Saturday, May 19, 2007
America's coming left turn? posted by Richard SeymourThe last time it was reported that US opinion was shifting dramatically to the left was following the infuriating 2000 election, amid a confident and growing anticapitalist movement, with a US economy on the bring of recession. Republican strategists worried that "The left side of the spectrum is growing. Our side is shrinking ... The Reagan coalition is not enough to win anymore." One underside of US politics rarely glimpsed since the last quarter of 2001 was, of course, the enormous class polarisation that Bush promulgated as a matter of policy. Which, alongside the revelations about Enron and pals, fed the growing contempt for corporate America among the US working class. Oh, Edwards said something about 'Two Americas' in 2004, but the pathetically parsimonious policies pledged undermined the appeal. The latest Counterpunch has some intriguing analysis from Sharon Smith of current trends in US opinion, which is slowly gaining some reflection in the posture of Democrat politicians. She also notes that the Bush-supporting wing of the US ruling class has been somewhat split by the sheer range of public anger about the war, so that right-wing former Bush funders have been throwing their money behind nominally 'antiwar' Democrat candidates. Look at this:
Most presidential candidates may not yet recognize the emerging-and seismic-shift in U.S. mainstream politics, precipitated from below. But opinion polls clearly show that mass consciousness is far left of center, as economist Paul Krugman noted on March 26 in the New York Times:
"According to the American National Election Studies, in 1994, the year the Republicans began their 12-year control of Congress, those who favored smaller government had the edge, by 36 to 27. By 2004, however, those in favor of bigger government had a 43-to-20 lead. And public opinion seems to have taken a particularly strong turn in favor of universal health care. Gallup reports that 69 percent of the public believes that "it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage," up from 59 percent in 2000
"The main force driving this shift to the left is probably rising income inequality. According to Pew, there has recently been a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement that 'the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.'"
Even on issues like immigration, where Republicans ordinarily expect to be able to get their pro-business policies through on the basis of resentment about immigrants allegedly depressing wages and so on, 78% of voters think "illegals" should be given amnesty. If any candidate for President wanted to propose an antiwar and social-democratic agenda, in this climate, they could get elected.
Or so you might think. For none of the above should be grounds for complacency. Robert Brenner's pessimistic account in New Left Review a few months back presented some important data and analysis. First of all, although the swing toward the Democrats was substantial in almost every voting bloc, it actually recouped to a large extent what had already been lost since 2000: "In 2000 Bush ran as a ‘compassionate conservative’, and the Republicans won 48 per cent of the House total popular vote. By 2006, compassion had been entirely abandoned, yet the Republicans still garnered 46 per cent. In 2000, 36 per cent of those voting had described themselves as Republicans; in 2006, 35 per cent still did." Secondly, Brenner's argument that the central agents of social-democracy - or indeed any meliorative left-challenge to the current capitalist-dominated polity - could only be a revived labour movement, is crucial. The collapse of organised labour had permitted a substantial portion of the working class vote to be hegemonised by the right, often with open appeals to racism ('black' welfare handouts etc), and has since produced a sequence of reactionary administrations whose attacks have not ceased.
That collapse itself took place during several successive stages: one was the decision of a fairly right-wing union leadership to bed with Roosevelt during the zenith of liberal reform, and their subsequent subsumption into a tripartite bond with state and capital during World War II, thus rendering them politically timid and subordinate; second was the McCarthyite terror which had a crucial role in deradicalising the postwar working class; third was the failure to introduce substantial unionisation to the south, which would have required a strategy of intense social struggle to dislodge the entrenched southern elites; the south subsequently provided a base for low-wage labour, as well as political mobilisation for the Republican far right, beginning with Barry Goldwater; international competition in staple industries like auto manufacturing helped the corporations to extract severe concessions from unions, whose membership continued to decline, even during era of revived liberalism in the Sixties; as Nixon and subsequent Republican leaders sought to capture working class votes by scapegoating minorities, the Democrat response to the run-down of labour and the crisis of capital accumulation was to kick-start the union-busting campaign that Reagan was to take up with such gusto; with the Democrats orienting themselves further toward corporate funding and acceptance of neoliberalism, the Republicans found that non-class forms of identity and solidarity, such as Christianity, the patriarchical family etc, redounded to their advantage among atomised workers, while at the same time winning stronger corporate support for their aggressive agenda - thus the 1994 'revolution'; and the attacks of 2001 permitted the Republicans, under the rubric of the 'war on terror', to break with even those 'New Deal-Great Society' settlements that they had hitherto stuck with, to keep the more conservative and affluent 'middle class' workers on-side.
