The elections are approaching and people are asking, what can we get from these elections? Some people are turning their hopes towards the politicians who are running, especially those from the Democratic Party. It’s not surprising because we are told this is how change is made in history – by important politicians. The Democrats pretend, for example, that they are the party that stands on the side of working people or minorities. The facts of history are quite different. Almost all the rights we have today were won by people struggling and forcing those politicians, Republican and Democrat, to act.
The Democratic Party is a strange place to look for the fight against racism. The Democratic Party was the party of slavery. Before the Civil War, the Democrats were led by Southern plantation owners who fought against any legal limitation of their right to own slaves. In 1860, when the anti-slavery Republican Party was elected, the Democratic Party led the South to secede and fought the Civil War to preserve slavery. It was the hundreds of thousands of slaves who stopped working, fled the plantations, and joined the North in the Civil War who freed themselves.
Until the 1960s, the Democratic Party only took measures against racism when it had to, and only on the federal level. The first major blow to segregation in schools, under pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. the Board of Education. Following this decision, in 1957, federal troops were sent to the South to enforce the desegregation of schools — the president who sent the troops was Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. But as the Civil Rights movement grew and took direct action against segregation, more politicians were forced to react, and in 1964, Democratic Party President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. This legislation came only after years of intense mobilization by thousands of Black people and other anti-racist activists, the biggest social movement in recent U.S. history.
Workers haven’t been given anything without struggling either. Until the 1930s, under both Democratic and Republican Party presidents, unions were effectively illegal and companies like General Motors and Ford stocked their factories with tear gas and firearms, hiring private security to intimidate, beat up, and even kill workers who dared to organize. Nevertheless workers fought enormous battles, from the mines and logging camps of the West to the mills and factories in the East. In the early 1900s, Democratic Party politicians in the Northeast started to appeal to workers, calling themselves “Progressives.” These politicians advocated some reforms to improve workers conditions, like sanitation, workplace safety, and legal rights in court – but all of this was done as a way to demobilize workers.
In 1932, a little over two years after the Great Depression, when 50% of workers had lost their jobs, the most famous of the progressives was elected — Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, a wealthy Democrat from New York. He ran for president promising a “New Deal” for U.S. workers. Roosevelt’s New Deal initially meant bailing out businesses and banks, and looking to the bosses to regulate the economic crisis, much like the Obama administration did after the 2008 crisis. At first, the New Deal meant nothing for workers, and in 1934 1.5 million workers from various industries went on strike, the biggest being city-wide general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco. In 1936, General Motors workers locked themselves in the plant, sitting in for 44 days. This inspired a wave of these “sit-down strikes” in 477 major factories across the U.S. By 1939, nine million workers were organized in a new union confederation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO. This was a power to contend with. Only when challenged by the workers movement, did Roosevelt’s administration create public works programs, grant unions the right to organize, establish social security and unemployment programs, and a host of other measures. These measures too were done as a way to encourage workers to stop fighting and trust that the government would represent them.
These are only two examples, but many other struggles and reforms can be pointed to. The same goes for struggles to defend the environment, extend and defend women’s rights, defend immigrants, and LGBTQ people. The politicians step in only once the struggle has proven unstoppable. The joke is on us if we expect anything substantial, even from politicians who promise us everything in return for our votes. And the secret is that no matter when, no matter what is happening in the circus of politics, the power to struggle for what we need is in our hands, any time we choose to use it alongside the millions of others who suffer the same problems. It is regular working people who make history — not the politicians.