If you don’t give people a reason to vote, they won’t

The finger-pointing and excuse-mongering continues unabated in the ranks of the Democratic Party following the disappointing election results from earlier this month. The party’s dominant corporate centrist wing wasted no time blaming progressives for the loss of Virginia’s governorship, the surprisingly narrow re-election of New Jersey’s governor and various defeats in local races in places like the New York City suburbs.

Finding reasons for local or state elections in national politics won’t necessarily produce a full picture, particularly in New Jersey, where voters have the habit of electing Democratic congressional and state legislative delegations, consistently voting Democrat in presidential elections but often voting for Republican governors. This time around, particularly in the New York City mayoral race and local races in the city’s Long Island suburbs, unfounded fears of crime waves that largely existed only in the feverish imaginations of right-wing commentators seemed to have tipped more than a few votes.

Not only Democratic centrists but most of the corporate mass media insisted there was a wave of voting for Republicans, and the only proper response (surprise!) is to move to the center, or even to the center-right, to avoid “scaring” voters with “radical” ideas.

Branch Brook Park in Newark (photo by Cjbvii)

Before we can tackle that all too predictable jeremiad, it would be useful to find out if voters really did defect to the Republicans in droves. The evidence doesn’t seem to support that. If we compare this month’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia to recent elections, there is more support for the supposition that Democrats simply stayed home. Here are some comparisons:

2021 Gubernatorial vote New Jersey (count as of Nov. 9)
• Phil Murphy 1,295,626
• Jack Ciattarelli 1,224,993

2017 Gubernatorial vote New Jersey
• Phil Murphy 1,203,110
• Kim Guadagno 899,583

Governor Murphy actually won more votes than he did in 2017, when New Jersey set a record low for voter turnout for a gubernatorial election. It could be pointed out, accurately, that Governor Murphy had far fewer votes than did Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Joe Biden in 2020, but although Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli had a relatively smaller deficit in terms of the votes won by Donald Trump, he nonetheless received more than 600,000 votes less than Trump did a year ago:

2020 Presidential vote New Jersey
• Joe Biden 2,608,400
• Donald Trump 1,883,313

2016 Presidential vote New Jersey
• Hillary Clinton 2,148,278
• Donald Trump 1,601,933

Repeating this exercise for Virginia, we find that Democrat Terry McAuliffe (very much a corporate centrist), the loser in an upset, won nearly 200,000 more votes than Democratic winner Ralph Northam in 2017. But the Republican vote totals were much higher in 2021 than four years earlier:

2021 Gubernatorial vote Virginia (count as of Nov. 9)
• Terry McAuliffe 1,600,049
• Glenn Youngkin 1,663,556

2017 Gubernatorial vote Virginia
• Ralph Northam 1,409,175
• Ed Gillespie 1,175,731

Governor-elect Youngkin recorded fewer votes than did Trump in either of his White House runs:

2020 Presidential vote Virginia
• Joe Biden 2,412,568
• Donald Trump 1,962,430

2016 Presidential vote Virginia
• Hillary Clinton 1,981,473
• Donald Trump 1,769,443

Clearly, Republican voters were fired up in Virginia, stirred up by a steady drumbeat of specious culture-war issues, and Democratic voters either took a McAuliffe win for granted or simply weren’t sufficiently motivated to vote. Although the specific dynamics varied between the two states — New Jersey and Virginia are not similar — a low turnout by Democratic voters is the leading reason for the surprising results. And that brings us to the central question: Why did Democrats stay home?

What you see is sometimes what you get

The gap between Democratic candidate promises and what voters want and need on the one hand, and what Democrats deliver once in office on the other, has once again proven to be a canyon-like width. How many times can a party thumb its nose at its base and continue to win? Democrats seem determined to find out. Consider the biggest single failure to date: The failure to pass President Biden’s US$3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” package, which would have included “socialist” items such as paid parental leave. Now down to less than $2 trillion with family leave reduced to four weeks with wide swathes of parents rendered ineligible, what was already a watered-down benefit might not survive its current precarious status.

