Midterm Elections Show We Need a Workers Party

by Jeff Booth, Massachusetts, AFSCME Local 3650 (personal capacity)

On November 8th there is another, we’re told, “most important election of our lifetime”. The midterm elections take place two years into Democratic Party control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House. The elections in November will include Congressional elections for all 435 House of Representatives seats and 35 of 100 in the Senate.  There will also be elections for Governors in 39 states and territories and many other state and local elections for various political offices.

“The total cost of 2022 midterm elections is projected to exceed $9.3 billion, according to an early, conservative estimate… More than $4.8 billion has already been spent on 2022 midterms (Open Secrets, 9/26/2022).  The Republicans and Democrats are sometimes referred to as “corporate” political parties because big corporations and their millionaire or billionaire owners are directly or indirectly their primary source of funding. The massive amounts of money the capitalist class spends promoting the Democrat/Republican duopoly over electoral politics, plus corporate control of mass media, results in the capitalist class determining the political organization and ideology of the Democratic and Republican parties.  

Despite all the money spent on political advertising and corporate media hype promoting elections, turnout at midterms is only around forty percent of eligible voters. 2018 saw an uptick to about half of eligible voters, the highest turnout in over a century. Despite all the big business and millionaire/billionaire money thrown at elections, the dramatic, provocative political ads attacking or promoting candidates of the two corporate parties, and the massive amounts of NGO and tax dollars spent on appeals to vote, still less than half of eligible voters bother to vote.  

The two corporate parties set up intentional barriers against registering to vote and voting. These include no holiday for voting day, time limits on the period to register to vote, and restricting access to early voting or mail-in ballots. Lack of time off, transportation, and child care are also problems for many trying to vote in person. However, a recent poll of voters across 10 states by the National Academy of Sciences showed only 12% of voters in the study cited external factors as barriers to voter turnout while 91% cited beliefs such as political ideology of voters as one of the main factors in voter turnout.

The costly spectacle of two capitalist political parties vying for state power is on full display but the question remains for working people: What is there to vote for? Is there a political party with solutions, even short-term, to the severe problems we’re facing?

The Economy and the Midterms

Polls and anecdotal evidence from canvassers going door-to-door report that inflation and the economy are the main concerns for potential voters. For example, a New York Times/Siena college poll released in mid-September showed 49 percent of registered voters polled answered that “economic issues such as jobs, taxes or the cost of living” were the most important issues in deciding “whether to vote for Democrats or Republicans for Congress this November”. Only 31% responded with “societal issues such as abortion, guns or democracy.” as the most important issues. [New York Times 9/19/2022] 

The context for the midterm elections is a growing economic crisis of inflation and recession, declining living standards, and deepening inequality. The economic and social shocks from the pandemic seemed to be lifting last year. The corporate media marveled at the economic recovery from a deep but brief recession in 2020. In mid-2021 higher inflation began to increase and then accelerated in 2022. The capitalist economists did not predict the reappearance of higher inflation or that it would continue beyond a few months. The economy is also in recession, (also not predicted), satisfying the traditional definition involving GDP shrinking for at least two consecutive quarters. The response from the Biden administration and many capitalist economists has been to try and redefine how recessions are measured rather than seriously analyze their causes and effects.

The cost of paying for basic needs has risen dramatically. “Consumer prices went up 9.1% over the year ended in June 2022, the largest increase in 40 years.” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). Inflation in August was 8.3% higher than a year ago. Food prices have shot up 11.4%, the highest yearly increase since May 1979. Home heating costs are at their highest level in a decade. Families will pay 17.2% more for home heating this winter, and “heating costs are becoming increasingly unaffordable for millions…” according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA). The NEADA adds that “families need to use air conditioning to stay safe” given the prolonged heat waves this summer. The average family’s air conditioning costs went from $450 last summer to $600 this year. 

Rents are up 16% compared to a year ago, rising at their fastest rate since 1986. “The typical US monthly rent was $2,900 in August, up 12.3% from the year before… much higher than it was before the pandemic.” (VOX; 9/14/2022). In comparison, February 2020 average U.S. rent was $1,660.  Buying a house to escape predatory rents is not an option for most people. Mortgage interest rates have been pushed to the highest level since 2008. The median price for an “existing” house hit a record high of $414,000 at the start of the summer and despite falling slightly since then, inflation and high mortgage rates keep sales declining and millions unable to handle mortgage payments. Homelessness is increasing with shelters overflowing, wait lists doubling for shelters, and encampments growing in parks and other public spaces.  

Food, housing, and trying to survive extreme heat and freezing temperatures are some of the most basic human needs. Prices are also going up for just about everything else, from furniture, to cars, to clothes, and while the corporate media points to lower gas prices, the cost remains high and a drain on wages for many workers. Wages are not keeping up with increased costs. Over the past year, wages and salaries fell 3.5%, accounting for inflation.  The millionaires and billionaires can absorb high inflation and profit from recessions but the vast majority of working people are going without things they need, taking on record debt, and facing a precarious future.  

