In 1996, an independent Labor Party with over two million affiliated trade unionists was established, but it failed to break completely with the Democrats and eventually withered. Reviving such initiatives is the key task for socialists, and all those who want to see something more like real democracy in the US.
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Hundreds and even thousands of enthusiastic supporters have turned out at rallies and actions for the various candidates in the “primary” elections currently underway to select the two main parties’ candidates for the November 2008 US presidential election. It is a striking contrast with the now almost universal apathy surrounding elections in the UK: even if Gordon Brown had allowed a contest for the Labour leadership, can you imagine crowds of thousands turning out to support him?
The reality behind the crowd scenes in the US is, however, far from democratic. In place of the kind of membership-controlled, more-or-less democratic, class-based party that the Labour Party (to a certain extent) used to be, both Republicans and Democrats are not only almost identical in policy terms, but function as political cartels through which different factions of the American ruling class manipulate the public. (Even Britain’s bourgeois parties are more democratic in how they function.) Through these two parties, public funding of them and the primary system, the state and big business are strikingly intertwined.
The degree of control from below exercised in the primaries is almost zero: this is a process in which an atomised electorate picks from a list of millionaires whom corporate funding has allowed to get a hearing in the corporate media.
This is true of both parties. In the case of the Republicans, it goes without saying; in the case of the Democrats, it should go without saying, but doesn’t, due to the demagogic, populist rhetoric through which sections of the party maintain their support from the US unions.
The British liberal press has made a big fuss about how the Democrats’ candidate for president will almost certainly be black (Barack Obama) or a woman (Hillary Clinton); but neither represents even the kind of “rainbow coalition”, left-populist politics which fuelled Jesse Jackson’s insurgency in the 1984 Democratic primaries. The corporate connections and unambiguously pro-corporate politics of both Obama and Clinton are well known: for instance, Clinton’s most senior adviser is Mark Penn, a corporate PR man whose clients have included Shell, the Argentine junta and Union Carbide in the wake of the thousands of deaths its negligence caused in Bhopal in India.
There has also been a certain amount of fuss about John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who was John Kerry’s vice-presidential candidate in 2004. Edwards finished second in the Iowa caucuses (the first primary of 2008), beating Clinton into third place with populist rhetoric about ending poverty and reclaiming American democracy from control by the corporations. In terms of his critique, Edwards is willing to be quite radical:
“I have seen the seamy underbelly of what happens in Washington every day. If you’re Exxon Mobil and you want to influence what’s happening with the government, you go and hire one of these big lobbying firms. This is what you find. About half the lobbyists are Republicans, and about half the lobbyists are Democrats. If the Republicans are in power, the Republican lobbyists take the lead, passing the money around. If the Democrats are in power, the Democratic lobbyists take the lead. They’re pushing the same agenda for the same companies. There’s no difference.”
Although he is to the left of Obama and Clinton, however, Edwards is clearly part of the same corporate elite.
His working-class background (his father was a millworker and his mother a postalworker) is, of course, irrelevant here, except in so far as it brings into relief the platinum-spoon upbringings of most US politicians. Edwards is himself a millionaire, a former corporate lawyer who, in addition to notoriously spending $400 on a haircut, earns many hundreds of thousands consulting for companies, including private equity firm Fortress Investment. In 2006, the latter paid him $479,000 as a consultant; in 2007, the press reported that it owned part of a company responsible for preying on poor home owners, including by foreclosing on the homes of many Hurricane Katrina victims. Edwards divested and spent a lot of his own money to create a fund for those who had lost their homes, but the contrast is instructive.
Unsurprisingly, then, Edwards’ policies are a left-leaning version of the standard Democratic fare. They go nowhere near solving problems like the 44 million Americans with no health insurance, let alone tackling the deep and growing inequalities of US society.
In any case, even genuinely left-wing Democrats like Jesse Jackson and, today, primary candidate Dennis Kucinich, are supporters of a bourgeois political party that is an essential part of the machinery through which the US ruling class maintains its political power. Socialists cannot support any Democratic candidate, because doing so means giving up on the task of building an independent voice for the US working class.
In the primaries, the US unions have functioned as clients of the various Democratic candidates (the public sector union SEIU, for instance, supports Edwards, while the local government union AFSCME supports Clinton and the firefighters’ union supported Conneticut senator Chris Dodd). In November, they will all line up behind whoever the Democrats eventually select, but the relationship will be essentially the same. What is needed, above all, is for a significant section of the labour movement to break with the Democrats and client-patron politics, and to establish a democratic party of its own.
Contrary to myth, there have been many projects for workers’ representation in the United States – from Henry George’s trade union-sponsored campaign for mayor of New York in 1886, which Engels hailed despite its inadequate programme as a step towards working-class political independence, to the Farmer-Labour Parties of the 1920s and the political discussions in the new industrial unions of the 1930s. All these initiatives remained in embryo or died quickly, in part due to the inadequate (or in the case of the 30s, treacherous, Stalinist) politics of the socialists involved, but they show there is nothing “exceptional” about the US.
Nor is this just ancient history. In 1996, an independent Labor Party with over two million affiliated trade unionists was established, but it failed to break completely with the Democrats and eventually withered. Reviving such initiatives is the key task for socialists, and all those who want to see something more like real democracy in the US.