As the Republican primary elections dominate the media, the battle for the White House next fall is finally beginning to take shape. It’s pretty clear that the main factions of the U.S. ruling class are pushing for an Obama vs. Romney presidential election contest. After months of a chaotic Republican primary contest in which a series of conservative and Tea Party inspired candidates dominated the polls only to fall to one of their many rivals in short order, the field of candidates has finally narrowed. Currently, Romney’s only serious challenger for the Republican nomination is Newt Gingrich, the disgraced former Speaker of the House of Representatives who is seemingly poised to emerge as the consensus candidate of Republican right wing. Although the Catholic conservative Rick Santorum and the extreme libertarian Ron Paul continue to complicate the race, with the Republican establishment lining up behind Romney, it appears that the main factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie will likely get the presidential election match-up they want. Nevertheless, the race remains highly volatile and the unpredictable Republican electorate may yet throw a wrench into the works, forcing the Republican Party to take drastic measures in order to make the presidential election competitive.
Behind all this drama over the Republican primaries stands the much deeper political crisis facing the U.S. bourgeoisie, a crisis that has only deepened in its gravity since the debt-ceiling debacle of last summer. Readers of Internationalism will recall the series of articles we have published since the mid-term elections of 2010 analyzing this crisis. This series builds on the analysis we have developed since the contested Bush/Gore presidential election of 2000, according to which the main factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie have been facing growing difficulties manipulating the outcome of the electoral process in order to bring the best possible ruling team to power for the historical moment and reinforce the democratic myth among the population. Although the U.S. bourgeoisie was able to obtain a temporary reversal of this trend in producing the “historic” election of Barack Obama in 2008, the political crisis has only deepened since his election, threatening to destabilize the two-party ideological division of labor and the entire democratic-electoral apparatus of U.S. state capitalism along with it. In our view, the evolution of the internal life of the U.S. bourgeoisie since the 2010 mid-term elections has confirmed this analysis.
In this article, we will review the main developments in this political crisis since the debt-ceiling debacle and show how they are narrowing the bourgeoisie’s room for maneuver in an historic moment in which the grave economic crisis it faces stubbornly refuses to go away and the working class is becoming increasingly restless.
The Aftermath of the Debt Ceiling Debacle: Obama Turns to the Left
The debt-ceiling debacle of last summer was an absolute catastrophe for the entire U.S. bourgeoisie (1). The nation and the entire world beyond was treated to a weeks long spectacle of brinkmanship in which the full faith and credit of the United States was put into question. If the debt ceiling was not raised, the U.S. government could have failed to meet its payments to creditors, social security checks might not have been mailed and even U.S. military personnel might have gone without paychecks. The prospect of a global economic calamity threatened, as the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives vowed to vote against any deal to raise the debt ceiling.
While public opinion polls consistently showed the population believed the Republican Party to be most at fault for the debacle, President Obama took his lumps too. He was roundly criticized within his own Democratic Party base for failing to be tougher in his negotiations with the Republican and Tea Party obstructionists and for appearing far too quick to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block to appease the right-wing desire for drastic spending cuts. Media pundits began to talk about a crisis of the American democratic system itself. Clearly, the population was fed up with both parties and just about all the institutions of government. More and more, the American state appeared to be completely unresponsive to its citizens, its agenda determined by ideological hacks on the one hand and corporate stooges on the other. Nobody – not President Obama, not Speaker Boehner, neither Democrat, nor Republican – seemed to have the interests of the ordinary American in mind.
