Polls are open today for what has been called the most important election in close to a century. Ballot initiatives are up for vote in numerous states. Both parties have been pushing people to vote early. The capitalist media is spurred and ready to go with all their bells and whistles to cover the results as they come in. To an ignorant outsider, this would seem like a very important event in our history, especially for liberals, progressives and the left. Both parties have done an excellent job supporting this assumption with promises of 400 years of darkness from the right if Obama should win and the development of the much deserved boogeyman evil of Mitt Romney from the left.
The same problems persist after every election, despite seemingly liberating campaign promises and slogans. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, environmental destruction, and class oppression are systemic elements of capitalism that cannot be voted away.* These are the biggest problems in society, but no leader we’ve ever elected has done much at all to address these crises. Even the “liberal” presidents offer only moral victories to those who face these oppressions everyday, instead of any real major material relief. The seriousness of these crises far outweighs the hype of this election and brings into question the purpose of the media fervor.
Elections and electoral politics cloak the nature of politics under a capitalist system. Elections provide an illusion of democracy while any concept of real choice is pulled out from underneath our feet. Our political system is a two-party one ruling class system. The two parties create the illusion of choice while the ruling class, not monolithic or unified on every point, controls the direction of national policies. The ruling class may differ on small points, but they do not differ on their commitment to capitalism and their desire to maintain their profits. The difference between major candidates is largely minimal. These small differences can be significant in the day to day lives of people, usually only in a small way, but rarely shape society one way or another.
Social movements, on the other hand, carry much more responsibility for effecting real, meaningful, and sometimes radical and revolutionary change. The impact of social movements far exceeds that of electoral victories, even though we are socialized to believe the opposite. There is a very specific reason behind this – for the ruling class, disenchanting working people with the possibilities of change through social movements weakens the power working people hold to change society, and supports the myth that change happens from above, by politicians supported by the ruling class, “chosen” through elections.
The Two Party, One Class Oligarchy
Since its foundation, this nation has been based on the principles of capitalism, private property, wage labor, and profit. The white propertied (mostly slave-holding) men who founded this nation had the idea that those with the most wealth had the most to lose in the political system and hence should have the most control. This ruling class of white male elites were the guiding force in national politics at the time, and in many ways still are today. The composition of the ruling class has changed, but it follows the same rules. Instead of kings and queens, we are ruled by multiple leaders, business capitalists and their political cohorts in the truest sense of oligarchy.
Democrats and Republicans are both beholden to large business interests, owners, and Wall Street. Most major businesses contribute to both campaigns, knowing that they will have the ear of whoever is elected president. There is some slight ideological difference among members of the ruling class, but all are ardently capitalist and will preserve their privilege, property, and profit at all costs.
All politicians are beholden to these interests. Bailout packages aren’t approved if Goldman Sachs opposes them. War plans aren’t drastically changed without the approval of the corporations that make up the Military-Industrial complex. Healthcare reform isn’t passed unless the Insurance industry approves. Its about protecting “American interests” and American interests are about business.
Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report and Black is Back Coalition describes this phenomenon excellently, comparing electoral politics to Professional Wrestling (video below). Ford goes on to say that electoral politics are equivalent to tag team matches. “The entire show is owned by one company. All the wrestlers work for the same company. The only real competition is about which wrestlers will be assigned to win and who will be assigned to lose,” Ford says. “A wrestler…who can engage the crowd and make them suspend their disbelief and imagine that the game is real, he is good for business, and therefore he is going to be allowed to win, because that is good for the company. The company always wins because … they own the whole game. At this juncture in history Wall Street owns the whole major political party game.”1 Ford goes on to describe the collaboration between Obama and Bush to pass the bank bailouts at the behest of Wall Street bankers and owners.
The illusion of choice, the illusion of democracy is what the ruling class wants, and it hires politicians to sell that illusion to working people.
The Illusion of Difference, the Difference of Illusion
The differences between the candidates exist more in the rhetorical realm than in any solid policy. Both Romney and Obama are committed to wars in the Middle East. Obama drastically expanded the targeted assassination drone bombing program during his four years as president, even targeting those with valid US citizenship. The US has engaged in bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia.2 Secret operations are underway to destabilize nations throughout the region, specifically challenging the growing influence of Iran. Romney is unsurprisingly in support of these wars. The difference is that Obama is in an uncanny position to maintain them. Obama, as a democrat, has the ability to quiet left opposition on the wars by throwing a few moral victories to the struggling masses. He has proven to be quite effective at quelling domestic and foreign opposition to these wars.