Corporate Parties Put Profits Over People

In a truly bipartisan response, the Democrats and Republicans claim the main causes for inflation range from wage increases (a “wage-price spiral”), to supply chain disruptions, to government spending.  

In reality, fact-based studies show wage increases don’t precede inflationary prices but instead wage increases, when they sporadically happen, tail inflation, trying to catch up to already higher prices. The impact of inflation is made much worse by 40 years of a “low wage economy” of mostly flat or declining wages forced on workers.     

Both corporate parties buy into government spending as a main cause for inflation. This doesn’t stop them from passing spending bills with huge corporate subsidies and lucrative contracts for private corporations. Both parties normally use propaganda about the Federal deficit to beat down pressure for any real improvements in social benefits like universal healthcare or free higher education. Now, inflation is increasingly cited by both parties as an excuse to water-down or completely oppose gains in social benefits.

However, both parties also consistently and enthusiastically support year after year of record-breaking government spending on war, which they never blame as a cause of inflation. The Department of Defense budget is $722 billion for fiscal year 2022, $17 billion more than 2021. On September 30th, Congress quickly passed and Biden signed off on a spending bill that included approximately $12.3 billion in more military and economic aid to Ukraine, added to around $54 billion from earlier this year. “Congress has now committed more military aid to Ukraine than it has to any country in a single year since the Vietnam War.” (New York Times, 9/30/2022). The same article remarks on the “remarkable bipartisan consensus in favor of pouring huge amounts of American resources…” into the war in Ukraine.

The Bipartisan Cure for Inflation

The Democrats and Republicans push a cure for high inflation that’s centered on making it harder for workers to get and keep jobs or gain higher wages. Both parties see the Federal Reserve (central banking system) raising interest rates as necessary. This is supposed to “slow down” the economy which means job cuts, layoffs, and makes most loans harder for working people to pay off, like mortgage, car, and credit card loans. It means higher unemployment and deepening the current recession, with no guarantee of lowering inflation.

The two corporate parties also agree that the price gouging and record profits of the corporations and the landlords are not to be touched. Big business demands sacrifice so corporations can increase profit margins and two political parties of big business agree. Neither the Democrats or Republicans want price controls, not even on necessities like food, electricity, heating and cooling of homes, gasoline, etc. Price controls were implemented by the right-wing Nixon administration in the early 1970s due to the pressure of mass protest movements and a stronger labor movement at the time. In the absence of a mass protest movement now, price controls are ignored  by the corporate parties. 

Neither the Republicans or Democrats want to deal with the housing crisis. They’re afraid to even talk about rent control, a huge expansion in “Section 8” rent subsidies, mass spending to build and maintain new public housing, or mortgage subsidies like those in the G.I. bill after WWII, even though all these were used in the past. Working people are supposed to risk heat stroke in the summer or hypothermia in winter because the Democrats and Republicans fear bringing back heavily regulated and publicly-owned utilities to make electricity and heating much more affordable. “Profits over people” should be the campaign slogan for both corporate parties. 

One of the main drivers of inflation are the big oil/energy companies. From April thru June of this year the big oil/energy companies took record profits, including ExxonMobil ($17.85 billion), Shell ($12 billion), and Chevron ($11.62 billion), while working people struggled to pay for food, electricity, heat, and gas. There’s an immediate need for big energy corporations to be nationalized and taken under public ownership, to drastically lower prices, but also as an absolutely necessary step towards stopping disastrous climate change. There’s not a whisper from either corporate party about this.

What the corporate parties won’t talk about says more about the midterm elections than all their campaign promises. The forbidden topics of price controls, rent control and more rent subsidies, mass expansion of public housing, public ownership of utilities and energy, cutting military spending, etc., show real reforms are off the table for the Democrats and Republicans.   

Lesser Evil and Single Issue Voting

The Republican and Democratic Parties are not the same. But they both represent the economic and political interests of capitalism and imperialism over the interests of the working class. There are recent examples of blatant corruption that show this, in a bipartisan way. Members of Congress “were caught in 2020 making stock trades following privileged briefings on the coronavirus pandemic, … senators trading stocks has popped up in the North Carolina Senate contest and other midterm races… [and] several examples of representatives and senators who… own stock in companies while serving on committees overseeing them.” (Sludge, 9/2/2022) 

The Democratic Party strategy in the midterms is to run against Trump though Presidential elections aren’t until 2024. The Democrats believe their control of Congress hinges on centering their campaigns on the corruption of the Trump regime, the political riot of January 6th, and the Supreme Court ruling against Roe V. Wade. The Republican Party dominated by Trump gives the Democrats a lot to campaign against.

As with Clinton in 2016, Democratic Party power brokers are focused on their strategy of running against Trumpism. This time around, “political groups and nonprofits aligned with the Democratic Party have spent nearly $44 million on advertising… in Republican primaries in five states… to boost the profile of far-right, [Republican] candidates in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Maryland… [a] strategy rooted in the belief that these candidates… will be easier to defeat in a general election.” (Open Secrets, 7/15/2022).