Such as the structural background to Brenner's conjunctural analysis, in which he predicts a continuing Democrat slide to the right - because, since they have no intention of engaging with working class voters as a class interest, their sole basis for remaining contenders is to model themselves as a less aggressive form of Republican, thus securing their corporate donors and conservative voters while offering liberal and radical voters a slightly less vicious beating than Bush might dish out. As compelling and elegant as his analysis is, Brenner bends the stick, as it were, too far in the direction of sober gloom. For example, he looks at left-politics in terms of its voting behaviour and forms of institutional representation, yet this overlooks firstly the reality that most of the working class doesn't vote for anyone at all (which isn't exactly a positive sign, but surely doesn't signal approval for the rightist drift of mainstream politics), and secondly there is a more fundamental level of analysis, which is the ideological disposition and combativity of American workers themselves. This isn't always displayed in the levels of union membership or voting trends - although even here, Brenner does note that the Democrats picked up votes precisely in 'conservative' layers that have lost out under Bush's aggressive regime: white working class, the Mid-West and South etc, giving the Democrats a larger plurality than that gained by Republicans in 2002, at the height of nationalist revival. Republican voting blocs are moving massively toward the Democrats, while in 2000, millions of Democrats backed Bush - including 200,000 of them in Florida. Brenner is right that the basis for shifting the polity to the left is popular mobilisation, and the energetic mobilisation and militancy displayed by migrant workers over the last couple of years is an excellent example of this, even though there was evident intimidation by the authorities prior to this year's mobilisation, with a series of raids by INS agents. (Incidentally, this form of statist class combat shouldn't be seen as marginal - migrant workers, wherever they have achieved any confidence or security at all, have been at the forefront of labour mobilisations, improving conditions for themselves and driving up the ceiling for workers in similar low-paid conditions). Further, while it is true that a big segment of the antiwar movement has shown signs of being defanged under the canopy of the Democrat Party, it is precisely its mobilisation and its popular appeal that has driven Clinton Deux away from her triangular balls, and forced her to articulate an opportunistic 'antiwar' stance.
There is no doubt that the US working class has sustained a tremendous beating at the hands of employers and the ever-ready arms of the state. Manufacturing workers are even fewer and in even worse condition today than after the 2001-2 recession. But there is nothing inevitable about working class acquiescence. During the one period in the last thirty-seven years during which American workers experienced some wage growth, it was in part because a temporary recovery in the US economy boosted employment, gave American workers more bargaining power, and allowed the unions to flex their muscles. That germinal revival is precisely what manifested itself in the Turtle-Teamster coalition. The attempt to embody that in Nader's campaign certainly terrified the Democrats and produced ungovernable rages among articulate liberals ("you're ruining it!") - yet it also demonstrated that it was possible to build a grassroots coalition with practically nothing in the way of funds and make a real impact, forcing Gore to adopt some of the issues that he raised, while at the same time winning millions of independent, Republican and first-time voters to a radical left agenda. That's no mean achievement for someone who had less than 1% of air time.
Nader, despite serious set-backs in 2004, may well run again in 2008 - but he could only represent any useful challenge if there's a movement to connect to, and if there was some unity among the radical left. He would have to form bonds with the antiwar movement in the way that he connected with the anticapitalist movement in 2000. Further, he'd have to overcome a series of moves by Democrats to make third-party candidacy more difficult. A smart Democrat candidate might well be able to neutralise such a challenge by talking up key issues. And, of course, the caution of left activists, especially if there is a serious Republican presidential candidacy, is assured. Put bluntly, such a campaign might potentially be useful in an election where the Democrats are sure to run a gentrified centrist campaign while exerting as much discipline on friendly activists groups as possible, but it would be no substitute for the kind of social struggle that puts working class issues at the fore. It is to that prospect that the tidal shift in US public opinion adverts.