The May Primaries and the Failure of the Left
The primary elections that took place this week were not a harbinger of good things to come for the Democratic party, nor a source of hope for those counting on a wave of progressives, or a “Political Revolution”, sweeping the 2018 congressional elections. In both Ohio and West Virginia, progressive candidates lost handily to Democratic Party insiders.
In Ohio, Dennis Kucinich, who ran for president ten years ago on a platform to the left of today’s Democrats, and who championed union rights, public broadband, single-payer and state seizure of fracking sites in his current run, lost by almost 40 points to Richard Cordray, head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under Obama. Cordray’s platform, while not the worst offered by liberals this year, is made up of the typical Democrat pablum of tax incentives and defending Obama-era policies. Polls seem to go either way between Cordray and his Republican challenger, DeWine. That a democrat as closely tied to the Obama “golden years” as Cordray isn’t able to claim a comfortable margin over Trump-endorsed DeWine exposes the weakness of the Democrats “anti-Trump-and-nothing-else” 2018 strategy, and is reflective of a general tightening of polls between the two bourgeois parties as the midterms approach.
In West Virginia, long-time-incumbent Joe Manchin beat environmental and labor activist Paula Jean Swearingen, who actively tied herself to Bernie Sanders, by 30 points. West Virginia, where the Governor Jim Justice was elected as a Democrat, only to switch parties once in office, is a case study in how little light exists between the two bourgeois parties. Manchin is an anti-choice, pro-corporation, anti-LGBT, anti-environmentalist who has voted against regulations on greenhouse gases and water quality and who voraciously defends the Keystone XL pipeline and the abominable practice of mountaintop removal coal mining. Just hours after his victory over Swearingen, he eagerly cast the first Democratic vote for the torturer Gina Haspel to head the CIA. He too, finds himself in a toss-up general election.
That DNC Chair Tom Perez characterized these outcomes as “Democratic victories”, despite their being races between pairs of Democrats, should come as no surprise.
Progressives clinging to the Democratic party should reflect on the now well known shenanigans that occurred during the 2016 Democratic Primary, virtually ensuring Clinton’s victory in that race, and several stories published this year in The Intercept, which show the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) erecting roadblocks to any grassroots candidates without ties to wealthy oligarchs and leaked audio in which Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer attempts to force a progressive candidate out of a primary race in Colorado. During the conversation, Hoyer says point blank that the DCCC doesn’t care what the voters want, because “a decision was made early on by the Colorado delegation.”
These revelations are not shocking scandals. They don’t represent a sinister betrayal by the Democrats of lofty values. The Democratic party, like the Republican party, is a bourgeois party doing what all bourgeois parties do, managing the affairs of state for the benefit of the capitalist class. This is their primary directive and reason for being. We socialists and progressives should not expect or count on the support of bourgeois parties, their purpose is to exclude and marginalize us. Indeed, returning to West Virginia, the Democratic party there did more to help Don Blankenship, a racist coal baron with the blood of 29 workers on his hands, than they did to help Swearingen. They did so under the same foolish “pied-piper” strategy that gave us Donald Trump. This is not a consequence of neoliberalism, or of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, this has been the class character of the Democratic party from the beginning. Engels, in 1870, writes:
Nowhere do “politicians” form a more separate and powerful section of the nation than precisely in North America. There, each of the two major parties which alternatively succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions. It is well known how the Americans have been trying for thirty years to shake off this yoke, which has become intolerable, and how in spite of it all they continue to sink ever deeper in this swamp of corruption.
But we cannot place all the blame on the party, whatever tactics they used. The fact remains that in Ohio and West Virginia, 60% of voting Democrats preferred the corporate candidate to the progressive or grassroots one. These voters were not tricked into voting for Cordray and Manchin, they did so based on their own assessments of the competing platforms. We must grapple with this or forever be coming in second in a race of two. The answer is not to adopt the sneering posture of the liberals, who chastise workers for “voting against their own interests” or characterize them as ignorant and backwards. If the people have failed to connect with socialist or progressive platforms, it is our failure, not theirs. It is a failure of the left to agitate and to propagandize, to make clear our material and systematic analysis of the state of affairs. As Lenin tells us, the working class will not rise in unison like a yeast. We need to be constantly working, constantly chipping away at the false narrative spewing from every media outlet and political entity, patiently explaining what we’re about even to those we think of as hostile or reactionary.
The workers know what their interests are, despite what liberals may say. Only look at the wildcat strikes of teachers across the country, starting in West Virginia. Our job is not to explain to them what their interests are, our job is to listen to their demands and declare our unabashed solidarity and unwavering commitment to achieving those demands — and more! That many of those wildcat strikers went home and voted for Manchin is a blot of shame on the left movement in this country. Now is not the time for half-measures. We must insist that when progressives run in Democratic party primaries, they are open about the fact that politicians like Manchin and Hoyer are our class enemies as much as Jim Justice and Don Blankenship are. We must not support candidates who are not explicitly for the workers and against the capitalists, who peddle ignorant fantasies of a “big tent” party, as Perez is wont to do. Such statements betray an asinine or cynical analysis, one which fails or refuses to recognize the basic material truth: that every gain for the capitalist is a loss for the workers, and vice versa. Many will say this is a risky strategy, but to continue to compromise is to condemn us all to neo-feudalism and ecological armageddon. As Marx tells us,
Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.
We are fighting an uphill battle in the belly of the capitalist beast, the most powerful, most hegemonic empire to have ever existed on the face of Earth. Why should we be surprised that we progress only in fits and starts, if at all? The fatal miscalculation here would be to pursue immediate but minor “victories” by supporting compromise candidates over those who “can’t possibly win in the general”, to quote Steny Hoyer. By now we should see that those considered electable by the bourgeois parties and press are nothing of the sort. Look at Hillary Clinton, look at Connor Lamb, look at Jeb Bush or Luthor Strange. In blind adherence to their own class interests, the bourgeois political and media establishment fail to see the material effects on the population of deteriorating ecological conditions, feudal levels of wealth and income inequality and the precipitous drop in the standard of living of the mass of people. Most people now famously do not have $500 in their bank account for an emergency, despite working longer and harder and in worse conditions than at any time in recent history. All this while Jeff Bezos, richest man in the world and liberal darling, whose employees are regularly driven to tears by their abominable work environment, whines that he doesn’t know what to do with all of his money.
By unabashedly pursuing an eco-socialist agenda, we may not win many seats in 2018, or even 2020, but continuing to bet against ourselves virtually guarantees that we will find ourselves as marginalized 10 years from now as we are today. We do not have time left to rely solely on incremental improvements, or on judgments of “electability” from bourgeois commentators. The global oligarchs are consolidating their wealth and power in preparation for the coming ecological collapse, all while being cheered on, either as “job-creators” by Republicans or “innovators” by Democrats. All of these characters are enemies of the mass of people, and the people know it! All they lack is a left willing to speak this truth and seek power for itself.