By right-wing standards, just about every country on Earth is “socialist.” The United States is the only industrialized country without paid family leave; the only countries that don’t have it are Papua New Guinea and four tiny Pacific Island countries. The original bill had allowed for 12 weeks of paid leave — still far less time than most countries — and was reduced to four weeks in the negotiations before it was cut from the bill altogether and then restored as a four-week “means tested” offering. The global average for paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, and it is 16 weeks for paid paternity leave. Some countries allow for a year or more of paid family leave. For example, Sweden mandates 16 months.

The International Labour Organization’s standard is that at least 14 weeks of paid maternal leave should be offered; almost half of the world’s countries do so, including 25 of the 29 developed countries in which International Labour Organization researchers were able to make an assessment. The original offer in the Build Back Better bill was 12 weeks, and even that tepid offering has been taken away. About half of the world’s countries also offer paid paternal leave; such a non-macho idea was not even considered.

Downtown Richmond, Virginia, looking west from Libby Hill Park (photo by Ron Cogswell)

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who has done all he can to tank his own party’s legislation and block any attempt to address global warming, and other so-called “deficit hawks,” claim they oppose congressional bills that would add to the federal budget deficit, but have not been heard to complain about the Trump tax cuts that massively added to the deficit, nor the trillions of dollars spent by the Federal Reserve to buy bonds in recent years nor by last year’s Covid-19 relief measures that gave hundreds of billions of dollars to large businesses.

What is behind all this? It is commonplace for folks on the Left to complain that Senators Kyrsten Sinema, Manchin and others are simply “corrupt.” I won’t argue against that — Senator Manchin in particular is delighted to please his corporate paymasters and give the back of his hand to his constituents, who were in favor of the original $3.5 trillion plan by wide margins, and Senator Sinema turned her back on her Arizona backers from the start. (Several of the Build Back Better provisions are supported by two-thirds or more of West Virginians and a similar percentage of Arizonans backed the original plan.) But there must be deeper reasons here. One factor that would be difficult to overestimate is the inability of U.S. liberals, similar to European social democrats and Canadian liberals, to actually stand for anything.

Capitulation in the U.S. and around the world

North American liberals and European social democrats have a long history of capitulation — we see the same patterns, whether it is Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jean Chrétien, Justin Trudeau, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, François Hollande, Gerhard Schröder, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero or Romano Prodi. There is something much larger at work than a lack of resolve when each falls to their knees in front of industrialists and financiers, when each speedily implements neoliberal austerity policies despite leading the supposed “center-left” opposition to the conservative parties that openly stand for corporate domination.

Capitalism is a system wholly captured by the most powerful possessors of economic power in a system of massive inequality. U.S. Democrats, similar to Canadian Liberals, British Labour, French and Spanish “Socialists,” Italian Democrats, German Social Democrats, Australia’s Labor and others, win legislative seats and government offices as members of a capitalist party. U.S.-style liberalism (using the North American definition of the word) has reached an intellectual dead end. Democrats mostly understand that the economy is a failure for most people but can only conceive of minor reforms and tinkering around the edges because they remain as firmly in thrall of capitalism as Republicans and conservatives everywhere.

Caught in a contradiction between knowing a system doesn’t work and being afraid of challenging that system, Democrats are unable to offer alternatives or articulate serious reforms. Instead, they simply say “Vote for us, the Republicans are worse.” Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t.

The New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

The Right, on the other hand, loudly advocates policies that are anathema to the working people who form the overwhelming majority of any capitalist country but have the mass media, an array of institutions, corporate power and money to saturate society with their preferred policies. But, perhaps most importantly, they have something they believe in strongly — people who are animated by an ideal, however perverted, are motivated to push for it with all their energy.

In contrast, those who are conflicted between their belief in something and their acknowledgment that the something needs reform, and are unable to articulate a reform, won’t and can’t stand for anything concrete, and ultimately will capitulate. When that something can’t be fundamentally changed through reforms, what reforms are made are ultimately taken back, and society’s dominant ideas are of those who can promote the hardest line thanks to the power their wealth gives them, it is no surprise that the so-called reformers are unable to articulate any alternative. With no clear ideas to fall back on, they meekly bleat “me, too” when the world’s industrialists and financiers, acting through their corporations, think tanks and the “market,” pronounce their verdict on what is to be done.

