In the lead up to the 2012 elections the Left was badly divided over how to respond.
The 2012 elections may prove to have been a watershed
in several different respects. Despite the efforts by the political Right to
suppress the Democratic electorate, something very strange happened: voters,
angered by the attacks on their rights, turned out in even greater force in
favor of Democratic candidates. The deeper phenomenon is that the changing
demographics of the USA also became more evident - 45% of Obama voters were
people of color, and young voters turned out in large numbers in key counties.
Unfortunately for the political Left, these events
unfolded with the Left having limited visibility and a limited impact - except
indirectly through certain mass organizations - on the outcome.
On one level it is easy to understand why many
Republicans found it difficult to believe that Mitt Romney did not win the
election. First, the US remains in the grip of an economic crisis with an
official unemployment rate of 7.9%. In some communities, the unemployment is
closer to 20%. While the Obama administration had taken certain steps to
address the economic crisis, the steps have been insufficient in light of the
global nature of the crisis. The steps were also limited by the political orientation of the Obama
administration, i.e., corporate liberal, and the general support by many in the
administration for neo-liberal economics.
The second factor that made the election a ‘nail biter’
was the amount of money poured into this contest. Approximately $6 billion was
spent in the entire election. In the Presidential race it was more than $2
billion raised and spent, but this does not include independent expenditures. In
either case, this was the first post-Citizen United Presidential
campaign, meaning that money was flowing into this election like a flood after
a dam bursts. Republican so-called Super Political Action Committees (Super
PACs) went all out to defeat President Obama.
The bulk of the US Left does not think politically.
Third, the Republicans engaged in a process of what
came to be known as “voter suppression” activity. Particularly in the aftermath
of the 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans created a false crisis of
alleged voter fraud as a justification for various draconian steps aimed at
allegedly cleansing the election process of illegitimate voters. Despite the
fact that the Republicans could not substantiate their claims that voter fraud
was a problem on any scale, let alone a significant problem, they were able to
build up a clamor for restrictive changes in the process, thereby permitting
the introduction of various laws to make it more difficult for voters to cast
their ballots. This included photographic voter identification, more difficult
processes for voter registration, and the shortening of early voting. Though
many of these steps were overturned through the intervention of courts, they
were aimed at causing a chilling impact on the voters, specifically, the
Democratic electorate. ()
Prior to the election, we argued that what was at stake
in the 2012 elections was actually the changing demographics of the USA (along
with a referendum on the role of government in the economy). What transpired in
the elections was very much about demographics.
The percentage of white voters dropped from 74% to 72%
between 2008 and 2012. Romney received 59% of the white vote.
Yet something else happened and it took many people by
surprise. Despite the intimidation caused by the voter suppression statutes - and
the threatened actions by right-wing groups - African Americans, Latinos and
Asians turned out in significant numbers, voting overwhelmingly for the
93% of African Americans went with Obama, as did 71% of Latinos (which
represented an increase over 2008) and, despite the fact that Asians are only
2-3% of the electorate, they went 73% in favor of Obama (which was a jump from
62% in 2008). The youth vote, by the way, increased to 19% of the electorate,
over 18% in 2008, and went overwhelmingly for Obama. Labor union members went
for Obama at a rate of 65%, and unions themselves played a major role in many
key states in terms of voter mobilization. By the strategic mobilization of
these voters in a well-organized ‘ground game,’ Obama won 332 Electoral College
votes compared with Romney’s 206. Obama’s popular vote total was also 2.6% ahead
The Romney / Ryan camp was entirely unprepared for
this. While it is the case that the popular vote total was not overwhelmingly
for Obama, there was nothing particularly unusual in US history for such a
result. The bottom line is that Obama clearly won both the Electoral College
vote and the popular vote and, as such, can claim a mandate for his next steps.
It is important that one understands that the African
American / Latino / Asian turnout, along with the long-lines waiting to vote
(including in the days of early voting) represented an audacious defiance of
the forces that sought to suppress the vote. This audaciousness also
represented a response to the increasingly racist attacks on Obama, attacks
that were taken very personally by people of color generally and African
Americans in particular.
