By a socialist activist in Chicago
Few on the left could have failed to smile at the results of the US mid-term congressional elections on 7 November, which saw the Republicans lose control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the Bush administration left isolated. Almost immediately, Donald Rumsfeld - Bush’s far right commissar in the Department of Defence and the man who Reagan sent to Iraq to sell guns to Saddam Hussein - announced his resignation, to shouts of joy from anti-war activists around the world.
Unfortunately but inevitably given the existing political set-up in the US, the beneficiaries of the electorate’s anti-Bush revolt were the predominantly pro-war and 100% pro-business and anti-working-class Democrats.
The main cause of the Republicans’ rout seems to have been disaffection with the Iraq war, and more specifically anger at the growing list of US casualties and disgust at the noxious cocktail of lies and militaristic rhetoric issuing daily from the White House and Pentagon. Although not all of this disaffection is unambiguously progressive — increasing numbers of right-wing Republican nationalists want to cut and run regardless of the consequences for Iraq — it has meant a boost for anti-war movement and the left. Nor should the extent of it be underestimated. In Illinois, for instance, voters in a number of cities voted in referendums to take a stand against the war and demand the speedy withdrawal of troops from Iraq, with Chicago passing the measure by more than 80%. (Though a counter-trend was visible in Connecticut, where right-wing Democrat Joe Lieberman won as an independent after losing the Democratic Party primary to an anti-war candidate.)
Against the Democrats’ (inconsistent) criticism of the war and the administration’s arrogance and corruption, the Republicans fought back with reactionary offensives on issues such as immigration and gay rights: seven states passed referendums to ban same sex marriage (voters in South Dakota rejected a ban on abortion, though all that means is that access to abortion in the state will be as largely hypothetical as before). However, this was not enough to save them, particularly given the sex scandals that engulfed the Republicans in the run-up to the election. But another, less entertaining factor in the Democrats’ favour was that many of their candidates were conservatives themselves: a number of their new congressional intake are against abortion rights, for instance.
The US Congress’s new Democratic majority has pledged to carry out some mildly progressive reforms, including kick-starting stem cell research and raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to a princely $7.25 (or £3.70) an hour. Meanwhile there is all sorts of manoeuvring on Iraq, with pro- and anti-withdrawal — not, of course, the same thing as anti-war — forces in both parties fighting to realign US policy in the run-up to the report due to be published by the Iraq Study Group commission in either December or January.
Whatever marginal changes in policy we see in the next few months, the possibility for American workers and radicals to use the ballot box as a lever for social change is sharply prescribed by the realities of the two party system. Despite the rhetorical heat and real antagonisms American elections generate, both Democrats and Republicans are of course unambiguously bourgeois parties with very minor differences even in terms of policy. Even in elections, we can see signs of alternative possibilities: Ralph Nader’s 3 million votes in the 2000 presidential election, for instance; the 11% won by the Green senatorial candidate in Illinois this year; or the election of self-styled “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders to the Senate (though in fact Sanders is more like a left-wing Democrat than what Solidarity readers will understand by socialist). And beneath the veneer of elections is the more fundamental reality of raging class war in the United States. The migrant workers’ revolt around May Day this year showed that the US is not some kind of exception, but the home of class struggle par excellence.
Unfortunately, while the unions continue their slavish support for the Democrats, the possibility of cohering these movements into a political alternative is limited. American workers need their own party!