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Polarization, Economic Crisis, and Class Struggle: The Contradictions of the Political Moment

From the resurgence of the Democratic party to the advance of the Right to the potential of Generation U, it is evident that we are in a moment of instability and heightened polarization in the midst of a burgeoning economic crisis and rising labor movement. The Left must take the opportunities presented by the current moment and turn them into advances for our movement.

Ezra Brain

September 18, 2022
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Image of the Capitol building in grey scale with a turquoise semi-transparent overlay towards the left and a white semi-transparent overlay to the bottom right of it, overlapping slightly.

Today, the political situation in the U.S. is defined by its contradictions. On the one hand, we are in a moment of instability and heightened polarization — seen primarily in the increasing radicalization of the Republican Party. An economic crisis seems to be brewing — one that, as the Biden government has made clear, the working class will pay for. This, combined with a rising tide of unionization being led by “Generation U,” could spell class struggle on the horizon. In addition, there has been a steep decline of public faith in institutions — a phenomenon that has both left-wing and right-wing expressions — which destabilizes the situation more broadly.

On the other hand, however, the Democratic Party is on the advance, promising stability and a strong response to the right-wing attacks. At the beginning of the year, the Democrats were in a political freefall, having been unable to pass any meaningful legislation amid massive inflation. Biden’s approval rating bottomed out, and it seemed as if the Democrats were poised to be massacred in the midterms. But then the Supreme Court overturned Roe and the Democrats did what they do best: use the right wing to fearmonger their way into raising money and winning votes. Even though the Democrats did nothing to reestablish the right to an abortion, they still were able to rhetorically position themselves as the only alternative to the advance of the Right. So, thanks in large part to Democratic Party–affiliated NGOs like Planned Parenthood, they emerged from the outrage over the overturning of Roe in a much stronger position.

This has had ripple effects on the national situation more broadly. Biden was able to bring Joe Manchin in line and pass the Inflation Reduction Act (more commonly known as the climate bill), which gave Democrats a much-needed legislative win and allows them to pretend to be working to address climate change. Meanwhile, gas prices have also dropped, giving some economic relief to working people, which, in turn, helps stabilize the political situation — though high inflation and low wages continue to decimate the working class. This has all bolstered the Democrats’ position, and it seems increasingly likely that they will be able to hold the Senate and potentially minimize the Republican wave in the House, both reversals of previous assumptions about the midterms.

All in all, the national situation remains contradictory, with new developments shifting the situation almost weekly. But, amid all this, we can pull out a few key tendencies that are defining the current moment in politics.

Advance of the Right

One of those strongest tendencies in the national situation is the advance of the Far Right and the escalating attacks on democratic rights — most notably the right to bodily autonomy and the right to vote. This right wing advance has echoes of the “culture wars” of the 1990s and early aughts, but it has some differences. First, this round of right-wing attacks on civil rights is successfully rolling back rights that were already legally enshrined. In other words, rather than just preventing the oppressed from winning more concessions from the state, the Right is successfully taking back concessions already won — such as the right to an abortion.

Second, the Right’s attack is more radicalized than before, as reflected in its goals. For example, the last wave of anti-trans bills was focused on banning trans people — but, as is almost always the case, specifically transfeminine people — from using the public bathroom associated with their gender. This is, of course, a heinous and right-wing attack on basic rights, but it is primarily aimed to restrict trans people’s ability to integrate into public life. Put another way, the attacks sought to restrict which public spaces trans people have access to.

These new attacks, however, go further and attempt to attack trans people’s right to transition at all. From attempting to make gender-affirming health care for youth a felony, to designating gender transitions as child abuse, to removing trans health care from Medicaid coverage — the current wave of right-wing attacks on trans health care seek to forcibly detransition people or stop them from ever transitioning in the first place. In this sense, these attacks are aimed at restricting trans people not only in public spaces but also in private ones.

If previous right-wing cultural movements had hoped to aggressively restrict bodily autonomy to this degree, they were unable to get very far. But now the Right is advancing past the bounds of what is commonly expected in liberal democracy. The neoliberal era was defined, in part, by greater integration of the oppressed (including queer people, women, people of color, etc.) into the mainstream of capitalist society, which went along with the concession of some legal rights. For the first time since the onset of the neoliberal era, we are seeing that process rolled back.

