U.S. Two-Party System After Defeat of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion
The attempt of the Republican and U.S. political establishments to deny Donald Trump the Republican presidential nomination collapsed on May 3, when Trump won a decisive victory over his two remaining rivals in the Indiana Republican primary. Trump routed Tea Party darling Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Governor John Kasick, probably Wall Street’s favorite among the remaining candidates to succeed termed-out President Barack Obama next year. Kasick’s share of the vote ended up in single digits.
In the weeks leading up to the Indiana primary, Cruz and Kasick had announced a bloc to deny Trump a majority of the delegates needed for nomination on the first ballot at the Republican convention in July. If this bloc had succeeded on the second or, if necessary, later ballots, delegates pledged to Trump on the first ballot would have been free to vote for somebody “acceptable” to the large capitalists—somebody like John Kasick.
In the weeks leading up to the Indiana, New York and New England Republican primaries, the media had pictured the Trump campaign as at long last in deep trouble. Headlines like “Trump’s Worse Week” were splashed across the major newspapers and associated websites. The corporate press made much of the success Cruz had in picking up a few delegates here and there delivered to him on a silver plate by state Republican machines in service to Wall Street interests.
But these maneuvers came to nothing after Trump swept first the New York primary and then the New England primaries, with majorities as opposed to the mere pluralities he had won in primaries held earlier.
Earlier, there had been a lot more Republicans in the presidential race. They included Wall Street’s original favorite Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and son of former President George H. W. Bush and brother of the hated George W. Bush. Unlike his brother, Jeb was considered to be an “intelligent conservative.”
But Jeb Bush got very few votes and was forced out of the race after the South Carolina primary. As more Republicans were forced to drop out, the race to defeat Trump came down to the extreme neoliberal Senator Ted Cruz and the “moderate”—but still very neoliberal—John Kasick.
Cruz would be more in the mold of Ronald Reagan, while Kasick would be more like George W. Bush. Certainly, the conventional wisdom went, the “anti-Trump” majority among Republican voters would rally around these two candidates whose support of traditional Republican neoliberal economic policies would make either one more acceptable than Trump to Wall Street.
Eventually, the conventional wisdom went, either Kasick or Cruz would emerge as the nominee to face off against pro-Wall Street Democrat Hillary Clinton in November. But just the opposite happened when Trump won first in New York and then the New England states with outright majorities, and then won in Indiana, also with an outright majority, where Cruz had been expected to do well. Cruz and Kasick were then forced to withdraw from the race leaving only Trump.
Signs of destabilization
The political crisis in the U.S. caused by the rise of Trump has now deepened. Plan A to deny Trump the Republican nomination has failed. That leaves Plan B, which is to elect the highly unpopular Hillary Clinton, wife of former President Bill Clinton, president in November. Early polls generally show Clinton ahead but just barely, though the same polls show that if Bernie Sanders were the nominee he would beat Trump by comfortable margins.
There may be one slim possibility that the Democrats will avoid nominating Hillary and find someone they hope will be a better candidate to confront Trump, perhaps Vice President Joe Biden. The FBI has been investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state. Could she have shared classified documents with persons who did not have official access to them? That is a felony under U.S. federal law.
Why did Clinton need a private e-mail server when she would normally have been expected to use the State Department’s server? What was she trying to hide?
If Hillary were to be indicted, she would presumably be forced to withdraw from the presidential race, which would then throw the Democratic nomination wide open. There have also been a wave revelations about shady financial operations of Bill Clinton’s foundation. Donald Trump, no stranger to shady financial maneuvers himself, can be expected to take full advantage of these revelations if Hillary Clinton is, as is still expected, the Democratic nominee.
Assuming the Democrats stick with Hillary, the early polls indicate that it is not outside the range of possibility that Donald Trump will be elected president of the United States in November. And what would happen if the shaky U.S. economy were to experience a sharp downturn in the second half of 2016 despite the apparent decision of the Federal Reserve System to postpone its planned increase in interest rates? Recent data on rising initial unemployment claims and rising short-term interest rates relative to long-term rates indicate that a recession could begin as soon as the second half of this year. (1)
Whatever happens between now and November—and beyond—the U.S. political system built around the two-party system of twin capitalist parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, is showing serious signs of destabilization.
U.S. two-party system before slaveholders’ rebellion
I have shown that the U.S. two-party system, which developed shortly after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, reflected a class struggle between two exploiting classes, both of which extracted unpaid labor from their workers. But this unpaid labor was extracted in two different ways. One exploiting class used outright chattel slavery, where the workers—kidnapped Africans and their descendants—were legally the private property of their masters, to extract the unpaid labor. Under this system of exploitation, the workers had no rights whatsoever.
The other class exploited its workers using the capitalist system of wage labor, just as they do today. The decisive defeat of the slave owners’ rebellion of 1861-1865 brought the class struggle between the two exploiting classes that dominated U.S. politics during its first 90 years to an end. As a result, though the two-party system survived, its content changed completely.
U.S. capitalism after the slaveholders’ rebellion
In the wake of its victory in the war of the slaveholders’ rebellion, U.S. capitalism developed industrial production at a pace that the world had never seen. This was the context in which what could be called version 2.0 of the U.S. two-party system developed. In this version, both political parties were at the beck and call of the same capitalist exploiting class.
This remains true today but with this crucial difference: The capitalist system in the U.S. is now in irreversible decline. This decline has nothing to do with the phase of the industrial cycle at the moment. The decay of U.S. capitalism, just like its earlier rise, expresses itself across industrial cycles. A key turning point in the transition of U.S. capitalism from its rising to declining phase came in 1979, when employment in large-scale industrial production—called “manufacturing” (2) in official U.S. statistics—reached its historic peak.
Before 1979, the rise in manufacturing employment during the upward movement of the industrial cycle exceeded the declines during the industrial cycle’s downward phase. Since 1979, the reverse has been true. The rises in manufacturing employment during the upward movements of the industrial cycle have been less—often far less—than the declines in manufacturing employment during the recession phase. I will take another look at this transition in my critical review of Anwar Shaikh’s new book “Capitalism, Conflicts and Crisis,” after the current election cycle is behind us.
Behind bizarre election cycle
Behind this bizarre electoral cycle, U.S. capitalism is in an economic impasse it has never faced before, including during the 1930s Depression. Historically, in other times and countries, such economic impasses have led to the decline and eventual downfall of the prevailing political system.
