The results of the presidential election reflect the increasing difficulties that the American ruling class is experiencing in its ability to manipulate the electoral circus. These difficulties, which first appeared in the debacle of the 2000 election, were manifest this year in two important respects.
First, it took the bourgeoisie a comparatively long time to coalesce around how best to realign the political division of labor between the Republicans and Democrats – perhaps too long a time. It wasn’t until mid-September, that one could discern a preference for the election of Kerry, as evidenced in the pronouncements by prominent members of the foreign policy establishment in the Republican party and by the shifts in the media coverage of the campaign. Despite his various shortcomings, including his contradictory statements on the war in Iraq, the predominant view was that Kerry was best suited to restore American credibility on the imperialist terrain and allow an opportunity to salvage the situation in Iraq for U.S. imperialism. The fact that there had been so much confusion and dissension within the bourgeoisie on this reflected a real difficulty to act in the national interest in the face of the conditions of the social decomposition of capitalism. The fact that the consensus came so late in the campaign weakened the bourgeoisie in its ability to manipulate the electoral outcome.
Second, the growth and cohesion of the Christian fundamentalist right wing in America, which like religious zealotry everywhere in this period is a response to the increasing chaos and loss of hope for the future that characterizes social decomposition, posed serious difficulties to the ruling class. This group, first cultivated as a base for the Republicans in the Reagan years, has grown large in many of the less populated, rural states (the so-called “red states” in media parlance), and is characterized by its anachronistic social conservatism and control by local clergymen. This segment of the electorate proved impervious to media manipulation on the essential political questions of the campaign such as the economy, the war, international policy, or cronyism, especially a media manipulation that began so late in the campaign. These fundamentalists voted based on issues like gay marriage and abortion, and contributed significantly to the bourgeoisie’s ability to re-adjust its political division of labor. As one CNN commentator noted with incredulity on election night, despite the fact that Ohio had lost 250,000 jobs, there was a disastrous war in Iraq, and Kerry had won three face-to-face debates, still the social conservatives in Ohio had thrown the election to Bush.
As decomposition continues to accelerate, the U.S. ruling class has joined other capitalist nations, like France, in its difficulties in controlling the electoral charade.
Kerry’s election coincided most with the interests of the ruling class
As we have pointed out previously in Internationalism, Kerry was not an anti-war candidate. He merely promised to be more sensitive as to how he takes the U.S. into war, to win in Iraq, to expand the American military, to increase the size of American Special Forces units, and modernize weapons systems. This was not the political program of a dove. Kerry’s program coincided with the view of a growing majority within the bourgeoisie that recognizes the seriousness of the mess in Iraq. The Bush administration’s refusal to face reality undercut its credibility and increasingly made Bush’s continuance in office untenable. From the bourgeoisie’s perspective, Kerry alone offered the possibility of being able to convince the population to accept further military excursions in the future.
If Kerry’s campaign appeared to falter during the summer after the Democratic Convention, it was because he did not clearly assert a critique of the Bush administration on the war, implausibly insisting he would have still supported the invasion of Iraq even if he known that all the reasons justifying the invasion were wrong. He was criticized for this inconsistency in the editorial pages of the New York Times for example. It was only after Kerry’s speech at New York University in September in which he changed position and embraced the view that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time that his support within the bourgeoisie began to solidify. Already at the convention in July, a dozen retired admirals and generals had endorsed him, including three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In September, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, the chair of the Foreign Relations committee, openly criticized the Bush administration for incompetence in Iraq. Another Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel, the second ranking Republican on the same committee, also lashed out at Bush’s handling of Iraq. And even, Republican Sen. John McCain, while still avowing support for Bush’s candidacy, also criticized the administration for not leveling with the nation on Iraq. When leading Republicans openly attack their own candidate on the central foreign policy issue of the day just five weeks before the presidential election, it gives a real glimpse of the thinking of the bourgeoisie. The Democrats of course quickly took out a full page campaign in major newspapers featuring photographs of these leading Republicans and excerpts from their anti-Bush statements.
The media quickly followed suit, its coverage shifting on balance to support of the Kerry candidacy, as could be seen in the coverage of the debates and their aftermath, which portrayed Kerry as the winner. At the same time, an ABC News policy memo surfaced, which argued that while both candidates were distorting and stretching the truth in their campaign speeches and political commercials, Kerry’s distortion tended to involve only peripheral issues, but Bush’s dealt with issues at the heart of the campaign. The memo instructed ABC journalists to highlight these gross distortions in their coverage. One media commentator even noted a shift in coverage by the pro-Bush media controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – Fox News and New York Post (see accompanying article on the media).
The electoral circus
The capitalist propaganda barrage that accompanies each electoral circus always promotes the democratic mystification, the capitalist political swindle that tries to convince the working class that its participation in choosing the particular politician who will formally preside over the capitalist class dictatorship for the next few years means that it is free. While it is fashionable this year for journalists, politicians, pundits, professors, and clergymen to proclaim that this is the most important election in a generation or in our lifetime, one must note that similar claims were made in many previous elections. From the perspective of the democratic mystification, there is no such thing as an “unimportant” election.
