The world waits with bated breath as the “leader of the free world” is selected. Election 2016 has been a rollercoaster for voters, pollsters, pundits, and candidates alike. The campaign has been like no other seen in the US for a century or more.
It seems to confirm the belief of many that the American people have finally gone off the deep end. Serious commentators and comedians alike are predicting the “end of the American experiment in republican democracy” no matter what the outcome. Voters are trying to make up their minds as to “which candidate they hate less.”
As The New York Times put it, “With more than eight in 10 voters saying the campaign has left them repulsed rather than excited, the rising toxicity threatens the ultimate victor. Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic candidate, and Mr. Trump, the Republican nominee, are seen as dishonest and viewed unfavorably by a majority of voters.”
The Financial Times had this to say: “What is beyond doubt is that the markets are scared of a victory for Donald Trump.” And according to the liberal think tank, the Brookings Institution, a Trump victory “would reduce the value of the S&P 500 and lead to a 25% decline in the Mexican peso, as well as pricing in future volatility.”
As Citi’s chief global political analyst put it, the US is passing through an “emerging markets moment,” with volatility tied to the electoral outcome more appropriate for poorer countries without centuries of bourgeois-democratic rule. But does she think a Clinton victory would be much different?
Not so fast. Investors should brace themselves for the new form of advanced economy, political risk, whatever the outcome of the US presidential election. First, any market relief from a victory for Mrs. Clinton over Donald Trump, her Republican opponent, will almost certainly be followed by the realization that a divided Congress will mean a return to gridlock and brinkmanship over the debt ceiling with little prospect for reform . . . Wave[s] of protests, coups and the rise of non-mainstream political parties has become a global phenomenon.
Although the key decisions that affect our lives are taken in corporate board rooms, this doesn’t mean that presidents don’t have an impact and influence over the specifics of capitalist rule. In a world balanced on a knife’s edge, even small differences can tip the economy, politics, and society as a whole out of control. The ruling class clearly prefers Clinton and think she is best suited to maintain the status quo. The problem is, the status quo of the last few decades is finished. The American Dream is over—not only for the workers but also for the capitalists. The postwar boom and the “dead cat bounce” following the collapse of the USSR were anomalies. We are now back to the capitalist norm. And as night follows day, the return to that norm will mean sharpening polarization and an intensification of the class struggle on a scale not seen in decades.
Anything can happen
After the final presidential debate, Clinton seemed to be pulling away from her rival. Only one of seventy-two newspapers in the country have endorsed the Republican nominee. Now, just days before the election, a Clinton victory is far from assured. With little positive coverage in the media and a minuscule on-the-ground campaign apparatus in comparison to the Democrats, Trump may very well win or at the very least make it uncomfortably close, opening the way for post-election chaos if he decides not to recognize the results.
All things being equal, Clinton should have been a shoo-in for the win. But all things are not equal. These are uncharted waters for capitalism, and the deepening crisis of the system is inevitably reflected in a profound crisis of bourgeois politics. Though each exacerbates the crisis in different ways, Trump and Clinton are not to blame as individuals for the instability revealed by the elections. They are like ships on a stormy ocean, tossed hither and thither by economic and social forces far beyond their control, desperate to get the rudder back in their hands. As the "American Dream" narrative and national identity disintegrates along with the economy, other, more heterogeneous forms of identity and polarization are taking its place.
This was always Clinton’s election to lose—that is, after she and the DNC maneuvered undemocratically to deny Bernie Sanders the victory. After all, Obama is relatively popular, the economy has not yet dipped back into a slump, in the aftermath of Occupy and Black Lives Matter the general mood among the youth is clearly trending to the left, and Trump is a reactionary ignoramus and a buffoon. But there’s a fly in the ointment: millions of Americans hate Hillary Clinton with a passion. They see her as a lying, dishonest cheater, bought and paid for by Wall Street. She is the epitome of a ladder-climbing insider, the embodiment of business-as-usual politics. After the Sanders experience, “at least I’m not Trump!” isn’t motivation enough for millions to go to the polls.
As we’ve explained before, if Brexit can happen, Donald Trump can become the next President of the United States.
“Left” and “Right”
How to make sense of the support for Trump? If he is actually in a position to win, it means millions of American workers will vote for him. His core base of support is clearly the “enraged petty bourgeoisie”—numerically reduced and socially impotent as it may be—but he has also tapped into the deep-seated anger of millions of ordinary workers. To understand what is happening, we must abandon the mainstream-academic-bourgeois-liberal understanding of what constitutes “left” and “right.” In short, we must analyze this process from a class perspective.
For Marxists, the “left” represents the living, historically progressive interests of the working class in its struggle for the revolutionary socialist transformation of society. The “right” are the defenders and beneficiaries of dying, decrepit capitalism, a retrogressive system based on exploitation and oppression that has survived long past its “sell by date” due to the betrayals of the labor leaders. The fundamental determinant is not this or that policy in the abstract, but class: are you a worker or do you live off the dead and living labor of workers?