This is a basic law of historical materialism and continues to operate today. Historical materialism holds that any given political system defends a given mode of production. At first, the mode of production advances the forces of production, but at a certain point the mode of production comes into conflict with the forces of production that have now outgrown it.
Inevitably, the growing economic impasse leads to the decay of the whole political superstructure that had grown up to defend the given relations of production and its ruling class. In the end, the economic and political impasse can only be resolved through a revolution in which the rising class overthrows the old ruling class, or ends with the common ruin of the contending classes as was the case at the end of the Roman Empire.
Of course, the decline and eventual fall of political systems, especially in countries that are the centers of large empires—and the U.S. is the center of the largest and richest empire in world history—does not occur overnight. The history of old Russia provides one example of such a process.
Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-1856 by Britain and France showed that Russia’s political system centered on the absolute power of the czar was hopelessly obsolete. Behind the crisis of czarism was the crisis of Russia’s feudal economy, which was unable to stand up to the growing pressure of the then rapidly developing capitalist system already dominating Western Europe. Russia desperately needed to modernize—that is, develop modern industrial production on a large scale. But this wasn’t possible within the prevailing feudal economic relations.
With its defeat in the Crimean War, Russian czarism entered into what in historical terms was its death agony. The death agony was to last for many decades before czarism was finally overthrown in 1917. During this prolonged death agony, the leaders of Russian czarism made many attempts to adjust their economic and political system to the new economic conditions. In 1861, Czar Alexander II decreed the formal abolition of serfdom, though de facto serfdom (3) was not fully abolished until the October Revolution.
Much later, in the face of Russia’s defeat in the war with Japan of 1904-1905 and the resulting near-revolution, Czar Nicholas II allowed the creation of a parliament, called the Duma, and granted other liberal reforms. This was a last-ditch attempt to stave off a full-scale revolution and thus save the essence of the absolutist czarist system. It worked—for 12 years—but ended with the most radical revolution the world had yet seen. (4)
The U.S. political system in decline
If I am right in believing that the economic system of U.S. is in irreversible decline, then so is the U.S. political system that grew up to defend it and its ruling capitalist class. In that case, the Trump nomination is not a freak political occurrence unlikely to occur again.
Donald Trump is probably Wall Street’s least favorite Democratic or Republican nominee since William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency in 1896. To add insult to injury, this most recent instance didn’t happen in the Democratic Party but in Wall Street’s preferred Republican Party.
Though Americans are educated to believe that William Jennings Bryan was a great reformer who anticipated Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” the real Bryan—a Democrat—mixed populist demagoguery with racism just like Trump is doing today. Bryan won the support of many white workers such as the pre-socialist Eugene Debs and the young William Z. Foster, the future leader of the 1919 steel strike and later head of the U.S. Communist Party.
As Debs and Foster became more radical due to their experiences in the class struggle, they broke with Bryan and the demagogic racist populism that he represented. Like Trump claims to do today, Bryan opposed imperialist wars and advocated, much like Trump is doing, “unorthodox” financial measures to pull the United States out of the depression of the 1890s. The biggest difference between Bryan and Trump is that Bryan lived at the dawn of American imperialism—which he claimed to oppose—while Trump is a product of a world imperialist empire in decline.
Trump the ‘populist’
Trump enraged Wall Street when he suggested that he would revive the stagnant U.S. economy with massive deficit spending—shades of Keynes—and if the federal government got into trouble paying the debt, Trump indicated that he would negotiate a “haircut”—a partial repudiation of the bonded debt owed. Later, Trump “clarified” his position saying that under his plan the U.S. Treasury would buy back some of the bonds below their par value.
In effect, the federal government would be financially “reorganized” like a bankrupt corporation under Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Trump has done this no less than four times with his own companies. If it works with private corporations, Trump explained, why wouldn’t it work with the U.S. government?
Under capitalism, there is nothing more sacred than the public debt. As Marx explained somewhere, with the irony he was accustomed to, the national debt is the one element of national wealth that is the common possession of the entire nation. Liberals and conservatives alike lectured Trump that such a move would undermine the very foundations of the entire world financial system centered on the U.S. dollar. After all, aren’t the bonds issued by the U.S. Treasury considered the safest asset—with the exception of gold, which they should have but failed to mention—in the entire world?
Later, Trump indicated that he would deal with the federal debt in the more traditional way of simply printing more paper dollars if necessary, a privilege that the U.S. has under the dollar system. But again, it is an unwritten law of international finance that even if you do that, you don’t say you are going to do it. Hasn’t the Republican Party, more than the Democratic Party, always emphasized the importance in words if not always in deeds of sound finances, balanced budgets and above all a sound currency? What kind of a Republican is this Donald Trump?
Indeed, while Trump is playing the role of a 21st-century Bryan, Clinton is obliged to play the role of a 21st-century William McKinley (1843-1901). (5) After all, wasn’t the U.S. federal budget last balanced, if only briefly, under her husband’s administration?
In addition to juggling the national debt, Trump promises to revive the fortunes of American capitalism—and with it industrial employment—by scrapping “free trade,” supported by both Republicans and Democrats since the bloody rise of the U.S. empire as a result of World War II.
Sanders has also won many votes in the primaries of the Democratic Party by more cautiously denouncing free trade. Even Hillary Clinton—perhaps the only true “conservative” still in the race—now feels forced to claim that she opposes the secretive “free trade” treaties being negotiated with the U.S. satellite countries in Western Europe and East Asia. It seems that nothing is more politically unpopular in the U.S. these days than free trade, so beloved by the professional economists.
But on the issue of dumping free trade, Trump clearly has the initiative over his more cautious opponents in the Democratic Party. Trump claims he will force U.S. companies to return industrial production to the United States under the pain of paying high tariffs of up to 45 percent if they continue to produce abroad. He has also, of course, promised to restore the jobs of white Americans by driving out “the Mexicans” and keeping them out by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, which he would make the Mexican government pay for. Exactly how he would force Mexico to pay he has not revealed.
Trump has also appealed to fear of “Muslim terrorism” by proposing to ban Muslims from even visiting the U.S.—though he now claims that was only a “suggestion” and meant to be a “temporary” measure until “we find what’s going on.” He has advocated torturing Muslims anywhere in the world if members of their families are even “suspected” of “terrorism,” though claiming he would end the endless wars that are fought by both Democratic and Republican administrations. He has also indicated he might use nuclear weapons to quickly win the ongoing war against ISIS.