This year the media blitz was awesome. The war in Iraq, national security, terrorism, civil liberties, chronic unemployment, medical care, social security, abortion, gay marriage, the environment – were all invoked as hot button issues, the better to get people interested in voting.
But despite the hoopla, like all elections in the period of capitalist decadence, this election was not really about the clash of alternative policies advocated by different factions of the bourgeoisie, but about manipulation and mystification. Certainly there are differences within the bourgeoisie but these disputes are confined primarily to tactical questions on how best to implement a shared strategic outlook internationally and domestically. It was already pre-ordained that regardless of who the victor was, the U.S. would continue a policy of austerity at home (making the working class pay the brunt of the economic crisis) and military intervention abroad (making the working class risk the lives of its young men and women to protect US imperialist interests), regardless of the winner. The style in which these policies are implemented may differ slightly, but the end result – austerity and war – will be the same.
Strategic political imperatives for the capitalist class
On the level of political strategy, the ruling class this year had two primary political imperatives:
1) It needed to revive and repair the credibility of the democratic mystification which suffered a heavy blow in the debacle of the 2000 election.
2) It needed to adjust the capitalist political division of labor between the major political parties, making sure that the team formally in power is best suited to carry out the strategic requirements necessary to defend effectively the needs of the ruling class in the period ahead. These needs include a) the implementation of the ruling class’s agreed upon imperialist strategy designed to block the rise of any rival superpower in Europe or Asia, and b) the continued implementation of austerity, attacking the standard of living of the proletariat, making it bear the brunt of capitalism’s global economic crisis.
Restoring the democratic mystification
The 2000 election outcome wasn’t resolved for 36 days – determined only by a controversial Supreme Court decision, reached along narrowly divided partisan political lines, which deeply eroded political confidence in the court and the Bush presidency. For the first time in the modern era, the candidate who lost the popular vote won the presidency by gaining a majority in the antiquated Electoral College, based on the chaotic mess in Florida, the state controlled by George Bush’s brother (Governor Jeb Bush). The whole thing was more reminiscent of what one would expect of a third world banana republic rather than the most powerful democracy in the world. The 2000 debacle was a reflection of the effects of social decomposition on the ruling class' electoral process, which has made it increasingly difficult for the bourgeoisie to control its own sham electoral circus. In fact, the political strategy of the bourgeoisie in 2000, which was to keep the Democrats in office actually worked. Gore received 500,000 more votes in the popular balloting. His loss by 500 votes in Florida was attributable to a variety of miscues, ranging from confusing ballots, disenfranchisement of voters who typically voted for Democratic candidates (African Americans), and outright fraud. Once the recount process began, the capitalist politicians lost all sense of self-control and propriety. Each side adopted an irrational attitude to win at any cost, with no-holds barred squabbling. This loss of ruling class discipline and decorum stood in sharp contrast to the more mature and responsible comportment of Richard Nixon in 1960, for example, when he decided not to initiate a court challenge against Kennedy’s election due to voting fraud in Chicago. Nixon understood better his role in the electoral circus and put the interests of the “nation” above his own partisan desires to win the White House.
This year the bourgeoisie needed to restore confidence in elections. To do so, it needed a decisive victory at the polls in order to avoid any repeat of the ugliness of four years ago. The media has been very successful in spreading propaganda about the importance of each citizen’s vote – the idea that every vote counts is crucial in getting as many people as possible to participate in the electoral sham. To keep the pressure on for people to go to the polls, the media incessantly portrayed the contest as too close to call, keeping the tension alive and serving the purpose of making sure that no one lost interest in the race.. The campaign was incredibly effective on certain levels. In the battleground state of Iowa, the media reported that every eligible voter has been registered to vote. In Ohio, another swing state, the campaign has been so successful that there are an estimated 120,000 more people registered to vote than are eligible – either some people registered more than once or the ghosts of citizens past were lining up to vote. In the end nearly 120 million people went to the polls, setting a record for participation (though this was still around only 65% of the eligible voting population).
Had Kerry carried the state of Ohio, he would have emerged as the winner of the presidential election, giving the U.S. for the second time in a row a president who had lost the popular vote (this time by an even bigger margin than Bush in 2000 – 3 million as compared to 500,000), which would have been disastrous for the democratic mystification. This is what prompted Kerry not to push for the counting of the disputed provisional and absentee ballots in Ohio, or demanding a recount, for which there was ample justification. The New York Times reported four days after the election that some of the new electronic voting machines had registered 3,200 votes for Bush in one Ohio district, even though there were only 800 voters who had actually cast ballots. In thus making this decision, from the perspective of the bourgeoisie, Kerry acted “responsibly” in the same way that Nixon had declined to dispute the Kennedy election in 1960, deciding against a course of action that would have potentially contributed to political instability.
