The US midterm elections illustrate the rise of rightwing politics, in the US an abroad, while the left has failed to develop a systematic critique of capitalism – Editors
Chicago, Illinois — The Republican victory in the US midterm elections is likely to do a lot of damage.
It is said that all elections are local, but to get a better sense of what transpired on November 2nd it may be worthwhile to take a broader view—to zoom out so to speak. The soul shattering loss the Democratic Party suffered may appear as the work of the popular Tea Party movement’s youthful energy, despite their advanced age demographics; or the angry voters who were sick and tired of Obama’s supposedly “radical liberal agenda” and wanted to take the country back to the center; or the avalanche of private interest groups, super PACs, who spent so much money they added a couple of zeros to advertising revenues; or the self-conscious voters who wanted to show their disappointment of Obama’s timid response to the demands they laid out for him in 2008. Be that as it may, a quick trip around the world will reveal that most incumbent governments were defeated or weakened in the last two years. This is largely true throughout the industrialized world (1). The economic collapse at the end of 2008 triggered a tidal wave of discontent which swept many incumbent governments away, including, it is arguable, the Republican Party. Now, two years later, the same wave has come semi-circle for the President; the same forces that raised the Democratic Party to the top are threatening to come full circle.
The pressing concern is an unemployment rate of 9.6%, which is too high, and an economic recovery, which is too slow. Meanwhile, the administration’s efforts to deal with these issues have been too weak. The stimulus bill was too small to make a significant difference and the housing schemes devised by the White House to revitalize the housing market have been irrelevant at best. Despite the fact that the Democrats governed both houses of Congress, and briefly held a 60-seat majority in the Senate, Obama was unable to provide significant stimulus to the economy even to meet its own mild goals of lowering the unemployment rate. Obama’s efforts to aim for the center failed miserably. He diluted legislation to find Republican support, which never arrived, and by so doing he betrayed his left constituency. As a result, he ended up in no man’s land. Now that Congress has been lost the chance of further stimulus to the economy looks grim. What is worse, following a very bitter midterm campaign on both sides the tension between the two parties is likely to increase. This means that very little will likely be accomplished in the next two years, leaving workers to fend for themselves.
Two weeks before the elections a Gallup poll found that only 21% of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going in the country, the lowest percentage for a midterm election in Gallup’s 30 years of tracking this measure (2). Another reason why the election outcome was so one-sided was a powerful confusion among the population about what had happened in the country since Obama took office. A Bloomberg poll carried out in late October found that despite enacting the largest tax cut in US history for 95% of Americans, more than half of likely voters said that middle-class income taxes had increased in the last two years. Only 19% responded that taxes were cut. Unfortunately for Obama, among those earning between $25,000 and $49,000—his core supporters of 2008—this false perception was at a staggering 63%. Even among Democrats the number was relatively high: 43%. Similar misconceptions were also found with respect to the likely return of TARP funds by Wall Street banks and the return to growth of the economy (3).
One reason for this confusion may be the inability of voters to distinguish between the Federal government and state governments. The latter are under constitutional obligation to balance their budgets. When the housing market caved in under the weight of an 8 trillion dollar housing bubble it took the economy with it, cutting state revenues by removing the underling source of spending power of workers. This in turn forced states to cut their spending as well, which was based on higher revenues. To fix budget shortfalls most states have had to raise taxes, cut benefits, or both. It is easy to then see how voters can come away with a feeling that taxes were raised. Furthermore, the strong national performance of the Republicans was carried over into state and local elections. On top of gaining nine gubernatorial seats previously held by Democrats, Republicans also picked up over 675 state legislative seats, surpassing their gains in 1994, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This has left the number of Democratic state legislators lower than at any time since 1946. These swings in local politics will also retard efforts to kick-start the economy.
But the general shift in the US and the West in favor of opposition parties and against serving parties has been also accompanied by a general move of the population to the right. Extreme right parties have emerged everywhere. Earlier this year, Sweden’s nationalist party, Sweden Democrats, gained the necessary 4% threshold to receive seats in parliament for the first time since it was founded in 1988. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party increased its 7 seats to 21 in 2008, gaining the support of more than 10% of the electorate. In Hungary 16% of voters gave their support to Jobbik, a far right political movement established in 2003. This story is also unfolding at home. From Arizona’s immigration law to the fringes of the Tea Party movement—extreme right-wing sentiment is gaining momentum.
