The Need for Independent Working-Class Politics

By Jai Chavis and and Nicholas Wurst

After four years of the Trump administration’s disastrous, corporate, racist policies, the 2020 election has come to be seen as a key battle in the fight to reverse the damage done and win major gains for oppressed people and the working class in general. The Biden campaign, the Democratic Party, and the corporate media are running against Trump, and not much else. Biden and the Democratic Party are not promising to fight for crucial improvements in our living standards like free healthcare. They hope to win votes by being the “lesser evil”.

What Is Lesser-Evilism?

Americans are continually bombarded by the idea that the only way to defeat Trump and the Republicans is to “vote blue no matter who,” but has this ever actually worked? The answer is no. After the repression and right-wing policies of Nixon and Ford, did Democratic President Jimmy Carter rise as a noble champion of the working class? No, in fact he maintained the capitalist status quo by deregulating major industries, busting unions, and facilitating huge wage cuts in deregulated industries. The Carter administration paved the way for the openly right-wing policies of Reagan: “Carter’s 1978 tax plan anticipated what later became known as Reaganomics by cutting capital gains taxes for the wealthy while boosting Social Security taxes on workers.” (The Democrats: A Critical History by Lance Selfa). After the “trickle-down economics” and “tough-on-crime” policies of Reagan that ushered in the modern era of neoliberalism—in which basic social services were cut to death and tax breaks for the rich were handed out like candy—did  Bill Clinton, with Democratic control of the legislature and the Presidency, reverse these anti-worker policies? Not even close. He and his fellow Democrats slashed welfare spending beyond recognition along with former Senator Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats authoring the 1994 Crime Bill, a major leap into the disproportionate mass incarceration of black and brown workers.

How can we explain this difference in what the Democrats say versus what they do when in power? While the Democratic and Republican Parties are certainly not the same, they are wholly bipartisan in their support for capitalism, imperialism, and serving the interests of their corporate backers. The Democratic Party is a capitalist party, and any policies they claim as significant reforms or solutions will outright hurt working people or be limited to tinkering around the edges of the capitalist system. The Democratic Party will never put the needs of the working class first or address the root cause of social problems. The crises of capitalism are rooted in the exploitation of the working class: wages need to remain low to maintain profit, but those low wages mean we, as a class, can never buy back enough of what we produce and are constantly struggling to get by. Republicans often lead the charge on attacking wages, jobs, and social services in an attempt to keep profits up. Some parts of the working class see the Democrats as the alternative to the Republicans. Though people may elect a Democrat with the hopes of reversing what a Republican has done, a Democratic administration is incapable of making real change since it has limited itself to ideology and policies in support of capitalism. By refusing to put forward an alternative to capitalism, they set the stage for more crises, and create more opportunities for right-wing figures like Trump to make gains through masquerading as an alternative to the status quo. Offices and administrations change hands between the two corporate parties, every time leaving workers behind in the ways that matter regardless of which corporate stooge is in power. Lesser-evilism only works for the ruling class, as it continues to keep them in power while we workers limp along and lick our wounds after each election. Instead of mounting our own political challenge, we are pressured to vote for one of the two parties. 

Voting for the Lesser Evil in Practice

The Obama administration, which is praised by liberals as a progressive administration, betrayed its own promises of change at every step. After campaigning on passing the DREAM Act to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented Americans brought to the country as children (DREAMers), Obama instead gave us DACA, an extremely limited executive order that gave DREAMers merely temporary protections against deportation and the temporary ability to legally work, which both remained subject to easy attacks by future administrations, rather than providing citizenship as promised. To this day the DREAM Act, and therefore the lives of nearly 1 million undocumented people, continue to be used as a bargaining chip by the Democratic Party, spitting in the faces of undocumented activists who thought Obama to be a genuine ally.