But unlike the more traditional Republicans—and the very hawkish Hillary Clinton and more cautious Bernie Sanders—Trump is also running as a “peace candidate.” He has criticized George W. Bush for invading and overthrowing the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein and even, horrors of horrors, asserted that George W. Bush lied about Iraq—where did he get that idea?
Trump has also denounced Obama and Hillary Clinton for attacking and destroying the governments of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. He has pointed out that when Arab nationalists like Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya there was no organization like ISIS operating in those countries. Trump has even indicated that he would be more evenhanded when dealing with Israel and the Palestinians—a stand Hillary Clinton has strongly criticized.
Trump explains that these nationalist Arab government were better than ISIS since they didn’t plot terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States. This is a point that seems perfectly reasonable to many people. Trump doesn’t, however, emphasize that he supported the war against Libya at the time it was launched by Obama and Clinton.
Sounding like a left-liberal pacifist, Trumps holds that NATO—the main military wing of the U.S. world empire—is obsolete and maybe should be dissolved unless Germany and France are willing to pay for it. Maybe it is finally time for the U.S. to withdraw from Europe—after all, it is “only” 72 years since the end of WWII? (6) and use the financial resources that would be freed up to deal with the pressing problems at home.
This position outrages both the conservatives of the Republican Party that Trump routed in the primaries and the Clintons and Bidens in the Democratic Party. Why, that would be a return to isolationism, to the days when the U.S. didn’t run a worldwide empire. Trump has even expressed the opinion that maybe its time for South Korea and Japan, countries the U.S. has occupied for “only” 71 years, to defend themselves and acquire their own nuclear weapons.
Even if Trump were to do none of these things, the fact that the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party has made such proposals is profoundly destabilizing for the U.S. world empire.
The dollar system forms the financial foundation of the U.S. world empire—it is not 1896 anymore—which keeps “peace” among the major imperialists. One of its major premises is that the U.S. is by far the most politically stable country in the world. That is why countries are told that they shouldn’t hold gold in their reserves but U.S. Treasuries backed by that stability.
Recently, as the nomination of Trump as the Republican candidate has become virtually certain, there have been hints that certain people on Wall Street are making their peace with Trump. They figure that Trump just might, after all, become the next U.S. president, a president they will have no choice but to rally around.
And they have good reasons to believe that Trump won’t in practice carry out much of the program that he has been advocating while running for office. All proportions guarded, the German capitalists at first considered Adolf Hitler to be unthinkable as Germany’s political leader. But as Hitler drew closer to power, they began to change their mind. I will have occasion to examine this question more closely as the election campaign continues to unfold.
But how politically stable is a country that allows a man like Donald Trump to come so close to becoming its next political chief? Even if Trump is ultimately defeated in November, what about next time? How reliable is the U.S., the dollar and dollar-denominated debts if a man like Trump can come so close to the White House? The fact that Trump has come so far so fast indicates that there is something very wrong with the political system of the core country of “the Empire.”
Make no mistake. The U.S. empire is still powerful and formidable. Its power and worldwide scope dwarf anything that the most powerful Russian czar of old could only dream of. The U.S. socialist revolution is not “just around the corner.” But just as the U.S. economy is in a growing structural economic decline whose root causes I have explored in this blog, the outmoded Democrat versus Republican two-party system is in irreversible decline. In the end, this growing economic and political impasse can only be solved through a revolution that transfers power from the failing U.S. capitalist class to the working class.
While the Trump nomination poses a big short-term problem for the U.S. ruling class—what might happen if Trump actually wins the November election?—a far greater long-term danger is that for the first time in U.S. history the majority of the young, both people of color and white people in the U.S., now reject capitalism and are sympathetic to some form of socialism yet to be defined. However faintly, the red glow of a future U.S. socialist revolution is now visible on the horizon.
This fact is only partially reflected in the campaign of Bernie Sanders, the ex-radical, self-proclaimed democratic-socialist Vermont senator who emerged as Hillary Clinton’s chief opponent in the fight to win the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Virtually all polls are showing that Sanders would decisively defeat Trump, while Clinton is barely if at all running ahead of Trump.
Except for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the other mainstream Democrats who have been mentioned as replacements for termed-out President Obama quickly faded away in the primaries. In reality, the Sanders campaign only partially reflects the changes that are occurring in U.S. politics. The reason is that Sanders has run poorly in the most radical part of the U.S. population—the African American as well as Latino population. He appeals mainly to young white people, including young white working-class people—not simply college students—who unlike many of their elders are repelled by the racist, Islamophobic sentiments Trump is tapping into.
The two men and one woman attempting to replace President Obama as political head of the U.S. world empire within the present two-party system—Trump, Clinton and Sanders—are all close to or, in the case of Sanders, already well over 70 years of age. Joe Biden, the likely replacement for Clinton if she should be forced to withdraw due to her legal problems, is also over 70. In the not-very-distant future, they will all be gone. But the growing economic impasse shaking the U.S. political system will remain. What kind of politicians will replace Trump, Clinton and Sanders?
The youth revolt of the 1960s challenged the racist, homophobic outlook that had dominated the thinking of the U.S. white nation throughout its history. But only a minority of the young people—largely college students—were directly affected by this change. The more traditional racist thinking—even if to a lesser extent than in the past—persisted among the majority of young white people of the time. These people are now the older white Americans who are the foundation of the Trump movement.
However, one difference between the “baby-boomer” whites and the generation that preceded them is that the baby-boomers lack the extreme patriotism that had dominated the “Great Generation”—the World War II generation. The baby boomer generation was shaken by the Vietnam War—the fact that the Vietnamese people didn’t roll over but fought and eventually prevailed against the U.S. attempt to crush them. This is a fact that the Trump campaign, unlike the Hillary Clinton campaign, is taking full advantage of. Clinton, in contrast, is campaigning as though the Vietnam War never happened. This is one of the root causes of her weakness and Trump’s relative strength.
It is now clear that despite the decades of reaction that followed, the 1960s have left their mark. Today, it is the majority of young white people—of course not all—that are finally expressing the democratic anti-racist, pro-woman, pro-gay rights spirit and widespread anti-capitalist attitudes of the minority of Americans who were young radicals in the 1960s and early 1970s. If Sanders had been able to reach the far more radical Black and Latino populations and convinced them to back him in the earlier Democratic primaries, he would have swept those primaries just as Trump has swept the Republican primaries.
