2022 US Midterms: turmoil, polarisation, and the need for a workers’ alternative

Bourgeois elections offer an incomplete but illuminating snapshot of society’s mood at a given moment. In the context of growing instability and polarisation, we should expect competing crosscurrents of consciousness to be expressed at the ballot box.

This is especially true when the working class is under attack and no viable class-independent alternative is available. CNN summarised the national mood on Tuesday with the headline: “A dispirited nation worn down by crisis votes at the polls today.”

Pundits on both sides of America’s narrow mainstream political spectrum expected this to be a more or less typical midterm, with an unpopular incumbent and rampant inflation leading to a wholesale rejection of the party in power. A Republican “wave” of some type appeared to be all but guaranteed. And yet, the picture that has emerged from the results is not so clear cut. While the Republicans seem likely to win control of the House of Representatives, if they do win, their margin of victory will be underwhelming. Meanwhile, control of the Senate remains up in the air, with contests in Arizona and Nevada not yet decided and a run-off in Georgia set for December 6.

Decades of real wage cuts and stagnation have angered millions of workers and enraged the petty bourgeoisie. Identity politics has been fully embraced by both major parties, with a war on “wokeness” waged by one side and the specter of “fascism” raised by the other. Immigration, racism, crime, and abortion are used cynically to scare up votes and raise money. To capitalise on the mood of discontent, both the liberal and conservative propaganda machines hit the culture-war panic button to mobilise voters to the polls. Big money and enormous power are up for grabs, which explains the staggering $16.7 billion spent on this electoral cycle alone.

Last summer, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, robbing millions of a basic right in place for nearly 50 years. After doing nothing for decades to write the right to abortion into law, Biden had the audacity to declare: “This fall, Roe is on the ballot,” as if electing Democrats would somehow win back this right. While on the campaign trail for Democratic candidates, Obama doubled down on this theme, arguing that only his party “will fight for your freedom.”

Despite the engrained cynicism, however, these arguments appear to have had some impact. The rising confidence of the far-right fringe of Trumpist election deniers, January 6 rioters, and polling station intimidators led to a counter-response and substantially reduced the swing toward the Republicans. Millions of workers instinctively understand what Trump 2.0 would mean for them, and “the other party” was the default beneficiary. Make no mistake, Trumpism is alive and well, but millions of Americans were unwilling to let the lunatics who have taken over the GOP run the entire country.

Voting US Midterms Image apalapala FlickrCNN summarised the national mood on Tuesday: “A dispirited nation worn down by crisis votes at the polls today.” / Image: apalapala, Flickr

Midterm elections tend to have abysmally low voter turnout. The party in the White House has lost seats in the House of Representatives in every midterm since the 1930s, with the exceptions of 1996 and 2002. In those two elections, the president had 60% approval ratings. In the “red wave” of 1994, the Democrats lost 54 seats, and in 2010, they lost 63. In more “normal” years, the White House party would lose 20 seats or more out of the 435 total seats in the House.

2022 bucked the historical trend, and some states saw some of the highest-ever turnout for a non-presidential election. Although Biden has an approval rating in the low 40s, it looks as though the Democrats will have a net loss of fewer than ten seats. Young people and women turned out in significant numbers to fight for abortion rights and to vote against the “MAGA Republicans.” In one of the night’s surprises, one of the most MAGA Republicans of them all, Lauren Boebert, may have lost her “safe seat” in Colorado.

When the New York Times podcast, The Daily, asked voters how these elections were different, one responded: “I’m a little more desperate now, a nervous desperation, like I really do feel like if things don’t change, you know…” When asked what was at stake, another replied: “Our children’s lives.” One young voter’s take was that “as a young person, like if I wanna see change, like I gotta vote for more young people, I gotta get all these old people out… I’m really hoping to see a change by the time I’m like 30.”

