Furor Over “Voter Suppression”: Political Expedience and the Democratic Illusion

Printer-friendly version

Over the last several months, the bourgeois media has been in an uproar over the efforts of a number of Republican controlled state governments to restrict access to the ballot box in this November’s Presidential election. According to many analysts, there appears to be an orchestrated campaign by the national Republican Party to use Republican controlled state governments to impose new legal requirements for voting. Typically, this has involved passage of a new “Photo ID” law, which—under the guise of preventing voter fraud—requires voters to produce a state approved photo identification in order to cast a vote. Other tactics involve using federal government immigration records to purge the voter rolls of suspected non-citizens (Florida) or passing confusing restrictions on early voting (Ohio).

Many of these laws have been passed in staunchly conservative states such as Texas and Georgia (states that Republican Mitt Romney would almost certainly win anyway), but what seems to concern the main factions of the bourgeoisie is that these laws, and other tactics, are also being put into place in many of the “swing states” that will ultimately decide the Presidential election in November. Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida have all been in the headlines recently over the efforts of Republican controlled state governments to implement various measures to “suppress the vote.” According to the analysis, the Republicans are out to make it much more difficult for traditionally Democratic constituencies to have their votes counted. The photo identification requirements would almost certainly impact the poor, minorities, and the young (particularly students attending college out-of-state) the most—groups that tend to vote for Democrats. One Republican legislator in Pennsylvania is even on record as saying that the new photo identification law is what is going to allow Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania and become the next President of the United States. [1]

For their part, the main factions of the bourgeoisie (centered in the Democratic Party)[2] have counterattacked against these Republican tactics with a concerted campaign around defending the right to vote, protecting the foundations of American democracy and preventing the Republicans from “stealing the election.” According to this narrative, many of these new voting restrictions, in particular the requirement to produce a photo ID, which can be very costly to procure for lower income voters, amounts to a “poll tax” reminiscent of efforts by racist authorities to prevent African Americans from voting in the pre-civil rights era South.

So, how should revolutionaries interpret these events? The ICC has long argued that voting in bourgeois elections is a complete distraction for the working class that ties it to the bourgeois state and prevents it from finding its own class terrain. We have often maintained that, under the conditions of state capitalism, bourgeois elections are mere moments through which the state manages society by keeping up the appearance of democracy, an illusion that keeps the working class from searching out its own answers for the burning problems that plague humanity. Bourgeois elections tend to be decided well in advance of Election Day, mainly through well–coordinated media campaigns that tend to bring the consensus candidate of the main factions of the bourgeoisie to power. While sometimes mistakes can happen (such as the fiasco of the 2000 Presidential Election), and sometimes election campaigns have been used to decide real differences within the bourgeoisie, under the conditions of state capitalism they tend to be mostly managed events that the working class would do best to avoid. [3]

So what about this current furor over “voter suppression”? What exactly is happening here? Is this a mere ideological campaign to try to reinforce the importance of participating in the “democratic process” among the working class or is there something deeper taking place that reflects a significant level of difficulty on the level of the cohesion of the US state? Do these events call into question the way revolutionaries have conceptualized bourgeois elections in the period of state capitalism?

The Growing Political Crisis of the US Bourgeoisie

First, in order to understand the nature of these voter suppression efforts, we need to review some of the main developments in the life of the bourgeoisie over the last 12 years (since the Bush-Gore election fiasco of 2000). While we cannot get into depth of detail here, it would be useful to review some of the main features of this period:

·        The 2000 election was a total disaster for the US bourgeoisie. The consensus candidate of the main factions of the bourgeoisie, Al Gore, lost the election in the Electoral College despite winning the popular vote. This brought the clumsy, inarticulate and mostly incompetent George Bush into office, while it also called the democratic process itself into question among a significant percentage of the population. While Bush did not necessarily represent the right wing of the Republican Party, his cavalier style and lack of diplomatic skill would soon become a major problem for US imperialist relations. [4]

·        In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration launched the very unpopular invasion of Iraq, sparking major civil war in that country, bogging down the U.S. military in what many believed was an unnecessary war and completely alienating foreign governments and international public opinion.

·        In the 2004 Presidential election, the main factions of the US bourgeoisie, despite the need for a major course correction, failed to unite behind John Kerry with enough time and resources to allow him to win the Presidency. Bush was thus reelected. Nevertheless, allegations of Republican “voter suppression” first came to the surface in this election with reports of poor and minority voters being forced to wait in line for hours to cast their votes in Ohio.

·        Bush’s second term was characterized by continued chaos in Iraq and the completely botched response to Hurricane Katrina that saw a major US city completely devastated. In the 2006 mid-term elections, under a major media campaign around “changing the course”, the Democratic Party won control of both houses of Congress, with the intention of acting as a counterweight to a rapidly deteriorating Bush administration.