The historical role of capitalist democracy
Democrats with a small “d” including democratic socialists tend to see democracy as an end in itself. Marx and Engels didn’t see it that way. This didn’t mean they were indifferent or hostile to the struggle for democracy. Quite the contrary. After all, the “Communist Manifesto” declares that the working class must first win “the battle of democracy” by raising itself to the position of ruling class before it can achieve communism. Marx and Engels explained that the capitalist—or bourgeois-democratic—republic is the political form in which the modern class struggle between the capitalists and the working class is to be fought out.
In a bourgeois democracy, the workers have the right to form trade unions—labor rights—and their own political party. Unlike chattel slaves, the wage workers are able to establish islands of workers’ democracy in the sea of bourgeois democracy. But sooner or later, the contradictions between the workers with their islands of workers’ democracy and the ruling capitalist class, which monopolizes the means of production, cannot be contained even within the most democratic of capitalist republics. The workers and their allies, representing the majority, will have no choice but to exercise their democratic right to seize power and begin the process of transforming capitalist production into socialist production.
Below when I refer to democracy, unless I indicate otherwise, it is capitalist or “bourgeois” democracy as it has traditionally been called by Marxists. I must again remind the reader that when we talk about democracy we must always remember the class character of the democracy we are talking about. I will therefore not compare U.S. democracy with the democracy of the Paris Commune, the democracy of the Soviets of the Russian Revolution, or democracy in Cuba. Instead, I am interested in comparing U.S. democracy with capitalist or bourgeois democracy in other capitalist countries.
In a few areas, U.S. capitalist democracy compares favorably to the democracy of most other democratic capitalist countries. The Bill of Rights (7), as the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution is called, prevents the U.S. government from banning political parties even if they do not agree and support the current U.S. Constitution. The U.S. federal government and state governments are also prevented from passing laws that ban the expression of ideas and suppressing newspapers, censoring radio and television or infringing on the Internet.
Over the years, the U.S. Congress and the U.S. presidency (8) have passed many laws that attempt to get around the Bill of Rights. For example, during both world wars, the U.S. government banned the distribution of newspapers by the U.S. mail service that didn’t support the war effort. During the Cold War, the U.S. attorney general maintained a list of “subversive organizations,” which included the U.S. Communist Party as well as the Socialist Workers Party, formed by the U.S. followers of Leon Trotsky.
Organizations declared to be “fronts” for the U.S. Communist Party were also on the list. The U.S. police, both local “red squads” and the FBI, have spied on and sent agents provocateur into political organizations not to their liking, much like the czarist secret police did in its time. This has been true even when members of the organizations targeted by the U.S. secret police violated no laws and sought political change by purely peaceful and legal methods.
The so-called Smith Act, passed and signed into law by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, among other things made it a crime to “conspire to teach the advocacy of the overthrow of the U.S. government through force and violence”—not simply attempt to organize an insurrection to overthrow the U.S. government by force and violence, which is what the leaders of the U.S. slaveholders’ rebellion actually did. First, the leaders of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party and then during the Cold War the Communist Party were jailed for violating this law, which was passed in brazen violation of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Then, during the Cold War, the “Communist Control Act” was passed that required the Communist Party to register as an agent of a foreign government and reveal its membership list to the U.S. authorities. Naturally, the Communist Party refused to obey this law and was forced to operate for a number of years in a semi-illegal way.
Eventually, the U.S. government was forced to acknowledge that this law violated the Bill of Rights and recognize that the Communist Party had the right to exist as a legal political organization. If the U.S. had not had the Bill of Rights, there is little doubt that the U.S. Communist Party would have been banned outright, its press suppressed, and its leaders jailed for decades or forced to flee the country. A similar fate would have awaited the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party as well as leaders of African American, Latino and gay rights organizations and many other organizations representing the interests of the oppressed.
The U.S. Constitution not only establishes a republic—no hereditary monarchy—but also prohibits a titled nobility. In Britain, both the hereditary monarchy and titled nobility still plague the country. Many other “Western democracies” have yet to get rid of their royals.
A highly democratic feature of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the establishment of an official state church, which is more than can be said of Great Britain, which is still plagued by a state church. The same is true for many other Western “democracies.” Again, especially during the Cold War, U.S. politicians attempted to get around this. If it weren’t for the constitutional ban against a state church, there is little doubt that U.S. politicians would have long ago declared the U.S. an official “Christian nation” and very likely would have made the expression of atheistic views illegal.
In these respects, the U.S. political system is superior to the political system of most other capitalist democracies. But in most respects the U.S. has the least democratic political system of any developed—and many less developed—capitalist countries.
First, the U.S. is not a parliamentary democracy where parliament selects a prime minister who heads a cabinet—the government proper. In a parliamentary cabinet—or government—decisions are made by majority vote. The prime minister acts as the chief executive of the government but is responsible to and can be removed from office at any time by a parliament that is elected by the people.
Under the U.S. system, the president is both the head of government, the head of state, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In addition, members of the cabinet can only advise the president but have no voting rights. The ultimate decision is made by the president alone. This kind of autocratic personal authority is not found in parliamentary forms of government. It is rather a reflection of the world of absolute monarchy that dominated most of the world when the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787.
Like most modern parliaments, the U.S. Congress is divided into a lower and an upper house. (9) However, under most modern constitutions the upper house plays a largely ceremonial role—at least during normal times—much like the head of state does. In the U.S., however, the upper house, called the Senate, has greater power than the lower house—called the House of Representatives.
In addition, the U.S. Senate—which likes to call itself the greatest deliberative body in the world—is not even formally a democratic institution. Unlike the House of Representatives, in which at least in theory each congressperson represents a more or less equal number of people, in the Senate each U.S. state regardless of its population is represented by two senators. As a result, the people of populous coastal states like California or New York have far less representation in the U.S. Senate than highly conservative, lightly populated Rocky Mountain states.
In addition to the powers it shares with the House, the Senate gets to vote on treaties and confirm important presidential appointments such as members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the U.S. Cabinet, and the Supreme Court as well as lower federal courts. While in most bourgeois democracies, the head of government—prime minister—can be removed by parliament, in the U.S. the president can only be removed by Congress through impeachment by the House and trial by the Senate.
In an impeachment trial in the Senate, it must shown that the president, federal judge or other federal officer being tried has actually violated some law. Only two presidents have been impeached. One, Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s last vice president, who was an extreme racist and bitter opponent of rights for the ex-slaves, succeeded Lincoln in 1865. The other was Hillary Clinton’s husband Bill Clinton in the 1990s for lying to federal police under oath about cheating on his wife, the now presidential candidate Hillary. Both Johnson and Clinton were acquitted in their Senate trials and served out their terms.
