The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 41 (Spring 1992). It also is included in the LRP pamphlet The Democratic Party: Graveyard of Black Struggles

The Divide-and-Conquer Election

by Sy Landy

There is no greater proof of capitalism’s inability to control noxious air pollution than the current presidential campaign. No wonder the most popular candidate has been “none of the above.”

As we write during the primaries, George Bush’s popularity has fallen by half in the year since the Gulf War. But recently his chances improved – not because the voters like him any better, but they’ve now got a whiff of his rivals.

The story so far: Bush’s main Republican challenger attacked the “Washington establishment” and did well at first only to collapse afterwards. As for the Democrats, as soon as they got a front-runner, the polls showed that even his supporters thought him the least lousy of a rotten lot. With the speedy withdrawal of Wall Street’s entry and “labor’s candidate,” a new inside “outsider” puffed himself up, but then that gasbag also burst. All along, uncommitted slates collected big fractions of the vote, often beating major candidates. Even bigger numbers stayed home on primary day.

And then a new independent candidate pops up whose major advantage is that nobody knows him. But he has the billions to convert that asset into vague popularity.

The great majority of Americans have not given up on elections as the way to achieve their needs and hopes. Not yet. But they are bitter over governmental policy. They want decisive changes, and they’re not getting them. Neither the candidates nor their parties seem to reflect the “ordinary citizen’s” deepening concerns and fears. The underlying reason is that what they really want they will never get from bourgeois elections.

Certainly it’s not that the office being sought is powerless. The soon-to-be-elected president will have to deal with momentous events at home and abroad. He will preside over the only remaining military superpower. His decisions spell life or death for millions: the so-called third world slides deeper into starvation and slavery; the former Stalinist empire has collapsed into a market “solution” that is no longer marketable; the world economy stands at the brink of a major depression. Most important to the voters is the floundering economy, the growing unemployment and decaying living standards at home. Surely the White House should be able to do something decisive!

Yet aside from phony-sounding populism, what has the primary campaign been about? Adultery, draft-dodging, pot-smoking, corruption – penny-ante issues all. Voters are looking for big answers that aren’t being offered. No wonder the electorate is holding its nose. Like Bill Clinton, real people are afraid to inhale.

The Role of the Presidency

The morality issues that have dominated the campaign are trivial. But they do serve a purpose: they afford the candidates practice in lying, cover-up, backstabbing and ass-kissing – habits in which the winner will have to be an accomplished expert in order to responsibly conduct the affairs of state once in office.

All U.S. presidents oversee the super-exploitation of the globe. All must say they wish the end of layoffs and poverty at home, while of necessity they have to maintain these conditions. All since Hoover have waged war somewhere on the planet – and so have ordered working-class men to massacre others, as well as women and children, who have done nothing to deserve it. And they have all blatantly lied about their deeds. Such is bourgeois morality.

The voters are right to be concerned about the candidates’ obvious lack of integrity. Their mistake is to consider such corruption and hypocrisy to be an individual matter, not an absolute necessity of capitalist politics. Consequently many expect virtues that are desirable from a human stand-point but are in fact disqualifications for the presidency.

While voters are currently disaffected, they do not yet see that the real purpose of presidential elections is to choose which leader and policy is best for capitalism at this conjuncture, not for “the people.” Elections are the arena in which the ruling class periodically determines its strategy towards the rest of us. Abroad, will the war against Washington’s imperialist rivals be cold, cool or hot? Will U.S. imperialism dominate the post-Cold War world? At home, should the attack on workers and oppressed people be accelerated or moderated?

The Political Charade

For a real understanding of the electoral process and this year’s issues, we turn to Ernest Hollings, an outspoken Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee. He wrote:

It has been a classic election-year set piece: the Democrats stick it to the rich and the Republicans bully-rag the Democrats for raising taxes. ...

This charade nicely serves the election-year purposes of Democrats and Republicans. But it grossly disserves a nation starving for economic leadership. The gamesmanship is all the more disgraceful when you consider that both parties essentially agree on the shape of an economic package.

Then he tells us what both parties in fact stand for: Capital gains, everybody gains. It is silly to tout a capital gains tax cut as the holy grail and equally silly to demonize it. Most of us appreciate that if a cut is structured to reward long-term investments, it can make a difference. Democrats on both Congressional tax-writing committees have voted unanimously for cuts in capital gains taxes. Indeed, the Ways and Means Committee’s plan would be even more generous than the President’s.