Additionally, despite organized labor mobilizing its members to vote for Obama, and donating $400 million to his campaign in 2008, the administration quickly walked back its support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it significantly easier for workers to organize their workplace into a union. Labor was rewarded for its support by having EFCA watered down with key clauses removed, and eventually left to die. Despite this, labor has continued to lobby Democrats and support their campaigns, rather than organizing rallies, workplace action, and its own candidates independent of the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Obama’s administration similarly betrayed hopes for public health care. After swearing up and down that Obama’s healthcare legislation would include a federal public option to help control prices, the Obama administration instead settled on the incredibly weak Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is a near carbon copy of Republican Mitt Romney’s “healthcare” plan as Governor of Massachusetts. While putting forward some barebones restrictions to what health insurance companies had to cover, the ACA lacked even a public option and massively expanded the profits and handouts to the health insurance industry while still leaving more than 27 million people uninsured by 2016 and millions more underinsured. When the Democratic Party had control of the legislature and the presidency, instead of passing a universal healthcare system ensuring free access to healthcare for all, they completely bent to the interests of health insurance corporations over the needs of workers. This had serious consequences, especially leaving millions of newly unemployed workers without their employer-based health insurance during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

To cap off the flurry of betrayals of the change promised by Obama, we reflect on one of his first decisions as President: to preside over bailing out the same big banks that caused the Great Recession of 2007-2008 in the first place—all while the living standards of workers and the middle class plummeted dramatically with numerous jobs lost and families’ first homes foreclosed on. The Obama administration’s response to the last economic crash is strikingly similar to how the Trump administration is handling our current economic crisis: bailing out corporations while begrudgingly providing piece-meal protections for workers in a ploy to maintain legitimacy. In some ways, Trump has even gone further than Obama in responding to the current economic crisis with direct payments. This is all without even delving into Obama’s expansion of U.S. imperialism and domestic surveillance, all of which were handed ready made to Trump and any future Democratic or Republican administrations.

The disillusionment with Obama was seen in the decreased share of the vote he received in 2012, as well as the mediocre vote that his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton received in 2016, where she promised to carry on the work of the Obama years. When Americans “voted blue” for Obama, they got a pro-corporate administration which removed any possibility of hope for change through a Democratic Party regime under Hillary Clinton, and laid the ground for the successful campaign of Trump as a “political outsider.”

Figures like Trump rise to power by taking advantage of the problems that people experience as a regular part of life under capitalism. Rather than pointing towards capitalism as the root cause, they scapegoat other countries or marginalized communities (immigrants, Muslims, people of color, etc.). Trump is a grotesque symptom of the crises that American capitalism is facing, but he is not the core problem. While the right-wing role he has played in U.S. politics shouldn’t be downplayed, he is by no means unique within U.S. history. Prior to Trump, Republican figures like Nixon and Reagan similarly rested upon reactionary elements in U.S. society and right-wing populist appeals for their base of support. If we want to defeat Trump now and the future figures like him who will surely spring up as a symptom of the desperate, failing capitalist system, we must be aware of the historical reality of Democratic and Republican Party politics.

Working-Class Politics Must be Independent

The Democratic Party is not just pro-capitalist, it is also controlled from the top down by corporate forces, and without membership structures or internal democracy, it lacks any avenue for a grassroots working-class movement to seize control of the party or change its direction in a meaningful way. So it should be of no surprise that a now infamous study found that the legislation that gets passed in the U.S. is essentially independent of public opinion and is almost entirely dependent on the interests of the top 10% and corporate lobbying groups.

Attempts to push the Democratic Party to fight for working-class demands fail for this reason, leaving activists, union leaders, and many progressive movements co-opted or demoralized. This reinforces low turnout and political participation from huge sections of the working class, who see no political force that will genuinely represent them or actually change their economic and social conditions. We need only to look to recent history to confirm that attempts to work inside the Democratic Party and push it to the left do not work.

Bernie Sanders made the crucial mistake of trying to win major reforms through the Democratic Party twice, and now unflinchingly supports Biden (as he supported Clinton in 2016) despite correctly criticizing Biden’s corporate politics just weeks earlier. People want someone to vote for, not just a greater evil to vote against, and it’s clear to workers and youth that Biden is not a serious alternative to the right populism of Trump.  A recent poll of Black Americans aged 18 to 29 demonstrated that roughly half of this population has no confidence in the Democratic Party and 49% of them thought that “voting doesn’t make a difference anyway”. Meanwhile, Sanders, arguably the most “left” amongst the Democrats, scolds workers and youth for refusing to back Biden rather than presenting a serious alternative. The Sanders campaign’s numerous attempts to convince Biden to move left have resulted in little to no change in Biden’s platform, including the consistent refusal to support any sort of Medicare for All or universal healthcare system in the middle of a pandemic!

