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The Midterm Elections and the Fight for the Working Class

Republicans and Democrats are trying to win the working class vote on Tuesday, but neither party represents workers’ interests. Socialists must take advantage of the hunger for reform and fight for independent politics and build the party we need: a working-class party with a socialist strategy.

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Voters cast their ballots on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, in Minneapolis. With Election Day still more than six weeks off, the first votes of the midterm election were already being cast Friday in a smattering of states including Minnesota.
Image:Nicole Neri/AP

Tuesday’s midterm elections find the bipartisan regime in a shift to the right with respect to the 2018 midterms. The Republican Party, which has been growing electorally and is expected to win several key races on Tuesday, has gained political terrain over the past year.

The Republicans have advanced politically in several states, passing ultra-conservative laws ranging from harsh attacks on the trans community and voter suppression, to legal prohibitions against teaching the history of racism in America, or what the American far-right calls “race ideology.”

The GOP managed to close ranks — at least towards this election — between its Trumpist wing with an extensive social base organized behind Donald Trump, the far-right “militia”-type organizations, and the wing headed by Ron DeSantis as representative of a more Bonapartist and pro-state position. The latter takes refuge in Trumpian “pro-working class” rhetoric, but fuses it with a “culture war” ideology that has gained renewed influence after the pacification of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

It is uncertain whether this fragile Republican unity will hold beyond the midterms, as it clashes with the more long-term agenda of the Republican establishment, which has to restrain Donald Trump without attacking him directly because of the electoral and political cost it would have even towards the 2024 presidential election. 

The most important triumph for the GOP in the previous months was the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which rolled back federal abortion protections in the United States. 

While ultra-conservative and pro-life rhetoric plays an important role in the recomposition of the Republican Party, Trumpism’s popularity continues to be fueled by the U.S. working class’s growing hatred toward the Democratic Party. This hatred has deepened and become more complex since the 2016 and 2018 elections. As Thomas B. Edsall of the New York Times states: 

Although the economic pressures that drove millions of white working-class voters to the right are moderating, the hostility this key segment of the electorate feels toward the Democratic Party has deepened and is increasingly less susceptible to change.

According to a report by the American Enterprise Institute titled “Elections and Demography: Democrats Lose Ground, Need Strong Turnout”:

The gap between non-college and college whites continues to grow. For the first time this cycle, the difference in margin between the two has surpassed an astounding 40 points, well above the 33-point gap in 2020’s presidential contest. Republicans trail with white college voters by 13.6 points but lead with non-college whites by more than 27 points. Democrats appear stuck in the low 30s with non-college whites — no poll this month has them above 34 percent — so a repeat of Biden’s 37 percent mark appears unlikely.

As socialists, we know that workers include people with college degrees like nurses and teachers, and that people with college degrees might be small business owners and not workers. Yet, the report concludes that a very large portion of the working class continues to identify the Democratic Party as the party of globalization and the trade partnership with China. These millions of workers see globalization as a constant threat to their living conditions. 

This sentiment has been a central part of U.S. politics since Donald Trump surprised the world by winning the 2016 presidential election. Since then, it has only grown stronger and more complex amid an economic crisis with record levels of inflation. This has added to the whole series of structural problems suffered by the U.S. economy since the 2008 recession, and which has been exacerbated by the Pandemic. 

The historic inflation, accompanied by rising gasoline prices and rising interest rates, are in fact broadening the Republican base — among Latino workers, for example — and are further distancing important sectors of the working class from the Democratic Party. 

The working class, crushed by neoliberalism and ignored by the Democratic Party, was the protagonist of the 2016 election. This was expressed in Trumpism rhetoric on the Right and the popularity of Bernie Sanders on the left. In this election, however, far from being ignored, the working class has been placed at the center of the debates of both parties of capital. Even the Federal Reserve has been talking about the working class. The Fed is trying to control inflation with a combination of high interest rates, limiting wage rises, and potentially increasing the unemployment rate to over 5 percent of the labor force. 

Thanks in large part to the pandemic, inflation, and the ongoing crisis of capitalist accumulation, bourgeois politicians can no longer hide the working class behind the chimera of “the American middle class.” This is not only the product of Trumpism, or the product of Sanderism; both political phenomena express the profound changes in the consciousness of the masses. Nothing shook the mood of the working and the oppressed in the United States more than the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement on the one hand and the Pandemic on the other. The pro-union political phenomenon that expresses this change of consciousness is embodied in Generation U. 

