Editorial for Socialist Appeal Issue 97.
Electoral results provide an important, albeit imperfect snapshot of the mood in society at any given time. Although they cannot reflect the full complexity of the subterranean changes taking place, they do provide valuable insights. Processes that have been quietly evolving over years and decades suddenly surface and take form. In these results, over time, you can trace the demographic, economic, social, and ideological changes taking place beneath the surface of society, as reflected at the ballot box.
At times there are prolonged periods of relative stasis, followed by dramatic transformations and changes. Parties and politicians that seemed immutable outlive their historical usefulness and are swept from the stage of history, and replaced by others—which rise and fall in turn. Sometimes, old political shells are filled with new social content—the names remain the same—but the social forces they represent do not.
In the final analysis, political parties reflect the interests of different classes or layers of classes. As the underlying economic basis for capitalist rule enters into crisis, so too do the system’s political and ideological forms. This is a complex and contradictory process, not a direct and mechanical one. Nonetheless, the bases for these crises are rooted in the economic framework of society.
The Democrats and Republicans, both of which represent the interests of the capitalist class, have controlled American politics for over 150 years. They were able to ensure their dominance by leaning on the working class, playing one layer against another, offering crumbs to some while viciously oppressing others, to cobble together the semblance of an electoral base of support. This continued into the 21st century on the basis of the post-WWII economic boom, social inertia, and the pernicious role of the labor leaders, who refused to break with these parties and offer a working class political alternative.
But the economic boom is long over. It has taken several waves of crisis to burn away the fat, derail the inertia, and shake people’s confidence in the system. The 2008 crisis has accelerated the process. On November 8, we saw the latest political manifestation of the crisis. This, in turn, will feed back on the economic and social crisis, and vice versa. The relative stability of the last few decades is dead and buried.
A search for answers
Part of the process of finding a way out of the crisis is the testing of existing parties and leaders. With no traditional mass working class party, American workers must go through a particularly strange variant of this experience. Fumbling around in the dark without a lead from the labor leaders, they will have to bang their shins and stub their toes in the process. Eventually, however, the lights will turn on, and the reality of what they’ve been dealing with and the need for a very different way of doing things will become apparent. Once the American workers conclude that new parties, leaders, and methods of struggle are needed, it will be lights out for capitalism.
In the span of just a few months, we’ve seen the ignominious fall of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, the hand-picked inheritors of their entrenched political dynasties. We’ve also witnessed the spectacular ascent and crash of Bernie Sanders—who drove himself into the river by not breaking with the Democrats and running as an Independent—and the eventual upset victory of the ultimate upstart, Donald J. Trump. Although Trump and Sanders, each in their own way, helped their respective parties maintain their relevance through another electoral cycle, the forces they unleashed will speed up the eventual demolition of these pillars of capitalist rule.
The liberal-right wing of the ruling class was given eight years to solve the working class’s problems, but failed. A combination of disillusionment, abstention, the Electoral College, and the crystallization of a form of urban/rural working-class sectionalism that tipped the balance in a few key states, handed victory to the conservative-right wing.
But as we shall see, he has no real mandate. Trump is now putting together his cabinet, surrounding himself with reactionary ideologues and bankers such as Stephen Bannon, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Steven Mnuchin, and more. We will explore this rogue’s gallery in detail in future articles. Suffice it to say that this veritable “thieves’ kitchen” will only accelerate the decomposition of the “winning” party—which also has control over Congress. Trump will have no excuses for not delivering on his bombastic domestic and foreign policy promises, many of which are contradictory and at odds with his party’s platform—not to mention unrealizable in full or even in part under capitalism.
Confidence in the entire system and all its institutions are already at record lows and even though some people will give him a chance at first, Trump will end up driving confidence in the system even lower.
“I don’t regret not voting”
This lack of confidence was on full display on election day as voter participation remained stagnant despite the panicked appeals by both sides to get out the vote. Just 58.4% of eligible voters bothered to vote, a far lower rate than most developed countries, and even lower than countries like Turkey and Mexico. The reason is clear: tens of millions abstain because they instinctively know that their vote won’t change anything. Overwork, low wages, debt, stress, and insecurity will continue no matter who wins. This year saw the two most despised candidates in recent memory engage in a personal war of attrition that offered little but negative options to defeat the “other” candidate. And without standardized voting machines and procedures—and the fact that voting takes place on a Tuesday workday—millions couldn’t be bothered to make it to the polls.