The majority of registered voters are independents, huge sections of voters vote based on who is the “lesser evil”, and nearly half of the country didn’t vote in the last presidential election. This isn’t because of apathy: workers feel alienated from a political system and political parties that do not represent them. Workers need something to vote for, we need a party that will actually defend our interests instead of bipartisan corporate bailouts, cuts to social services, and increases to the bloated military budget to further strengthen U.S. imperialism.

A 2018 Gallup poll showed, in a continuing trend, that the majority of American adults think that we need a third major party. Even an outline, a beginning of a new workers’ party to the left of the Democrats, even in just a few key cities, could begin to create a visible alternative that could rapidly organize many workers and youth, giving us a necessary tool to fight for real improvements in our living conditions.

What Would a Workers’ Party Look Like?

The history of working-class political parties is vibrant globally, with many examples to look to. In the U.S., there have been many attempts, but there has never been a working-class party that truly gained mass support or maintained its working-class character. This is a big part of why the U.S. has such a weak labor movement and especially inadequate social programs compared to the most developed capitalist countries.

A notable example of an attempt at independent working-class politics in the U.S. was the Socialist Party of America (SP). At its strongest in the early 20th century, it ran candidates throughout the country at various levels of government and won some significant victories. Despite its failure to become a sustained force, it emphasized socialist politics that have long since played an important role in U.S. politics. A key lesson to take from the SP was the importance of internal democratic structures. In order to fight the top-down, memberless capitalist parties, the SP organized a party with a dues-paying membership. The SP chose its candidates and platform at a national convention, controlling the direction of the party and the deployment of its resources. This was such a threat to the capitalist political system in the U.S. that, in addition to police raids, imprisoning Socialist Party members, and other political repression, the primary system was spread throughout the country. In the ruling class’s war against socialism, primary elections were used to wrench nominations out of the grasp of the party membership and put it in the hands of a state-regulated party enrollment list, where the government could determine who could vote in the Socialist Party primary, regardless of whether they were dues-paying members who were committed to building the party. Rather than bottom-up political discussion and debate by the members in the lead up to the convention, there was a single, top-down vote dominated by professional politicians. It was too dangerous to have a Socialist Party with a real membership because it represented a working class that was becoming politically well organized. 

North of the border in Canada and Quebec, the New Democratic Party (NDP) came into existence in 1961 as a party to represent organized labor and the left in Canada. With trade union affiliation, including some delegates to the national convention being reserved for representatives of each union, elected by the membership, the party also had strong internal democracy. Without ever becoming the majority party in the national government, it was key in winning universal healthcare for the Canadian people. While it is far from perfect and is currently far from its roots, the NDP’s record of progressive political pressure and helping to win major gains for the Canadian working class joins the examples of other workers’ parties throughout the world as a crucial political tool for immediate improvements in living conditions.

If we want a political party in the U.S. that can organize the working-class majority of society into political action, it must be totally independent of the Democrats, Republicans, and the capitalist forces they represent and are funded by. An independent workers’ party must take no corporate money, be funded by the dues and donations of working-class members and supporters, and its officers, candidates, and its platform must be decided democratically by the membership. An independent workers’ party will also need resources from the unions who choose to be in the party. Candidates and elected officials of a working-class party must take only the average wage of the workers they represent so that all elected officials of the new workers’ party remain aligned with the interests of the working class.

With a serious and organized party of the working class and youth, currently disjointed movements against various forms of oppression and economic exploitation can take on a unified expression not just in the streets but electorally as well. This would allow for running genuinely anti-racist, working-class candidates who can be champions for policies like universal health care, majorly defunding the police, raising the minimum wage to $20 an hour, and building affordable housing. Through a party of and by working people, all elected officials and political leaders of the party can be held accountable to the democratic structures of the party, which is not possible for the corporate controlled Democratic and Republican politicians.

A workers’ party in the U.S. should pull together many different forces such as unions, left Greens, socialist organizations, and liberals ready to move to the left. Progressive groups, community organizations, independents, and working class voters who are fed up with the deceit of the corporate duopoly should also be involved. These organizations could affiliate and participate in the democratic process of determining the party’s direction. These organizations should also be able to continue to have their own external activity and identity, but be unified in building the independent political voice of the working class against the economic, environmental, and social devastation of capitalism.