Richard Nixon resigned when it became clear that he faced certain impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate in 1974 over massive violations of U.S. laws that came to light in the Watergate Scandal of the 1970s.
The only constitutional power that the House of Representatives has that the U.S. Senate does not have is the power to elect the president in the event that no candidate has a majority in the Electoral College, which actually elects the U.S. president. The last time the House of Representatives got to execute this power was in the presidential election of 1828, when Andrew Jackson was chosen as president.
Political parties in the U.S. with its stunted bourgeois democracy
The current U.S. political system is based on a two-party system made up of two purely capitalist parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The right of the workers to organize into trade unions—a right central to a capitalist democracy—is widely violated in the U.S., not only by the bosses’ resistance to the laws but by the laws themselves. Today, it is far more difficult to organize trade unions than it was in the days before Roosevelt’s “pro-labor” New Deal.
This alone indicates that the U.S., despite having at least on paper democratic features like freedom of speech, is even in a formal sense very far from a full bourgeois democracy. With very limited labor rights, the U.S. lacks today and has always lacked a mass workers’ party—whether a labor party, created by the trade unions; a social-democratic party where a pro-capitalist leadership organizes and leads the trade unions; or a Communist Party.
It can be argued that the U.S. Communist party developed into a small mass party in the 1930s and 1940s. But in those years, this party did not play an independent role in electoral politics. Virtually every other imperialist country has some type of mass labor-based party, however much it might be dominated by a bourgeois leadership.
U.S. laws make it very difficult to organize any type of alternative mass electoral party—even another capitalist party not to speak of a working-class party. It is very hard for so-called third parties to get on the ballot, though the difficulty varies from state to state. Ironically, these laws are now biting traditional Republican conservatives who are considering the idea of running a “true conservative” against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—or whoever the Democratic nominee turns out to be.
The extreme deficit of bourgeois democracy in the U.S. is reflected in not only the difficulty of organizing trade unions and alternative political parties but in the structure of the Democratic and Republican parties themselves. How do these parties select candidates for public office? The various state governments organize so-called primaries. These should not be confused with first-round elections in which multiple candidates compete and where the top two then run against one another if no candidate receives a majority in the first round.
These primaries seem democratic at first glance but actually violate a basic principle of bourgeois democracy. Bourgeois democracy requires that the political parties function as private associations of people who seek to influence or control the government and not the other way around. Therefore, in a bourgeois democracy the government has no business determining what candidates a political party nominates. How a political party nominates the candidates that participate in elections for the various public offices should be of concern only to the members of that party.
Originally, U.S. political parties didn’t have primaries. Primaries organized by state governments are a 20th-century invention. The primary system was introduced to reduce the role of the rank-and-file members of the Republican and Democratic parties. By rank-and-file members, I mean people who are active in the local clubs of the parties. If the active members of each party nominate their own candidates, the differences between the various political parties tend to be sharper.
As a result, the less politicized mass of the population is educated by the election campaigns of the various political parties with their contrasting political programs—that is, when the political system, in the sense of bourgeois democracy, reflects the conflicting interests of the basic classes in capitalist society, the capitalists and the working class.
This whole process is undermined by the primary system. Under this system, voters are encouraged to declare an allegiance to either the Democratic or Republican party when they register to vote. But they do not become members of these parties in any meaningful way. They pay no dues, do not attend meetings of their local party club, do not write for a party newspaper—the modern Democratic and Republican parties don’t even have party newspapers, though Fox News serves as an unofficial organ of the Republican Party. Then, on primary day—held just like the general elections during a weekday—itself a violation of bourgeois democracy—they go to the polls and select the nominees of their preferred party.
While both the Democratic and Republican parties do hold national conventions every four years, and adopt formal programs—or party platforms, as they are called in the U.S.—the leaders of these parties are not in any way bound by these formal programs and cannot be expelled from either the Democratic or Republican party if they violate them—which they do as a matter of course. In this way, leaders of both parties escape any control from their rank and file.
The individual delegates to the national conventions of both the Democratic and Republican parties, no matter how they are formally chosen, are virtually powerless. For decades—though this wasn’t always so—the presidential candidate has already emerged and will then announce the candidate for vice president at the convention. The delegates are to rubber-stamp the choice presented to them.
While delegates do get to vote on the party platform, or program, and the various planks are sometimes debated—though as we saw the party candidates are free to
ignore the party platform both before and after the elections. If they do—and it is taken for granted they often will—there is no way to discipline them. The delegates as well as the rank and file of the local clubs are therefore rendered powerless.
The candidates favored by the capitalists—and occasionally an individual capitalist with deep pockets like Donald Trump—then run shallow campaigns based largely on personalities. The real issues confronting capitalist society are almost never seriously discussed in these campaigns. The candidates favored by big money—whether their own money or provided by the big capitalists who finance them—are the only ones who can afford to buy time on TV and get serious attention in the capitalist-owned mass media. They virtually always win as their names are driven into the heads of the poorly educated mass of voters who will formally elect them.
Turnout is usually very low, since virtually nothing is at stake—except for the individual candidates. The people who do turn out to vote are far better off, whiter, and much more to the right politically than the general U.S. population.
Ironically, the Republican Party is more formally democratic than the Democratic Party. This is because the capitalists assume—at least they did until this year—that Republican voters are virtually all white and include many small business people, are older, more racist and more attached to “traditional” values like religion and patriotism. The more diverse Democratic Party mass base is less trustworthy.
The play book for the Republicans is to run on a neoliberal—called “conservative” in the U.S.—economic program, claims to be “deeply religious,” and makes thinly disguised references to racism, misogyny and homophobia. For example, the Republicans will demand tougher “law enforcement,” blame the low quality of public education on “teachers’ unions,” oppose “welfare cheats,” take a tough stand against “terrorism,” and warn against the horrors of Sharia Law.
The Republicans will support “small town” values against “big city” values, oppose the “liberal” press, and speak out against “Hollywood”—all traditional code words for Jews. At the same time, the Republicans just like the Democrats are outspoken opponents of “antisemitism,” re-defined as any opposition to Israel or its policies or support to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Jews are fine—as long as they fight Arabs and Muslims.
Republicans support “states’ rights” and “limited government,” terms that go back to leaders of the slavocracy. In the U.S. context, such terms do not refer to a political philosophy at all but are code words for racism.
