On election night on Nov. 6, as returns showed Barack Obama winning, victory honks sounded in cities around the U.S. Compared to 2008, however, the mood still seemed somber, and the hope mostly absent. The president’s new theme, “forward,” raised more questions than answers: where’s the country going, and who’s leading?
Pundits were clear that Latinos, Blacks, Asian Americans, women, and youth kept Obama in the White House. The Republicans’ blatant misogyny and racism kept them out.
But this begs the importance of class. Obama’s support came from voters of all colors low on the economic ladder, where big issues are shrinking wallets and overt Republican threats to Social Security and Medicare. For instance, one poll cited Latinos rating the economy and jobs as their top concern, even ahead of immigration.
The cold truth, however, is that the Democratic Party is no more a real champion of workers and the poor than the Republican Party is. When Obama first announced his post-election priorities, for example, jobs were missing, crowded out by Wall Street’s agenda: deficit reduction, “reform” of immigration and the tax code, and “freeing ourselves from foreign oil.”
When it comes to avoiding the “fiscal cliff” — the drastic looming package of budget cuts and tax hikes — the Democrats promise bipartisanship. But their “bipartisanship” is a steady scooting to the right to accommodate to the Republican program; it’s a “bipartisanship” born of both parties’ allegiance to big business. The common rightward march on everything from union issues to reproductive rights and taxes is not going to stop at Social Security and Medicare.
Without revolt from below, Corporate America and its political partners will keep delivering war and austerity — whatever the election results.
Initiatives: a mixed bag. Disengagement was the real winner, as 93 million of 219 million eligible voters (registered or unregistered) abstained. Obama won the White House with an un-stunning 28 percent of eligible voters.
But breakthroughs on social issues offered electoral bright spots. Same-sex marriage rights won in Washington state, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota. Drug liberalization advanced in Colorado, Massachusetts, Montana, and Washington (Oregon and Arkansas went backward). Florida preserved public funding for abortion. California softened its “three strikes” law.
Victories for progressive measures owe a lot to past radical movements, whose impact is still unfolding. On the other hand, many of the wins also owe something to self-interested corporate backing, compromises by movement leaders, and watering down by Democratic politicians. For example, Washingtonians legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana at the expense of introducing tricky new regulations. These include criminal penalties for drivers showing a certain degree of marijuana use, an opening for more police harassment, especially of drivers of color.
Labor issues were another area of split decisions.
In Michigan, public-sector unions helped overturn the state’s hyper-undemocratic “emergency manager law” allowing the governor to trash labor contracts and privatize services.
In California, a huge pro-labor turnout helped win a living wage for hotel workers in Long Beach and a $2 minimum wage hike in San Jose. In South Dakota and Idaho, grass-roots campaigning stopped attacks on teacher tenure and bargaining rights.
In contrast, Georgia and Washington approved charter schools. In Washington, the pro-charter side outspent the opposition 10 to 1, with plenty of help from billionaires. A nearly tied result showed that labor could have beaten the measure if it had spent more energy and money on this effort and less on electing Democrats.
Also on the down side, civil rights suffered in the election. Oklahoma banned affirmative action. Alabama retained segregation language and a law that makes it harder to unionize. California kept the death penalty. In Arizona, Maricopa County’s xenophobic sheriff, Joe Arpaio, was announced as winning reelection — provoking protest, since 400,000 ballots remained uncounted at the time.
Rigged and rotten. Six billion dollars was spent this election to protect the Republican and Democrat duopoly. This was a new record, set in part thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that slapped a smiley face on corporate buying of elections.
Super PACs not only kept minor parties on the far margins, but also tried to mold public opinion. They did their best to push people to see government as a negative force, fear “tax and spend” as the sure route to economic hell, and accept that with one false move the U.S. will be a wholly owned subsidiary of China.
At the same time, voter suppression disenfranchised many people who are poor, of color, elderly, disabled, or likely to be progressive. In dozens of states, voters stood in lines for hours. Votes were blocked or voting skewed by district gerrymandering, ballot theft, malfunctioning machines at the polls, “robo-calls” that lied about voting deadlines, and racist, deliberately burdensome ID laws.
Voters attempting to write in Freedom Socialist Party candidates Stephen Durham and Christina López were harassed by poll workers in New Jersey and Illinois, but report great pride in persevering. Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant won 28 percent of the vote running for the Washington legislature — but to get that far, she had to sue the state to let her list her party preference on the ballot.
Build the movements! The 2012 elections don’t herald a triumphant march into a bright shining future. Far from it. Winners on both sides of the aisle are already vying to prove their anti-working-class worth to the CEOs who bankrolled their victories.
Elections don’t change things much for the people who need change the most; radical mass movements do. Elections don’t give the working class an effective voice; organizing does.
For change to come will take more than a gentle nudge at the powers-that-be. It will take putting some serious anti-capitalist muscle into our movements. The difference between a Republican or a Democratic White House won’t determine the course of the next four years. If we want an end to policies that send thousands off to war and throw millions out of jobs, it’s up to us.