The Workers’ Party Cannot Wait

Working class people can’t continue to support or promote political parties controlled by big corporations and the rich. The U.S. capitalist class spends billions on securing a lock on electoral politics. They think they own our votes. The capitalist elites try to position voting Democratic or Republican as the “only” option. However, every vote for the corporate political parties reinforces their legitimacy and helps these ruling class parties maintain their stranglehold over elections. If there are any left independent candidates in your local elections who are promoting progressive or left ideas, try and get involved in their campaigns. If there aren’t any, try and argue for unions, progressive and community organizations, and left groups to identify one of their own members to run on a clear, independent, working-class platform that can draw together various oppressed groups and unite the working class against the status quo of corporate candidates.

Even if these independent left candidates don’t win, better turnouts for these candidates puts pressure on the corporate parties and helps spread the idea of independent left politics. A good electoral campaign by independent left candidates can help win things like ballot access, matching funds, and demonstrate that independent working-class politics are already happening and need to be organized further.

Nationally, Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker are running a socialist campaign on Green Party ballot lines for President and Vice President, respectively. Their campaign is running on a platform of an “eco-socialist Green New Deal, an economic bill of rights, and a socialist economy.” Socialists and progressives should look seriously at their campaign, and if it is determined to be the strongest independent left challenge, it should be vigorously supported as part of the effort to strengthen independent working-class politics. There are other left independents running for state and local positions who should be examined similarly as well.

Ultimately, it’s clear that most working people are interested in a new party that can actually represent them. But wanting a new party and being convinced to play an active role in building it are not the same. The broader workers’ movement must come together and discuss how to start building the independent political voice of the working class. Forming a new party will likely start small with diligent organizing in the unions, in the workplaces, and in progressive community organizations to build a base for the beginnings of a new party that can raise its profile through initial, even if unsuccessful, local elections, and grassroots campaigning for issue-based campaigns outside of the elections. But a workers’ party must not be confined to elections and should play a crucial role in drawing together the forces of social movements to fight for the needs of the working-class in the streets and in the workplaces. A movement for a workers’ party must link up with the Black Lives Matter movement’s struggle to massively defund the police, and invest in working-class communities and social services. The rising energy of teachers, parents, and students struggling for a safe reopening of the schools can also help build the foundations of a new, mass party. We must support a workers’ stimulus to extend the moratorium on evictions, cancel rent payments, extend unemployment benefits, build free and accessible COVID-19 testing and treatment infrastructure, and much more. We must demonstrate that independent working-class politics are happening and that they can win.

We need to break the cycle of voting for the “lesser evil” as an immediate “solution” as this only lays the groundwork for the “greater evil” down the line. The sooner we start organizing the foundations of a political challenge to the ruling class, the better prepared we will be to break the vicious and unending cycle of “voting blue no matter who”. We understand and sympathize with why people feel they must vote for Biden, but the Independent Socialist Group will not support a vote for a Democrat or Republican. History has made it clear that voting for the political parties of the capitalist class does not win us the gains that we so desperately need, and it serves to strengthen right wing and pro-capitalist forces in the long term. We can’t let our hatred of the Trump administration be used against us.

We in the Independent Socialist Group of course do not want Trump to win, but supporting Biden, who represents the same core ruling class interests, sets back the movement for a new workers’ party. In 1850, during the first fights for workers parties in Europe, revolutionary thinker, socialist, and trade unionist Karl Marx said: “The progress which the [workers’] party will make by operating independently…is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.” Income inequality is worsening, healthcare is getting more expensive, and unemployment is exploding.  Homelessness, evictions, and housing insecurity are rising. Wages continue to stagnate, precarious and low paid gig work is ever expanding, and racist mass incarceration continues. Our environment is deteriorating with harmful climate change ever accelerating. And police are still disproportionately killing unarmed people of color. This is all regardless of which corporate party is in power.

Join us in helping to build the independent political power of the working class in order to fight for socialist policies. Building a new party is not optional. Workers must organize to defend and expand our rights and create a government that works for us, not for corporations and the rich. As our sister organization, the Socialist Party of England Wales put it, “the need for the trade unions to organi[z]e a battle to defend workers’ interests is clear. To do so without a political voice, however, is to fight with one hand tied behind our backs.” A workers’ party is a crucial first step towards building a just, socialist society free from the exploitation and environmental catastrophe caused by capitalism.

Image Credit: Andrea Widburg via Flickr // Public Domain