Election Aftermath: Political Difficulties of the Ruling Class

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Despite the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on the electoral circus in 2004, the American bourgeoisie is no better off today than it was before the election and continues to face severe political problems. The goal of any electoral circus under capitalism is twofold: to exert the full power of the democratic mystification and to put in place the most appropriate ruling team for the coming period.

This year, the goal of re-establishing the credibility of the democratic mystification was particularly important, given the clearly tainted electoral shambles of 2000, from which the candidate who lost the popular vote nevertheless emerged victorious, but whose authority and legitimacy was in question for four years. At the same time, the fallout from the deteriorating military situation in Iraq, both at home and abroad, has seriously undermined American imperialism’s political authority and increased its difficulties to respond effectively to challenges to its hegemony on the international level, creating a situation which required a readjustment of the ruling team..

The election has accomplished neither goal, leaving the capitalist class with a political mess as it faces the difficulties ahead. The failure to achieve its goals were the consequences of the social decomposition of capitalism on its ability to control and manipulate the electoral process. As we discussed in Internationalism 132, these effects included the difficulty encountered by the dominant fractions of the bourgeoisie in settling on a  preferred political division favoring the election of John Kerry until very late in the campaign – perhaps too late – to facilitate its successful implementation. Another problem was its difficulty in being able to manipulate and control the electorate effectively, especially the Christian fundamentalist right, which seemed impervious to the political rhetoric of the campaign. Twenty million of the sixty million votes cast for Bush came from Christian fundamentalists who essentially ignored the central policy issues of the war in Iraq and the economy, and voted solely on the instructions of their clergy based on secondary and even tertiary issues like gay marriage and abortion. 

The Lack of Post-Election Euphoria

A central characteristic of a successful electoral circus is the emergence of a social and political euphoria, largely manufactured and manipulated by the capitalist mass media. When a new president is elected for the first time, this euphoria is generally fed by a media campaign celebrating the dawning of a “new age” and a sense of national renewal in the period following the election, running through the inauguration, and continuing through at least the first three or four months of the new regime (the so-called “honeymoon period”). The honeymoon periods that accompanied the Kennedy victory in 1960 and the first term victories of Reagan and Clinton are examples of this phenomenon. This post electoral euphoria occurs even if the election was bitterly fought and the electorate sharply divided and even if the winner did not gain a majority in the popular vote, as in the case of both Kennedy, who received only 49.7%  of the popular vote in 1960 and Clinton who got only 43% in 1992, due to the third party candidacy of H. Ross Perot that year. In the case of second term victories, the propaganda campaign generally focuses on the promise of national unity as the re-elected president, who will never have to face another election, is supposedly free to rise above political expediency and partisan politics and pursue policies that can leave his historic mark on the nation – his “legacy” as the bourgeois academics and journalists like to call it.

The most striking thing about the current period is the total absence of any political euphoria. Even in those parts of the country where Bush enjoyed heavy political support, the mood is quite subdued. For a good part of the country, the whole election seems like a bad dream, leaving people as if in a state of shock. This is true particularly in the large urban, industrialized states of the northeast, the Great Lakes region in the Midwest, and the far west where the campaign propaganda pushing for a change in the ruling team proved effective. The scenario that would have worked best in restoring the democratic mystification to full glory would have been a Kerry victory at the polls. The dominant bourgeois media campaigns had emphasized that the Bush administration had misled the nation into war, did not have a strategy to win the peace, was riddled with lying, cronyism and corruption, and an unprecedented effort was undertaken to mobilize “the people” to help rectify the wrong that had been done by a “stolen” election in 2000. From rock stars like Bruce Springsteen to everyday citizens, volunteers for Kerry were mobilized to travel to so-called swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania for door-to-door canvassing.

The opposition to Bush in the major metropolitan areas ranged as high as 75, 80, even 90 percent.  The stage was set for a tremendous celebration of this exertion of “people power” to change America for the better. Had Kerry won, there would have been dancing in the streets in the major cities of America on election night, the democratic mystification would have gotten an incredible shot in the arm and at the same time the bourgeoisie would have gotten a new president, who was committed to continuing the war in Iraq, even if he said it was mistake to be there, who would have been better able to mobilize the population for future wars, which are sure to come, and would have made it more difficult for Paris, Berlin, and Moscow to oppose the U.S. openly – at least in the near term. But instead of a much need revitalization of the democratic myth, there was demoralization and shock.

No Honeymoon for Bush

The malaise is not confined simply to those who opposed Bush in the campaign. Even within the Bush camp, instead of political euphoria the post election period is characterized by recrimination and political upheaval. A majority of the cabinet has resigned, some perhaps because they are tired, but in other cases because of policy disagreements. For example, the dispute between Secretary of State Colin Powell and the neo-conservatives at the Pentagon over Iraq policy has been well documented. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson no sooner announced his resignation than he revealed policy disagreements with the president on a number of key issues. Ashcroft is out as attorney general, as a sacrificial lamb to critics from both the left and the right who felt that the Justice Department’s strengthening of the state’s repressive apparatus was clumsy and poorly handled, especially the attempt to exempt the U.S. from the Geneva Conventions and officially legalize torture. In late December, the administration attempted to mollify these critics by revising the controversial memorandum on torture and re-committing the US to abide by the Geneva Conventions. That Ashcroft’s departure was merely a gesture at silencing critics and not a substantive retreat from repression was demonstrated by the fact that his replacement is slated to be White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, who originally developed the controversial position in the first place.