The “Trumpization” of the Democratic Party

The shift to the right in these midterm elections is also expressed in the Democratic Party. John Fetterman, the candidate favored to win the Senate race in Pennsylvania, is perhaps the most glaring example of this rightward shift. Fetterman, who is nominally part of the progressive Democratic wing and once championed the Green New Deal, has been focusing his campaign on defending fracking in an attempt to win over the state’s white working class who deeply distrust Democrats and the Green New Deal because they see it as a direct threat to their jobs and livelihoods. At the same time, Fetterman has a rabidly anti-China discourse that also dovetails with the working-class social base he is trying to court. 

The Democrats were hoping to ride the wave of anger and fear triggered by the overturn of Roe v. Wade to a favorable midterm result. This seemed to work momentarily, despite inflation and the decline in the living conditions of the masses. However, the polls — which are predicting a red wave in these election — indicate that the working class, hit by neoliberalism, inflation and the Pandemic, is going to vote with their pocketbooks, rather than being motivated by the democratic rights at risk by the advance of the Right and the bonapartization of the GOP. 

This is not to say that the working class is against reproductive rights. Even in states like Kansas where the weight of the GOP and the Religious Right is overwhelming, the reproductive rights referendum a couple of months ago massively rejected an abortion ban. Every poll indicates that at least 60 percent of the population supports reproductive rights. 

A sector of the Democratic Party is trying to speak to the working class in “Trumpian terms,” specifically in the so-called red states, addressing the losers of globalization who were displaced from their unionized jobs to become part of the huge U.S. “precariat” at rock-bottom wages and who have faced the consequences of Neoliberalism. 

As the air that lifted the spirits of progressives in the Democratic Party after Biden’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act began to dissipate amid the realization that U.S. imperialism could not afford any kind of “leftist” adventure, the center of the party gained strength.

But even beyond the outcome of the midterm election that poses a dangerous scenario for the remaining two years of the Biden administration, what is in crisis is the Democratic agenda of “organizing the passivity” by imposing a relation of forces favorable to the capitalists in times of economic uncertainty. 

Following Gramsci’s when he thought of the problem of bourgeois hegemony in America, what is in crisis is the hegemony of the regime over the working class. This is because the consumption capacity of the working class is dramatically decreasing, especially that of high-income sectors of the proletariat that are starting to suffer the vicissitudes of the precariat due to the increase in prices and the shrinking of credit. 

Bourgeois hegemony is also in crisis because the Democratic Party, the main political leadership of the working class and the oppressed through the union bureaucracy and the leaderships of the social movements, has to navigate permanently between the agenda of its social base and the agenda of the ruling class. The strategic role that the Democratic Party plays as part of the bipartisan regime relies on its capacity to be the “party of containment” on the one hand and the “party of law and order” on the other. That’s why the Democratic Party is ready to expropriate the banners of the social movements to take away their radicalism and prevent it from infecting the workers movement, and be the “party of law and order” when it is necessary to brutally repress the vanguard. 

Joe Biden’s party has been at the center of the brutal repression of BLM activists since 2020 and the renewed legitimization of the police. It is under Democratic administrations like that of New York City Mayor Eric Adams that local and state police departments have received historic budgets. 

Another example of the “Trumpization” of the Democratic Party is Tim Ryan, the Democratic Senate front-runner in Ohio, a political weathervane who once compared the U.S. criminal justice system to Jim Crow. Today his campaign’s central slogan, “Refund the police,” a clear allusion to the BLM movement, is being supported electorally by the state’s police union which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

The Fight for the Working Class

In this desperate attempt to win over the American working class, the establishment and the center of the Democratic Party made a U-turn a few weeks ago: it set in motion politics and ideas aimed at separating “political/anti oppression” issues ” from “economic” issues in order to wrest from the hands of the GOP those sectors of the working class disenchanted with the Democratic Party. 

The Democratic establishment does this by defending the liberal premise that the working class has to take care of its immediate interests such as inflation, wages, and working conditions, a premise to which social democracy a la Jacobin succumbs, while “big politics” should be left in the hands of career politicians. 

It is ultimately Barack Obama, the moral leader of the Democratic Party, who expresses this idea in a much more sophisticated way. In an episode on the Pod Save America podcast a couple of weeks ago, Obama deftly makes the case, as he did before his administration, that American politics must be reconfigured and coded in terms beyond race. In a direct clash with progressive neoliberalism while vindicating BLM in general, he argues that cultural changes in language (e.g., inclusive language, anti-racism, etc.) mean nothing to the “regular people” and “good people who are concerned about the welfare of their families.” 