·        As the 2008 Presidential election approached, the main factions of the bourgeoisie united around Barack Obama—a candidate with “rock-star” appeal—who it was thought could reignite the population’s enthusiasm for democracy after eight disastrous years under Bush. After a tough primary campaign against Hillary Clinton[5], Obama surged to the Presidency, just as the global economy entered the worst crisis in its history since the Great Depression.

·        Although the Obama election provided a major boost to the Democratic illusion, over the course of his first term he has faced trenchant opposition to his policies from an increasingly belligerent and aggressive Republican Party, which after 2010 controlled the House of Representatives. In the 2010 mid-term elections, the Republicans road the Tea Party wave to power in Congress, but just as importantly, it won the governorship and control of state legislatures in a number of states that are considered toss-ups in Presidential elections.

·        Since the 2010 mid-term elections, Obama has faced increased opposition to his agenda, including a strenuous legal campaign to have his signature health care reform legislation thrown out by the courts. Although Obama would ultimately prevail on this score in the Supreme Court, the Republican Party continues to vow to repeal it at the first opportunity.

This context suggests that the current furor over voter suppression is not simply an ideological campaign to reinforce the democratic illusion. It may have that effect, but the main factions of the bourgeoisie, who are now united behind Obama’s reelection, really do fear that Republican voter suppression tactics could ultimately throw the election to Mitt Romney. In a close election, in which the country is already mostly divided up into ideological camps, the success of this or that party ultimately lies in voter turnout. In high turnout elections, the Democrats will have an advantage (Obama’s victory in 2008), while a low turnout election will favor the Republicans (the Tea Party wave of the 2010 mid-terms). Although the key to the election is now voter turnout, this only makes the fight over the dwindling number of persuadable voters that much more intense.

Under the conditions of state capitalism, in which the state has tended to structure the political life of the bourgeoisie into more or less stable and predictable structures, it could be expected that getting the “wrong result” in an election probably would not have been a total disaster for the bourgeoisie. Both candidates would have been carefully vetted to prevent this and each party could be more or less trusted to pursue a broad general program that worked in the overall interests of the national capital as a whole. However, since the 2000 election, the US bourgeoisie is finding that this is less and less the case. While Bush’s incompetence may have been more of a personal flaw than a reflection of an overall crisis of the political system, today the US bourgeoisie is more and more finding out that the structures of its state, and most importantly its electoral process, no longer function as they used to.

Over the last decade and a half, the forces of social decomposition—which emanate from the inability of the bourgeoisie to find a solution to the economic crisis which dogs its system—have begun to work their effects on the bourgeoisie’s own political structures. In the United States, this has mostly been manifested as an ideological decline of the ruling class. While no faction of the bourgeoisie has been immune to this process, it has disproportionately affected the Republican Party to the point where it has been mostly taken over by its Tea Party right wing.

More and more, the Republican Party is becoming unable to function as a credible party of bourgeois government.  Increasingly, it puts its own confused ideology ahead of attempting to solve the burning problems facing the entire national capital in a rational way. It is for this reason that the main factions of the ruling class have united behind Obama’s re-election. While Mitt Romney may not be a feverous right-wing ideologue on the order of Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, in order to win the Republican primary he had to move dramatically to the right and openly embrace some of the more extreme elements of Tea Party ideology. While this may not be who Romney is on a personal level, for the main factions of the bourgeoisie it is clear that he simply cannot be trusted. At this point, there is no telling what a President Romney, faced with a Congress beholden to the Tea Party, that would expect to get its way, might be compelled to do. Would he repeal Obamacare? Would he fail to address the need for comprehensive immigration reform? Would his campaign clumsiness on foreign policy issues carry over into office? Would he be forced to implement some of the more extreme attacks to Medicare and Social Security, as advanced by his Vice Presidential running mate Paul Ryan, too quickly?  For the main factions of the bourgeoisie, there are just too many questions about what a possible Romney Presidency would mean to comfortably support his candidacy.

The Structure of the US State and the Crisis of State Capitalism

Whatever the preference of the main factions of the bourgeoisie for a second Obama term, they are growing increasingly concerned that their efforts to bring this about may actually come to naught. Although Romney has, so far, proven himself to be something less than a blockbuster candidate, making one mistake after another on the campaign trail—something which the bourgeois media has relished in documenting—there is a growing realization that a concerted media campaign may no longer be enough to determine the outcome of a Presidential election.[6]

Today, when it comes to manipulating the outcome of Presidential elections, the American bourgeoisie is being haunted by two key developments:

·        The ideological decay of a significant part of the ruling class (particularly the Republican Party), which correlates with the ideological hardening of society in general. More and more, American society is divided into two ideological-political blocs, each counting for slightly less than half of the voting population. Increasingly, society is divided into two opposed cultural narratives, between which little rational discourse and exchange is possible. As a result, politics degenerates more and more into a pure power contest. There are so few voters left that are “persuadable,” that each side engages in a increasingly fierce contest over the few remaining “undecideds” in which fewer and fewer tactics are ruled out.

