Standing up against the right

November 3, 2010

With their pathetic record, the Democrats opened the way for Republicans to do well on November 2. That's why any challenge to the right will have to come from below.

REPUBLICANS ARE trumpeting their big gains in the midterm elections as a mandate to turn the country sharply to the right.

Don't buy it.

The advances for the Republicans aren't the result of their growing popularity with masses of Americans. At least as important was the bitterness of voters toward anyone in office--the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, so they bore the brunt of the anti-incumbent mood. Another factor: the disillusionment of Democratic voters frustrated by their party's failure to deliver on their promises, which led to a lower turnout by its "base."

The Republican victory doesn't mean that the U.S. population has suddenly "turned right." And that fact points to what we need to do to confront the emboldened right--not by relying on the Democrats, but by organizing resistance in communities, schools and workplaces, where large numbers of people detest what the bigots and reactionaries stand for.

The mainstream media commentary on the election was largely set before a single vote was cast: Voters would correct President Barack Obama's supposed leftward course in his first two years in office by sending a cabal of right-wingers to Congress.

New Yorkers march against the bigots who protested an Islamic community center
New Yorkers march against the bigots who protested an Islamic community center (Matt Swagler | SW)

The scale of the Republican victories--especially in House races, where the GOP outdid its 54-seat gain in the 1994 "Republican Revolution" and will now hold a comfortable majority--cemented the media's impressions. A few high-profile Tea Party nuts like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell went down to defeat, but the Republicans made huge pickups, coming close to taking back the Senate, too.

But the real meaning of the election can't be judged from the congressional seat count alone. The main reason the Democrats suffered isn't because most people embraced the GOP agenda, but because Obama and the Democrats failed to take decisive action to alleviate the crushing pressure of widespread unemployment, rampant home foreclosures and devastating budget cuts.

The truth is that neither party is popular with the majority of people in the U.S.--especially their members of Congress. The success of the Republicans was mainly due to their not being the party in power--so they avoided the anger of voters directed against incumbents.

Matthew Dowd, the former chief strategist for George W. Bush, was one of the few pundits to capture the mood. As he wrote the weekend before the vote:

We simultaneously have two political parties who are disliked and distrusted by the voters. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have huge unfavorable numbers. We have candidates throughout the country who would be unelectable in any normal election environment...

Nevada is a perfect example of this, where voters will basically decide whether Harry Reid will continue as majority leader. Both Reid and Republican Sharron Angle are unelectable, but since they are running against each other, someone has to win. And that is true throughout the country, where even though Republicans are disliked as much as Democrats, they will win a majority of the contests because they just so happen to be not in charge.

And when the election is over, most of these voters will continue to be dissatisfied and will be looking to take their frustration out again sometime soon in another election.

Author and analyst Scott Rasmussen made a similar case. Despite the victory of right-wing Republican candidates, he wrote, "[t]he reality is that voters in 2010 are doing the same thing they did in 2006 and 2008: They are voting against the party in power."

OBAMA IS the leader of that party in power. His call for hope and promise of change from 2008 has given way to "Yes we can, but..."--as he put it on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show--and a blank check to bankers while working people suffer through the worst economy in decades. After tailoring the administration's economic policy far more to the needs of the hedge fund managers who financed his campaign than to the tens of millions of working people who voted for him, Obama and his party were in for a drubbing on Election Night.

But that isn't the end of the story. The rise of the right has also stirred a reaction of disgust and anger.

One sign was the mobilization for the October 2 One Nation rally in Washington, D.C. While organizers of the event intended it as an election rally for the Democrats, the big turnout of members of unions, the NAACP and scores of smaller organizations showed that there's a ready audience for progressive ideas and a willingness to take action. Even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's mass Washington rally on October 30 showed the desire to confront the right, the main target of their satire--in spite of Stewart's talk about calming down political debate.

Those big events highlighted the potential to organize working people, especially students and youth, to resist the mounting drive for austerity from government officials, attacks by the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bigots of the Tea Party, and an ever-tightening squeeze by corporate bosses using the pressure of unemployment to make people work harder for less.

How can that resistance be built? We've had a glimpse already. When the anti-immigrant right made a breakthrough in Arizona with the passage of the racist SB 1070 law to impose police state-style inspection of identity documents and the racial profiling of Latinos and others, tens of thousands took to the streets on May 29 in Phoenix and dozens of cities and towns across the U.S.

When the anti-Muslim bigots targeted plans for an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, with the backing of Fox News' lavishly paid blowhards like Glenn Beck, activists in New York City mounted counterprotests--on September 11, the media had to report that the anti-racists outnumbered the Islamophobes, and maybe Beck didn't speak for all Americans.

Another spark of activism came October 23 as the election neared, when several hundred New York activists protested Fox News for fueling hatred of Muslims, as well as the anti-gay bigotry of Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor. Before that, activists stepped forward with protests and vigils over the rash of suicides by young people who were the victims of anti-gay harassment and bullying.

By standing up to the right whenever they show their face--and they'll be brazen and aggressive after their electoral success--we can rebuild the left on an activist, fighting basis.

One certain flashpoint: immigration. Days before the November 2 vote, all seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee signed a letter to Homeland Security Directory Janet Napolitano asking how much it would cost to deport every undocumented immigrant in federal custody.

BUT TAKING on the right means taking on the Democratic policies that created the conditions for the rise of the right.

Obama's failure to push through a jobs program or halt the wave of foreclosures--even as he bailed out the Wall Street bankers--has, incredibly, handed the issue of the economy to the first party of big business, the Republicans. The Obama administration's program for deportation of undocumented immigrants has been quieter but far more extensive than that of George W. Bush. And of course, Obama's expansion of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan continues to legitimize the right wing's effort to whip up hatred of Arabs and Muslims.

Challenging the Democrats is part and parcel of taking on the right. In fact, the call for austerity is thoroughly bipartisan. Both Andrew Cuomo in New York and Jerry Brown in California campaigned on explicit promises to cut the state budget--that is, to cut crucial social services that have become even more important as long-term unemployment and stagnant wages lower the living standards of millions of people.

Moreover, Barack Obama's commission on cutting the deficit will soon announce its recommendations to reduce spending--and Medicare and Social Security are both expected to be on the chopping block.

The economic effects of the recession have to be fought, too. At a local level, activists have given us good examples or organizing, as well as some victories against evictions in Boston and Chicago.

It's also important to champion workers' struggles against Corporate America. While strikes have been few in number in recent years, the determination of workers at the Mott's plant in New York state and the long lockout at a Honeywell uranium plant in Illinois can set an example for future struggles. Labor also gave us a hint of its potential power in September when longshore workers shut down seaports around New York and Philadelphia for several days to protest union-busting by Fresh Del Monte Produce.

But actions without ideas, politics and strategies won't get us very far. As the left prepares to meet its greatest challenges in generations, we need to revive and build on the tradition of working-class politics--the tradition of socialism. By focusing on working people's struggles and proposing a genuinely democratic alternative to capitalist exploitation and oppression, socialist politics can contribute to the rebuilding of a left that confronts a world wracked by economic crisis, poverty and war.

Knitting these efforts into sustained struggles and movements will take time. But as the bigots and bashers step up their attacks, we need to keep pushing back--and build the left by fighting the right.

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