What was equally interesting about the November 6th
elections were those in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Contrary
to many expectations, the Democrats not only held onto the Senate, but slightly
increased their margin of control. Within that expansion was the election of
Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts to the seat once occupied by the late Teddy
Kennedy. Warren, who gained a strong reputation in the fight to control Wall
Street, promised actions on behalf of working people. Independent Senator
Bernie Sanders, a socialist in Vermont, also decisively won reelection.
There are two and a half Lefts in the USA.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats increased
their totals, but Republicans still dominate. This is mainly the result of the
gerrymandering carried out by Republican state legislators during
redistricting. The legacy of this gerrymandering may last at least a decade,
part of the fallout which resulted from lower voter turnout combined with the
Republican mobilization in the 2010 midterm elections.
Of particular note in the elections was the increased
presence of women, especially progressive women, being elected to office,
including the first openly gay Senator (from Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin). The
state of New Hampshire now has women in all of the top governing positions.
Additionally, several progressive ballot initiatives
passed in various states, including on same-sex marriage and the legalization
of marijuana. An interesting initiative in the state of Michigan, to alter the
state constitution in order to protect the right of workers to collective
bargaining, was defeated after a major and concerted attack by pro-employer
What to make
of the elections?
We return to our earlier conclusion, i.e., that what
was at stake in 2012 was not Obama’s record but instead 2012 was a referendum
over demographics and the role of government with the far right. Some on the
Left found this assertion worthy of ridicule rather than introspection, and
dismissed it, claiming that of course Obama’s record was central to the debate.
The results of the election conform much more to our conclusions.
The vote for Obama, particularly by people of color, could not possibly have
been the result of the conclusion that Obama’s record made him the great
leader. Certainly his record was better than the interpretation projected by
Romney / Ryan, but it was also the case that Obama’s record was complicated, if
not problematic. After all, we had witnessed an economic stimulus that, while
significant by historical standards, was insufficient to the task; a healthcare
reform package that, while bringing healthcare to millions, was based on a
corporate model first elaborated by Mitt Romney when he was Governor of
Massachusetts; a failure to close Guantanamo; the continuation and escalation
of the Afghanistan / Pakistan war, including the usage of drone strikes; and
the failure to adopt a clear policy to address systemic racial injustice in the
USA. While there were a number of reforms that were introduced that were of
significance, this was all far less than most of Obama’s supporters had hoped
would be introduced.
His very existence illustrates the changing demographics of the USA.
So, what then could one say motivated the vote? We
return to demographics and the role of government. Obama’s very existence
represents the problematic future for the political Right; it’s not that he’s an
individual whose birthplace is alleged by them to not be in the USA. This
insane propaganda from the Birther movement is designed to distort the point
entirely. The Birthers ()
and their off-spring hate Obama, not because of where he was born, but because he was born here. His very
existence illustrates the changing demographics of the USA and its move away
from being a ‘white republic’ governed by a broad ‘white’ front. Instead, we
are moving more towards something else, toward a more openly multi-ethnic / multi-racial
society, if not politically then at least numerically.
The election thus represented a repudiation of the
right-wing irrationalists seeking to turn the clock back, and not just on race,
but gender and class as well. In this sense it was not so much about what Obama
had accomplished as it was about what sort of society 61 million people did not
want. That retrograde society, which was rejected, was a neo-apartheid order of
domination that condemned at least 47% of the population (according to Romney’s
calculations) to marginalization, and condemned at least 90% of society to
continued economic distress and submission.
Romney was proposing to reduce the role of government
even further, at least when it came to supporting something approaching a
social safety net. 61 million people recognized the barbarism contained in his
message and program, and responded accordingly.
In sum, the November 6th elections were not a
referendum challenging Obama’s course from the Left, but rather rejecting a
challenge from the Right, since there was no viable Left alternative. At the
same time there was an additional interesting feature of the elections as
identified in various opinion polls: Democratic voters, while not as
starry-eyed as many were in 2008, are looking for Obama to fight for them, or
at least fight on their behalf. Frustration with Obama’s premature compromising
in the name of so-called bi-partisanship wins the President few accolades
within his base. The electorate is looking for something very different.