The Democratic Party mass base consists of people of color and lower-paid workers as well as the trade-union officialdom and unionized workers who follow the lead of the union officialdom in politics. Liberal and highly educated—in the formal sense—intellectuals are also an important part of the present-day Democratic coalition. The Democrats are generally supported by the Jewish population, who are still sensitive to the veiled antisemitic rhetoric of the Republicans despite the support often given to the Republicans by the Zionist official leaders of the U.S. Jewish community.
The Democrats also get the support of the growing Muslim population, increasingly sensitive to the open Islamophobic rhetoric the Republicans have increasingly specialized in even before the rise of Donald Trump. Over the decades, the Democrats have also attracted radicals who try to transform the Democratic Party from within. For example, since the mid-1930s the U.S. Communist Party has encouraged its members to become active in local Democratic Party clubs in order to push the party in a progressive direction.
One of the most important functions of the primary system, especially as it applies to the Democratic Party, is to ensure that only candidates who have the support of wealthy capitalists—or are wealthy themselves—are nominated and to prevent the nomination of “radical” candidates for public office, especially higher office.
After the 1972 nomination of the liberal George McGovern as the Democratic candidate in 1972, some additional precautions were taken to prevent the nomination of another “radical” Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency. The Democratic Party includes so-called “super-delegates” made up of elected as well as party officials not selected in the primaries. If a presidential candidate considered “too radical” were to prevail in the Democratic primaries, the super-delegates would intervene and ensure that a candidate acceptable to Wall Street would be nominated instead.
In addition to the completely undemocratic nature of the two-party system, the U.S. has a winner take-all electoral system where whatever candidates win a plurality of the vote win the election at the federal level. In contrast, under proportional representation, parties that win a certain percentage of the vote—for example 5 percent in Germany—are entitled to representation in parliament in proportion to their vote.
In many countries, some members of parliament are chosen as representatives of their political parties organized around actual political programs rather than running as individuals. This encourages voters to think in terms of the conflicting political programs of the parties as opposed to the purely personal traits of the candidates. (10)
Finally, the U.S. president is not popularly elected as in virtually every other country with presidential systems as opposed to parliamentary systems, but is chosen by an electoral college where each state is represented in proportion more or less according to its population. The Constitution does not say how these electors are to be chosen. It is up to the individual states. In the early U.S., presidential electors were chosen by state legislators, but now they are chosen by popular elections organized by each state government.
It is perfectly possible for the candidate who comes in second in the popular vote to win in the electoral college. This is what happened in the 2000 election, where Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush was made president because he supposedly won the popular vote in Florida—though it is now virtually certain that he did not. As a result, the electoral college delegates pledged to Bush were certified by the U.S. Congress—over the objection of the Black Congressional Caucus.
The reason the Black Caucus opposed the seating of the Bush delegation from Florida was that racist “police activity” against African Americans on election day played a crucial role in suppressing the Black vote there. If the elemental norms of bourgeois democracy had been respected in the U.S. in 2000, not only would the Florida vote not have been certified—which would have made Albert Gore president—but the organizers of this police activity would have been prosecuted and jailed. George W. Bush would never have been president and might even have ended up in jail if it had been proven that he played a role in organizing the police activity that repressed the African American vote in Florida
These are just some of the ways—not all of them—in which the U.S. political system falls well short of the norms of bourgeois democracy.
How did such a unique political system, with its extremely stunted democracy, arise in the U.S. in the first place? Previously, I explained how the original two-party system developed out of the struggle between the capitalists who exploited wage labor and a class of planters who exploited kidnapped Africans and their descendants as chattel slaves. These differences gave rise to a two-party system where the differences between the political parties were so deep they could not in the end, despite many attempts, be settled by peaceful means.
Under this earlier two-party system, elections could be quite meaningful, though we have to keep in mind that in those days only white men could vote. Despite the severe limitations on formal democracy, elections in the U.S. were no mere formalities but could and sometimes did acquire decisive importance.
An example was the election of 1860, in which the Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected U.S. president against a split Democratic Party. Their fear that Lincoln, would end the geographical expansion of slavery, caused the slaveholders to embark on the road of armed insurrection. In the election of 1864, the Democratic Party, taking advantage of war weariness, ran on a platform of making a peace with the rebels that would preserve legal chattel slavery. This election, too, was no mere formality.
After defeat of the slaveholders’ rebellion
In April 1865, the guns fell silent. The capitalist-dominated Union forces had victoriously put down the slaveholders’ rebellion that as Karl Marx noted inscribed slavery on its banner.
What did the U.S. capitalist class—increasingly dominated by industrial capitalists as opposed to merchant capitalists—achieve through the defeat of the slaveholders’ rebellion?
First, the victory of the Union forces ended once and for all the threat that the United States and its unified market would break up. If the U.S. had broken up, tariff walls and other trade restrictions would have appeared between what had been northern and southern United States and possibly elsewhere as well. Instead, the Republican-dominated government followed a high-tariff policy allowing U.S. industrial enterprises to catch up with their British rivals.
In addition, the presence of one overwhelmingly strong state in North America meant that after the war of the rebellion was won the U.S. could spend relatively little money on its military. This was a crucial advantage the U.S. enjoyed over its European rivals. Instead, the growing mass of profits made by U.S. industrial capitalists could be reinvested in either existing or new industrial enterprises. These investments in turn made U.S. industry still more competitive relative to European capitalist industry.
Since the capitalist class, led by the industrial capitalists, no longer had to share power with a class of slave-holding planters, the state power could now be centralized in the federal government in Washington. It was now possible in a way it had not been before for the industrial capitalists to use that state power to accelerate the development of U.S. capitalism.
The federal government was able to pursue “internal improvements” such as subsidizing canals and railroads, which—in addition to greatly enriching the owners of canals and railroads—reduced the time it took to ship commodities containing surplus value from point A to point B. Improved transportation therefore increased the number of turnovers of variable capital—the sold labor power of the workers including the workers employed by the canal and railroad companies—in a given period of time. The result was an increase in the annual rate of profit and mass of profit, which could be reinvested in industrial enterprises to further capitalist development.
Another important gain for the capitalist exploiters was the introduction of a modern banknote currency system, where banknotes were backed by the credit of the entire nation and not simply the individual commercial banks that issued them. Before the war of the rebellion, the banknotes issued by individual commercial banks circulated as local currencies that had fluctuating rates of exchange against banknotes issued by other commercial banks. The U.S. had many different “paper” currencies, which increased both the costs and the risk of doing business.