·        In the context of these ideological developments, the federal structure of the US state is now making it more and more difficult for the main factions of the bourgeoisie to dominate politics and set the agenda for the entire nation. State and local politicians are becoming increasingly emboldened in challenging federal authority, leading to an increasingly chaotic situation in which state and local officials can actually impact national politics.[7] In a situation in which the country is so closely divided, the most important figure in the Presidential election may not be President Obama or Mitt Romney, but the Secretary of State of Ohio—in whose hands rests the administration of the electoral process in his state.

It is in this context that the trend towards voter suppression in Republican controlled swing states has the main factions of the bourgeoisie so concerned. If these laws are enacted, it could exclude enough Democratic leaning voters to actually throw the election to the Romney against the preferences of the more rational elements of the ruling class. However, more and more they are beginning to realize that the structures of the US state they have inherited from the late 18th century mean that there may be little they can do about it. The Presidential election may be to decide the leader of the world’s last remaining super power, but the elections themselves are run by state and local officials. In the past, when the main factions of the bourgeoisie were capable of building a more unified national narrative about where the country should go, this might not have been such a problem. However, today, in the context of ideological decay, it is becoming a big impediment.

Fortunately, for the main factions of the bourgeoisie, the courts have taken a grim view of these Republican voter suppression efforts and many of these new laws have been invalidated or put on hold. Still, a great deal of concern remains that the mere fact that these laws were put forward will confuse enough voters that they will in the end have their desired effect, even if they do not reflect the current law. For example, although the courts in Pennsylvania have ruled that voters do not need to produce an ID to vote this November, they are still allowing local election officials to ask voters to produce an ID! This alone may be enough to dissuade enough voters to make a difference in a close race.

We appear to have reached a critical point in the evolution of the crisis of US state capitalism. Over the course of the twentieth century the trend in most of the central countries has been to extend the franchise as deeply as possible throughout society in order to give the working class the feeling of having a stake in national politics and to enroll them in the electoral circus. The more workers became enrolled in the electoral process, the less likely they would be to search for solutions to their problems on their own class terrain. As state capitalism became more entrenched over the course of this period, elections became more and more moments of a predetermined process. Extending the franchise was no longer dangerous to bourgeois class rule and in fact actually buttressed it. The bourgeoisie has every reason to make sure as many people are participating in the electoral process as possible, and certainly that is what we have seen: endless campaigns about “Rocking the vote,” commandments from hip hop moguls to their fans to “Vote or Die!,” voter registration drives in minority and poor neighborhoods, etc.  In decadence, under the managed conditions of state capitalism, the extension of the franchise has been in fact, one of the central weapons of the bourgeoisie against the development of proletarian consciousness.

Today, however, the tables seem to have been partly turned on their head. A militant and aggressive faction of the bourgeoisie is now engaging in a more or less open campaign to suppress the vote, to make sure as few minorities, poor and young people vote as possible in order to reap the short-term electoral benefits for their preferred candidate. The furor over voter suppression thus reflects a very real concern on the part of the main factions of the bourgeoisie that the sanctity of the electoral process is now being put into question—by a faction of their own class!

This furor is thus another example of the increasing “short-termism” of much of the bourgeoisie faced with the deepening crisis of the society they preside over. In the case of US politics, this is manifesting itself in the increasing decay of the Republican Party, as it is more and more taken over by an extreme right-wing element that appears to have lost any serious consideration of the long and medium term needs and goals of the national capital. [8]

While the main factions of the bourgeoisie are certainly exploiting this situation to run a countervailing campaign on the terrain of bourgeois legalism about protecting the right to vote, this situation reflects more than a mere attempt to revive the democratic illusion.  It is also an inter-bourgeois fight about what constitutes acceptable means for settling differences within its ranks. The main factions of the bourgeoisie must attempt to reinforce a level of respect for certain boundaries. After all, it was not that long ago that the main factions of the US bourgeoisie fought a long and messy campaign with certain retrograde elements in the South to fully extend the vote to African Americans, making sure that they would be included with the electoral process. Today, the fruits of that campaign are spoiling with the putrid air of ideological decomposition as an insurgent faction of the bourgeoisie puts the very right to vote itself into question. In the end, this fight is ultimately about the continuity of the bourgeois state and its policies.