In terms of reproductive rights, we can see that the Right won one of its biggest victories in decades. With the overturning of Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court undemocratically removed not only a key victory of the feminist movement but also barriers for further right-wing advances. Now Republican lawmakers in various states are seeking to outlaw birth control and contraceptives outside married couples. This victory is a result of a combination of factors. First, the shift of the situation to the right and relatively depoliticization. In a different moment, overturning the right to an abortion could have led to a mass mobilization of people who rejected the decision and the court’s legitimacy. While there were some marches in the days leading up to and after the decision, no movement emerged. This is, in large part, because Biden’s election had such a demobilizing effect. Biden and the Democrats successfully contained the anger of the masses and turned it away from street organizing and toward electoral politics. As the meme went, Biden was elected and a huge sector of his base went “back to brunch” and abandoned the heightened politicization of the Trump era. This cleared the field and allowed for the advance of the Right without much resistance.

Another key factor is the decades-long strategy of the evangelical wing of the Republican Party, which seeks to integrate into the state by installing right-wing judges. This strategy to “pack the court” with right wingers led the evangelicals to support political candidates whom they may otherwise have great political differences with (such as Trump). There have also been attempts to run candidates for office specifically to advance this judicial agenda. For example, the Federalist Society essentially helped pick Trump’s judges for him. This strategy has paid off for the Right, not just in the overturning of Roe but also in a litany of other right-wing decisions that were handed down this term.

The Right’s victory in Roe both validates the strategy of the Republican establishment (which has always included sectors of the evangelical wing) and opens the door for further advance from the “new Republicans,” who are now advancing in. Contradictorily, however, it also helps the Democrats, who are capitalizing on contained public outrage over the decision to boost their electoral hopes in the midterms — leading some Democrats to call the midterms “Roevember.”

Reorientation of the Republican Party

Overall, the Republican Party is shifting to the right — embracing elements of Trumpism, Christian nationalism, and national conservatism — and becoming increasingly radicalized. The first signs of this shift came in 2008 with Sarah Palin and then intensified with the Tea Party movement. The economic crisis of 2008 destabilized the political situation and led to a polarization toward both the right and left. While the Democrats were able to (more or less) successfully contain their left-wing elements, the Republicans leaned into their right-wing elements. As a symptom of the polarization, Trump took control of the party. The Republican Party that nominated John McCain (or, for that matter, Mitt Romney) seems very distant from the Republican Party that has made Ron DeSantis a figurehead. This right-wing shift of the Republican Party must be understood as, in large part, its way of responding to the broader trends of loss of faith in institutions, unhappiness with the status quo, increasing polarization, and anger at the failings of neoliberalism.

Trump himself, however, is now in a contradictory position. Originally seen by many as the political representation of the Far Right, Trump is facing more challenges to this mantle from figures such as DeSantis. While Trump is still, in many important ways, the political leader of the Republican Party and the figurehead of the greater Right surrounding it, cracks in his armor are emerging.

On the one hand, the attempt to legally discipline Trump seems to be ramping up, the clearest example being the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago. While the outcome of the investigation will be decided by a variety of factors — most notably the balance of forces and the response to this raid from the Right — it is clear that Trump is in a more precarious position than he was even a few months ago. This is a result of his loss of support from within the Republican Party. While the majority of Republicans — both the base and the elected officials — support Trump, we are seeing some notable defections. Most notably, Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence, spoke in defense of the FBI and said he’d consider testifying in the January 6 hearings. In addition, about half of Republicans are ready to move on from Trump in 2024, according to recent polling — a sign of Trump’s declining support within his party.

Pence’s positioning is especially interesting since it reveals both his almost certain intention to run for president — representing a more traditional evangelical wing of the Republican Party, which is less tied to Trumpism — and that sectors of the Republican establishment are jumping ship from Trump. Never a popular figure among the Republican establishment, Trump’s intention to run again in 2024 is certainly unsettling members of the Republican leadership, especially around the question of foreign policy, where Trump’s America First, light-isolationist approach is out of step with traditional Republican policies. Increasingly, it seems as if taking Trump off the board for 2024 is in the best interests of both parties, which leaves political space for a stronger legal discipline than was possible before.