The Republicans are campaigning on defending Trump, the Trump presidency, and using the cliches of right wing populism to pretend sympathy for the effects of inflation while opposing government spending on social benefits, lowering taxes for the rich, and making noise about the size of government, claiming all this will somehow solve the growing economic crisis. In many states, Republican campaigns also stress anti-abortion propaganda and policies, bashing immigrants, and attacking LGBTQ rights.  One response by the Democrats to Republican attacks on civil liberties was to withdraw a vote in the Senate on a bill to protect same-sex and interracial marriage out of fear it would be too controversial prior to the midterm elections.  

The Democrats running in the midterms try to position themselves as defenders of abortion rights. But in Obama’s campaign for President in 2008, Democrats promised to make the right to abortion federal law as part of the Freedom of Choice Act but then never introduced the legislation once Obama took power, or follow through on that campaign promise during two terms in office. Biden also promised to make Roe v. Wade “the law of the land” in his 2020 Presidential campaign. The Democratic Party had majority control of congress in the first two years of Obama’s Presidency and, now, under Biden. Those promises for a federal abortion rights bill were never acted on, they were lies.  

After the leaked memo warning the Supreme Court was in the process of taking down Roe V. Wade, the Democrats’ rhetoric shifted. They began talking about “life after Roe” and after the ruling, “the new normal, post-Roe”. Even as large demonstrations erupted in the streets, the Democratic Party didn’t try to organize any street protests or a serious political fight for abortion rights. And they again failed to codify abortion rights in federal law despite the rallies and polling data showing majority support for defending the right to choose abortion. 

The Immediate Need for a Workers’ Party

The list of mass protest movements derailed or co-opted by the Democratic Party is a long one. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was taken off the streets by leading activists in the movement backing Biden and other Democratic Party candidates before the 2020 elections and burying the movement in support for the Democratic Party. After initially pandering to the Black Lives Matter movement, Biden and the Democrats are now leading a bipartisan charge for a massive increase of billions more in funding police.  

After the Supreme Court ruling against Roe, instead of a forming a mass movement, liberals, progressives, and even much of the “left” retreated once again to appeals of “vote harder”, “vote blue no matter who”, and “contact your representative in Congress” while the Democratic Party cashed in on more donations.  A brief spark of mass protests for abortion rights never caught fire.  

The Democratic Party fears mass protest movements. Based on its history, funding, ideology, and the class character of its politicians, the Democratic Party sees mass movements as a threat to the capitalist system. They have no interest in or ability to organize for fundamental change. The mass protest movements of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, including the women’s liberation movement created the political pressure necessary to force the Supreme Court in the Roe decision and the Nixon administration, the Democratic Party, and Republicans to accept abortion rights along with other social reforms. 

However, the mass protest movements against the Vietnam war, for women’s rights, etc. never took on the crucial task of breaking with the Democratic Party and helping to build a political party for working people. The working class in most other countries organized mass left-wing political parties like Labor, Socialist, or Communist parties and has won better social benefits, like universal healthcare and more political choice and power for working people.  

In the U.S., weak social benefits and the rolling back of reforms like abortion rights are mostly due to the working class not having its own political party. The mass protest movements in the 1930s of the labor movement, in the 1960’s and early 1970’s of the civil rights/black power movement, the anti Vietnam war movement, the Women’s movement, etc. failed to organize a new political party for working people in order to win more reforms, sustain them longer, and move beyond reformism to fight for socialism, independent of corporate interests and the capitalist class.

Leading up to the midterm elections, failed arguments for supporting the Democratic Party are recirculating, like, support for the Democratic Party is “just pulling a lever on election day.” Supporting a capitalist political party is much more than “pulling a lever on election day.” Massive amounts of time, energy, and money from the labor movement, progressives, and parts of the left go into actively supporting the corporate Democratic Party instead of going towards organizing a workers’ party. That “lever-pulling” for the Democrats helps legitimize the corporate duopoly over electoral politics and surrenders workers’ political power to the capitalist class.  

In these midterm elections it’s worth looking for left independents to vote for, writing in left independents if none are on the ballot. And there are examples of left Greens like Matthew Hoh running for U.S. Senate in North Carolina, and Howie Hawkins and Gloria Mattera who are running for Governor and Lieutenant Governor in New York State. The Democratic Party has worked overtime using legal maneuvers to try and keep these left Greens off the ballot in North Carolina and New York State. Matthew Hoh managed to stay on the ballot, while Hawkins and Mattera are still write-ins.  

Organizing for a mass, left workers’ party will remain an abstraction if it’s delayed in every election cycle in the name of so-called lesser evil voting. Channeling working people into supporting a capitalist political party prevents gathering the forces together to create a political party of and for workers. In order to save livelihoods and lives in the current economic crisis and win real reforms while at the same time organizing towards socialism, workers need a political party independent from corporate politics. Unions, groups fighting for abortion rights, anti-racist organizations, left Greens, progressives, and the left in general can organize together now to unite around a socialist program, run independent left candidates, and start a mass left workers’ party.