To maintain the illusion of “majority rule” democracy, the workers, who vastly outnumber the capitalists, must be allowed to cast ballots (or at least those who have not been disqualified from voting for myriad spurious reasons). During normal periods, superficial differences in social, economic, or foreign policy are enough for voters to “make up their minds” as to who they should vote for. But at times when the contradictions of the system stretch the existing parties to the breaking point, and no mass working class alternative emerges to take its place, other methods are required to keep things within safe limits.
Consciously or unconsciously, the function of both left and right populism is to rope workers into voting for parties that stand for class interests diametrically opposed to their own. By framing the world and politics as “us versus them” along various ideological and demographic lines, attention is deflected from the root problem: the organic crisis and impasse of the system. At the same time, however, stirring up these forces represents a potential threat to the established order, as the conjurers may not be able to keep them under control. The trick is to rile people up just enough to get them to the polls, but not so much that they actually believe they have a real say in how society is run. After the elections, everyone is supposed to go home and leave politics to the professionals. Heaven forbid they take to the streets, march on the capital, occupy factories, and organize mass strikes.
So let us be clear: the Democrats are not “left,” and the Republicans are not “right.” They are both right-wing parties. Both have always been, and remain to this day, parties of, by, and for the ruling class. They are at best the “liberal-right” and “conservative-right” wings of the capitalist class. Though they evolved historically in ideological antagonism to one another, both liberalism and conservatism are variants of capitalist rule and will always band together against the interests of the workers. Both the Democrats and the Republicans lean demagogically on the working class, promising the sun and stars during elections, but ruling in the interests of the capitalists once the results are in.
In the absence of a mass workers’ party, the working class majority is forced to “choose” which one of these wings they see as the “lesser evil” every time an election comes around. For decades the Democrats could pose as more “left” due to the legacy of modest reforms under FDR and the New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s youthful dynamism, and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” But the crisis of the system means there are no more crumbs to be had. The capitalists want to keep the entire pie, although it is the workers that do all the baking.
After nearly a decade of stagnation, neglect, un- and underemployment under Democratic Party rule, it’s not so clear to workers which of these evils is “lesser.” It is mainly older, white, male workers who support Trump, many of them union members. They were the main beneficiaries of the postwar boom and can now sense the walls closing in. Not yet aware that the cause of their declining standard of living is the capitalist system itself, and imbued by their labor leaders with the idea that workers are in “partnership with the bosses,” they are desperate to conserve what little they have.
They hope against hope that a “strong businessman” can do the job. When they see Hillary Clinton, they see the ideological companion of the man who devastated organized labor through NAFTA, welfare “reform,” and a barrage of anti-worker laws. That the labor leadership is terrified they won’t be able to hand Clinton a victory by keeping their members in line is a stark condemnation of their policy of class collaboration at the workplace and at the polls.
“School of the Democrats”
For millions of people, 2008 was a joyous celebration of the possible, of anticipated change and hope for a better future. None of it materialized. In fact, things are worse for the majority than they were under GW Bush. Only the 1% have benefitted from the tepid economic expansion of the last 7 years. It has nothing to do with whether or not Obama had good or bad intentions. Even if he thought he could pass some modest reforms without ruffling the system’s feathers, his efforts were doomed from the start as he accepted and embraced the parameters of capitalism.
Two terms into the “School of the Democrats,” a deep questioning is taking place, not only of Obama and his party, but of the entire system. This is what has led us to the current juncture. Lower than expected turnout among black Americans in early voting is just one indication of this, despite Obama’s efforts to mobilize black voters behind Clinton in order to “continue his legacy.” But it is precisely his legacy—a legacy of capitalist crisis—that has left so many unenthusiastic about the election.
In the end, Sanders played by the rules and followed through on his promise to endorse Clinton. The disappointing “what could have been” of Bernie’s promise and betrayal cast a pall over the final stretch of the election. Trump’s outrageous words and actions obscured and distracted from the fundamental rottenness of Bill and Hillary’s dynasty. After the mainstream media turned openly against Trump, there was a burst of half-hearted-lesser-evilism-without-illusions and she seemed on track for victory. But as we have seen, there is also a deep distrust of the establishment—which Hillary epitomizes. The reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s emails by the FBI was one scandal too many for many undecided voters, and the race narrowed yet again.
Trump has an independent base of support—his own wealth, ego, brand, and the adoration of millions who see him as an outsider who can “get things done” (despite being a billionaire). He is out for himself, not the ruling class as a whole, and is, therefore, more reckless and harder to control. This is why the bosses heavily prefer Clinton. But the workers are correctly suspicious of Wall Street’s high-paid speech-giver.