The Left in
the elections: Building mass organizations vs. the mouths that screeched
Contrary to those who suggest that no Left exists in
the USA, it is better to understand that there are two and a half Lefts in the
USA. There is the organized Left, which takes the forms of very small political
organizations, some of them calling themselves political parties, which are
anti-capitalist and generally for some sort of socialism. There is also what
Chilean Marxist Marta Harnecker would describe as the “social movement Left,”
which are forces involved in left-leaning mass organizations and non-profits,
more often than not single-issue or based within a specific sector. There is
finally what we could term the ‘half’ Left, that is, the ‘Lone Rangers,’ the rather
large number of independent individuals who self-identify as leftists but are
unaffiliated with any left-wing project, with the possible exception a job with
social impact, such as writers or teachers or health care workers. In each case
these individuals and formations are anti-capitalist and seek a social
transformation of the USA, but with varying degrees of organization, insurgency
2012 was a referendum over demographics and the role of government with the far right.
The US Left has historically had a difficult time
addressing electoral politics. There are several reasons - the complications
that arise from the undemocratic nature of the US electoral system; the size of
the USA; the lack of attention to strategy; and most important, ambivalence
when it comes to race. As a result, the Left frequently sways back and forth
between what could, perhaps, be described as apocalyptism on the one hand
(i.e., waving the red flag so that the masses see us before the whole system
collapses and, therefore, they know where to go), to reformist / incrementalism,
on the other (i.e., believing that the best that can be done is to submerge
into the Democratic Party and help move change until the system reaches a point
where quantitative change morphs into qualitative change).
There is currently no significant and unified effort
within the Left(s) toward building a self-conscious, broad radical Left project
that has the objective of winning power. The bulk of the US Left does not think
politically. Rather it engages in ideological or moral struggle and often
thinks that ideology or morality is identical to politics. Rather than
conceptualizing a protracted struggle for power based on the need to build a
majoritarian bloc, too many individuals and organizations on the Left remain
trapped in a self-satisfying world of small sects and Facebook tirades rather
than the hard work of building the alliances of grassroots groups necessary to
The limitations of the Left’s approach to the fight for
power can be illustrated in any number of places, but, for the moment, let’s
reflect upon the electoral realm. Consider the following. In 1920, Eugene V.
Debs ran, for the fifth time, for the Presidency. Though in jail at the time
(as a result of political repression), he received nearly one million votes. In
the famous 1948 campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, the
candidate received 1,157,328 votes and no Electoral College votes. In the same
election, Dixiecrat candidate, Strom Thurmond, received more popular votes and
39 electoral votes.
Now, in 2012, Green Party candidate, Jill Stein,
received 402,125 votes. This is going the wrong way. But it reflects, more than
anything, not the character of Stein or her supporters but the approach toward
electoral politics taken by the Green Party and many of their followers.
Independent presidential candidacies in the modern era
reflect what can be described as a flag-waving / protest mode rather than a struggle
for power / bloc-building mode. In other words, they aim to express both outrage
and reasoned critique at the system and frustration with the toxicity of
democratic capitalism. They have no hope of gaining power either because they
do not believe in struggling to gain power or because they believe that power
is gained when the ship sinks and we, on the Left, are positioned in the proper
lifeboats prepared to save the mass of distressed passengers.
This is only on the electoral side. The various small
organizations of the organized Left which do not engage in electoral politics
in their own names seem relatively content being small and of little
consequence. In the absence of an effort at building a majoritarian bloc they
can remain comfortable in their particular niche(s) and not feel the cold winds
that often accompany entering into unexplored demographic or geographic
territories. They remind us of the old Clifford Odet’s play, ‘Waiting for
The legacy of gerrymandering may last at least a decade.
At the same time, over the last 5-10 years, there has
developed a new interest in electoral engagement in the social movement Left. Sprouting
up in different parts of the USA have been progressive - rather than explicitly
Left - political formations that have either engaged in what has come to be
known as “civic engagement” work, i.e., voter registration, education, voting
rights, electoral law reform, and / or actual electoral engagement. The
strength of this work is that its orientation can be described as left / progressive in that these are
mass-based projects attempting to reach out to a broad array within our natural
base. Organizations ranging from Progressive Democrats of America to the
Virginia New Majority and Florida New Majority fall into this camp, though the
list is quite a bit longer than just these organizations.
