The 2008 national elections are being presented as historic and in some ways they are. The Democratic Party primaries consisted of a contest between an African American and a woman. And now the selection of Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate means that an African American could be president. It is understandable that the appeal of breaking the color bar in the White House is great. It can be seen as a gesture against the deep-seated racism of this society. For those who have been part of the long fight against racism, or for women’s rights, this certainly seems like a victory, something that few could have imagined 40 years ago.
In addition, Obama’s messages of “hope” and breaking with the policies of the past are welcome and encouraging words, especially when contrasted with McCain’s campaign, which is grounded in the same fear-based politics of the Bush administration. For many of Obama’s supporters it is not just a matter of casting a vote. It is a matter of placing hope for change in his election.
Making History or Symbolic Gains?
Every four years we are confronted with the question of national elections – of voting for the President of the U.S. as well as a variety of national, state and local representatives. The media and the politicians portray these elections as an opportunity for us to chart the course of our future. But each election has shown the futility of this gesture at the voting booth.
If voting really changed anything, why don’t we see the most basic things we need in place? Why aren’t the needs and desires of the majority represented? It really isn’t because the majority votes against their interests. If people’s votes really counted, we would have a good system of healthcare, education, transportation, employment and other things that the vast majority of people want, and that so many politicians promised before getting elected. We would have seen an end to wars long ago. History has made it clear that elections are not the means of change for the majority of people in our society.
To believe that the election of an African American man to the presidency is any more than a symbolic accomplishment is to ignore the reality of the past 30 years, during which time we have seen African American, Latino, and women mayors, governors and members of Congress elected. And what has been the result? Look at our cities, the prisons and the condition of life of many working people, minorities and women today. Life has not gotten better for those who are supposedly represented by these politicians.
While the Democratic Party has posed as the friend, supporter and champion of working people, minorities and women, the reality of its past is vastly different from how the party represents itself. The Democratic Party, from it origins after the American Revolution to the Obama ticket today, has always been the representative of the ruling class. It began as a party of the southern slave owners, and after the defeat of the slave-system has defended the interests of big business and the banks ever since.
Since its inception, the Democratic Party has partnered with the Republican Party to defend the interests of the U.S. ruling class. Under their leadership, the top ten per cent of the population has vastly increased its amount of wealth at the expense of everyone else. Tax policies have allowed the corporations to pay little or no taxes and allowed the wealthy to keep their inheritances while middle-income and working class people pay taxes. Legislation has favored the interests of the rich and when profits were threatened, Democratic Party politicians have helped to arrange bailouts and subsidies for failing corporations or banks.
The Democrats have repeatedly used Taft Hartley and other anti-labor legislation against the unions and workers on strike. They have called out federal troops and used repression against workers on strike, and used Cointelpro (an FBI counter-intelligence program) and red squads to spy and attack activists in the Black movement and anti-war movements.
When the Democrats have appeared to supposedly act “in the interests” of the oppressed, it has been only when they were forced to by the pressure of social movements and struggles in the workplaces and in the streets and among young people and students. It was only when the ruling class faced a mass upheaval of working and poor people during the depression of the 1930s that the Roosevelt administration pushed legislation through that would appear to meet the needs of the people. Kennedy and Johnson didn’t intervene in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s or pass any civil rights legislation until the racist nature of this system was exposed to the world. As the media showed African Americans tearing down racist segregation in the South, met with the violence of the cops and mobs of white racists, the politicians had no choice but to act.
The Democratic Party poses as the party of peace and the defender of freedom around the world. But in reality, the Democrats have supported U.S. participation in every major war of the twentieth century from World War I to Iraq. Of course, when the population has demonstrated massively against these wars, to the point where it is possible to ride this opposition to win an election, then these Democratic Party politicians are ready to appear as anti-war candidates. They did this during the U.S. war against Vietnam and now today they are doing it again with the war on Iraq.
What the Democrats mastered early in their history and turned into a fine art is the ability to co-opt and channel social struggles. They have a well-developed tradition of appearing to respond to the demands of social movements. They are masters at appealing to those who have mobilized their forces in struggle to “work within the system” instead.
Once elected, the Democrats have then legislated some of what the masses had already won for themselves. History is then written to make it seem that the politicians delivered the victory, not that the politicians simply took credit for what people themselves had already accomplished.
And each time the workers, or those active in other social movements have fallen for these lies, have put their trust and faith in these politicians – what has been the result? Over and over again the lure of supposedly “working within the system” has been used to trick those who had shown their abilities to organize into becoming functionaries and bureaucrats for the system they were opposing. And instead of those active in struggle learning to count on their own struggles, they are corralled back into the voting booth. This has been true for the unions, the civil rights organization, the women’s groups and even many so called left and revolutionary organizations. As a consequence, those engaged in these struggles ended up trading their dreams of a different society, of real social justice and economic equality, for the mere acceptance of a new set of politicians and temporary reforms.
This pamphlet explores the role the Democratic Party has played since its founding. We examine the interests the Democratic Party has represented. When we look at the history of the Democratic Party, we see a pattern of defending a system based on greed and exploitation – a capitalist system that maintains the class, racial, and other divisions of this society.