Hundreds of thousands of votes are yet to be tallied, but initial results indicate that overall turnout wasn’t as high as in the 2018 midterms, when the Democrats harnessed anti-Trump sentiment in the suburbs. According to the Washington Post, 2022 turnout in Pennsylvania is on track to exceed 2018 by 4%. And nearly six in ten eligible voters in Wisconsin and Michigan cast a ballot. “But in a handful of states, voter enthusiasm fell far below 2018 levels and was more on par with the record lows of 2014. In Mississippi and West Virginia, less than 35% of eligible voters participated. In New Jersey and Maryland, turnout is anticipated to be 10% points lower than 2018.”

And although it was celebrated as a win by analysts, just 27% of voters aged 18–29 cast a ballot this year. A supermajority of 73% of young people couldn’t be bothered to go to the polls. Millions of youth have no illusions in the farce of American democracy with its disproportionate representation, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and two parties in the pockets of the billionaires. Mass abstention on this scale shows the colossal potential for a new party that expresses the interests of the working-class majority.

Nobody addresses the needs of the working class

World capitalism is in an organic crisis and state of decline. There is no exception for American capitalism. Even in the best of times, economic crises are part and parcel of the system. Any policy implemented by the ruling class to try and avert or rectify these periodic downturns leads only to bigger problems in the future. The Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations all used the state to bail out and prop up the market economy, using both fiscal and monetary policies. But these measures, compounded by the pandemic and the chaos of an unplanned economy, have led to high inflation. In a desperate effort to tame rising prices, they are implementing measures that will lead to a slump and even greater pain for the working class.

Unionising US Image Socialist RevolutionNeither party made a national issue of campaigns to organise the unorganised at Amazon, Starbucks, and other workplaces / Image: Socialist Revolution

The elections took place in this context, and the results were distorted by the fact that there is no workers’ party representing the more advanced layers of the class. With no lead given by the labor leaders or the “socialists” in Congress on the road to class independence, the workers were divided, and millions were compelled yet again to vote “against” the Democrats or “against” the Republicans.

In the 2020 election, the Democrats won the presidency, retained their majority in the House, and gained control of the Senate as millions voted against Trump. For two years, they had both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government in their hands. What did they do for the working class? Did they write Roe v. Wade into law, raise the minimum wage, or provide quality education, childcare, and healthcare for all, free at the point of service? Of course not. And on their watch, inflation rose by 8.2% over 12 months, while wages grew by just 4.7%. The net result was a 3.5% cut in purchasing power in a single year.

And yet, the election campaign was not a substantive debate on these or other working-class issues. Instead, everyone blamed everyone else for what is, at root, a problem of capitalism itself. While appealing to workers for their votes, neither party made a national issue of the campaigns to organise the unorganised at AmazonStarbucks, and other workplaces. There was no national campaign to back the Alabama miners’ strike or positive mention of the potential for a strike by railway workers.

There was no national debate about raising wages, indexing them to inflation, or reducing the work week. There was nothing about the fight for free, universal healthcare and education or the need for affordable housing for all. Rising street crime was a hot-button issue, but neither party addressed the fact that capitalism in decay underlies this and other social ills. Instead, crude personal attacks, straw-man arguments, and fearmongering are the norm.

But class issues are stubborn things, and they eventually find a way of asserting themselves. For example, 56% of voters in the traditionally Republican state of South Dakota approved a measure to expand Medicaid. In “deep red” Nebraska, the electorate voted nearly 60–40 to raise the state’s minimum wage. Nevada voters also approved an increase in the minimum wage and added “equal rights for all” to the state constitution. An anti-abortion referendum was defeated in Mitch McConnel’s home state of Kentucky by 53%, while Michigan approved the right to abortion by 56%.

Polls also show widespread support for unions, as some workers in StarbucksTrader Joe’sApple, and Amazon try to organise. This shows the vast potential for a mass working-class socialist party campaigning on workers’ issues for a workers’ government.

The establishment fights to regain control of the Republican Party

By design, the US Constitution gives more weight to conservative rural areas and less to urban concentrations of the working class. Once a source of societal stability, this setup has backfired on the ruling class, as the rural areas are now Trump strongholds, and Trump and a small group of capitalists around him have effectively gone rogue. Although a bourgeois himself, Trump cares only for his own egotistical interests. He couldn’t give a damn about the interests of the ruling class and American capitalism as a whole. His extreme individualism is a perfect expression of the values of capitalism.