This situation ended with the defeat of the rebellion. For the first time, one paper dollar anywhere in the U.S. was worth exactly the same as any other paper dollar. However, the U.S. still lacked a central banking system due to populist opposition to central banking among the white farmers whose support had been crucial in winning the war against the slaveholders’ rebellion.
The “Gilded Age,” as the capitalist-dominated post-rebellion era was dubbed, was marked by two measures in the sphere of currency that sparked great populist opposition and helped revive the Democratic Party.
One was the suspension of the free coinage of silver in 1873—called by embittered populists the “Crime of 73.” After that, the U.S. dollar was defined as a specific quantity of gold bullion. Before 1873, the dollar had been legally defined as a specific quantity of gold bullion—the gold dollar—and a specific quantity of silver bullion—the silver dollar.
The silver dollar weighed 16 times as much as the gold dollar. At one time, this had more or less corresponded to the relative values of gold and silver bullion. It roughly took 16 times as much human labor to produce an ounce of gold as it did to produce an ounce of silver. This system was called “bimetallism.”
In practice, the relative values of gold and silver were and are constantly changing. So legally determined rates of exchange between the two precious metals inevitably broke down. When this happened, the operation of what is known as Gresham’s law drove the more valuable coin out of circulation. In practice, bimetallist systems tended in practice to become single metallic systems with the cheaper coin becoming the standard.
In the U.S., the cheaper coin was initially the silver dollar. After the amount of gold contained in the gold dollar was reduced, that became the cheaper coin and drove the silver dollar out of circulation, establishing a de facto U.S. gold standard. However, beginning in the late 19th century and continuing down to the present day, the value of silver has been falling steadily against gold. As a result of this trend, industrial countries increasingly defined their currencies exclusively in terms of the weight of gold bullion.
Countries like Mexico and China, which continued to define their currencies in terms of silver bullion, had a very low level of capitalist development and had trouble attracting the foreign capital necessary for rapid capitalist development. In order to put the U.S. on a solid gold standard in 1873, the U.S. ceased to freely coin all the silver bullion presented to it into silver dollars. Instead, the U.S. Treasury only purchased limited quantities of silver and used it to mint coins that were tokens that represented gold in circulation.
Second, the U.S. government moved to make “greenbacks,” originally paper dollars issued directly by the U.S. Treasury to help finance the war, fully convertible into gold coin. This was similar to the policy pursued by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton after the Revolutionary War, which provoked much opposition among farmers and working people at the time.
During the war of the rebellion, farmers and small business people borrowed money in paper dollars that on the market represented considerably less gold bullion than the amount of gold contained in the gold dollar. But now they had to repay their debts in currency that represented more gold—money—than the currency in which they had contracted their debts in.
As in the days of Hamilton, the taxpayers had to pay back their debts the government had contracted in cheap dollars in far more expensive dollars. Even before world commodities began their long price decline in terms of gold starting in 1873 and lasting until 1896 in the U.S., the prices of farm commodities in terms of paper dollars were already declining.
This policy not only enriched the owners of greenbacks and government bonds that had to be paid back in hard gold dollars but encouraged British capitalists to lend to the U.S. This enabled U.S. industrialists to greatly accelerate their accumulation of capital and brought nearer the day when the U.S. would replace Great Britain as the world’s leading industrial power. The U.S. bankers and industrial capitalists—called robber barons—were the biggest winners, while the indebted farmers and small businesspeople were the losers.
The former slaves along with the small white farmers and the rapidly growing class of wage workers did not fare nearly as well. What did the other classes in U.S. society gain from defeat of the slave owners? The slaves gained the end of legal chattel slavery and that was no small thing. This meant that no person who was not convicted of a crime in a court of law could not be forced to work for another person.
But the former slaves needed a lot more than the formal abolition of chattel slavery if they were to win full (bourgeois) democratic equality with white Americans. In order to achieve this, they needed a thoroughgoing democratization of the U.S., in the South but also in the North.
This included the right of former slaves and their descendants to vote and run for and hold office, whether local, state or federal up to an including the presidency of the United States. The former slaves also needed a thoroughgoing land reform. This would require the breakup of the southern plantations, enabling the former slaves to own and farm land. The latter demand, supported only by the extreme left wing of the Republican Party, was summed up by the demand for “40 acres and a mule.”
If this demand had been won, the former slaves would have been converted into free small working farmers. In time, some them would be more successful than others. The successful ones would develop into capitalist farmers and other types of capitalists, while the great majority would become wage laborers. If this had been carried out in a thoroughgoing way, the class structure of the African American community would have come to resemble the class structure of the white community.
If history had followed such a democratic path, not only would all remaining racist laws have been repealed, it would have been impossible to pass new ones. African Americans would have been integrated into the historically white U.S. nation. To fully complete the democratic revolution, the same opportunity would have had to been extended to the Native Americans as well. Out of this merger, a new nation would have been born very different from the old white American nation that existed before the rebellion. Such a new bourgeois nation—which would still be capitalist—would no longer be divided by race but would still be divided by class, and politics would have revolved around the question of class not race.
The struggle for just such a thoroughgoing democratic transformation of the United States was to dominate the period between 1865 and 1876, known in U.S. history as “Radical Reconstruction.” As we know, Radical Reconstruction was defeated, racism was reaffirmed, and the U.S. was to remain dominated by a ruling racist white nation that oppressed all peoples of color. It was exactly this failure to follow through with a democratic transformation of the U.S., despite the defeat of the slaveholders’ rebellion, that makes a Donald Trump possible today.
Why was the struggle for a truly democratic nation defeated? The reason was that there was only one class with an objective interest in carrying through the struggle for a democratic—notice I say democratic, not socialist—U.S. That class was the industrial working class.
However, in the 1860s political class consciousness as opposed to trade-union consciousness was still rare among workers anywhere in the world. Political class consciousness among workers was largely confined to Germany, where capitalism was also rapidly developing and Marx’s ideas were gaining currency, and to a lesser extent France, where the traditions of the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794, the most radical revolution in history up to that time, remained alive.
In Britain, which was still the leading capitalist country, many workers had a fairly well developed trade-union consciousness. Indeed, it was the British working class that had pioneered trade unions. But British trade-union workers generally supported the bourgeois Liberal Party and, even worse, supported British colonialism.
After all, as long as British workers could escape to the colonies a certain limit was imposed on the extent to which the British bosses could exploit the workers in Britain. If the bosses went too far, some British workers would move to the colonies. The number of workers seeking to sell their labor power on the British labor market would then decline putting a ceiling on the rate of surplus value in Britain.