Obama and Romney both support the continuation of Guantanamo Bay and illegal imprisonment. Obama recently signed the National Defense Authorization Act which gives the government the power to detain US citizens without cause for an indefinite period, voiding any concept of due process rights or legal protections. Obama’s administration also persecutes activists for opposing US foreign policy, whether it is Bradley Manning or the numerous grand jury resistors targeted because of their political support of anti-US organizations or their affiliation with Occupy Wall Street. The Democrats and Republicans are willing to crack down on movements should they pose a threat to the political hegemony of the ruling elite.
Climate change is going to drastically shape our future, yet, both candidates are silent on the issue. Obama and Romney both support fossil fuels presenting spurious ideas like nuclear and carbon/coal sequestration as viable alternatives to reduce emissions. Both are beholden to the business interests that dominate the energy industry, namely oil, coal, and nuclear. None of these sources are reliable or sustainable and none of these candidates offers any viable solution to the climate crisis. They only present business solutions to profit off the crisis, regardless of the impact they have on people.
The greatest similarity between the candidates is in their free trade economic policies. Obama signed three new free trade deals with Columbia, Panama, and South Korea.3 He did this despite his early campaign promise to renegotiate the now infamous North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).4 Obama has continued policies begun first by Ronald Reagan and expanded by every president since. He failed to push the Employee Free Choice Act through congress, which would have drastically changed the future of unions, despite a campaign promise to do so.5 Free trade economics have devastated working people, communities, and in several cases even national economies.6 Romney and Obama are in complete agreement on free trade policies. This is the consensus among the ruling class, even in a time of crisis.
The differences are quite small in comparison to the above issues. The Affordable Care Act provides free yearly healthcare screenings for women, eliminates exclusions due to preexisting conditions, and allows youth to be on their parents insurance until the age of 26. Obama vocally supports womens’ right to choose. The Lily Ledbetter Act allows people to sue their employer if they are not being paid equal to their on-the-job counterpart or peer who does the same job. The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) and presidential support of gay marriage are also important differences. All of these come with gigantic caveats, of course.
The Affordable Care Act serves up millions of working people on a silver platter to insurance companies. The health insurance requirement will funnel billions into the hands of the insurance industry, and doesn’t promise affordable and equal care to low-income workers. The womens’ right to choose is constantly under attack from all sides. The Lily Ledbetter Act makes it legal to sue for equal pay. Most women aren’t able to afford filing a lawsuit in the first place, making this bill a far cry from a real resolution to the pay gap, unlike it’s earlier predecessor the Equal Rights Amendment.7
The repeal of DADT allows non-hetero individuals to serve openly in the military, but they still are fighting for the imperialist interests of Wall Street. Marriage equality does not end the permeating culture of heterosexist violence that pushes so many towards suicide. The repeal of DADT and marriage equality build bigger chains for the LGBT community, and are far from liberating. They assimilate those communities into the capitalist system, making it tougher to see the inherent violence in the system. These reforms wont end the assault and bullying of youth, transgenders, or other non-heteronormative peoples. Allowing gays to be open in the military wont end the culture of rape and violence that threatens the lives every non-male / non-cisgendered person who joins.
The small differences granted by these policies and positions of Obama can have a huge impact on the individual lives of many, but they are designed to whet our minds to the idea of liberation through electoral politics, of liberation through the Democratic Party, while binding us to that same system. The differences are more an operation of rhetoric. They don’t represent any drastic differences between the parties or the candidates. It is important to understand how they can effect peoples’ lives, but that can’t be an excuse to blind us from the real violence, imperialism, corporatism, and class oppression that are a part of that electoral package. Malcolm X articulates this type of “progress” in the video below:
I will not even bother to address the Republicans, who as a party appeal to white racist tendencies, reactionary elements, and so many anti-worker, anti-women, anti-people of color, homophobic, and otherwise proto-fascist elements. They should be feared no more or less than the Democrats as both will lead this nation into oblivion. We should not blind ourselves to the crimes of the Democrats simply because the Republican boogeyman rolls out every four years.