Instead of offering a sweeping vision for a better future, Clinton and her supporters have focused almost entirely on what a terrible individual Donald Trump is and the disaster his presidency would represent. His campaign is using virtually the same playbook. But fear mongering may not be enough to tip the balance to the Democrats this time around. Although they may disagree with his style and substance on many issues, Trump is seen by millions as the least unappetizing alternative. As incredible as this may seem to many both inside and outside the US, it is perfectly understandable if we look at what the working class has been through politically and economically over the last few electoral cycles. This is why the result is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Instability is inevitable
No matter who wins, the next occupant of the White House will preside over a powderkeg of crisis and instability. Cuts, austerity, and attacks on the working class are on the agenda no matter what the candidates promise. The workers will have no choice but to fight back at the workplace and in the streets. If Trump wins, not only will there be spontaneous mass protests, but the next economic crisis may well be triggered as a result. His supporters will learn in short order that they’ve been bamboozled. If Clinton wins, her honeymoon will almost certainly be short-lived, especially with what may be one hell of an economic meltdown looming on the horizon. The last crisis not only tapped out the treasury but also public willingness to bail out the 1%. Shock and paralysis will be replaced by outrage and mobilization.
Trump’s repeated assertions that “the system is rigged" strike a chord on many levels and is calculated to keep distrust and instability high if he loses. Either “winner” will likely start with some of the lowest approval ratings in modern history. And if control over Congress remains divided, the deadlock in Washington will worsen, further undermining what little confidence may remain in the political system. And just as the Dreyfus Affair almost brought down the French Third Republic in the 1890s, any number of scandals could bring down either Clinton or Trump.
The labor leaders have failed us yet again by not putting forward independent candidates or a party. No matter the result, their policy of lesser evilism is on its last legs and their authority over the rank and file is waning. There are also those "on the left" who call for a vote for Clinton, or for a “safe state policy,” whereby third-party candidates should only be supported if it would not “steal votes” from Clinton. But this does nothing to further class consciousness and confidence, and objectively means encouraging a vote for our class enemies. If Clinton wins, these people will be discredited along with her, and if she loses, they will be discredited for failing to defeat Trump with this “strategy.”
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.
We should have no illusions in bourgeois democracy or the parties of the ruling class. The simple fact is there are are no viable options for the working class in these elections. The Libertarians may be superficially appealing but are deeply anti-working class in practice. And despite the earnestness of her supporters, Jill Stein and the Greens have for a variety of reasons been unable to tap into the energy behind Sanders in a serious way. Whether Sanders squandered a historic opportunity or merely played the role he intended along, he showed the colossal potential for a truly mass political expression of the working class. The rise of Sanders shows what a real mass movement looks like—a mass movement of millions of young people and workers openly interested in socialism. But with no real alternative, millions of youth will sit out this year’s election or cast a protest vote, despite the hysteria being whipped up around Trump.
The rise of a mass workers’ party, whatever form it may initially take, will turn the situation upside down. Millions will abandon both the Democrats and Republicans in droves. Due to this country’s peculiar history and political dynamics, there will be much confusion and many contradictory currents in such a party. But over time, the fundamental class questions will come to the fore and a revolutionary left wing and a reformist right wing will crystallize. The Marxists will be in the thick of it from the beginning, fighting for revolutionary socialism, for universal jobs, healthcare, education, and the nationalization of the Fortune 500 under democratic workers’ control.
In the absence of such a party, we encourage our members and supporters to vote for whichever left-of-the-Democrats candidate they prefer, with the understanding that protests votes can only accomplish so much. While they can serve as an interesting barometer of the mood at any given moment, we are not interested in third-parties. The party of the working class majority deserves to be the first party, and that is what we are fighting for. Only a mass socialist party can defeat the parties of the bosses at the polls. Only a revolutionary socialist program can end their system once and for all.
In short, in these elections, as at all times, we stand with the working class. We are witnessing the system coming apart at the seams, but until there is an organized social and political force to replace it, the crisis can drag on for years and decades. There are no shortcuts, and the path to political and economic power will not be easy, but we are more confident than ever in the power of the workers.
The ruling class is divided and unsure how to rule in the face of the approaching economic blizzard. The latest revelations from the FBI indicate that the state apparatus itself, which is in theory supposed to stand impartially above politics and merely carry out and enforce policy, is also deeply divided, inserting itself in the electoral process in an unprecedented way.
Fight for a socialist future!
Far from merely letting off steam, the elections have destabilized the situation even further. Whether we are ready or not, mass movements on a scale not seen in our lifetimes are on the horizon. Life teaches and the events of the coming years will be an accelerated course in capitalist crisis at all levels. While following the twists and turns of the election, we cannot be distracted by the circus of bourgeois politics. There is no room for demoralization or routinism. On the contrary, we should be filled with a burning revolutionary optimism while keeping our eyes on the prize: the building of a cadre organization capable of training and educating the revolutionary battalions of the future.
One after another, the main pillars of bourgeois rule are being undermined. The system is teetering on the brink, but as of yet, there is no force in society strong enough to push it over the edge. According to German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, “Capitalism will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.”