Too bad if you thought that Republicans (plus Paul Tsongas) were for lowering taxes for the rich while the Democrats opposed such rip-offs. As Clinton, the Arkansas populist, stated in a Time interview, he and Tsongas, the Wall Street lobbyist, “agree on our general [economic] approach.” He called it an “investment as opposed to consumption-based strategy” – as if the problem with the U.S. economy is excessive consumption by working people.

But let us continue with Senator Hollings, just in case you thought the Democrats at least favored a bit more government support for the needy:

A Democrat could have delivered President Bush’s State of the Union message: he’s for a boost in Head Start, in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, Pell grants for college students, highway spending and more.

Or at least that the Democrats aren’t as uptight about government spending. But as Hollings says:

Goose the economy, not the deficit. All must agree on this: with a whopping 20 percent of outlays going to pay interest on the $3.8 trillion national debt, the anti-recession package must not add a dime to the deficit.

That is, pay off the banks and financiers, and screw the working people. Then the good Senator sums up:

Given the remarkable extent of Democratic-Republican agreement, why are we being so disagreeable? Let the Democrats pass their plan, and let the President have his veto. Then let’s move a truly bipartisan plan through Congress this month.

Hollings is complaining not about the political charade he so accurately describes. On the contrary, he accepts the electoral need to lie to the public: he is a Democrat. The problem is that the charade is going on too long and is interfering with the necessary program they all agree on.

Third-Party Fakers

The stench from the Democrats is so strong this year that some on the left have been drawn to third party orientations. Leftists have been cheerleaders for the National Organization for Women, which promised to build a party independent of the Democrats and Republicans; and for the labor officials who have organized Labor Party Advocates (LPA). But both of these efforts are non-combatants in the present campaign. Their leaders are searching for “pro-choice” or “pro-labor” Democrats to chase after.

NOW held a large rally in Washington on April 5 awash with Democratic pols. It didn’t even bother with third-party soft soap for the masses there, although it did “inaugurate” its new party that weekend. LPA raised not a murmur against the AFL-CIO’s initial endorsement of Senator Tom Harkin, who is so tied to the health insurance vampires that he couldn’t offer a national health plan, the demand most on working people’s minds. LPA’s silence was even more deafening over labor’s second choice, Clinton – the notoriously anti-labor Governor who during the campaign apologized for General Motors’ planned layoff of 70,000 workers and applauded workers’ competing with each other over who can give bigger concessions to the bosses.

It is not just “progressives” who go along with NOW and LPA. A good many who consider themselves Leninists and Trotskyists, no less, are enthusiasts. (Some have even enlisted in the radical bourgeois campaign of Ron Daniels, director of the Rainbow Coalition controlled by Jesse Jackson during his Democratic presidential runs in the 1980’s.) Whatever criticisms they make, they never inform their fellow workers that they, as opposed to these flytraps, advocate overthrowing capitalism, not reforming it. Nor do they mention the elementary Bolshevik position that bourgeois elections cannot fundamentally change the system.

That most workers today have self-defeating illusions in the electoral process is tragic. For people who claim to be communists to foster such illusions in the electoral process, not to mention parties committed to preserving the capitalist system, is criminal.

Divide and Conquer

A significant aspect of the primaries has been the constant appeal by all candidates to the “middle class.” This is a standard way to refer to the working class without naming it. Its prominence in this campaign reflects the politicians’ intent to deepen the hostility of the better-off, more skilled, largely white workers against the worse-off layers of the working class – particularly Blacks, women and other oppressed groups. Using the term “working class” would suggest the common interest between these layers, all of whom are losing under the bosses’ attacks.

In the post-World War II decades, much of the working class (largely excluding working women and minorities) won a few crumbs out of U.S. imperialism’s super-profits gained from world domination. In the 1960’s, the Black urban rebellions gained promises of civil rights and social programs. But in the late ’70’s and the ’80’s, the bourgeoisie started to take back many of these gains to prop up its falling profit rates. And with their profits, they declined to invest in domestic productive manufacturing, instead engaging in an orgy of financial speculation and militarist empire-building.