Social Movements Move Society
We need to look at the history of social movements to get a grasp on where serious progressive change originates from. Democrats and Republicans do an excellent job to convince us that social change only comes from elected leaders. Successes for working people have come because of the committed ongoing struggles of working people and communities sometimes at the cost of lives. The weekend, the 8-hour work day and 40-hour work week, overtime pay, healthcare and benefits, suffrage, workers’ rights and collective bargaining, civil rights, environmental regulations, the social safety net, national parks and infrastructure, and so many other improvements to our lives have come because we fought and won concessions from the bosses. These weren’t small changes. These victories drastically changed the future of this nation and the relationship between the classes.
We only have to look at the presidency of Richard Nixon to understand how social movements move society. Nixon, a paranoid conservative, best known for his role in the Watergate scandal, was regularly forced against his will to pass progressive legislation. Nixon signed an amendment to the Clean Air Act in 1970 that strengthened environmental regulations. He established the Environmental Protection Agency. He increased funding for food aid and public assistance programs. Nixon even signed the Equal Rights Amendment, which promised to eliminate all discrimination based on gender. He also passed the Mine Health and Safety Act and created the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Nixon was not a progressive or even liberal bulwark by any means, yet all of these achievements came during his term.
These victories came because of the strength of social movements. The Womens’ movement, the newly spawned Environmental/Green movement, the Labor movement, the strength of communities of color having fought decades for civil rights, the student movement, all coexisting and contributing to the pressure exerted on political leaders. The president and congress were under an extreme amount of pressure, similar to the government during the 1930s. Workers, students, women, people of color, non-cisgendered communities, and other oppressed people were in full on struggle for social and economic justice. These movements moved society and the political system that governs it to the left because they understood and executed their collective power.
This holds true even today. The Arab Spring, Wisconsin, Occupy Wall Street, student strikes and actions, grassroots workers strikes in major cities, immigrant workers and youth demanding justice, and the Environmental/Green movement have all had an impact on national politics and, to some extent, this upcoming election. They are far from exerting the force peoples’ movements did in the 1960s and 70s, but they still move politics to the left. These movements are likely to spawn future movements that will be able to respond effectively to the crisis of capitalism and begin to exert our power at that level, if not greater, once again.
On your Ballot
There are very important choices on your ballot this year. Some states have critical ballot initiatives on gay marriage, collective bargaining, labeling of genetically modified organisms, and many other issues. Some local races could have a huge impact on local communities. Vote or don’t vote. There are decent and faulty arguments on both sides. You just need to be honest about what is on your ballot, whatever you decide to do.
Voting for the Democrats or Republicans is a vote for war tantamount to genocide. It’s a vote for free trade economic policies and the continued dismantling of local economies. It’s a vote for climate destruction. It’s a vote for the company that owns the political system. It’s your choice to accept that in exchange for the spurious promises of gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act, the Lily Ledbetter/Equal Pay Act, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the sad excuse for immigration reform called the Deferred Action program, or the comical gestures they’ve both made to working people. Its up to you to decide if you are okay with accepting the wars, the climate catastrophe, and the poor economic conditions for working people in order to secure the minuscule victories or protect us from the fictional Republican boogeyman. Be honest with yourself, don’t believe the hype, and don’t delude yourself into thinking that either of these candidates is “your guy”.
Voting Third Party, particularly Green, Justice, or any of the Socialist Parties can be a good catharsis, but is not likely to effect any change either. Most of these Third Party candidates know this. Change always comes from the bottom up. We are the only people who can effectively build for radical social transformation and revolutionary change. We can’t lose sight of this fact no matter what we feel about elections and electoral politics. Social movements move society, politicians, and even the ruling class. We can counter the massive organization and financial power of the ruling class with our ability to organize and creatively combat the crisis, presenting viable alternatives to capitalism. This is not an either or proposition – it is a both and. We can do both, but only if we actually do both, only if we vote and organize with an emphasis on the later. There is one truth throughout history – without struggle, there is no change. We must be on the move in order to move society.
For more reading on the election and what the left is saying about it, check out these sources:
*Capitalism is a system of economic trade based on the exploitation of labor to create profit. Maximum exploitation is achieved by dividng people along as many lines as possible – race, gender, sexuality, ability, legal status, and so on. Capitalism sustains these oppressions as a means to those ends.