With his domestic policy floundering, Joe Biden returned from the failed COP26 climate summit to the humiliating reality that his short-lived honeymoon is already over. This was made evident with the defeat of the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate in the bellwether contest in Virginia. All the serious bourgeois journals cite the national unpopularity of Biden and the Democrats as a crucial factor in the loss.
Just a year ago, Biden defeated Donald Trump by 4.5 points nationally with over 51% of the vote. In raw numbers, Biden won 7 million more votes than his incumbent opponent. In Virginia, Biden won by 10 points, and he enjoyed a 16-point margin in New Jersey. Obama’s former vice president began his term with big expectations and robust approval ratings. Yet, after just ten months in office, millions of former supporters have already turned against the recently elected president, and there is already talk of a “failed presidency.”
Biden’s net approval ratings—the approval rating minus the disapproval rating—is currently at negative 8! The reversal in Virginia saw the Democrats’ ten-point margin turn into a two-point Republican victory. In the New Jersey gubernatorial race, Wall Street-backed incumbent Philip Murphy, who won by a 14-point margin in 2017, appears to have been reelected by the narrowest of margins, and his opponent has yet to concede defeat.
Bourgeois elections offer a snapshot of the mood of society, and off-year elections are almost always an anticipation of the midterms. The party that wins the presidency in one cycle often sees reversals in Congress in the off-year and midterm elections, and being the incumbent is no longer the advantage it once was.
The crisis currently embroiling the capitalist political leadership is particularly dire, leading to wild swings in and at the polls. Just months after casting himself as the new Obama, Biden’s October approval rating stood at just 42%—the lowest rating of any modern executive at that stage of the presidency—with the exception of Donald Trump.
According to polling by NBC, 70% of independents and even 48% of Democrats believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. The same poll found that a mere 18% of voters strongly approve of Biden, while 46%, nearly half, strongly disapprove.
Every class in society is angry and frustrated with the state of the country and of their lives. One expression of this is the wave of strikes that has erupted in recent months, including those launched by workers against Kaiser-Permanente, Nabisco, Kellogg’s, and John Deere.
Elections are a confused expression of anger
The working class makes up the overwhelming majority of the US population, yet there is no mass working-class political party, let alone a mass socialist party. This creates incredible distortions when trying to read the political meaning behind election results and polling numbers. If there were a mass workers’ party, there would be a much clearer way to measure the development of class consciousness and the overall mood of the working class. Such a party would also be a potent vehicle for channeling class anger into political struggle.
It is in this context that we must analyze a reversal in opinion that parallels the inversion of Biden’s political standing. Gallup recently reported that 52% of Americans feel that the government is doing too much. A year ago, 54% felt the government should be doing more to solve problems. Marxists understand that the government “doing more” does not equal socialism. However, it seems undeniable that, at least in part, this shift represents a rejection of the liberal-reformist “socialism” represented by Bernie, AOC, and others, which has been ascendant in the recent period.
This is being portrayed as a shift to the right and a rejection of the left—but it is no such thing. In reality, the US working class is rejecting the left boot of capital. In the absence of a bold, mass socialist alternative, it is expressing its small “l” libertarian inclinations. Tapping into the anger and pragmatism of the American working class and petty bourgeoisie, the Republican gubernatorial candidate for Virginia promised to eliminate taxes on groceries and gasoline as a way of addressing rising prices. But it would be a huge mistake to see the rejection of Biden and his party as an active embrace of the far right.
American political parties are political machines that mobilize “coalitions” of voters, not clearly defined ideological blocs with democratic internal structures and an active and engaged membership base. To build these shifting blocs of voters, they lean on the divisions inherent in a continent-spanning country: coastal cities vs. “fly-over country”; the suburbs vs. urban centers; the South vs. the North vs. the Midwest vs. the West. As a part of this, both ruling-class parties narrowly frame the debate in ways that pit one section of the workers against another based on identity.
Yet, we can see the working class moving steadily, though not linearly to the left on one question after another. If we look at polling on issues, the overwhelming majority of the working class think drug prices are too high, and the pharmaceutical companies are profiting off illness and disease, including COVID. A majority of workers want free, universal healthcare and tuition-free college. There is massive support for a higher minimum wage. Workers want quality, affordable housing, and childcare. However, which of the major candidates can you vote for to truly attain these demands? To be sure, the Democrats make plenty of promises on the campaign trail, only to stare like deer caught in the headlights when it comes to implementing anything remotely meeting these aspirations.