In many ways, the debt-ceiling debacle was the logical conclusion of the unleashing of the Tea Party insurgency on the U.S. political system. Hell bent on reducing the federal government to a shell and taking orders from ideologues obsessed with the free market fundamentalist meme of “starving the state,” the Tea Party has proven itself to be just as destructive as its opponents feared. So far, the trappings of power and the lure of incumbency have not tamed the Tea Party in any significant way. Having ridden the Tea Party insurgency to victory in the 2010 mid-term elections, the Republican Party – already having made a major turn to the right – is now largely beholden to it. Committed to opposing President Obama at every turn – a man whose Presidency many in the Tea Party constituency believe is illegitimate – they have made it virtually impossible for the U.S. state to get anything done. As long as the Tea Party Republicans control Congress, there would appear to be no hope of passing comprehensive immigration reform, no new revenues with which to pay down the deficit and appease the population’s growing class for tax fairness, and no legislation of any real significance that does not cow toe to their extreme ideology. In the aftermath of the debt-ceiling debacle, it appears to have finally donned on the Obama administration that the current situation is unworkable. Something would have to be done to bring the Tea Party insurgency into line and revitalize the image of the U.S. state or risk the rapid decay of the institutions of American state capitalism itself and the further discrediting of the democratic illusion in the eyes of a population beginning to stir.
It has been in this context that the Obama administration has made a serious tack to the left in the aftermath of the debt ceiling crisis. If the Republican Party has largely discredited itself in the eyes of a large swathe of the population as a party of ideological bankruptcy, Obama’s rather tepid approach to the economic crisis and his closeness to Wall Street were having a similar effect of calling the Democratic Party into question as well – thus threatening the traditional ideological division of labor between the two parties. Since the debt-ceiling debacle, the Obama administration has set about attempting to repair the Democratic Party’s image and revitalize his own persona in preparation for the fall presidential election.
In November, the much-vaunted “Super Committee,” set-up to find additional spending cuts in the aftermath of the debt-ceiling debacle, came to naught and was revealed for the political farce it always was. However, the Democrats were allowed to trumpet the fact that major cuts to Social Security and Medicare have for now been avoided. Later, faced with the threat of a Republican initiated government shut down, Obama took a much harder stance with the House Republicans refusing to back down and forcing them to agree to continue funding the government. Obama then followed this up with a dramatic showdown over the payroll tax exemption – forcing the Republican Party, the party of “no new taxes,” to come out in favor of a tax hike on the working-class at Christmastime. Next, the President utilized Congress’ holiday break to appoint Ohio Attorney General Richard Corday to run a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) and appoint several “labor friendly” figures to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Attempting to consolidate his turn to the left and revitalize the image of his administration as an agent of the common man, Obama used his annual State of the Union address in January to announce his support for raising the capital gains tax, ensuring that the richest American who make their money off of investment income and carried interest pay a tax rate similar to their working class employees – a move clearly aimed at his most likely Republican challenger, billionaire Mitt Romney. Currently, Obama – without explicitly endorsing the movement—is taking up the language of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), seeking to give his presidency a new gloss of legitimacy, and paint his second term as one in which he will fight for “fundamental fairness” in the economy.
It is beginning to appear that faced on the one hand with a Tea Party insurgency that is making it almost impossible to govern and with a growingly restive population on the other – a restiveness that exploded in the Occupy Movement during the fall – the main factions of the U.S. ruling class would prefer to maintain the Obama administration in power for another term. Although historically in times of rising class struggle the ruling class has usually opted for a policy of putting the left-wing of its political apparatus in opposition so as to better control the rising militancy of the working-class, these are not ordinary times. In today’s chaotic environment, it appears that the main factions of the bourgeoisie are counting on a more progressive appearing Obama administration to play the game of the left opposition from within the state itself, in order to give the population the illusion that there is a party within the state that is fighting for the common man against the sheer insanity emanating from the right-wing.
Faced with a choice between trying to enact a more traditional ideological division of labor and attempting to revitalize the image of the state in the context of Occupy Movement, the main factions of the ruling class appear to be moving towards a decision to maintain Obama in power. A second Obama term will be used to try to convince the population that they have a friend in power, even if he is besieged by the right wing on all sides, and thus a stake in the bourgeois state. This rather unorthodox tactic stands as stark evidence of the gravity of the political crisis the U.S. bourgeoisie now faces.
The Presidential Campaign: The Fragility of the Ideological Division of Labor in the Midst of Electoral Chaos
Even as it emerges that the main factions of the bourgeoisie are moving towards a preference for a second Obama term, this doesn’t mean they will get it. As we have analyzed since the disputed Bush/Gore election, as a result of the centrifugal weight of social decomposition on the political system, the main factions of the bourgeoisie are having increasing difficulty manipulating the electoral system to achieve the desired outcome. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that Obama’s Republican opponent be a candidate that the main factions of the bourgeoisie could live with, if the election does not go the way they want it to.