However, even 58.4% is an exaggeration. The media reports on the participation of “eligible voters”—not the total voting age population—to inflate the numbers. Some 231 million Americans were legally eligible to vote in 2016. However, this does not include the 20 million or more voting-age residents of the US who are unable to weigh in because they are in prison, are convicted felons, or who, due to their immigration status, have no rights despite working and paying taxes in this country.
According to the Pew Research Center, the US ranked 31st out of 35 mostly OECD countries for voter turnout based on the voting age populace. In the end only 24.7% of the voting age population voted for Trump—even fewer than the 25.4% who voted for Clinton—hardly a mandate.
Neither candidate won a majority of the votes cast in any state except Washington, DC—which isn’t even a state—and which, tellingly, voted 90% for Clinton. In only six states, plus Washington DC, was turnout high enough that one of the candidates won more votes than the total that abstained: Iowa and Wisconsin for Trump; and Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and DC for Clinton.
To put things into recent historical context, consider the following totals for the winning candidate in the last three elections:
- 2008 (Obama): 69.5 million
- 2012 (Obama): 65.9 million
- 2016 (Trump): 61.9 million
This fall in votes for the “winner” is even more dramatic when one considers that the population has grown by an estimated 21 million over the last eight years. On top of all of this, 14 states—including important swing states—had new voting restrictions in place this year which were clearly intended to reduce voter participation among eligible minority voters. When all of this is taken together, it is no wonder the idea that these elections reflect the “will of the people” rings hollow.
The key to understanding the result is the fact that an estimated 9 million fewer people voted in 2016 as compared to four years ago—and about 7 million of those had voted for the Democrats in 2012. Although some 1.9 million of them switched their votes to the Republicans, most of these former Democratic voters simply stayed home. As the New York Times put it, “The election was notable as much for the people who did not show up, as for those who did.”
A few examples concretely illustrate the electoral effects of 30 years of working class decline and betrayal by the “worker-friendly” Democrats:
- In a Brigade app poll held before the election, 2% of registered Republicans said they would vote for Hillary, while 40% of registered Democrats said they would vote for Trump. More Democratic Party women indicated they would move over to vote for Trump than men.
- One-third of 700 counties that previously voted for Obama flipped and voted for Trump.
- Clinton received 129,000 fewer votes in heavily Democratic Detroit than Obama did four years ago—and lost the state by around 61,000 total votes.
- Clinton received 95,000 fewer votes in heavily Democratic Milwaukee than Obama did—and lost the state by 73,000 total votes. As one Milwaukee barber expressed it, “I don’t feel bad. Milwaukee is tired. Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.”
- 29% of Latino voters, including 26% of Latina women supported Donald Trump.
- More white women—53%—voted for Trump instead of Clinton. Only 1% of women voters overall shifted to the Democrats. Many women clearly saw her as more concerned with breaking glass ceiling for herself while defending a system that keeps working women and all workers in chains.
- NY Times exit polls showed that younger voters shifted towards the Republicans by +5%, and that across the country, all ethnic groups shifted towards the Republicans: +1% of whites, +7% of blacks, +8% of Latinos.
- 50% of union members voted for Trump, despite the frantic efforts of the labor leaders to keep them in line and voting for Clinton.
Obama’s presidency will end with Democrats in possession of 11 fewer Senate seats, more than 60 fewer seats in the House of Representatives, at least 14 fewer governorships, and more than 900 fewer seats in state legislatures than when he took office. The Democrats controlled Congress from 2008 to 2010, and what did they deliver? As far back as 2008, the ground was being laid for the smashing of the incumbents in 2016.
Democracy, American Style
What about the pesky detail that Clinton actually received 1.7 million more votes than Trump? How is it possible that the “winner” can take office while receiving that many fewer votes?
As we wrote before the election in US Election 2016: On the Eve of Armageddon, “And let’s not forget about the Electoral College. For all the fuss about democracy and the will of the majority, not a single American will vote for president on November 8. The Electoral College is one of many safety valves built into the US Constitution to ensure the masses don’t take democracy too literally. It is weighted towards the more conservative rural constituencies and means that voters actually cast ballots for unelected ‘electors’ who are not legally bound to vote for the candidate most voted for by the electorate in their district. Remember: this is democracy for the bourgeoisie, not the working class.”