In the lead up to the 2012 elections the Left was badly
divided over how to respond. One segment, which we will describe as the “mouths
that screeched” were adamant that Obama had betrayed progressives; that he was
not progressive; that he represented the empire; and therefore not only should
not be supported but that it was ideological treason to suggest any level of
support or even just to give him a vote without any implied support.
The vitriolic attacks coming from this sector masked
the fact that this segment of the Left is actually becoming irrelevant. They
had no visible impact on the elections and their protests were largely ignored.
Unfortunately, one of the key things that this segment missed was the racial
element of the 2012 elections and the need for voters of color, along with a
good number of white allies, to push back at the ‘demographic’ attacks that
were underway from the political Right. By focusing on all that Obama did
incorrectly, this segment of the Left ignored, as well, that the Left and
progressives are on the strategic
defensive in the USA and that they need alliances that will provide some
level of space within which we can operate.
The segment of the Left that actually made a difference
was those within the organized Left
and the social movement Left who engaged their mass organizations and
non-profits in electoral activity. ()
Whether it was voter registration; voter education efforts; electoral
infrastructure work; or Get Out The Vote efforts, many of these organizations
proved themselves to be very effective campaign organizations. They appear to
be in the process of laying the groundwork for the sorts of progressive
alliance building that will be necessary to respond to the next electoral
realignment that hits the USA.
Unions played a major role in many key states in terms of voter mobilization.
What is missing entirely, however, is a coherent,
self-identified Left, taking either the form of a united front, alliance, or
political organization that can serve as a pole for independent, radical yet
grounded Left politics. The mass base for such an effort exists. The opinion
polls that demonstrate that roughly one third of the population are open to
directions other than capitalism means that approximately 90 million people are
seeking alternatives. Consider that 90 million figure when you review the stats
for the Green Party’s votes in 2012. The Occupy Movement also evidenced a
political fissure that is certain to widen as the class struggle intensifies,
though admittedly Occupy did not result in the formation of one or several
credible Left organizations (no criticism implied).
The challenge for the Left then becomes twofold. First,
there must be a self-identified, self-aware, mass radical Left formation that
openly and unapologetically advocates against capitalism and for
environmentally friendly socialism. Whether such an organization is called a
political party, alliance or some other name is secondary to what it must do
and what it must avoid. What it must avoid is the idea that it can or
should compete in the electoral realm on
the presidential level at this time. That is a no-win
scenario. What it can do, however, is to unite and train the existing leaders
in mass movements and develop an anti-capitalist program and ultimately an
anti-capitalist project. We term this notion of a new,
self-conscious and organized Left - inspired by the approach taken by and
expression used by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci - to be the “Modern Tecumseh.” ()
Second, the Left can also help to build a progressive front - perhaps a popular
front against finance capital that unites disparate forces - that gains
electoral expression in the form of an organization (rather than a third party)
that runs candidates within the Democratic Party or, runs them independently if
conditions exist (such as in Vermont where the candidacy and leadership of
Senator Sanders needs to be supported).
As long as the progressive forces in the USA are on the
defensive there will be tactical alliances that take place that are not
satisfying but are nevertheless necessary. These should not be treated as
matters of principle but rather as expressions of necessity of the moment. Further,
we on the Left must pay much greater attention to what is transpiring among the
people themselves. The fact that so many on the Left would have focused on
Obama’s record and virtually ignored the intense racist offensive against Obama
(and its broader implications) demonstrated that many of our friends are out of
touch with reality.
Reality, however, is a good and necessary starting
point if one ever wishes to build a majoritarian bloc and win power. We fully
expect to see an intensification of class struggle in the near term. We need to
assert a new culture of organizing capable of meeting the demands it will place
on us, and now is the time to begin.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member
and Columnist, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute
for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum, and the author of “They’re
Bankrupting Us” - And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He is also the co-author of
Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.
BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator Carl Davidson
is a political organizer, writer and public speaker. He is currently co-chair
of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a board member of
the US Solidarity Economy Network, and a member of Steelworker Associates in
Western Pennsylvania. His most recent book is New Paths to Socialism:
Essays on the Mondragon Cooperatives, Workplace Democracy and the Politics of
Click here to contact Mr. Davidson.