Whatever maneuvers are put into place, regardless of the media campaigns launched on his behalf, the main factions of the bourgeoisie know full well that there is no guarantee Obama will be re-elected. Despite a growing media campaign around a supposed “economic recovery,” unemployment remains very high with young people (Obama’s electoral base) bearing the brunt of the much discussed “jobs crisis.” In addition, a highly politicized, strongly motivated, Tea Party-oriented faction of the electorate wants Obama out at all costs. This constituency promises to be among the most die-hard voters in the fall and they most certainly won’t vote for the President. However, the biggest wildcard in the Presidential campaign remains the highly volatile world economy with the threat that a European meltdown and/or Middle East volatility could send shockwaves through the U.S. economy in the summer and fall making it incredibly difficult for the President to win reelection. In such circumstances, the main factions of the bourgeoisie need a viable Republican candidate, who can govern with at least a veneer of competence and flexibility, should they find themselves in office in January 2013. Currently, there is only one candidate in the Republican race who fits this bill: Mitt Romney. It is not surprising, then, that by and large the Republican establishment has been lining up behind Romney in an attempt to make sure he is the Republican nominee.
However, unfortunately for the main factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie, this has not proven to be such an easy task. Despite all his advantages in campaign money, name recognition and the backing of the main figures of the Republican establishment, the overwhelming majority of Republican voters despise Romney. Poll after poll has consistently shown less than one-third of Republican voters support Romney’s candidacy. All throughout the summer and fall, the Republican primary campaign resembled a three ring circus with a series of conservative and Tea Party backed candidates rising to the top of the polls as the anti-Romney candidate, only to suffer a dramatic fall from grace. So far, Romney’s best ally in his campaign for the Presidency has been the erratic and unpredictable behavior of the Republican Party’s right wing, as it struggles to coalesce around a single candidate to unseat Romney as the party’s presumptive nominee. Nevertheless, despite the media’s unabashed attempt to build an aura of inevitability around Romney’s campaign following his eight vote victory in the Iowa caucuses and first place finish in the much more moderate New Hampshire primary, the Republican electoral base has proven stubborn. The day before the South Carolina primary, in which Gingrich trounced him, it was announced that Romney had actually lost Iowa to Rick Santorum! This set off widespread panic in the Republican establishment as Romney’s coronation was postponed out of growing fear that the caustic and erratic Gingrich might actually win the nomination.
Currently, although Romney won over Gingrich in the crucial primary state of Florida, several national polls continue to show the former House Speaker leading the Republican field. While a Romney nomination continues to be the most likely outcome of the Republican primaries, this remains far from certain. It is indeed a worrisome time for the main factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie as a Newt Gingrich (or Rick Santorum) Presidency would simply be imponderable. Some pundits have hinted that should Romney fail to win the nomination through the primary process, the Republican Party establishment would have to intervene at the party convention this summer to install their own candidate. Clearly, these are not the best of days for the U.S. democratic mystification!
If the Republican primary chaos has served to give the main factions of the bourgeoisie pause, they have also probably worked to strengthen their commitment to Obama’s re-election this fall. For all the cynical race baiting, Dickensian rhetoric and downright crazy talk coming from Gingrich and Santorum (2) on the campaign stump, the fierce primary campaign has only served to push Romney to the right, calling his image as a moderate, sensible and flexible Republican into sharp question. Moreover, his rivals have taken advantage of his enormous wealth to paint him as an out of touch billionaire, tax cheat and “vulture capitalist.” In the course of the campaign, Romney has become the virtual embodiment of the “one-percent” itself, making the prospect of his Presidency that much less attractive. In this context, it appears more and more likely that the main factions of the bourgeoisie would prefer to take their chances rehabilitating the image of the Obama administration than risk a direct provocation to the growing revolt of the population against the unfairness of the system and the possibility that this revolt could radicalize into a more direct response to capitalism itself on the working class terrain.