Contradictorily, however, Trump has also been strengthened (in the short term) by the Mar-a-Lago raid. The raid has reenergized sectors of his base, as can be seen in the protests of the FBI buildings by Trump supporters and the extreme example of a Trump supporter trying to attack an FBI office. Trump can now reassert himself as an anti-establishment force by pointing to the political targeting he is facing. In addition, in the battle of the primaries — a battle that involved George W. Bush and Mitch McConnell traveling the country trying to defeat Trumpist candidates — Trump has done very well. Consistently, Trump has proved himself a major force within the Republican Party, one who can rally support behind candidates of his choosing.

The Democrats: Strengthened in the Short Term, but Unable to Solve Contradictions

The Democrats also had an expression of increased polarization within their party, seen in the emergence of Sanderism and the DSA. But the Democratic establishment was better able to minimize and co-opt those elements into their establishment. So, while the Republicans are polarizing to the right, the Democrats are trying to hold the center, which means, essentially, that they are also shifting to the right in an attempt to keep up as the “center” of political discourse shifts rightward due to the Republicans. So, while the Democrats may claim to be standing up for progressive values or to be fighting the Right, in reality they helping shift the overall political discourse to the right — both by spending tens of millions to support the furthest-right candidates in Republican primaries in hopes that they will be easier to beat. But they are also disciplining the left-wing elements of their base.

Despite their challenges in the long run, however, the Democrats are in the best political place that they’ve been in all year — which is still not the strongest or most ideal, from their perspective. After months of legislative gridlock and public infighting between the party right and center, Biden has finally gotten something passed. The Inflation Reduction Act (more commonly known as the climate bill) is wildly insufficient and riddled with concessions to energy companies, but it does represent some movement on Biden’s agenda. For the first time in over a year, Biden got a “landmark” piece of legislation through Congress.

To do so, Biden needed to bring the Democratic right — namely Joe Manchin — into the fold. Manchin, who had publicly declared his opposition to the bill, reversed his position and supported the bill after securing several concessions for the coal industry. This does represent, however, a major win for Biden. At long last, he was able to lead his party on the domestic front and get some of his agenda passed. He followed that up with forgiving some student loan debt — though far, far less than the complete forgiveness that is what is sorely needed — partially making good on a campaign promise. All this has breathed new life into the congressional Democrats, who were seemingly dead in the water only a few weeks ago. For his part, Biden’s approval rating is climbing, although he remains remarkably unpopular.

The other major factor buoying the Democrats’ electoral hopes is the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. In doing this, they handed the Democrats their best pitch to voters: that they are what stands between the voting public and even more right-wing attacks on reproductive rights. One Democrat — who won his special election — went so far as to put “choice is on the ballot” on his campaign signs. Since the Supreme Court decision dropped, the Democrats have been performing better in special elections and a majority of registered voters say that abortion will be “very important” to their midterm vote — interestingly, that same poll shows that today fewer voters than in the spring are saying Biden will be a major factor in their midterm votes. It’s looking increasingly likely that the Democrats will hold the Senate, keeping at least partial control of Congress.

This would have seemed almost unthinkable a few months ago. We can see how well the Democrats were able to seize on the advance of the Right — an advance they have aided — and attacks on democratic rights to strengthen their political position. If they defeat the far-right candidates, the Democrats will be able to, as they did after 2020, point to themselves as the answer to the Far Right. Biden’s dramatic speech on “protecting democracy” from Trumpism is further evidence of the Democrats’ plan: stoke legitimate fear of the Right to boost themselves — both in the short term, with the coming midterms, and in response to the more generalized loss of faith in the Democrats. By framing themselves as the defenders of democracy, the Democrats are, essentially, playing the hits. Once again we are being told that this is the most important election of our lives, that freedom and democracy hang in the balance, that we need to vote for a party we don’t particularly like to stop the Far Right from taking power. It’s the same line the Democrats have been using for years, but this time it seems truer. That’s because the Far Right is advancing and is threatening basic democratic rights. But the Democrats haven’t fought them. Rather, they’ve spent over $30 million to platform and advance the political ambitions of the most monstrous examples of the Far Right within the Republican Party so that they can stand in this moment and beat the podium about the danger of the Far Right. The Democrats are playing on our fear to win votes. They want us to believe that liberalism is enough to defeat the Right, but history has shown us countless times that it isn’t.