In the ’90’s the U.S. bourgeoisie has begun to realize that its long swill at the profits trough, plus its dedication to military as opposed to industrial production, have cost it the economic leadership of the world. For months, the leading Democratic candidates, Clinton and Tsongas, boasted of their farsighted economic programs, proclaiming their intent to “make America competitive” again. This not only meant chauvinist Japan-bashing in the campaign, but a continued domestic austerity policy, a crackdown on the wages and conditions of all workers.

What the capitalists have won back through layoffs, speed-up and other concessions has so far proved insufficient to restore profit rates. A far deeper attack is necessary. Divide and conquer is the weapon the bosses and their politicians use.

That is why both Bush and Clinton inveigh against “welfare” and advocate “workfare” programs. These schemes divide employed from unemployed workers and union from non-union. They deepen the oppression of the poorest layers by forcing them to work at slave wages, while also undermining the wages of the unionized workers.

It is a myth that people do not want increased government services. Suffering already, they do not want the additional burden of paying for them. This justified feeling has been twisted, for the moment, into an attack on socialism and social spending. And as the anger against the rich grows, bourgeois demagogues ride the sentiment in order to turn it more sharply against the masses’ own interests.

Hence the flag-waving against Japan and other economic competitors that permeates the campaign. This drill is another effort to turn workers against each other along national and racial lines. The most strident perpetrators on this score were Harkin and Jerry Brown, the allegedly “pro-worker” contenders.

Labor Movement Contained

Both the Democrats and Republicans are ruling-class parties whose voting bases include many workers and petty-bourgeois people. Both have the task of incorporating these bases: using them to slit their own throats. The Democrats play the key role here because they attract, especially in the depths of crises, the decisive urban industrial proletariat which has the power to shut down the entire economy and its production of profits.

For all their peace pretensions, the Democrats are the party that led the U.S. into its big wars. Playing the card of nationalism, the Democrats beat the tubs for active “internationalism” – trade and political confrontation. They lean on the sections of the capitalist class most interested in economic warfare. They attract the allegiance of workers who mistakenly see protectionism as helpful. It is no accident that so many Democrats are among the leading Japan-bashers. Their demagogy, designed to turn workers’ protests toward jingoism, is laying the ideological soil for the next world war.

The movements which the Democratic Party has done the most to destroy are the labor and Black movements. In the 1930’s, “progressives,” including the right-wing social democrats but especially the Communist party, had enough strength within the labor aristocracy to bloc with the liberals in the American version of the Popular Front. They succeeded in acting as Roosevelt’s social policemen, keeping the working class from going beyond the Democrats.

After the war the rebellion reignited. There was again sentiment for a Labor Party, and again it was derailed by the progressives. The CP and its allies detoured the movement into a third capitalist party behind Henry Wallace. And with the outbreak of the Cold War, the social democrats helped steer the workers back to the Democrats.

In the Cold War prosperity-bubble years, the unions became even more bureaucratized. Labor officials still had to lead mass strikes, and given the temporary prosperity, they won wage gains and fringe benefit promises. The bureaucracy succeeded in diverting the remaining working-class motion from the political front.

With the resurgence of the economic crisis in the early 1970’s, workers once again began to move. The bureaucracy had strengthened itself through its interpenetration with government and was able to channel the strike outbreak. Some strikes, denied official recognition, became wildcats and faced isolation and government repression. Others were made official but still kept isolated by union tactics.

Above all, the union bureaucrats championed electoralism as preferable to strikes. It was perfectly true that the working class needed a political alternative, since the state had intervened heavily into the economy and the unions. As well, hours and wages could not be seriously improved in one plant or industry – it has to be across the board. But the unions were tied to the Democrats, who had nothing to offer.

Today the labor bureaucrats are caught in their own trap. Not one of the candidates is a recognizable “friend of labor.” Harkin was a fake, Clinton an enemy, Brown simply a maneuver to get a brokered convention to stop Clinton. But then they’d be left with the likes of Mario Cuomo, a pseudo-liberal whose actual record in New York State paralleled Reagan’s in Washington.

Black Rebellion Quelled

The Black movement’s drive for civil rights was stalled by the early 1970’s. The government was giving Martin Luther King’s followers less and less. Black power forces were on the rise, but the real social movement was taking place in the urban ghettoes. Only Malcolm X had reflected the heartbeat of this movement, which threatened to transcend all the middle-class leaderships – the integrationists certainly, but even the nationalists. Malcolm’s search for an anti-imperialist solution was terminated by his assassins.