While the main factions of the bourgeoisie may very well get the Presidential election match-up they want in the end, this will not put an end to the seemingly interminable political crisis that further complicates its ability to manage the economic crisis and advance the interests of the overall national capital. Even if Obama is re-elected in the fall, he will most likely still have to deal with an obstructionist Congress that will resist his attempts to govern. Will the Tea Party representatives be more likely to compromise with the President in his second term? It is not possible to say at this time, but it is difficult to envision this taking place in an environment where they will remain beholden to right-wing interests backed by billionaire benefactors like the Koch brothers, hell-bent on advancing the most revanchist agenda. These moneyed interests have now been given free reign by the Supreme Court to flood the political process with money, qualitatively worsening the unpredictability of the electoral process (3).
On the other hand, if Romney wins the election, this would put the bourgeoisie in a perhaps more precarious position. How would a moderate Republican President deal with the ideologues in his own party? Would he be able to resist their calls to indiscriminately slash and burn the federal government bureaucracy and annihilate the remaining vestiges of the social wage, perhaps provoking an even stronger reaction from the working class than we have seen with the Occupy Movement? If he were to try and govern in a more centrist manner, could this risk the definitive break-up of the Republican Party itself and send the two party system into a definitive crisis? We do not have the answers to these questions at the moment, but, frankly, neither do the main factions of the bourgeoisie. Their developing anxiety over the increasingly tenuous state of the two-party system and the democratic illusion itself is well grounded.
So what is the working-class to make of all this chaos, all this electoral maneuvering? In the end, regardless of the outcome of the elections, the imperatives facing the winning party will be the same: austerity, scaling back of the remaining social wage and the general management of the historic decline of the U.S. national capital. While it may be true today that, from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie as a whole, the Democrats would likely be able to carry out these tasks with better practical acumen, and they are therefore better capable of serving as the governing party, this does not put them into a fundamental opposition with the Republicans as far as the working class is concerned. While its true that the Republican Party has been largely taken over by a deeply regressive faction of the bourgeoisie with little sense of the overall interest of the national capital, this does not mean that the Democrats will govern in the interests of the working-class. On the contrary, neither party has a solution to the economic crisis. Neither has an alternative to the ultimate imperative for further austerity. In this regard, it is quite telling that whatever the steps the Obama has taken to turn to the left and give itself the aura of populism, he has never backed down on his willingness to put Social Security and Medicare on the table in his quest to work out a deficit reduction deal with his Republican rivals. There is no reason to think this will change in his second term.
In response to the bourgeoisie’ ongoing, and now permanent, electoral campaigns, the working-class can only oppose its own autonomous struggles to defend its living and working conditions. The Occupy Movement was an important step in developing this struggle, but we will have to go much further in the period ahead as the attacks against our class continue to mount. In the meanwhile, we must refuse to be taken in to by these incessant election campaigns and recognize that whatever their differences, in the end both parties are obliged to carry out the attacks the capitalist system’s historic crisis demands.
1 See our article In Internationalism #160, “The Debt-Ceiling Crisis: Political Wrangling While the Global Economy Burns.”
2 And this is to say nothing about Ron Paul; indeed, the image of a Republican Party Presidential candidate slamming United States imperialism in every debate certainly does give the impression of a political system that has lost its moorings.
3 The hue and cry emerging from the bourgeois media over the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case likely reflects a very real fear among the main factions of the bourgeoisie that the unregulated influx of cash into the electoral process will only lead to more and more unpredictable outcomes. Currently, it is emerging that the Gingrich candidacy is only kept alive through the largesse of one rich casino mogul. On another note, the increasing politicization of the judiciary itself, in particular the right-wing of the Supreme Court, is a growing concern for those factions of the bourgeoisie concerned with the health of the democratic image of the state. Ominously, the Supreme Court is set to decide two of the most controversial legal battles in recent history this summer in the midst of the Presidential campaign: the SCOTUS’ anticipated rulings on the constitutionality of Obama’s health care law and the Arizona anti-immigration bill threaten to add a further element of destabilization to the political system.