No choice between the capitalist parties

The latest in a series of articles elaborating on the ISO's "Where We Stand" statement.

We do not support candidates of capitalist parties like the Democrats or the Republicans. We support genuine left-wing candidates and political action that promotes independence from the corporate-dominated two-party system in the U.S.
-- From the ISO "Where We Stand"

Series: Where We Stand

Read the series of articles by SocialistWorker.org columnist Paul D'Amato that looks in detail at the "Where We Stand" statement of the International Socialist Organization.

"NEEDLESS IS it for me to say to the thinking workingman that he has no choice between these two capitalist parties," Eugene Debs wrote in 1900, "that they are both pledged to the same system and that whether the one or the other succeeds, he will still remain the wage-working slave he is today."

The same can be said today, a century later. Michael Parenti, in his book Democracy for the Few, describes the U.S. political system as "a veritable circus" that "performs the essential function of helping to legitimate the social order."

This system, writes Parenti, "channels and limits political expression, and blunts class grievances. It often leaves little time for the real issues because it gives so much attention to the contest per se: Who will run? Who is ahead? And who will win the primaries? Who will win the nomination? Who will win the election?"

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at pdamato@isreview.org.

One of the most important ways that the political system serves the functions Parenti describes is by creating an institutional arrangement whereby only two parties are presented as legitimate options. Two parties dominate the political system, the Democrats and the Republicans.

Though occasionally in history left-wing third parties tried their hands in the political field, a vote for them is considered, by design, a wasted vote. Third parties are presented as disruptive, extreme or crackpot--and institutionally beyond the pale.

Byzantine state laws make it difficult for any but candidates of the two main parties to even get on the ballot. In our political system, ordinary people are barred from participating by the prohibitive financial cost of running an election campaign. For example, a senatorial campaign now costs anywhere from $3 to $18 million. A presidential race costs hundreds of millions. Together the parties have already spent $761,179,116 for the 2008 presidential race.

The clear purpose of this setup is to make it as difficult as possible for left-wing or working-class alternatives to develop any political traction. Both parties are backed by big business, and each takes its turn in power. Though the wealthy often prefer the Republican Party, they are not averse to backing the Democrats when they think it is appropriate or necessary.

Big business funds both parties and tilts its money from one to the other depending on the overall economic and political situation and what party the capitalist class feels is best positioned to take the reigns of power and hold them firmly. In the 2008 election cycle, for example, of the top 50 corporate financial donors, who have given anywhere from $850,000 to $7.6 million in campaign contributions, only four are leaning toward the GOP, according to opensecrets.org.

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OF COURSE, this game cannot be played properly if it appears to the electorate that both teams are wearing the same jerseys and are serving the same owners. The system is designed so that when voters are dissatisfied with one party, there is always the other one waiting in the wings that can take over with minimal disruption to the system as a whole.

If each party is to take turns running the country, they must at least have some apparent differences if the system is going to work. The Republican Party is more socially conservative, and makes more open appeals to the interests of unfettered capitalism. The Democratic Party is more liberal, and at least in its rhetoric is more willing to make populist appeals in order to garner public support.

Ever since FDR's New Deal--a program designed to save U.S. capitalism during its worst crisis by averting social revolution through social reforms--the Democratic Party has presented itself as the party of social reform, the party of labor, Blacks and women. Of course, references to the party's great past neglect to mention that the Democratic Party was for most of its life also the party of Jim Crow racism.

The populist paint wore ever thin after Ronald Reagan's election, when the Democrats shifted rightward and began backing the employers' neoliberal agenda and pandering to the neoconservative ideology of small government and "personal responsibility." It is only by comparison to the GOP, which moved even further rightward, that the party can still present itself as something slightly better.

In the 2008 elections the Democratic candidates offer a great deal more populist rhetoric than has been seen in years. However, there is a sharp difference between rhetoric and what the candidates are actually offering by way of social reforms to reverse the social and economic attacks inflicted on workers and the poor in the past decades.

It is this marginal difference between the parties, plus the natural tendency to turn even politics into a mirror image of the capitalist market place, that shapes electoral contests into the political equivalent of a beauty contest. Political campaigns are run like enormous ad campaigns, where carefully crafted image triumphs over substantial issues.

As Parenti writes, "The very absence of significant disagreement on fundamentals makes it all the more necessary to stress personalized features that differentiate oneself from one's opponent. As with industrial producers, the merchants of the political system have preferred to limit their competition to techniques of packaging and brand image."

Candidates sell themselves on looks, sincerity and on being family-oriented, god-fearing, patriotic, anti-corruption and committed to helping all Americans, rich, poor and in between. "Such," writes Parenti, "are the inevitable appeals that like so many autumn leaves, or barn droppings, cover the land each November."

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BEHIND THE image-making, both parties are bourgeois, pro-capitalist institutions--and their policies reflect it. They are both committed to promoting the best "business climate" at home and abroad, that is, to ensuring the best conditions for profit taking.

Both parties, for example, have been strong supporters of the corporate free-trade agenda. Both parties in power offer various handouts (at working-class taxpayer expense), in the form of enormous tax breaks and subsidies to the rich, and only under pressure from below are either willing to offer programs that aid the working class and the poor.

They both stand for expanding U.S. military might abroad, and both have voted for the expanding the military budget. Both parties are staunch supporters of Israel, and differ over the Iraq war not because of the devastation wrought against the Iraqi people, but because they disagree over how successful--success defined in terms of achieving Washington's political and military objectives in Iraq--the invasion has been.

Green Party vice presidential candidate for 2004 Peter Camejo explained the difference between the two parties this way: "When the Republican calls for a 20 percent cut in wages, the Democrat decries this as outrageous and instead proposes a 10 percent cut. In short, the choice we are offered is that of the 'lesser of two evils.'"

This lesser-evilism has been the Achilles heel of genuine third-party alternatives, and goes a long way toward explaining why no labor party ever developed in the U.S. It also explains why a nominally independent party like the Greens in 2004 abandoned its independence and urged its supporters to vote for Green candidates only in "safe states," that is, in states where there was no chance of the Democratic candidate losing the election.

Debs once said that he'd rather vote for something he wanted and not get it, than vote for something he didn't want and get it. That, sadly, is not always the guiding principle of the left. Every election year, the pressure mounts to back the realistic possibility, i.e., the Democrat. So long as we accept the limitations of this choice, we will not be able to develop a working-class political alternative to the two-party duopoly.