This conclusion stems from a belief among a sector of the Democratic establishment that “political correctness” repels the working class voters and puts the party on the defensive, especially in places like the so-called “Rust belt” states. To justify the latter, Obama relies on the Far Right’s caricature of progressivism as the language police and its “obsession with pronouns.” Obama also relies on the fact that this was the political language of bankrupt progressive neoliberalism, like that of Hillary Clinton. 

Obama is much more aware than his contemporaries that the “neoliberal coalition” that allowed the political consensus prior to 2008 is broken. Until the 2016 election, the Democratic Party built its hegemony over social movements by expropriating their demands and presenting itself as their political representation, erasing the class divisions among the oppressed.  

For Obama, the way for the Democratic Party to rebuild its relationship with the working class and navigate the economic crisis is to distance itself from “divisive” issues, downplaying the importance of anti oppression demands and democratic rights. This is a reaction to the Democratic Party’s failure to improve their electoral prospects on the back of Roe v. Wade’s repeal, not only because workers are squeezed by the economic crisis, but because Democrats refused to mobilize against the Supreme Court and let 50 years go by without codifying abortion into law. In the service of rebounding from that crisis, Democrats have turned to focusing demagogically on “bread and butter” demands — demagogically because so far Republicans and Democrats alike agree with the Fed’s plan to make workers pay for the crisis. 

Lastly, by avoiding talking about BLM’s central slogan (“Defund the Police”), betrayed in dozens of states by Democratic administrations, Obama is also warning that the most disruptive aspects of this movement should not infect the working class. 

What Do Barack Obama and Jacobin Magazine Have in Common?

This rhetoric that Obama uses to try to save the Democratic establishment, however, is impossible to push back with the ideology that Jacobin magazine has been putting forward, since it shares many of the same points of view. In different ways, both have used Fetterman as a positive example of the adjustments in the electoral campaigns that the Democratic Party had to make, especially in states with a strong Trumpist base. 

It should be remembered that it was Bernie Sanders who, along with Trump but on the left, brought the working class back into the focus of electoral campaigns. Since his 2014 campaign in the Democratic primaries, the senator from Vermont has centered the working class and its most heartfelt demands. 

Fight for 15! Medicare for All! Tax the Rich! — these are demands that quickly became popular among the youth and then in broader sectors. This is because the working class was already showing signs of recomposing itself since 2016 with significant examples such as the Verizon strike of that same year that was strongly supported among the population, at least in the big cities. Sanders presented himself as the only politician who not only spoke in favor of the working class but also supported the struggles. 

Sanders already made it clear that for him the key to American politics lay in speaking to the working class and in making American democracy reach out to workers again. This meant confronting the super-rich first and foremost and avoiding talking about the issues that divide the working class that are not a priority for raising the living standards of all workers, regardless of their identity. He started from a correct general truth that there can be no racial or gender equality without changing the living conditions of the entire working class. 

Jacobin, which along with the DSA leadership has built its political project in dialogue with Sanderism, hoping that an independent party might emerge from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, or that pressure from the progressive wing might change the Party’s orientation. Jacobin echoed this policy and has devoted much of its theoretical arsenal to justifying it. 

In the current context of the midterm elections, the radicalization of these politics have led Jacobin writers to give tacit support to candidates like John Fetterman in Pennsylvania. For example, Branko Marcetic coyly implies that it makes sense to support Fetterman, an anti-China chauvinist who openly advocates for fracking: 

There’s plenty one can criticize about Fetterman. Besides the fracking flip-flop, he’s been wishy washy on single-payer health care, and he’s taken a craven centrist position on Israel and Palestine. If voters decide, after comparing this to his opponent’s plutocratic policies and history of dishonesty, that they still can’t vote for Fetterman, they have every right to make that decision. But media obsession with a man’s disability shouldn’t decide this election, especially when the press has made it clear they don’t care about cognitive impairment in any other case.

In this case, the division between anti-oppression or “political” demands from “bread and butter” demands has led Jacobin magazine to electorally support imperialist Democratic candidates, turning a blind eye to issues such as Palestine, Ukraine, and China. This political operation potentially places this section of the DSA leadership on the side of the least sophisticated form of chauvinism vis-à-vis its own imperialist government. 

But this is not the only problem with this way of thinking. These politics put forward in different angles by Obama, Sanders, and Jacobin run counter to the deeper shifts in thinking taking place in a sector of the U.S. working class embodied by Generation U. 