Trump Image Gage Skidmore FlickrAs president and now ex-president, Trump has greatly added to the cynicism and instability of the system / Image: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

As president and now ex-president, Trump has greatly added to the cynicism and instability of the system. One of the goals of the ruling class in this election was to develop a bloc of Democrats and traditional Republicans to serve as a firewall against the “MAGA Republicans” (a play on Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan). This coalition of the Democrats, plus establishment Republicans like Liz Cheney, appears to have been at least partially successful. They will use these election results to bolster their efforts to marginalise Trump, who appears poised to officially announce his 2024 presidential campaign on or around November 15.

The Democrats won the 2020 elections by campaigning against Trump, but with high inflation, they are now taking the blame, which can put the wind in Trump’s sails for a 2024 run. Trump and his followers are bold and aggressive, and willing to fight for their dark vision of the world as “outsiders,” while the Democrats remain timid and effete, with little political talent. They even had to drag Barack Obama out of retirement to raise the morale of their voters for the midterms. Most importantly, they are ruling over a system and a society in crisis. On this basis, they cannot inspire genuine enthusiasm and hope for the future, no matter what they promise.

For their part, the Republicans are in an open and public civil war over the party’s future. Assuming they win control of the House, Trump acolyte Kevin McCarthy will likely be the next speaker—though that is by no means guaranteed. With only a slight majority and a party divided between the MAGA faction, those who “go along” with MAGA for political expediency, and a few establishment types, it will not be easy to maintain control over the Republican caucus. The days of the strong, dictatorial speaker of the House—premised on a strong economy and stable politics—are long over.

Nonetheless, we should not discount the hold that Trump and those like him have over the party. Sociopaths like Marjorie Taylor Greene may still be outliers in the general population, but as the crisis of the regime has deepened, they have wormed their way deeper into the party and have the ear of the party’s enraged base of voters. Even with a small majority, House Republicans would set the tone, and with her base as a battering ram, “MTG” will likely secure some juicy and powerful committee positions.

Trumpism without Trump?

All of this is chaotic enough, but there is yet another political dynamic in the mix: the effort by some to offer Trumpism without Trump, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leading the charge. DeSantis’s schtick is to peddle Trump-like political policies and outrage against liberals and the status quo without the many liabilities that haunt the original article. DeSantis and those backing him are betting that enough people would abandon Trump in favor of a somewhat “cleaner” and more reliable set of hands. Given Trump’s ego and DeSantis’s intentions, the former president has already broken publicly with his former ally, setting the stage for a down-and-dirty showdown in the 2024 Republican primaries.

Ron DeSantis Image Matt Johnson Wikimedia CommonsFlorida Governor Ron DeSantis is leading the charge for “Trumpism without Trump.” / Image: Matt Johnson, Wikimedia Commons

Despite some solid wins for Trump-backed candidates, prominent defeats in Pennsylvania and rough going in Georgia, Arizona, and elsewhere will fuel the flames of a DeSantis candidacy. In classic Trump fashion, the former president offered the following Teflon-like prediction ahead of the election: “I think if [candidates I backed] win, I should get all of the credit, and if they lose, I should not be blamed at all. But it will probably be just the opposite.” Meanwhile, without Trump’s support, DeSantis continued his rise to national prominence by handily winning reelection with 59% of the vote.

Already, many former Trump diehards are jumping ship and hopping on the DeSantis bandwagon. In the midterms’ aftermath, Georgia’s Republican Lieutenant Governor, Geoff Duncan, told CNN: “There’s no way to deny that Donald Trump got fired Tuesday night. The search committee has brought a few names to the top of the list, and Ron DeSantis is one of them. Ron DeSantis is being rewarded for a new thought process with Republicans and that solid leadership.”

