Tuesday’s election results should be seen in their historical context. The general political set-up in the US is as follows:
The most powerful sector of the US capitalist class is finance capital (“Wall Street”). Other powerful sectors include the military/industrial complex with manufacturing a distance behind. Through political donations mainly at the national level, as well as through their control of the mass media, they are able to control the overall agenda. Once in office, US senators and members of congress maintain enough of a local base to get reelected in part by their passage of what is called “pork barrel” spending. This means tacking onto a bill an amendment that favors a particular local capitalist or small business group which then organizes support for this politician come election time. It matters very little which of the two parties the particular politician belonged to as far as key legislation. The main differences between the politicians revolve around the particular moods and prejudices of the voters in that politician’s district or state.
Given the current situation, it was inevitable that this system would start to show some cracks. This situation includes US capitalism’s involvement in two wars which it cannot win. (Despite the propaganda, with 50,000 troops to remain indefinitely, US capitalism is still involved in Iraq.) It also includes an economic crisis that has continued for the last three years. Given the weakening of the industrial sector of the US working class, which sector tends to best maintain the traditions of class struggle, and given the extreme complicity of the union leadership, it was also inevitable that the cracks in the political set-up would first appear through a right-wing movement.
This is what has been seen in last Tuesday’s election results.
“Free” Market Mantra & “States’ Rights”
That the Republicans would win was nearly inevitable. It is a tradition that, disappointed in the hopes that a newly-elected president dashes, US voters tend to vote for the out-of-power party in off-year (non presidential year) elections. The only recent exception was the election shortly after 9/11, when Bush was seen as a strong and aggressive leader as a result of that attack. Strengthening this tradition is the economic pain and uncertainty that many voters are experiencing.
For decades, in obedience to their masters, the leading politicians of both parties have mouthed the “free market” mantra. Obama has been no exception as he praised the “individualism” that Ronald Reagan fostered and as he has strongly backed such programs as the privatization of education in the US. The flip side of the consciousness is non-interference of the government in the economy.
The peculiarities of US culture also come into play. In 1948, the southern wing of the Democrats split, formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party and ran racist Strom Thurmond for president. Their mantra, among others, was “states’ rights”. This meant allowing the individual states to do whatever they liked, including trample all over black people in the South. Cut off from the feeding trough of the mainstream Democratic Party, they returned to the fold four years later, only to start drifting into the Republican Party after the Black Revolt of the 1960s and the concessions the Democrats made to this revolt.
Wherever they were, this wing of the political establishment has always emphasized the weak federal government agenda. In recent decades this has tended to merge with the capitalist deregulation agenda. The propaganda around these themes has channelled the insecurity and anger into an anti-federal government direction, away from an anti-corporate – or class – consciousness. Thus it was that the only opponents to the first bail-out of finance capital (under President Bush) came from the far-right politicians. The same with the second one, under Obama. Obama’s health care reform was also vulnerable to similar attacks, since it was difficult for most workers and poor people to see how they would benefit from it. Even the issue of global warming/global climate disruption has fallen victim to such a mentality. (In this last case, the opposition also thrives on the ignorance and tendency among many in the US to seek immediate, simplistic solutions to complex, long term problems.)
“Be Careful What You Wish for…”
The old saying “be careful what you wish for; you just might get it,” applies here. The far right has won enough seats in congress to put pressure on their party leaders. One of the results will be whether they will continue with their “pork barrel” methods. The far right legislators, such as newly-elected Senator from Kentucky Rand Paul, are all just as subservient to big business as everybody else. They will be under pressure from their local corporate sponsors to push for the special measures that benefit these local corporate interests. If they bend to this pressure, though, they will be breaking with their voters. In addition, over three quarters of the voters say they want the two parties to work together, meaning they must make some compromises. Again, though, the Tea Partiers are driven by exactly the opposite tendency – ideological purity and no compromise.
The immediate economic background to this election is a stagnating economy. (Four out of ten voters said they were worse off today than two years ago.) This stagnation threatens to drag down prices, including the price of US Treasury Securities (bonds, etc.) In order to rescue the bondholders – finance capital – the head of the US central bank, Ben Bernanke, had let it be known that he was planning on having the central bank buy hundreds of billions of dollars of Treasury securities. This would pump that money out to the bankers while driving up, or at least maintaining, the price of the securities. The ultimate result of this action will be to weaken the dollar and add to the pressures towards inflation. While the Tea Party and other candidates campaigned against the size of the federal deficit and even to an extent against the Federal Reserve Bank (the central bank), none of them even mentioned this planned action of the Fed. They, too, are subservient to finance capital.
Then there is the issue of the wars. None of the far right candidates really raised this issue. Their base tends to strongly oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mainly on an isolationist basis. However, all wings of the US capitalist class oppose withdrawing from these two countries. What will these Tea Party-supported politicians do when bills come up for spending on those wars? In fact, what will they do when military spending bills in general come up?
As for Obama’s chances in two years from now: His defeat is far from certain. If the economy revives (which seems unlikely), his chances are very good, barring some unforeseen event. Even if it doesn’t, the Republicans are caught in a trap of their own making: From a party “small enough to fit all their members into a single country club”, they have been transformed into one with an activist base. This base, however, is often at odds with the leadership as well as with majority opinion in the US. They also have some serious internal divisions. For instance, much of this base is comprised of the Christian fanatics, for whom abolition of abortion is an article of faith. Many of the Tea Partiers, however, do not hold to this view, which is also opposed by the majority of the US voters. In addition, the general views of the far right, “small government”, “free” market leadership tends towards abolition or severe weakening (including privatization) of such popular government programs as social security. The general voting public, including even many Tea Party voters, would strongly oppose this. The general voting public always has supported raising the minimum wage, while the Tea Party leaders would tend to abolish a minimum wage altogether.
These are all contradictions which the Democrats can exploit.
Finally, it remains to be seen how powerful at a national level the Tea Partiers will be in two years from now. Will they be able to secure the nomination of one of their own for the Republican candidate for president? In the confined world of Republican Party activism this can’t be ruled out. However, such a candidate would have a hard time winning over the wider electorate.
Obama has been a very good president for finance capital. He has had a few rocky moments with them, as do all national politicians with their masters. He made critical comments about CEO income. He pushed a financial regulation bill which, weak as it was, was stronger than they would have liked. However, overall his administration has followed their marching orders, especially in terms of economic policy. It is hard to see why they would not want him back in two years. In fact, the nomination of a Tea Party-type candidate – by the Republicans might just be the step that helps secure the reelection of Obama.