With tens of millions out of work, facing foreclosures or desperately trying to keep their head above water, and disgust at the two corporate parties is at record levels; how should progressive-thinking workers and the left approach this election?
2011 was a groundbreaking year. The Occupy movement gave voice to the massive anger at the super-rich and big banks that inspired many across the country to get active for the first time against corporate domination. Polls show that the Occupy movement is twice as popular as the Tea Party and more popular than the President. Congress’s approval ratings languish at a dismal 9 %!
The 2012 elections offer huge opportunities and challenges for the left – progressive, anti-corporate, pro-worker activists – and the labor movement. If the left and the labor movement grasp this opportunity they could become the main opposition to the ruling elites, exposing the Tea Party’s fake “anti-establishment” rhetoric.
Three basic choices on how to respond are already being hotly debated within the Occupy movement and the left. Some argue we should support Obama and the Democrats to defeat the Republicans and the Tea Party, while using the power of Occupy to push the Democrats to the left. Others correctly counter that this is a formula for being co-opted, but then argue for essentially ignoring the elections, focusing instead on only building protests and other actions.
While continuing to build movements in the streets is critical, ignoring the elections will only isolate the most progressive and radical individuals in the movement. It will result in a majority of working people – who now sympathize with Occupy – being mobilized behind the lesser-evil arguments of the Democratic Party election machine.
Socialist Alternative argues that, instead of either tying our movement to corporate-sponsored Democrats or ignoring the elections, the left should organize insurgent electoral challenges against both corporate parties, with candidates coming out of our movements, genuinely representing working people and youth, renouncing all ties to big business. These candidates’ platforms could be used to both expose the undemocratic character of the U.S. political system and to use the electoral arena as a tool to unify and amplify the struggles in our streets, workplaces, and schools.
Either the left organizes a vigorous electoral challenge to the two corporate parties, or much of the energy of Occupy will be co-opted by the Democratic Party. Worse still, if the mounting anger in U.S. society cannot find a clear left electoral expression, the far-right populist forces – both inside and outside the Republican Party – will be able to pose as the main voice of protest, like the Tea Party managed to do in 2010 elections.
Obama and the 99%
In her pre-emptive endorsement of Obama in the 2012 elections, SEIU leader Mary Kay Henry called Obama “the President of the 99%.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Obama has overseen trillions in handouts to banks and devastating cuts to social programs. Civil liberties have deteriorated at Obama’s request with the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) making it possible for the government to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens. The rich have gotten richer; meanwhile half the country is in poverty or near poverty according to the U.S. Census.
What is Obama’s actual record in relation to workers and the labor movement? Obama said he would walk the picket lines with us if collective bargaining came under attack. Last year saw massive attacks on workers’ rights, carried out by both Democrats and Republicans, from Wisconsin to Massachusetts: Obama went nowhere near any of the numerous picket lines, demonstrations and occupations that resisted these assaults on democratic rights. In 2008, Obama promised extensions to workers’ rights through the Employee Free Choice Act; instead, we’ve seen attacks on collective bargaining from both Democrats and Republicans. Despite making some progressive speeches, Obama is clearly a candidate of the 1%.
Glenn Greenwald wrote on Salon.com: “Wall Street funded the Democrats far more than the GOP in the 2008 election; the Democrats’ key money man, Charles Schumer, is one of the most devoted Wall Street servants in the country; Obama empowered in key positions Wall Street servants such as Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, Bill Daley, Rahm Emanuel, and an endless roster of former Goldman officials; JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has been dubbed ‘Obama’s favorite banker’ after Obama publicly defended his post-bailout $17 million bonus.”
Union leaders like Mary Kay Henry are attempting to co-opt the movement by limiting calls for jobs to the safe confines of Obama’s pro-corporate jobs bill. However, as Labor Notes correctly commented about Obama’s legislation, “The details of the American Jobs Act are built on principles that Ronald Reagan would embrace. Half the $450 billion package is tax cuts, and Obama assured us he’s committed to more cuts—including to Medicare and Medicaid—to offset new spending,” (“The Big Winner in Obama’s Jobs Speech? Small Thinking.” 9/9/11).
What we really need is a massive jobs program that puts the millions of unemployed back to work with union jobs that build infrastructure, provide services and clean up the environment. This could be paid for by increasing taxes on corporations and the super-rich while slashing the Pentagon budget.
Don’t Get Fooled Again!