The ghetto rebellions of the 1960’s produced gains: jobs for at least a layer of Blacks, access to college education, the possibility of higher incomes. To quell the eruptions, the ruling class sought to stimulate the growth of a middle-class professional leadership tied to welfare programs and reform institutions, which the government expanded in the Black communities under pressure from the riots. These institutions, not surprisingly, were thoroughly linked to the traditional party of urban America, the Democrats.

Against this scenario, the most advanced Black activists realized that liberation required massive political action to challenge the government. Radical options from the bureaucrat-dominated unions seemed unlikely. Hence the efforts toward Black working-class action, like the Revolutionary Union Movements in Detroit and some sections of the Black Panther party. Hence also the variety of conferences aimed at producing a national Black party. But the masses of Black workers were more aware of the nature of the system than many radical leaders. If you’re demanding reforms within the system rather than revolution (except in rhetoric), it makes sense to orient toward a party that wields power. Thus the radical third-partyists soon retreated back into the Democratic Party, together with the traditional integrationists.

Still under pressure, the ruling class turned more toward Black politicians. Black leaders wanted more say within the power structure, to carve out a larger share of the pie distributed through state agencies. In reality these officials, reflecting the reality of decaying capitalism, were needed to remove past gains, once the movements had subsided and the masses were retied to electoralism.

That scenario would be very familiar to New Yorkers who elected the Black “friend of labor” and “socialist” David Dinkins mayor in 1989, only to find that his tax and budget policies coincided perfectly with Wall Street’s demands.

The Jackson Jive

Jesse Jackson rode to leadership among Blacks by championing the “movement” under worsening economic conditions. With great dynamism, he campaigned both in 1984 and 1988 to register more Blacks and keep them snared in the Democratic Party. He also appealed to white workers with a populist message. Despite the illusions of leftists who lined up behind him to “build the movement” or at least a third party, Jackson had no such intention and made his plans perfectly clear. (See Proletarian Revolution No. 21.) Jackson succeeded in burying the incipient movement. The Democratic Party, as always, proved a deathtrap.

As a consequence, neither the labor nor Black struggle exists as a genuine movement today. There is anger among both workers and Blacks, especially among Black workers. But the masses have not yet found a direction.

In a sense, the Democratic Party has succeeded in its mission too well. By destroying the social movements that it misled, it also destroyed the reason for its own influence. If you’re going to get austerity no matter whom you elect, why choose Democrats? (As the April elections in Britain showed, if you’re going to get a Tory program no matter whom you vote for, choose the real Tories, not half-assed substitutes.) And why bother voting?

George Bush’s openly racist campaign in 1988 scared the Democratic politicians: their party was becoming too closely identified with Blacks. This year Jackson gave another demonstration of party loyalty: he stayed out of the race. Due to his success in burying the movement, the real questions of racism have been too easily ignored in the primaries.

Under these circumstances, the media have hailed Clinton’s supposed new coalition of Blacks and whites as an interracial miracle. The New York Times said after his victory in the Florida primary with 75 percent of the Black vote:

That one figure gives healthy evidence, probably for the first time since Robert Kennedy’s Indiana primary campaign in 1968, that it is politically possible to bring poor blacks and blue-collar white voters together. It is finally possible for Americans to transcend racial division and look instead to mutual interests. (March 11.)

What drivel! When the bourgeois press hails working-class interests, watch your wallet. Here we have a victorious “alliance” between Blacks and whites (both groups made up largely of workers, contrary to the Times) based on no struggle and no common program. They just voted for the same candidate – and very few of them at that. While some Blacks did support Clinton in Michigan and Illinois, most stayed away in droves, recognizing the reality of the new integrated bloc they’re officially part of. Clinton’s coalition comes as the reward of ignoring Blacks and the need to help defend them from mounting discrimination and racist attacks.

Clinton’s hypocrisy in attacking “welfare” while prating about racial harmony marks the exact conjuncture of present-day capitalism. Anti-black sentiment is being marshalled, but it is not yet time for a nakedly racist attack.

Republicans and Fascists

The Republican Party’s main base, aside from the handful of top capitalists, has been the upwardly mobile petty bourgeoisie. It has also attracted an element of the working class which accepts that the bosses should be in charge. But in times of accelerating crisis it also ensnares workers looking for an alternative to the Democrats’ betrayal.