Rupert Murdoch’s news empire has also broken with Trump and is using its mighty propaganda machine to back its preferred champion of anti-“wokeness.” The New York Post emblazoned the words “DeFUTURE” on its front-page headline, alongside a photo of DeSantis and his family celebrating their win. And as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox & Friends, “I think Governor DeSantis is the single biggest winner of the night. [He will] almost certainly become the rallying point for everybody in the Republican Party who wants to move beyond President Trump.”

Nonetheless, Trump still has a tight grip on the minds of the rabid ranks of the party, as well as big swathes of its base of donors, both large and small. Everything has an expiration date, and Trump himself will eventually fully wear out his welcome in the party he has crashed. But he has more than nine lives and should by no means be counted out of politics. Win or lose, he can cause tremendous disruption and devastation. He would have no qualms about taking down his own party if his personal hubris and brand would benefit as a result.

Lesser evilism: is there a progressive wing of the ruling class?

In 2016 and 2020, Bernie Sanders gained massive popularity when he called for a “political revolution against the billionaire class.” Unfortunately, instead of using those campaigns to build a mass working-class socialist party, he backed Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden. In tail-ending the non-existent “progressive bourgeoisie,” Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the rest of the Squad, and DSA have played a thoroughly reactionary role. Far from being opposed to the present Biden Administration, they support it and give it “left” cover. After years of pursuing this strategy, we must ask: how has their apologism for the “lesser evil” helped to build support for socialism?

AOC Sanders Image Senate Democrats Wikimedia CommonsIn tail-ending the non-existent “progressive bourgeoisie,” Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and DSA have played a thoroughly reactionary role / Image: Senate Democrats, Wikimedia Commons

The capitalist system has nothing progressive left to offer humanity. Capitalism’s historical role was to develop the productive forces, improve labor productivity, and develop the modern proletariat, i.e., the working class. After centuries of suffering, exploitation, and oppression, the objective conditions have been laid for socialism, which can end all exploitation and national divisions, and bring human society to new heights.

In the struggle to establish capitalism against pre-capitalist modes of production and exploitation and their related superstructures, there were progressive elements among the bourgeois. Certainly, Lincoln’s role in the Civil War and the elimination of chattel slavery was progressive. However, the days of the progressive bourgeois ended long ago with the advent of the highest stage of capitalism, imperialism.

The many ills afflicting the working class are not the result of the policies of the “reactionary wing” of the capitalist class, but are byproducts of the contradictions of the system as a whole, which is in terminal decline. And even if there were such a thing as a “progressive wing,” it could not resolve the system’s contradictions either, since the only way to do that would be to eliminate capitalism altogether.

Some argue that while there may be little difference between the Republicans and Democrats on economic issues, there are important differences on social issues. But when these questions are entrusted to the politicians, lawyers, courts, and judges, the end result is always a net negative for the working class. Genuine socialists must not sow any illusions in the Democrats, who are incapable of addressing social issues or questions of oppression in a meaningful way. Real reforms do not result from voting for the “lesser evil,” but are a byproduct of real class struggle. History shows this time and again.

Or take the question of foreign policy, which is a continuation of domestic policy in defense of the ruling class’s interests. There can be differences among the rulers, but this does not mean one has a more “pro-working class” policy. We see this with the war in Ukraine or the latest talk of military intervention in Haiti. The American working class has no interest in supporting US imperialism’s reactionary role here, and we must oppose our ruling class’s policy.

Even the so-called Progressive Caucus of the Democrats, led by Congresswoman Jayapal, has played a reactionary role. They stood behind Biden’s war policy, and when they finally put out a very muted criticism, they quickly retracted it for the sake of party “unity.” The only unity this expresses is the unity of the capitalists against their own workers and the workers of the world.