We Need a Working Class Party With a Socialist Strategy 

Generation U is the dynamic result of the BLM movement and the pandemic. It includes young people of multiple races, children of the impoverished middle classes and children of white, Black, and immigrant working class families. It includes students and workers, and a combination of both. Some members of Generation U were politicized by the BLM movement, some by the pandemic when the first signs of discontent began to appear in places like Amazon warehouses as the death tolls soared and the working class was on the front lines. Many became politicized because they suffer discrimination as trans, queer, or non-binary people. 

Some members of Generation U organize with the DSA, and from there they move miles because they want to go to Amazon to organize a union. Others organize in their workplaces, in Starbucks stores, and organize strikes for the rights of their comrades — a term that many of them use — whether trans or Muslim. Many have sympathy for Sanders, but hold a deep distrust of the Democratic Party. 

But perhaps most disruptive is that they don’t want to divorce demands against oppression from demands for improvements in their working conditions — they want bread but they also want roses! That is why on the picket lines they chant, “Abortion Rights are Labor Rights!” That’s why workers from Amazon, Chipotle, and Starbucks among others were present at the demonstrations against the repeal of Roe v. Wade.  

The DSA and all left organizations in the United States, especially those who are thinking passionately about the question of how to build an independent working-class organization, must ask ourselves the following questions: Are we going to accept less than Generation U? Are we going to adapt to the reformist agenda of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party? Or are we going to take advantage of the thirst for reform among the working class to encourage class struggle and build independent institutions of workers and youth — not only unions but even our own party? 

A Path for the Left and for Generation U

If class struggle develops and there is activity by the working class and oppressed in the coming period, as the unfolding economic and political crisis promises, revolutionary socialists have a great opportunity to put forward an alternative to Generation U that can be amplified to the working class as a whole. 

Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have their own politics toward the working class. The politics of the Republican Party are to harness the anger and frustration of millions of workers to drive them into a chauvinist and ultra-conservative agenda. The politics of the Democratic Party are to avoid workers’ radicalization by giving them partial concessions, co-opting movements through the union bureaucracy and social movements, and repression. The partial concessions that the Democratic Party can make are also increasingly limited in the face of the advance of the right wing, as well as the growing economic crises facing the country. 

The right wing is radicalizing and far from separating the “political” from the “economic” — rather, it unifies it by proposing that we must fight inflation, blaming the economic crisis on migrants and refugees, adopting a rabidly anti-China orientation so that workers view the working class of that country with distrust, and rejecting the “ideology of race.” Hence, socialists have the challenge of relying on the most advanced sector of the working class, embodied in Generation U, to fight the right and its base with an perspective independent from the Democratic Party. 

Socialists in America have the opportunity to dialogue with tens of thousands with a program and discourse that unifies the struggle for working-class living conditions and against oppression and unites the ranks of the multi-ethnic and heterogeneous U.S. working class that is suffering from inflation, racism, lack of democratic rights and labor rights, anti-union practices, and gender oppression, especially in the workplace. 

It is the unified working class that can fight against the amazonification of working conditions that requires racism and gender oppression to keep the working class as a whole disciplined. 

This election would look very different if today we had socialist candidates who could speak with authority to the working class, independent of the Democratic Party, workers and social movement leaders, community and workplace organizers agitating for a different way out of the crisis of neoliberal globalization — candidates like the Amazon and Starbucks activists who do not put the interests of the U.S. working class above the interests of the international working class as Marx and Engels taught us.

As Kim Moody, Joe Burns, and other intellectuals have been arguing, as well as many comrades in the DSA, Tempest magazine, and Trotskyist organizations like Socialist Alternative, we need to build a working-class party. As Left Voice, we think that a working class party must fight relentlessly to wrest the consciousness of the powerful working class from the clutches of the Republican and Democratic Parties. We have to build an organization that will agitate for a platform that, far from fragmenting our struggles, unifies them politically and organizationally. This platform must also embrace a perspective not to reform this “democracy” for billionaires based on the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the Electoral College, but to confront the two parties of capital, the organized ultra-right, and the bosses. 

For us, it is about building a party that unleashes the creativity and organization of the labor movement independently of the capitalist state and turns the energy and combativeness of the social movements fighting for reproductive rights and Black lives into a great tsunami against the regime of the two parties of imperialist capital. Such a party cannot exist hand in hand with our exploiters and oppressors.  

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Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.

Daniel Alfonso

Daniel is a member of Left Voice.

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