The dominant fractions of the bourgeoisie are well aware of their problems and are not entirely powerless and despite their inability to achieve the appropriate political division of labor at the polls, are seeking to rectify or minimize the damage done by the electoral outcome. Despite Bush’s inclination to circle the wagons and surround himself with close supporters as cabinet members and advisers, considerable pressure is being exerted on the administration to modify its more extreme positions, and to actually move towards the very policies advocated by Kerry in the election campaign (such as beefing up military presence in Iraq in the short term and developing a disengagement plan in the longer term).  At the same time, there are efforts to restore a certain discipline to the state capitalist apparatus, a good portion of which worked behind the scenes to defeat Bush’s re-election.

Sen. John McCain seems to most clearly represent the main faction of the bourgeoisie on this front at the current moment. On the one hand, McCain has supported the Administration’s bloodletting at the CIA, which has forced five top CIA directorate members to resign since the election in retribution for their leaking embarrassing information to the press during the final weeks of the campaign.  McCain made it clear that such disloyalty from the intelligence community is totally unacceptable. But on the other hand, McCain has aggressively criticized Rumsfeld’s handling of  defense policy and the war in Iraq, basically echoing the same charges and criticisms made by the Kerry campaign before the election. Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Nagel, second ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, shares McCain’s lack of confidence in Rumsfeld and openly called for his resignation. Retired General Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded US forces in the first Gulf War, and was one of the handful of former generals to openly support Bush in the campaign, also voiced his displeasure with Rumsfeld. At the same time, Brent Scowcroft, a close friend and adviser to Bush’s father and a former national security adviser, has strongly attacked the administration’s Iraq policy and predicted that the January 30th elections in Iraq “won’t be a promising transformation, and it has great potential for deepening the conflict.” Scowcroft actually proposed the possibility that the best solution is for the U.S. to get out of Iraq now. Even Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House, warned that “we are now digging ourselves out of a hole in Iraq.” The New York Times reported January 10th that Republican politicians, fearful that another four years of combat and body bags, will fuel growing popular discontent with the war, are pressuring the administration for a timetable for withdrawal – precisely the position of Kerry in the campaign, who called for beginning to pull troops out of Iraq over four years. According to the Times, secret strategy sessions at the Pentagon have been exploring the option of orchestrating the Iraqi government to be elected January 30th to request the U.S. to begin a phased withdrawal. 

While Rumsfeld struggles to cling to his post and still has the support of the president, he has been forced to yield to the pressure by designating retired four star general Gary E. Luck to conduct a thorough, independent review of policy in Iraq and prepare recommendations for a policy shift. So, despite victory at the polls and the president’s insistence that his Iraq policy has received a popular ratification and that he will not announce a timetable for withdrawal, the Bush administration is experiencing strong pressure to move away from its often repeated policy of  “staying the course” and confident predictions of victory in Iraq and towards the very policies that the Bush camp ridiculed during the election.  All of these developments are unprecedented in the aftermath of a presidential re-election.

While imperialist policy is the central concern of the dominant fractions of the ruling class, Bush’s domestic agenda enjoys no honeymoon either. Despite obtaining 51 percent of the popular vote and insisting that he has a mandate for his domestic program, Bush faces tremendous opposition from the general population, from Democrats, and even from members of his own party. Public opinion polls not only show that a majority of the population thinks the war in Iraq is a mistake and not worth the cost in lives or money, but a majority also disapproves of key aspects of his domestic program, including particularly changes in social security. Even some Republican members of congress are sharply critical of his social security proposal. The administration’s plan to slash federal expenditures for Medicaid, forcing state governments to shoulder greater financial obligations, forcing them to raise taxes at the local level, has triggered a rebellion by governors, including Republicans. His plans to drastically cut appropriations for financial aid to college students at a time when tuition costs are soaring are also triggering opposition.

 What Lies Ahead for the Working Class?

Despite failure to achieve their desired political division of labor, America’s rulers are the strongest bourgeoisie in the world and are moving rapidly to adjust the policy orientation of the administration to one that will more effectively serve its interests, especially at the imperialist level. However, with the failure of  the electoral mystification to achieve any semblance of a fictional “political consensus” in society, the bourgeoisie will have increasing difficulties at the social level to control the working class. There is no significant support for the war in Iraq, especially within the working class, and even if the administration moves towards a policy of disengagement, the impatience of the workers and other strata with war-making will create tremendous difficulties for the bourgeoisie. As the need for other military incursions abroad arise, the Bush administration’s lack of credibility on war will take a heavy toll.

On the international level, there is a general trend towards a return to class confrontation, as the proletariat everywhere finds itself under increasing attack. This phenomenon will become more pronounced in the U.S. as the Bush administration accelerates its attacks on the working class’ standard of living, as a consequence of the global economic crisis and social decomposition of world capitalism which forces it to initiate more and more military interventions around the world to protect its super power status and to finance this on the backs of the proletariat. The attempt to “reform” the social security pension program poses the same risk for triggering a proletarian reaction as it has in various European countries where the bourgeoisie has been forced to cut such programs. Without the beneficial effects of the social and political euphoria that generally accompanies its electoral circus, the bourgeoisie faces the potential to confront an increasingly combative working class.  Jerry Grevin