To win the keys to the White House, a candidate must receive a minimum of 270 electoral votes. Electors are allocated in the same ratio as members of Congress, with each state receiving two electoral votes for each Senator, and a varying number of electors equal to the number of members of the House of Representatives. Washington DC is also allocated three electors, though they have no representation in Congress. As of this writing, not a single person has yet voted for President of the United States. In fact, the 538 electors will not meet to vote until December 18.
So why is it that Clinton meekly accepted defeat and has fallen off the public radar? Those who watched the debates will recall the pressure that was put on Trump to say he would acknowledge the results, which he repeatedly said were rigged. He finally relented and said that he would accept the results—if he won. Confident of victory, Clinton vowed to play by the rules, and she is now bound by them. Ironically, Clinton spoke against the Electoral College some years ago but did nothing to bring about its end. Now she and the US ruling class, who overwhelmingly preferred her to Trump, must live with the poisoned fruits of this archaic institution.
2016 marks the fifth time since 1820 that the winner of the popular vote lost the presidency (the others were in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000). Most recently, George W. Bush was declared the 43rd president despite receiving 540,000 fewer votes than Al Gore. Seeking to avoid a major controversy, Gore accepted defeat after the unelected Supreme Court decided that Bush had in fact won Florida on the basis of “hanging chads.”
The Electoral College was one of the many compromises between Southern slave-owning plantation owners and Northern merchants and bankers who cobbled together the US Constitution. Since Southern states had much smaller populations than the North, and since such a large proportion of their populations were slaves without rights, they needed a way to ensure they had a say in federal government. The ⅗ compromise was one of the results. In short, part of the “Founding Fathers’” vision was to count black slaves as ⅗ of a human being. This would help pad the population rolls just enough to grant Southern states a few more members of Congress and electoral votes. Not surprisingly, four of the first five US presidents were from the slave-owning state of Virginia, and the country’s capital was moved from New York City and Philadelphia to a malaria-ridden swamp across the Potomac river from Virginia.
Although slavery has ended, the desire to counter the growing weight of the urban working class has compelled the ruling class to keep the Electoral College in place as a counterbalance. Rural areas tend to be more conservative, and especially after the labor struggles of the 1930s, the anti-democratic violation of “one person, one vote” has been kept in place, despite a steady decline in the rural population.
So, for example, both the states of Wyoming and of California receive two Senators. But in the case of Wyoming, each Senator represents roughly 291,000 residents, whereas each of California’s Senators represents 19.2 million people. Wyoming only receives one representative in the US House, and California receives 53. But the balance is still overwhelmingly in favor of rural, conservative Wyoming, which received one Electoral College vote per 194,000 residents, as compared to 697,000 residents per Electoral College vote from California. Multiply this across the huge rural expanse of the country, and you have a statistical edge in favor of the more conservative voters. This is just one of the many “checks and balances” in the Constitution—intended to check the power of the working majority.
Funnily enough, the president-elect seems to agree that the Electoral College makes a mockery of the system. After Obama’s reelection, Trump tweeted, “The electoral college is a disaster for democracy.” Now that he has won on the basis of this very mechanism, he told CBS’s Lesley Stahl that he still agrees with his 2012 tweet: “I’m not going to change my mind just because I won . . . I would rather see it where you went with simple votes. You know, you get 100 million votes, and somebody else gets 90 million votes, and you win.”
Though he says he doesn’t agree with it, Trump, as always, is happy to play by the rules written by the rich and powerful for the rich and powerful, whether it’s tax time or election time.
The idea that the system is rigged gets a wide echo for a reason. Tens of millions of Americans can see that the system is rigged—in favor of the wealthy. Even if the Electoral College were abolished and the president was elected by a simple majority of the popular vote, there are no viable options for the working class. This is why we supported neither Clinton nor Trump, despite the “lesser evil” cacophony of the Democrats. This is why we insist on the need to build a mass socialist party to represent the working class.
But the fallout over the Electoral College raises some important questions about the long-term viability of the world’s oldest existing republic. As history shows time and again, a social formation in crisis will have its legal framework stressed, questioned, and eventually broken. In addition to the ⅗ compromise, the original US Constitution disenfranchised women, most white men, Native Americans, many freed blacks, immigrants, etc. It took two centuries of class struggle to amend the Constitution to the point where, at least on paper, we are all equal. But everyone knows this is not the case in reality.