With no real options to vote for, millions of workers abstain or vote “against” those currently in power. After giving Obama a chance and seeing no real change, sections of the working class turned first to Trump and then Biden looking for a way forward. With Biden already exposed as ineffectual, many are now turning back to the Republicans.
Adding to the political confusion, those elected politicians who self-identify as socialists—including Bernie Sanders, AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Jamal Bowman, and Cori Bush—offer no real alternative to Biden. They could attempt to reframe the political debate in class terms and confront both major parties. At first, they would not be a mass force, but they could use this to make a start in the direction of real working-class politics. Instead, they operate entirely within the limitations of mainstream politics and form part of the Biden coalition. In effect, they are “‘socialists’ for Biden” who have tethered themselves to a sinking president, damaging the cause of genuine socialism in the process.
Marxists have explained many times that “lesser evilism” eventually leads back to the greater evil. It is like fighting a fire with a bucket of gasoline. As predicted, Biden’s tepid policies and failures have served only to strengthen the far right, paving the way for the return of Donald Trump or someone like him.
Biden fails to deliver the goods
Biden promised an end to the chaos of the Trump administration and a return to some kind of normality. However, his presidency has brought no such stability. International trade remains in disarray, causing massive disruptions to supply. Shipping containers wait to be offloaded at major offshore ports, but even with workers working double shifts, they have been unable to turn things around. This is due, in the main, to the unplanned nature of the capitalist economy and to management practices that have left essential industries vulnerable.
The effect of all this on the fundamental laws of supply and demand is a major contributor to the rising rate of inflation, up more than 5% in the last year alone. Price increases are particularly notable when it comes to housing, automobiles, food, gas, heating oil, and electricity, all of which impact ordinary Americans the hardest. In addition, there has been no increase in the federal minimum wage since 2009.
Despite having a Democratic Party majority in both houses of Congress, and decades of experience as a Senator, Biden is utterly failing in his agenda—though he presents himself as an even better deal broker than Trump.
After months of horse-trading, the Democrat-controlled House finally passed the president’s infrastructure bill—but only after it was slashed in half from the original commitment of $2 trillion to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure. Meanwhile, his social safety net and climate change bills remain in limbo, held hostage by a single individual in his own party. While Marxists welcome anything that takes the edge off of life under capitalism, even if passed in full, these bills will not fundamentally transform the lives of most workers.
Biden was elected with the support of most of the union leaders. And yet, the Pro Act, intended to help organize the unorganized, has not been passed and is likely dead in the water. And as global warming leads to ever-greater economic and social dislocation, Biden has nothing real to offer, except the toothless promises made at the COP26 summit.
International issues are not a lifesaver for Biden either. He promised an orderly retreat of US imperialist forces out of Afghanistan and assured everyone it would not be a repeat of the fall of Saigon in Vietnam—only to have a similar disaster unfold. This was a graphic reminder of the relative weakening of US imperialism, and it deeply discredited the Commander In Chief. Biden has also largely continued the protectionist trade policies of the Trump administration, along with its racist border policies.
All of this has led to a crisis of confidence in Biden. The ruling class used this experienced, reliable Senator to parry the threat posed by Bernie Sanders and to vanquish Trump. Now, Trump and Republicans cut from the same cloth are positioning themselves for a grand return to “save America” from the current chaos. Ironically, despite having been in the eye of the establishment storm for four years, Trump draws massive support through his demagogic “anti-establishment” outsider stance. Meanwhile, those like Sanders and the Squad chained themselves firmly to the swamp. So while Trump’s political future remains bright, these so-called socialists have painted themselves into an entirely discredited corner.
No solution within capitalism
The more serious bourgeois analysts readily acknowledge that the problems facing workers are not due merely to Biden’s policies. However, they stop short in their analysis and cannot admit that the capitalist system itself is the cause of the general instability and decline. There are no good choices for the ruling class.
If the bourgeois borrow, spend, and monetize the debt, they have a growing problem with inflation. If they tighten monetary policies, this can lead to a slower economy and a higher value for the dollar, making the US less competitive in the world market. Protectionist policies often cause more problems than they solve, as other countries will not stand idly by as their rivals take action against their goods and services.