The market, let us not forget, is not a dispassionate entity sitting loftily in the clouds as propagandists would have us believe; it is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.

Backing one set of capitalists vs. another set of capitalists

What ultimately differentiates Democrats and Republicans is that they serve different parts of the corporate ruling class. The divergence in interests between industrialists and financiers can be easily overlooked, especially since the two broad groups of capitalists will unite when working people start making demands. Industrialists and financiers argue fiercely, and often litigate, over which gets the bigger piece of the pie but are in agreement that they should get the whole pie.

There has always been an inherent tension between the interests of the financial industry, or finance capital, and the interests of industrialists (owners and executives of companies that produce tangible goods and services, or, to put it another way, the direct owners and managers of the means of production), but the conflict between these two groups has become much more acute in recent decades as massive and ever increasing inequality has stuffed more money into the pockets of the wealthy than can possibly be put to use in productive investment.

The gigantic sums of money that pour into the accounts of those in the top ranks of industrial and financial enterprises are increasingly poured into financial speculation. Wall Street, gaining the upper hand because of the vast sums of money it manages and the financialization of the economy, demands ever bigger profits, no matter the cost to employees or communities. Top executives, who have much of their pay given in stock, are fine with this “enhancing shareholder value,” to use the Wall Street euphemism for elevating short-term shareholder and bondholder profits over all other considerations. There nonetheless is struggle between industrialists and financiers over control of companies and how to split the pie.

That the Democratic Party would come to be the party of Wall Street is not as strange as it might sound. Whenever a company announces bad news that results in a stock-price decline, a flurry of lawsuits will be filed, seeking financial recouping of the shareholders’ losses. The officers of the company being sued in this situation stomp their feet in rage — being a captain of industry is supposed to mean never having to admit a mistake — swearing they are as innocent as a new-born baby. These conflicts can easily land in court. It’s highly profitable for the law firms that represent the interests of Wall Street to pursue these lawsuits, and sometimes, of course, there is chicanery going on and not simply bad management or a downturn in the market.

The symbiotic relationship here is that Wall Street interests and the lawyers who serve them need laws favorable to lawsuits, to rules geared toward investors and to open flows of accurate business information, including requiring companies to report details of their operations. In turn, Democrats love the piles of money these interests give to them.

Industrialists believe it should be almost impossible to sue their companies, want the rules tilted in their favor and hate having to reveal any information. They are heavily represented in the upper ranks of the Republican Party and direct its ideology on economic issues.

Thus the two parties line up on opposite sides of the ruling-class split and the fights can be bitter because immense amounts of money are at stake. A secondary factor in this split between industrialists and Wall Street is social. Financiers, perhaps because they tend to be in cosmopolitan areas like New York, Boston and San Francisco or perhaps because of more complicated psychological reasons, tend not to need to control workers’ personal lives. They want to extract every dollar in your pocket and will do anything to get it, but once they have all the money, they have reached their goal.

Industrialists, on the other hand, frequently wish to control the personal lives of their workers and exert social control. Industrialists are “on the scene” of profit extraction and, enjoying the power their company gives them, often believe they have the right to control the lives of their workers, who are, in their eyes, mere peons. Financiers, meanwhile, take a cut of the profits in more impersonal ways, often by manipulating numbers on a computer screen. A company’s workforce is nothing but another set of numbers to a financier.

Left out of either side of this elite struggle are the employees, whose underpaid work is the source of the profits.

A capitalist party can’t be turned into an anti-capitalist or a people’s party. One so heavily dependent on corporate money, such as the Democratic Party, is all the more incapable of being taken over by insurgents. There do remain differences on social issues and policies toward women and People of Color between Democrats and Republicans, and it is understandable that in times so dreary that millions of people are willing to take the crumbs on offer because the alternative is nothing. But is slowing down the rate of brutality really the best we can aspire to? Reforms can be beneficial, that is true, but a different system based on political and economic democracy would be vastly better. A better world will be won by organizing, not by begging.

One comment on “If you don’t give people a reason to vote, they won’t

  1. iamselma says:

    Hi- great article. You should change “far less votes” to “far fewer votes”.   Carol

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