A major reason Clinton accepted her humiliating defeat without a peep is that the ruling class desperately wants to avoid drawing too much attention to the Electoral College and other inconvenient facts about the Constitution, which most Americans haven’t even read. They prefer to use other measures to try and keep Trump under control. Were they to mobilize people on the streets in defense of the winner of the popular vote things could quickly get out of control. A constitutional crisis and even elements of civil war could not be ruled out.
As we have explained, the US Constitution is an unholy mix of contradictions of libertarian and centralized government forms. These are rooted in the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary origins and genesis of this country. Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, was himself a mess of contradictions. But he had unequivocal views on the question of the Constitution, as outlined in a 1789 letter to James Madison: “Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”
Decades later, in 1813, he maintained the same basic view in a letter to John Wayne Eppes: “The generations of men may be considered as bodies or corporations. Each generation has the usufruct of the earth during the period of its continuance. When it ceases to exist, the usufruct passes on to the succeeding generation free and unencumbered and so on successively from one generation to another forever. We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country.”
He based his figure of nineteen years on the average generational unit of his epoch. By any measure of what constitutes a generation at 227 years since the adoption of the Constitution, at least Jefferson would agree that it’s high time to revisit the legal statutes that rule us. A few things have changed since it was adopted by a tiny handful of the population at the time. The US has been transformed from a small ex-colony of England to the world’s greatest economic and imperialist superpower, its territory has expanded dramatically, and its population has grown nearly a hundred-fold from 3.5 million to 320 million.
For our part, we believe that in a genuine democracy, the working class majority should have the right to determine their destiny, including the right to amend or rewrite the constitution altogether, to be approved through a popular referendum. As it happens, Article V of the US Constitution contains provisions for the calling of a constitutional convention. Several state legislatures have already symbolically voted to invoke this process. To date, most efforts to rewrite the constitution have come from conservatives in the South, who think the country’s guiding statutes are too liberal.
Until the majority of Americans move in this direction, we are of course compelled to live under the present statutes. However, we have plenty of ideas for what a new constitution should look like, for example:
- Equal protections, voting, and citizenship rights for everyone living in the United States
- Guaranteed civil liberties for all, in the spirit of the present constitution’s Bill of Rights
- Direct, participatory democracy on the basis of elected councils, with all elected officials subject to immediate recall and earning no more than an average skilled worker
- Public ownership and democratic administration of any company “too big to fail,” starting with the Fortune 500
- A constitutional guarantee to a quality job with union pay and protections or a place in education
- Robust health, safety, and environmental protections
- The right to free, high-quality, universal health care and education; safe, affordable housing; and efficient public transportation for all
- A dramatic reduction in the workweek and generous paid holidays and parental leave
As we have explained many times, we live in a democracy for the rich. We are granted the semblance of a voice only because it is easier to rule people through the semblance of democracy than through naked force, and there is not enough force at their disposal to keep us all down. In the future, a socialist constitution would establish a new set of parameters for what we can expect from life on this planet.
As we have seen, Trump was elected by a small minority of the population, many of whom saw him as a protest vote and middle finger at the status quo. He currently has a mere 42% approval rating, the lowest of any first-term president since records began after WWII. Nonetheless, this is higher than at any time during the campaign, as many fatigued by the election are willing to “wait and see” what he does in office. We can be sure that they won’t have to wait long in order to see what he represents. Millions who were indifferent to the elections are not indifferent now that he is preparing to take power. Millions of others have already hit the streets and are preparing to do their part in the years of stress and strain ahead of us.
While many recoil in horror at the mess society finds itself in, Marxists take the long view of history. We understand that what we are experiencing are the belated birth pangs of a new society. Capitalism is pregnant with the potential for a dramatically different way of organizing human production, distribution, and exchange. The material potential for socialism has been present since at least the 1920s, but the lack of a sufficiently strong and revolutionary working class leadership has condemned us to suffer the contradictions of capitalism for many decades. A change is long overdue—like a baby many months or years post-term—and this gives the process a particularly distorted character. The task of Marxist revolutionaries is to facilitate the birth as swiftly as possible—lest both the old society and the new die in the process.
We are confident that the present generation can end this misery once and for all. Join the fight for socialist workers’ democracy—in which the majority truly rules. Join the IMT and help us speed the day!
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