However, despite the large turnout and the responsible behaviour of Kerry, the democratic mystification still suffered a serious setback for the bourgeoisie. Among large sectors of the population, the “anybody but Bush” campaign had become a real crusade, an opportunity to correct a serious political blunder in American political history. Unprecedented numbers of volunteers, from rock stars to everyday citizens, got caught up in this crusade and traveled to the so-called battleground states from other parts of the country to campaign for Kerry. In the large, urbanized, industrial states, the media campaign was largely successful. In New York City, Kerry received 75% of the votes, in Philadelphia, 80%, and in Washington, DC, 90%. Kerry carried the industrial states of the northeast, Midwest and far west. The failure of the bourgeoisie's media campaign to shift the political division of labor to the Democrats resulted in widespread frustration, even depression, at how such a democratic movement could have failed to dislodge an unpopular president, and risks triggering widespread disillusion in the electoral process. The Canadian government reported a 600 percent increase in American citizen requests for information about immigrating to Canada the day after the election. New Zealand and Australia also report a tremendous jump in such requests.
Adjusting the division of labor
Because of the proletariat’s continuing difficulties in breaking free of the disorientation that has characterized the reflux in class consciousness since the collapse of the Russian bloc, the bourgeoisie has considerable flexibility in deciding whether to put its left team (Democrats) or right team (Republicans) in power. In times of intense class struggle, the bourgeoisie often prefers to keep the left in opposition, as a means of controlling and derailing working class discontent. But today this is not a necessity – the left is equally capable of implementing austerity, beefing up the repressive apparatus, and waging imperialist war without jeopardizing its ability to control the working class. The Clinton administration demonstrated that amply.
The central consideration for the bourgeoisie today in the U.S, as it has been for more than a decade now, is not how to contain the class struggle, but rather the defense of its imperialist interests in a drastically changed international arena in the post-cold war period. While there is a general agreement within the dominant factions of the American capitalist class on the strategic goal of maintaining U.S. imperialist hegemony and preventing the emergence of any new imperialist rival, there are significant controversies over the tactical implementation of that strategy. Most notably this dispute has focused on the war in Iraq for the past year. In the winter of 2003, the ruling class was united on invading Iraq as reminder of American supremacy aimed at potential rivals, as a reinforcement of direct American military presence in a strategically important zone of imperialist competition, and as a means to put pressure on Europe by establishing a growing American control of Mideast oil supplies. As the ICC predicted on numerous occasions, this strategy was doomed to failure because in the phase of capitalist decomposition the dominant characteristic is the tendency for each nation state to play its own card on the inter-imperialist terrain, which results inevitably in growing chaos on the international level. In this period, every venture that U.S. imperialism undertakes ultimately aggravates the very circumstances that it aimed to combat, increasing rather than decreasing the level of chaos in the world and the challenges to U.S. hegemony.
The divergences on Iraq within the American bourgeoisie emerged only after the abject failure of the Iraq invasion. There are today three positions within the American ruling class on Iraq: 1) the situation is going well, and the U.S. needs only to stay the course, a position defended by the Bush administration, and one that seems to contradict blatantly the reality on the ground; 2) the situation is a mess, and the US should withdraw immediately – an extreme position defended by a few elements on the left and others on the right; 3) the situation is a mess, and the US must find a way to minimize the damage of the Iraq quagmire in order to be able to respond effectively to new challenges to use hegemony, a position increasingly defended by the dominant factions of the ruling class.
The utter failure of the Bush administration’s propaganda justifications for the Iraq invasion raised concern for the ruling class not because they were lies (the bourgeoisie, left or right, is united on the necessity to lie), but because their exposure has made it increasingly difficult to prepare popular acceptance for future military adventures, particularly within the proletariat. Bush’s ineptness squandered the considerable political capital gained from the 9/11 attacks, which had given the bourgeoisie an opportunity to use patriotism to manipulate the population at large. But now patriotism has once again become increasingly identified with the political right, as Kerry noted in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Party Convention when he promised to reclaim patriotism for the left as well.
As we pointed out in Internationalism n°131, the controversy over Bush’s unilateralism versus Kerry’s alleged multilateralism was “a gross distortion. Ever since World War II, US imperialism has always acted unilaterally in the defense of its imperialist interests as a superpower (…) As the head of the bloc, the US was easily able to oblige its subordinates in the bloc to go along with their decisions…”
Making the best of a difficult situation
Having failed to readjust the political division of labor through the electoral circus, the bourgeoisie will be forced to make the best of a difficult situation in the period ahead. Bush will face pressure to abandon his early rhetoric of “a mandate” in the election giving him a free hand to pursue more of the same. There will be tremendous pressure to develop a more realistic assessment of the situation in Iraq and to adjust policy in a way more consistent with what Kerry advocated. Already there is talk of a shake-up in the cabinet. It is contrary to the interests of American capitalist class to have the population so badly divided as this election demonstrated and something will have to be done about it.
J. Grevin, Nov. 5, 2004