The 2016 Presidential election primaries have begun. Many working people are distrustful of both political parties and politicians in general. President Obama’s approval rating has stayed around 40 percent while the approval rate for the U.S. Congress has been below 20 percent for over a year. In an April 2014 poll, a record high of 53 percent said that “neither party represents the American people.” The voter turnout for the 2014 mid-term elections was the lowest on record since 1942, with only 35 percent of the eligible voting population turning out.
A Society for the Rich
None of this should be any surprise. The last eight years have seen a series of attacks on the working class with practically no response. Only the richest people in the country have seen any improvements in their lives. Today, there are a record number of millionaires and billionaires, and the top 0.1 percent of the population has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of the population combined. Today, a record 94 million Americans are without jobs, the highest rate in forty years. And the average working class family in the U.S. is approaching this election making $4000 less than it did only four years ago.
Politics of False Promises
The increased attacks on working people have come during the two terms of a president that was elected promising hope and change. President Obama was elected because he seemed more concerned with the lives of workers, more concerned with the environment, more determined to reduce the wars the U.S. was involved in. But ultimately his administration carried out the same economic policies, the same policies of violence and war around the world, and the same attacks on workers in the U.S. It is no surprise that at the end of eight years of attacks amidst promises of change, most working people have little interest in more of the same.
Business As Usual
Most of the candidates from both parties haven’t attracted much interest. Hilary Clinton expected to breeze through this process, benefiting from potentially being the first female president in the U.S. But there doesn’t seem yet to be a lot of enthusiasm for these sort of symbolic victories any more. Clinton appears like business as usual – because she is.
The same is true for the long list of Republican candidates. They all use the same talking points that Republicans have thrown at people for the last few elections: less taxes on the rich, more attacks on unions, a repeal of the affordable care act, more attacks on immigrants, and more attacks on a woman’s right to choose. Like Clinton, none of the mainstream Republican candidates have seemed to attract a lot of support. This all shows that people are tired of business as usual.
Trump and Sanders: Business as Usual?
Two candidates have tried to appear as different from business as usual – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate investor, has often been dismissed as a fringe candidate with no chance of making an impact. But this is a mistake. At his rallies with tens of thousands in attendance, Trump has campaigned on messages of hate and racism, appealing to and encouraging racist, sexist, anti-immigrant and nationalist sentiments. He has referred to immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals” and blames immigrants for anything from increased unemployment to crime in poor neighborhoods. At the same time he attacks the government for doing nothing to address the social and economic problems that many people face. He calls the government a bunch of idiots, and promises he will come in and fix everything.
Trump’s campaign has shown that there is an interest in his extreme right-wing views, especially among white workers, and those middle class whites who feel their livelihoods have been under attack. So far, he has funded his own campaign without much support from other sections of the ruling class. But Trump’s campaign has shown very clearly that there is a substantial audience for these reactionary ideas.
Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, has been able to tap into a growing desire for major social change, similar to the way Obama’s candidacy did in 2008. Tens of thousands of people have come out to hear him, showing their discontent with the usual Democratic Party candidates.
Throughout his campaign, Sanders has been saying: “We need a political revolution in this country involving millions of people who are prepared to stand up and say enough is enough, and I want to lead that.” These are not the usual claims we hear from politicians running in the Democratic Party. Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” but what he means by socialism is not a society democratically run by the majority in the interests of working people and not profit. What is meant by socialism, as Sanders has made clear, is what he calls “Scandinavian-style socialism” – which is capitalism with some reforms that provide more funding for things like health care, education, social security, and unemployment compensation.
Overall, Sanders has tried to tap into the growing anger and insecurity felt by many in the working class by raising what can seem like real solutions. He criticizes the growing inequality in the country, the greed of Wall Street banks, and he talks about increasing unemployment through taxes on corporations and the rich, through public works programs, and he proposes universal health coverage for all, ending student debt, free college education for all, protecting the environment, a living wage for workers, getting corporate money out of politics, and more. Of course this sounds good. But the problem is there is no way the ruling class in this country would ever allow these sorts of changes to be carried out through their government. A massive social movement might be able to win some of these things for a time – but not through a simple victory in the ballot box.
Sanders has also chosen to run as a candidate in the Democratic Party, and he has made it clear he will likely encourage his supporters to vote for Clinton or whichever candidate eventually wins the Democratic party nomination. The Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, is a party of the ruling class, dead set on continuing the attacks on working people, a party which has been used by the ruling class repeatedly in the past to co-opt social movements and convince people to keep their faith in the capitalist system.
During election season, there is often a rise in political interest in the population. The Sanders campaign shows that there is a substantial interest in ideas about major social change. But to call for a vote for Sanders just encourages illusions in the belief that electing Sanders or anyone else could bring about the change that is needed.
The attraction of Sanders has opened up even more possibilities to discuss the problems at the root of this society, and the revolutionary change that is needed to address it. We should avoid simply sounding like the cynics, raining on people’s hopes for a better society. But we cannot encourage people to believe the idea that electoral victories of this sort will bring about the changes needed.
For that, organizations have to be built, masses of people have to become activated and organized, battles will have to be waged. For this, there are no shortcuts – and it will take a much greater effort than simply showing up to a ballot box.
The Only Hope for the Working Class is Ourselves
The power of working people to fight for our interests is not exercised at the ballot box in elections. The only times we have begun to get things we need, like the right to have unions, the right to vote, protections on the job, civil rights, improved education, and more has been when we have mobilized our forces, in the streets and in the workplaces – not when we look to the politicians of the Democrat and Republican parties, who represent the interests of corporations and the rich. They never have and never will represent the interests of working people.
During eight years of Obama and the Democrats and eight years of Bush and the Republicans, the U.S. has only increased its violent military role around the world. And the plundering of the planet for resources has only intensified. These policies have continued not because of the personalities or political views of any one politician. These policies have been carried out because they are required in order to maintain this system, which puts profits above all else. And these policies will continue to be carried out if a real opposition is not mobilized. But the real opposition to the ruling class in the U.S. is not some new and improved version of presidential candidates.
In order to bring about real changes in our lives and open up real possibilities for our future, we can’t rely on throwing out Republicans and Democrats ever few years. We do all the work to make society run and we can also use that power to fight for our own interests. We need to throw out this whole rotten system – and to do that the only choice for the working class is to rely on ourselves, on our own forces, on the forces that make this society run each and every day.