Investment, production, and job creation are a byproduct of the capitalist quest for profits. When the system is in terminal decline, there is overcapacity and eventually contraction, not expansion. Real wages fall and unemployment grows.
We must be 100% clear: there is no such thing as a progressive bourgeois. During the American Revolution or Radical Reconstruction, one may have been able to identify such a “species.” But the imperialist age of American capitalism knows no such creature.
Even when it comes to abortion, a signature issue among the Democratic Party base, the Democrats have yet to attempt to pass a national law to defend abortion rights. This would provide legal protection even if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, and they could stop the reactionary Texas law in its tracks. Instead, the Biden presidency is marked with relentless state-level challenges to abortion rights and inaction by the Democrats.
In such a situation, even a relatively small mass socialist party could challenge the hegemony of the capitalists and put the socialist transformation of society on the agenda.
Class struggle and independence versus lesser-evil politics
The left is not a mass force in the United States. And the bitter truth is that it takes mass forces to build a mass party. The leaders of the AFL-CIO have the resources to build such a party, but even the more left-leaning union leaders have no intention of going in this direction at the present stage.
The way forward for the presently small forces of the left is to put forward class-independent politics—not to win immediate victories, but to put forward alternative principles and build the foundations for what can later be a viable mass alternative.
There are a few recent lessons in this respect. The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), a small “Marxist-Leninist” organization with limited resources, ran a candidate under its own banner for mayor of New York City. They ended up coming in third place and received 2.5% of the city-wide vote, the best showing for a socialist for mayor since the 1950s!
And in Minneapolis, an independent socialist, Robin Wonsley Worlobah, was elected to the City Council. The limitations of their programs notwithstanding, these campaigns had many positives. However, neither of these campaigns used the opportunity to call for the mass of the working class to self-organize into a party of its own. Running independent campaigns is an important step forward. However, if we want to build something lasting that can meaningfully vie against the bosses’ parties in the fight for power, this must be linked to building a broad-based workers’ party on a class basis. For its part, the PSL presents itself as the workers’ party. However, most workers do not join small organizations, and mass parties do not arise out of tiny formations like the PSL.
This is why we believe that the thrust of future electoral efforts should be to explain the following basic ideas:
- The capitalist system is the root of the problem.
- The working class needs its own party, and we need a workers’ government committed to implementing genuinely socialist policies.
- In preparation for the mass political and economic struggles of the future, we must build a strong and disciplined cadre organization based on revolutionary Marxism.
By contrast, India Walton’s run in Buffalo, NY, was an example of what not to do. She ran as a socialist and “captured the Democratic Party line”—the treasured goal of the “dirty breakers” in and around DSA. However, the Democratic Party establishment proceeded to support the Democratic incumbent and facilitated his write-in campaign. In the end, Walton was defeated 59% to 41%.
That so many people voted for a self-styled socialist despite the pressure of the Democratic Party machine is a clear indication of the simmering discontent with the status quo. So the tragedy is not so much that she lost. The tragedy is that she did not use this campaign to fight for class-independent politics. By running as a Democrat, she fomented the illusion that that party can serve as a tool for liberation—and then that tool was used as a weapon against her. Running as a Democrat also forced her to frame the issues within very narrow political parameters. Instead of letting the establishment decide what is or isn’t “acceptable” or “realistic,” genuine socialist candidates should boldly reframe the discussion to reflect the needs and aspirations of the working class.
Build the forces of Marxism!
In one form or another, the horror of the last few years will continue without end until capitalism is overthrown. Whether we like it or not, the only thing capitalism has in store for us in the future is continued decline and instability. The ruling class is determined to make the working class pay for the crisis of its system, and the working class will inevitably fight back. Many years of stormy class struggle lie ahead, and we must prepare for this perspective.
The key is to build a working-class leadership that can take on the ruling class and win. This can never be achieved as long as the working class has one hand tied behind its back. Our class must not limit itself to rules written to ensure its continued domination and exploitation. While struggling on the industrial front, the working class must also build a political vehicle of its own. Only then can we effectively deploy our colossal potential power.
The fight to build such a leadership begins today, with the education of Marxist cadres steeled both in theory and its practical application. This is what the IMT is engaged in, and we invite all those who believe in a better future to join us.