The failure of Obama to deliver after his win in the 2008 election has confirmed socialists’ arguments that change will be won in the streets, workplaces, campuses and communities, not through electing more corporate politicians – no matter how much they say they’re on our side. Unfortunately, under pressure from the then-popular enthusiasm for Obama, his talk of “change,” and the chance of electing the first African-American President, most of the left fell for the Democrats’ trap, and we are weaker now because of it.
In attempting to capture people’s imaginations once again, Obama will likely take a populist tone and shift left – mainly in terms of rhetoric – for the election season. You can see some of this with how he proposed the – pro-corporate – jobs bill, his increased talk against “social inequality” and his posturing against corporate greed. Obama will pose as a friend of working people, as he did in a December 6th speech in Kansas, lambasting the billionaires for not paying enough in taxes. These surface populist gestures will suck more and more progressives into the lesser-evilist mindset.
When the 2012 version of Obama promises tougher bank regulations, increased taxes on the rich and protection of social programs, all peppered with flowery rhetoric, please remember the “change we can believe in” from 2008. What happened to Obama’s promises to make union organizing easier, for universal health care and, yes, for repealing Bush’s tax cuts for the rich? Instead, we got bailouts of Wall Street and a health care bill tailored to the interests of insurance companies. By now, in these times of economic misery, tens of millions have lost “hope.”
Who Occupies the Vacuum?
Pollster Stan Greenberg, who worked for Bill Clinton in 1992 at a time when Ross Perot ran as an independent candidate, comments: “I can’t imagine that with 85 percent of the country thinking we’re on the wrong track that there won’t be a third-party candidate,” he says. “There has to be. There’s too much opportunity, too much anger with politics” (“Political Climate Ripe For A Third-Party Prospect,” Mara Liasson, NPR, 11/17/11).
Other polls echo this reality. 58% “think the Republicans and Democrats do such a poor job of representing the people that a third party is needed” (USA Today/Gallup Poll, Aug. 2010). The highest number of voters in history are registered as independents, 34% (Rasmussen Reports, Aug. 2011).
The progressive-thinking individual and activists can’t afford to ignore the elections that millions will be turning to. Tens of millions will be looking to challenge the corporate agenda at the election booth. The Occupy movement has succeeded in shifting the debate in this country, and we need to build on this positive momentum. The best way to do this during the heightened political discussion around the 2012 elections is to run independent candidates that refuse to take corporate money, that only accept the wage of an average worker, and that are accountable to a movement.
This could be a step towards what is really needed: a new political party that fights corporate America and stands wholeheartedly for the interests of workers and the poor. Such a new party would be fundamentally different from the corporate parties that so alienate people from “politics.” Such a party would need to be completely democratic in its functioning and transparent in its decision-making.
We need a party of working people that organizes not just in elections, but in the streets, campuses and workplaces to build a movement that challenges corporate domination. A party of labor, community, youth and Occupy activists could be an instrument of struggle, not just an electoral formation.
Independent left candidates need to run who will take up a program against all budget cuts to social services, police repression and attacks on union rights while calling for a massive jobs program and an end to student debt. We also need a program to break the dictatorship of Wall Street: taking the banks into public ownership, with a moratorium on all home foreclosures. Ultimately, it would need to challenge the root of our problems: the capitalist system itself.
Proposals Going Forward
Those who want to build the strongest electoral challenge to the two parties of the 1% need to act urgently. Socialists, left Greens, trade unionists, community groups, and other activists that want to fight back: We all need to organize public debates early this year. We need public debates with strong voices for independent electoral politics against the agenda of the 1%. We should initiate local community forums across the country inviting “left” Democratic Party supporters to debate with activists about independent working-class politics.
While the Republicans are having their primaries, we need to boldly call for discussion and debates on the left about strategies for the elections. Coalitions need to be rapidly built to run independent candidates that really represent the movement against corporate domination.
Already an “Occupation Party” has been formed by activists in Ohio. This is a clear sign that many in the Occupy movement are thinking along these lines. Likewise, a “Justice Party” has been formed by former Salt Lake City Mayor, Rocky Anderson, who is running for President on its ticket. Jill Stein is also running for President on the Green Party ticket.
At this stage, it is too early to say which of these candidates will get the biggest echo from ordinary working people or if a stronger, unforeseen candidate will emerge. But it’s clear that the vacuum exists across the country, and we need candidates at the local, state, congressional and presidential levels to build the left, the labor movement and the overall struggle against corporate domination.
Obama and the Democrats showed us what they’re capable of: more rule of the 1% as working people face joblessness, increased poverty, deteriorating schools and staggering levels of debt. We can’t get fooled again, and we can’t leave the right alone in the electoral field to capitalize on the anger. We need to seize the time!