A significant portion of Reagan’s vote came from disaffected white workers who normally vote Democratic. For them this was not a conservative turn but a radical leap. Based on racist ideas and the prominence of Blacks in the Democratic Party, their vote was nevertheless an attempt to break from traditional politics. A revolutionary working-class alternative, clearly showing that capitalism is the enemy, is the way to win such people from reaction.

The failure of mass left parties to challenge capitalism has allowed the radicalization produced by the crisis to take right-wing forms in many countries. Ultra-reactionary and even neo-fascist organizations are growing ominously in Western and Eastern Europe. In the U.S., this trend gave the majority of white votes to David Duke in Louisiana. His program, populistic and ultra-right, still carried an openly pro-capitalist message, not the demagogic anti-capitalism characteristic of Nazism and fascism.

Duke, indisputably a Nazi and Klan leader, chose to present himself as a mere ultra-conservative to try for the governorship of Louisiana. He ran in favor of “free enterprise”; his menacing line demanding white “equality” was not accompanied by lynch mobs or a mass mobilization. The right-wing “populists” have not yet built a social movement, but Duke obviously intends to do so when times are riper.

The Duke campaign sharpened the electoralism question. Most of the left has no presence in Louisiana and got away without a clear policy, but some “progressive” journals did hint that it would be good to vote for Duke’s Democratic rival. That was Edwin Edwards, a particularly sleazy bourgeois politician who offered nothing to the low-income whites who fell for Duke. Edwards was the big business candidate; he won because the bosses, not yet ready for a Duke, threatened higher unemployment for Louisiana if Duke got in.

Trying to “stop Duke” with Democrats is futile. Just as Carter’s attacks on working people set the stage for Reagan, continued austerity under the Democrats will only ripen the conditions that breed fascism.

Duke’s success propelled Pat Buchanan to run in the early Republican primaries to win back the right-wing leadership. Buchanan did capture the growing anger of the Republicans’ petty-bourgeois base against the upper-class center of the party symbolized by Bush. Interestingly, Buchanan, a man with long establishment conservative credentials, adopted a populist facade to reach the masses. He even endorsed Social Security, previously denounced as “socialistic.” And his America Firstism and Japan-bashing were a switch from free-market politics. Still, as soon as he had driven Bush to the right and pulled the rug from under Duke, he went into slow motion. His role now is to strengthen the party so that it continues to incorporate movements that imperil capitalist institutional life.

There will come a time when capitalism is so threatened by the proletarian movement that its party apparatuses will permit alliances with untamed reactionary forces. To preserve itself, capitalism is quite capable of shedding the skin of democracy and resting on a pseudo-radical fascist movement. It has happened elsewhere; it can happen here. Since the bourgeoisie knows that electoralism in reality is a sham, it is high time the working class understood this truth too.

What is to be Done?

With the economy hovering near a full-scale depression and the labor and Black struggles bottled up by hopeless leaderships, there is no short-cut to salvation. Capitalism itself is the real organizer of the working class. Upheaval is inevitable. The task of authentic communists is not to build new capitalist parties or pro-capitalist labor parties, but to fight those who will mislead and entrap the coming movements. To do so we have to build the nucleus of a revolutionary workers’ party.

When capitalists, liberals and bureaucrats are doing their utmost to divide the working class, when phony electoral combinations are the only form of “unity” offered, the only alternative is to unite workers in mass action against the system. Such action means a general strike.

We have argued that workers need a political alternative. But that does not mean accepting the bosses’ electoral deception. It means working-class activity. A general strike can succeed where local, divided strikes are too weak to win. It can prevent concessions and layoffs, win decent health care and keep wages ahead of inflation. However, we tell our fellow workers that such a strike will mean confrontation with the capitalists, their politicians and their state apparatus. A general strike informs the working class of its true force; it also poses the question of which class holds state power.

A confrontation between classes is inevitable. The ruling class will have its armed thugs and fascist bands when it needs them. The future fascist movement will also use the electoral platform to proselytize for its real strategy of genocidal action, not lever pulling. Undoubtedly the future communist movement will also use elections as Lenin urged – to raise working-class consciousness and teach the danger of the electoral trap. If we are to thwart fascism and win masses to the goal of a truly human society, the working class must have its forces and leadership ready as well.

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