The Huge (and Largely Untapped) Potential of Generation U

The ongoing Generation U phenomena is, perhaps, the most promising development of the last few months. While there are some limitations of how this trend is developing, it is incredibly important that there is a dynamic unionization movement for the first time in decades and that it is being led by predominately young people who are Black, Brown, queer, immigrants, etc. It represents a huge jump forward for the labor movement, both in terms of dynamism and in terms of the sheer number of workplaces that are unionized.

More and more workplaces continue to be organized — typically by young, grassroots organizers who are organic to the workplace. An Amazon facility in Albany, New York, has filed to unionize with the ALU. If this effort is successful, it would represent the second major victory for the Amazon Labor Union. The struggle to unionize Starbucks is ongoing as workers bear the brunt of intense and potentially illegal union-busting — including store closures and firings.

Importantly, this week saw the first major teacher strike of the new school year. Teachers and education workers in Columbus, Ohio, went on strike two days before what was supposed to be the first day of school. They are demanding better school facilities, a more well-rounded curriculum, and smaller class sizes. The Columbus school district — the largest in the state — is attempting to coerce families to cross the virtual picket line with threats of truancy for families who don’t comply, but some students have already joined the teachers on the picket lines. This strike could inspire other education workers around the country as the school year begins.

Also, the UPS teamsters are beginning their contract fight — which will come to a head in 2023 — which many believe will lead to a strike. This would mean more than 350,000 workers — organized with the teamsters — in the logistics sector would be on strike, a more disruptive strike than we have seen in recent months. This, combined with the broader unionization phenomena, sets the stage for a potentially combative period.

How combative will the coming period of class struggle be? It depends on how Generation U develops politically. Currently, they are relatively latent politically — acting in the workplace but not intervening significantly in the overall political situation as workers. There weren’t strikes or work stoppages to protect abortion rights, for example. Indeed, even the union busting isn’t being combated — with some notable exceptions — with workplace actions. Rather, faith is being placed in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to resolve disputes. This is a dangerous strategy because, fundamentally, it relies on the state rather than worker power. In this, it limits the development of a workers’ movement and sows false faith in the Democratic Party (which is pointing to the NLRB as a positive example of how Democrats can help workers).

Generation U could be incredibly disruptive. Workers make society run, which means that, if workers choose to, we can grind the entire capitalist economy to a halt. This is an immensely powerful tool that the capitalists and their politicians are terrified of. That’s why Biden is creating special “emergency teams” to help avoid a railway strike; the capitalists want to maintain their profits. If Generation U chooses to use this power to affect the political situation — for example, a strike for abortion or trans rights — that will represent a major development.

Perspectives Going Forward

Given the contradictions and polarization of the current moment, it is vital that the Left have a clear analysis and strategy. From the advance of the Right to the potential of Generation U, the Left has many challenges and opportunities. The attacks by the Far Right on our basic democratic rights demand an organized and militant movement in the streets and in workplaces. This movement will be able to not only defend the rights we already have but also create a force for the conquest of more concessions. We cannot simply fight to protect what we have already won; we must demand and fight for more. Both in terms of reforms that will make life a little better and organizing a little easier but also, eventually, for the total conquest of power and overthrow of this wretched system.

This, of course, will be difficult. And it will not happen overnight. But it is urgent, because the Right is advancing and the establishment is showing again that it is unwilling and unable to meaningfully combat it. The Democrats are advancing the worst sectors of the Republican Party because they believe it will help their political chances in the midterms. To put any faith in them is foolhardy and irresponsible. Rather than fall into that trap, we need to take it upon ourselves to organize a movement to protect ourselves. Socialist feminist organizations like Bread and Roses will be vital in organizing and deepening the fight against the right.

We must not, however, forget that it is the working class alone that can overthrow capitalism. By using our power as workers, we can stop the capitalist machine from operating, which is the most powerful tool in our arsenal. In this sense, we must not view the growing labor movement as separate from fighting the Right. One can and should build the other. We must take the opportunities presented by the current moment and turn them into advances for our movement.

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Ezra Brain

Ezra is a NYC based theatre artist and teacher.

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