Struggles Win Reforms
"If there is no struggle, there can be no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Frederick Douglass.None of the benefits we enjoy today were given to us by the two main parties, the Democrats and Republicans. They have all been won through struggles. U.S. history is full of amazing struggles by ordinary people to win improvements in their lives. These include: the struggles to end slavery in the 1800s; the fight to win public education and abolish child labor at the turn of the 20th Century; the struggle for the 40 hour work week, social security, and unemployment benefits in the 1930s; the fight for civil rights by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s; the struggle for women's rights, for LGBT rights, and to defend the environment in the 1960s and 1970s. All these were won over the determined resistance of the ruling elite.
Over this whole period, there was an ongoing class struggle being fought between workers and bosses to win living wages and the right to organize unions in the workplace. In this struggle, big business and its two parties used the courts, the police, and the National Guard in an attempt to defeat workers' struggles. Workers overcame this by showing their power through dynamic strikes, workplace occupations, and mass demonstrations, by their ability to mobilize other workers to their cause, and by their willingness to struggle.
Corporate America has consistently used its two political parties to protect its interests against the needs of the working-class majority. Whether the Democrats or Republicans were in power, they used the state forces to try to defeat struggles. Together, they passed anti-union legislation. Democratic President Roosevelt used troops on striking workers more than any president in U.S. history. It was Democrats in power in the South who turned police dogs on African Americans in the struggle for civil rights.
The only force that holds the hand of politicians today from slashing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is their fear that it will precipitate a new wave of struggle, leading to the political awakening of the huge working class in the U.S.
The times we have won real reforms have been when powerful struggles have been organized in the streets. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, it was the strength and intensity of the struggles that determined what gains were won, not which political party was in power. Often, these struggles have come when the Democrats have been in power.
For example, the Vietnam War was begun under Democratic Presidents Kennedy and then Johnson. A rising tide of antiwar protests first shattered the Johnson Administration and then peaked in the early 1970s, forcing the Republican Nixon Administration to finally withdraw troops.
Due to escalating struggles for women's rights and the environment and the ongoing struggles for civil rights, it was the Republican Nixon Administration that passed some of the most important reforms. It was the dying down of protests and the ending of the post-war economic upswing of capitalism from 1950 to 1975 that brought an end to this period of the ruling elite conceding reforms.
How "Lesser-Evilism" Weakens Struggles
It's not just confusion about the role of the Democratic Party that hinders organizing a fightback. Most leaders of labor and other social movements close down social movements at election time to prevent embarrassing Democrats. This makes it impossible to build a coherent ongoing movement.
Over the last 25 years, there has been nothing more destructive to building effective and powerful struggles than the consequences of our leaders believing that the Democrats are a "lesser evil" compared to Republicans.
Time and again, leading antiwar organizations turned off antiwar protests around election time. For example, after Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003, the antiwar movement grew steadily in momentum until the end of 2003. That was when the Democratic Party presidential primaries began. We were told to rally around Howard Dean as an antiwar candidate. Liberal leaders of the antiwar movement stopped calling rallies and prioritized electing an antiwar Democrat.
Not only that, but Democratic Party supporters in our movement said the main slogan of the movement, "Bring the troops home now," was too radical and would embarrass the Democratic Party candidate. In 2004, the movement went into a nosedive as it was muffled in preparation for the supposed election of an antiwar Democrat. Instead, the Democrats delivered "pro-war" Democratic Party candidate John Kerry!
Again, in 2007-2008, with growing anger at Bush and the war, we were told to tone down our opposition to war in favor of electing either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. While Obama made comments about a timetable for ending "war," he supported the "good" war in Afghanistan. Once again, the antiwar movement almost vanished.
A similar process happened during Bill Clinton's period in office. Leaders of the women's rights movement congratulated themselves in electing a "woman-friendly" Democrat and abstained from building a grassroots movement. Even when Clinton scaled back a woman's right to choose, they refused to mobilize opposition. Yet now we see Obama trading away women's access to abortion in exchange for Republican votes for his corporate health care bill.
2009 was a period of heightened debate over health care. This would have been a perfect chance for the labor leaders and leaders of other progressive organizations to build a movement around a single-payer system to provide universal health care for all. By spreading illusions that the Democratic Party plan would deliver radical health care reform, the chance to build a real, broad social movement that could have then become a platform for further struggles was lost. Instead, ground was ceded to the Tea Party's campaign of misinformation.