.
In all three cases, performance fell far short of public expectations. In all three cases, the left mistook cosmetic adjustment for real change.
With the exception of a brief interlude of New Deal vigor during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, spawned by a martyred Democratic president, an overwhelming defeat of the Goldwater extreme right and the pressures of a militant Civil Rights Movement, this has been the pattern of Democratic presidencies for the last fifty years.
While many know this history, few see it as a pattern. Since the marginalization of the Marxist left, few find or even look for meaningful connections and continuities linking political events. Instead, the media and establishment punditry portray the US electoral process as a regular contest, fought around carefully crafted personalities, shifting demographics, debate performance and the poll results of the moment disconnected from class and process. They neither look for nor find the deeper structural forces that determine how the game is played and who wins.
A deeper look exposes the internal logic of a two-party electoral system in a class-divided society. Without a radical challenge, such a system inevitably produces rule by wealth and power over the popular will. As money and wealth determine both the candidates and the outcomes, the political leaders become more and more distant from the people, something the Tea Party movement knows and exploits effectively.
Further, the issues raised in electoral campaigns function to establish a space between the candidates, necessary to legitimize the elections in the eyes of voters. But once elected, the differences between candidates prove illusive. Thus, we find more and more commentators referring to the Bush/Obama continuum. On war, immigration, civil liberties, etc, we are all too familiar with the shortcomings of the Democratic Administration and its legislative allies. But the Republicans demonstrate the same cynicism toward their promises: both Reagan and G.W. Bush ran as deficit hawks, but oversaw some of the largest government spending splurges in history, all in the interest of the military-industrial sector of monopoly capital. This cynical manipulation of the electoral process is neither an historical accident, nor an aberration of an otherwise democratic procedure, but a logical development of a two-party system in an increasingly class-divided society.
Some will find this overly deterministic, suggestive of a fatalistic course to US politics. Still others will find this dismally pessimistic. It is neither. It is, instead, a realistic assessment of where our neglect of the structural limitations of the US two-party system has taken us. Any response to the power of money, the corruption, and the cynicism of today must address these structural impediments. It is not enough to live in a fantasy world of marginal reform, incremental change, or slavish faith in a corporate-sponsored party.
Just as careful study reveals the rigid logic of the two-party system, a long look at periods of progressive change expose the genuine alternatives to a system that trivializes public engagement and guarantees results friendly to the wealthy and powerful. All important reversals of the two-party trajectory came with the building of mass movements driven by peoples’ causes – the plight of the rural poor, the exploitation of industrial workers, against imperialist wars, for civil rights for minorities, equality for women, etc. Insofar as these movements maintained a distance from the two parties, along with a dogged commitment sustained regardless of the party in power, they were able to leave an indelible mark on the political landscape. Insofar as they hitched their movement to the Democratic Party or Republican Party, they were quickly absorbed into the electoral campaign machinery, with their cause tacked on to the end of a long list of Party priorities. Again, these are historical constants that must be addressed going forward if we are not to continue down the same ineffective, well-worn path.
Recognizing that in the US today we are accustomed to preferring score cards to theory, I suggest we consider the voting patterns in the mid-term elections. Exit polls show that the groups most supportive of the Democrats in the election were: African-Americans, Hispanics, youth, union households, and urban dwellers. Yet they were the groups that benefited least from two years of a Democratic Executive and Congress. These are the same groups that demonstrated the most enthusiasm for change and have suffered the most from a profound economic crisis. They have witnessed and will pay for the enthusiastic rescue of Wall Street and the corporate sector, while their own interests have been neglected or trampled.
Until we come to grips with this glaring contradiction, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes with the same disappointing results.