Given these conditions it is easy to understand the sweeping Republican victory. But what is not so obvious and lies buried under the pile of analyses is a message of desperation, the voice of an alienated population. The need for an alternative path is being sought by a growing number of people who have become disillusioned by a system that is beyond their control. Alien forces are becoming more apparent. Their discovery demands explanation, and those with ready-made answers have made their voices heard. Unfortunately, but predictably, the right has had the most prominent voice. This has been exacerbated by the noticeably missing voice of the left. And when it does open its mouth it often sounds like the right, blaming the greedy Wall Street bankers. It isn’t that the left has failed to expose those responsible for the failure of a system of exploitation but that they fail to expose the system itself. And then comes the hardest task of all—to articulate an alternative. A failure to achieve the former jeopardizes the latter. Yet a systematic critique of capitalism is hard to come by.
The fact that the five-decade-old Republican agenda, under the slogans of smaller government, lower taxes, and less oversight has won at a time of near depression is the supreme example of the failure of the left to organize. What it lacks is what the right possesses—singleness of purpose supported by a single idea that captures an alternative to present-day society (however misunderstood it may be). Instead another movement has arisen. Starting in the 1970s US growth rates have been steadily declining, and therefore, higher profits have had to be squeezed out from already existing capital, which in our case meant from the share going to labor. This transfer of wealth from labor to centralized capital became most apparent in 2008. Its sudden unmasking angered all parts of society that were not benefiting by it—most of all those who were least aware of it.
The formation of a movement among the upper strata of the middle classes is not surprising given that the economic crisis hit them very seriously and perhaps for the first time where it hurts the most—their class status. This was added to the already growing nationalist sentiment in an increasingly diverse nation. The New York Times/CBS poll conducted in April of this year found that Tea Party supporters were wealthier and older than the overall population. This means that this demographic group was hit doubly hard; on the one hand by the housing crash and on the other by the collapse of the stock market where most people’s retirement and savings were. The reasons behind why wealthier and more educated individuals would organize behind policies that would appear to benefit them are clear. But why are workers of the lower strata joining them in support of policies that go against their interests? The obvious answer is that they’ve been misled and conditioned by propaganda (4). In his reporting of the Senate race in Nevada, a state which is in fact experiencing a second Great Depression, Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker raised the possibility that maybe voters are no longer interested in turning to the state for support in times of extreme difficulty and instead they want the government to withdraw. The degree to which the government has been mismanaged and misused has alienated people to such a degree that the only positive use for a public space where a democratic society can organize itself is to dismantle it or reduce it to a bare minimum. (In Nevada, Reid eventually won after Latino/a and labor voters mobilized in response to blatant anti-immigrant racism, but this does not negate Lemann’s overall point.)
The road ahead has not been paved and winter is approaching. While an internal battle will have to be fought against the needs of capital, we need to avoid an external one with other countries based upon nationalism. Global schisms are already taking center stage in the efforts to tackle the causes of the last economic crisis. Each center of concentrated global capital is resisting this. The burden falls upon the workers of each nation to recognize their fellow workers of other nations as partners and not as enemies. Internal imbalances among the European countries have sparked such tensions, not only among governments, but also between their populations. The time is ripe for an organized struggle against the forces of capital on the national level but its success will depend on its ability to organize on the international level.
(1) Britain saw the end of thirteen years of Labour rule; Germany’s 2009 elections did not remove Angela Merkel as prime minister but forced her to change coalition partners; Nicolas Sarkozy’s France has not yet faced elections but anger is finding other avenues of exposing itself. Meanwhile, many Eastern European states, as well as Greece, also saw incumbent parties removed from power. Last year the Japanese voted in an historic election in which the Democratic Party was preferred to the Liberal Democratic Party for only the second time since 1955—last time being between 1994 and 1995 when they were given a mere 11 month spell. In addition, Ireland’s ruling Fianna Fáil party is facing certain defeat in the coming January election after unveiling a new round of austerity measures to make the Irish people pay for the collapse of the counrty’s banks.