The furor over voter suppression reflects the growing crisis of US state capitalism as a result of the reflexive effects of social decomposition on the life of the ruling class itself. While the main factions of the bourgeoisie continue to attempt to manage the economic crisis and national politics the best they can, they are increasingly hampered in this travail by the deepening fracturing of society under the weight of social decomposition. Just as society itself more and more splits apart, the bourgeoisie itself appears to be losing its discipline and the state is less and less able to enforce the level of unity necessary for it to act in the overall interests of the national capital.

While we should be careful not to overstate this process—there will certainly be moments in which the main factions of the bourgeoisie will be able to enforce its will—it is very real and is causing increasing difficulties in the functioning of US state capitalism.

When it comes to the electoral circus, these developments do not change the fundamental message of revolutionaries since the entry of capitalism into its decadent phase: the working class should have nothing to do with the bourgeois electoral process. The problems that continue to haunt capitalist society cannot be solved there. The road forward for humanity can only lie in a world beyond capital and this can only come from the working class struggling on its own class terrain. Participating in bourgeois elections can only distract us from this goal.

Part of the bourgeoisie may be currently attempting to keep us from voting, but this is not because the nature of the bourgeois electoral process has changed. It is only because they think this gives their faction a better chance of sniffing power. This is not our fight. Our struggle must take place outside of the electoral arena. Only our massive struggle, through general assemblies and workers’ councils can pose any real alternative to this system.

For revolutionaries, the developments in the internal life of the US bourgeoisie are not without significance. They stand as powerful evidence of the deepening crisis of bourgeois society, which more and more manifests itself as a crisis of state capitalism. While the fundamentals of the revolutionary analysis of state capitalism have not changed, we do need to be more attuned to the new realities of a period in which the reflexive effects of social decomposition pose novel developments that may not appear to fit some of our past schemas.

The nature of the electoral process itself may not have changed, but this does not mean that all factions of the bourgeoisie are united in the foresight that the extension of the franchise is in the overall interests of all those fighting to preserve bourgeois rule. While the old dictum, “If voting changed anything, they would outlaw it” remains true—this doesn’t mean that, today, some factions of the bourgeoisie might not want to outlaw it regardless, if it fits their short-term political interests.



[2] We understand that readers may demand a better definition of who exactly constitutes the “main factions of the bourgeoisie.” Indeed, this subject is something that must be developed further. However, it is clear that today the “main” or “central” factions of the US bourgeoisie are located in the center of the Democratic Party. While there are some moderate Republicans that belong to this faction as well (possibly Mitt Romney himself); it is clear that the Tea Party represents a faction that cannot be trusted to act in the overall interests of the national capital.

[3] Of course, corruption and allegations of “vote fixing” are not new in American politics even at the Presidential level. It is widely suspected by many that John F. Kennedy only won the 1960 election after his father and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley engaged in wide scale voter fraud through big city political machines allowing Kennedy to win a tight race against the sitting Vice President Richard Nixon. Still, this occurred in a much different period in which the differences between Kennedy and Nixon were not of such depth as to make the choice critical. Moreover, part of the 2000 post-election chaos involved paranoia on the part of Republicans that Al Gore was trying to steal the election by counting “dimpled chads” and the like.

[4] For more on the 2000 election see our article "Election of George W. Bush".

[5] However, as soon as he won the Presidency, Obama was quick to offer the jilted Clinton a position in his cabinet as Secretary of State in order to preserve the unity of the Democratic Party.

[6] Of course, a large part of this difficulty lies in the changing nature of the media itself. The splintering of “news media” along ideological lines only further complicates the task of building a general narrative. This process has only deepened since Obama’s election. Today, it is becoming more and more problematic to talk about a “bourgeois media” in the singular, even if it remains true that some media outlets command more respect that others.

[7] The challenging of federal authority by state and local officials has been a constant theme in the debate over illegal immigration and Obamacare. See our article, Recent Supreme Court Rulings on ”Obamacare” and the Arizona Anti-Immigration Law: A Momentary Respite in a Downward Spiral at https://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201207/5061/recent-supreme-court-rulings-obamacare-and-arizona-anti-immigration-law-moment

[8] Republican voter suppression efforts are only tip of the many ways in which this party has succumbed to short-term thinking in a way that puts its long-term viability into question. Its often open hostility to minorities, frequent appeal to white racial fear and strong anti-immigrant streak threaten to make the Republican Party electorally irrelevant on the national level in the near future if current demographic trends hold. It is for this reason that some more moderate Republicans. such as former Florida Governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Christ, have openly questioned the direction of the party. Christ, defeated in his race for Senate by the Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, has left the Republican Party altogether. All of this, of course, poses a different problem for the US state capitalism—the destabilization of its two-party system. 




Recent and ongoing: 


US Elections 2012