Democrats will use the results in the midterms to argue that they are, in fact, the only ones who can stop Trumpism—even though it was their policies and failures that led to this monster’s rise in the first place. The Democrats avoided an all-out disaster by the skin of their teeth, thanks only to those who held their noses and voted for them despite their dissatisfaction with the president. Biden’s post-election response was to call for even greater compromise with the Republicans “where it makes sense.” That is, where it makes sense for the interests of capitalism as a whole. This starkly reveals the real nature of the “coalition of the bourgeois” that is the US government. As Marx explained long ago, “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

“Barely hanging on to the status quo” is hardly an inspiring or sustainable vision for the future. With what will likely be a divided Congress and an unpopular president, the Democrats will be even more impotent in the runup to 2024. This is what the politics of deadlock in a society at an impasse looks like. With little to show for their efforts, yet again, many will fall into dejection and demoralisation. However, growing layers of the population, particularly the youth, are looking to Marxism and communism for an alternative. They remember the heady days of the summer of 2020 and understand that only the socialist revolution offers a solution. This is where the International Marxist Tendency can build for the future.

The coming battles and the way forward

There is no escaping the world crisis of capitalism, and the future of life in capitalist America will be very turbulent. Like Britain, the US was once a core pillar of worldwide capitalist stability, and this has now turned into its opposite. There will be no lasting economic, social, or political stability or security for workers. The capitalist system demands austerity, including attacks on Social Security and Medicare, which Republicans have promised to initiate. Workers will have no choice but to fight back at the workplace, in the streets, and eventually through a mass political party of our own.

Workers party Image Socialist RevolutionThe demoralising ping-pong between Evil-Dee and Evil-Dum will continue until American workers build a class-independent party / Image: Socialist Revolution

Attacks on racial minorities, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, and the youth will be intensified. The rise in street crime will be used to clamp down harder on the poor, as part of the racist backlash against the failure of the George Floyd movement to fundamentally change society. And the worsening climate crisis will continue to threaten the existence of modern society.

The crisis of the regime of US capitalism will continue to be expressed in politics, and 2024 promises to be a momentous and tumultuous year, no matter the result. With the 2022 midterms more or less behind us, the opening shots of the next presidential campaign are already being fired. While the results shed some light on some processes, the political waters are, in many ways, even muddier than before.

But one thing is absolutely clear: unless and until American workers build a class-independent political party to fight for their interests, the cross-class polarisation and demoralizing ping-pong between Evil-Dee and Evil-Dum will continue. It is up to the Marxists today to build up the forces that can provide clear ideas and a bold revolutionary program to that future party.

Concern over the country’s future is widespread, but we must ask: what kind of country should we be fighting for? A country dominated by a handful of ultra-wealthy social parasites? Or one where the laboring majority democratically runs things in the interests of all? It’s ultimately about whether or not capitalism can survive in the next historical period. It is too unstable and riven by contradictions to continue in the old way, which explains the vicious divisions at the top and the distorted polarisation among the workers.

Despite huge levels of abstention, and considerable doubts and misgivings on both sides, the midterms show that millions of people want a voice and a vote in how society is run. But the bourgeois electoral process reinforces the idea that individuals as individuals can have an impact. In reality, the real power is wielded by those with serious wealth, and individual workers cannot have an impact outside of a collective whole.

The elections also show that the sheer mass of the working class is a force to be reckoned with. But it must be organised and given conscious expression—then nothing will be able to stop it! Only a mass workers’ party and a workers’ government can give the majority a real say over our collective future. In 2021, workers produced an average of roughly $208,000 in goods and services per employee, but most of this wealth went into the pockets of the richest 10%. A workers’ government would take the trillions of dollars produced by our collective labor every year and use it to ensure everyone’s needs are met.

Whether we like it or not, the revolutionary left is not yet big enough to win anything approximating mass support. We need to bridge the gap between the evident potential for a class-independent workers’ party and the small forces of Marxism. We must tell the truth to the working class: there is no solution within capitalism, and the working class can trust only its own forces. At this stage, this is primarily a battle of ideas, but as they accurately reflect the experience of the working class, our ideas will win support over time. When we have a larger organised presence, we can actually impact events.

The IMT is working to build a real working-class alternative, and we know there are no shortcuts. Those looking for a serious solution should join us today. The clock is ticking, and there is no time to waste.

This article was originally published at socialistrevolution.org on 11 Nov

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