In the U.S., the situation was even worse, because the U.S. still bore the marks of a white colony. Political class consciousness as opposed to trade-union consciousness was largely confined to a few German emigrants who published their newspaper in German and were far removed from the life of the great majority of U.S. workers who spoke English.
There was plenty of cheap land stolen from the Native Americans in western United States available to ambitious white workers who wanted to rise above their class and become rich. A “petty bourgeois,” anybody (especially if you were white) can-get-rich mentality saturated the young U.S. working class. The resulting lack of a class-conscious proletariat, organized separately in its own political party, was to prove fatal to the democratic—with a small “d”—populist movement of small farmers, both white and black.
The interest of the capitalist class was also strongly opposed to any democratization of society that went much beyond the formal abolition of chattel slavery. If the freed slaves had freedom not only in the sense of not being the private property of anybody—itself an important gain that was supported by the capitalists—but also owned no productive property of their own in the form of land, farm implements, mules and so forth, they would be forced to sell the only productive property they did own—their ability to work—to the capitalists. The end of chattel slavery meant that instead of producing surplus value for their owners they would now be producing surplus value for their capitalist employers.
Evolution of the Democratic Party after defeat of slaveholders’ rebellion
In the wake of the bloody rebellion that had cost the lives of more than 700,000 Americans, the Democratic Party and its fake “Jacksonian Democracy” had been
thoroughly exposed. But if the Democratic Party had died—as it should have—this would have left the Republican Party as the sole significant party in the U.S. The growing conflict between the capitalists and the working class in post-rebellion America would have been hard to contain within a Republican Party that was thoroughly dominated by the industrial capitalists.
A one-party system centered on the Republican Party would therefore have been highly unstable. A mass working-class party would almost certainly have soon emerged. The resulting two-party system would have meant that one party, the Republicans, would have represented the interests of the exploiting capitalist class and the other party would have represented the interests of the working class and its allies among the small farmers, both black and white, as well as super-oppressed Native peoples. This was a situation the U.S. capitalists were—and indeed remain—determined to prevent.
Therefore, it was in the class interests of the capitalists no matter how much they preferred the Republican Party to do everything possible to preserve and revive the Democratic Party. The Democrats had accumulated long experience in pretending to champion the interests of the white working class while in reality functioning as the tool of the slave owners. Many Democratic leaders had accumulated considerable experience in appealing to the trade-union interests of some white workers. Lacking political class consciousness but having a degree of trade-union consciousness, these workers desired to limit the number of sellers of the commodity labor power on the market in order to drive up its price.
The result of “pure trade union” policies, which under U.S. conditions meant racist trade-union polices, was that the interests of the working class as a whole were undermined, and racist thinking among white workers was reinforced. Since a separate class of slave owners no longer existed, the Democratic Party now had only one master to serve, the U.S. capitalist class.
Radicalization in post-rebellion U.S.
In the period between April 1865 and the presidential election of 1876, the powerful democratic—with a small “d”— upsurge released by the defeat of the slave owners posed the question of a thoroughgoing democratic transformation of the U.S. going far beyond the formal abolition of legal slavery.
For example, the question was immediately raised of whether the ex-slaves could vote and hold office. To establish governments in areas of the South occupied by the federal armies, African American men not only were enfranchised but came to dominate many southern governments since they were the one part of the population who had not been poisoned by the “anti-yankee” propaganda of the rebel leaders.
But what about African American women? And could they be enfranchised without enfranchising white women? Inevitably, the right of women of all “races” to vote and participate in government was raised on a large scale for the first time, not only in the U.S. but in the entire history of class society. The same was true in the field of labor rights—the right of workers of all “races” and genders to form trade unions. The early women’s and African American liberation movements were close allies.
The result of Reconstruction was that a profound radicalization swept U.S. society, perhaps deeper than any 20th-century radicalization. It foreshadowed the radicalizations of both the 1930s and 1960s. The capitalist class was determined to crush this radicalization at any cost.
In the South, armed bands recruited from rebel veterans, whose heads were still full of the racist poison injected by the slaveholders, were organized to overthrow the democratic—with a small “d”—Reconstruction governments and attack any African Americans they could get their hands on. These bands became known as the Ku Klux Klan and foreshadowed the fascism that was to develop in Europe in the wake of the “Great War” in the 20th century.
The growing reaction was helped by the Crash of 1873, which had begun in Europe in the spring and spread to the U.S. in the fall, leading to severe recession followed by years of high unemployment and low agricultural commodity prices that was to last until 1879. The widespread corruption in the Republican administration of President Ulysses Grant (1822-1885), which controlled the White House between 1869 and 1877, further encouraged the revival of the Democratic Party.
In the 1876 election, racist Democrat Samuel Tilden (1814-1886) ran against Republican Rutherford Hayes (1822-1893). Due to renewed disenfranchisement of African Americans in the former rebel state of Florida—foreshadowing the 2000 election, which led to the seating of George W. Bush as U.S. president—Tilden claimed victory. It seemed as though a major constitutional crisis was at hand with both racist Democrat Tilden and Republican Hayes claiming the presidency. Could there even be a new civil war?
The answer was “no,” because unlike in 1860 the two parties now represented the same, not conflicting, class interests. As a result, a compromise was struck that represented the interest of the capitalist class in ending Reconstruction once and for all. Hayes was allowed to claim the White House, but he agreed to the Democrat demand to end Reconstruction and withdraw federal troops from the South. The Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist bands were given free rein.
This compromise did not reflect any sudden revival of the power of the former slave owners. What it did represent was the triumph of the power of the capitalist ruling class over the rest of the American people. It also marked the end of any politically progressive role for the U.S. capitalist class in general and for the Republican Party in particular. The U.S. capitalist class used the remnants, and more importantly the traditions, of the slavocracy, to defeat the democratic upsurge that they saw as a threat to their class rule.
The system of Jim Crow racism and forms of labor that came close to chattel slavery spread throughout the South. For example, African Americans would be arrested on trumped-up charges, and then forced once again to labor for plantation owners. These practices continue right down to the present day and are not confined to the South. The disappearance of legal chattel slavery means that a person cannot be forced—economic compulsion is another matter—to work for another person unless the person is convicted of a crime. This is the legal loophole through which elements of African chattel slavery, alongside the dominant wage-labor system, have survived into the 21st century.
Evolution of the two-party system after defeat of Reconstruction
As federal troops were withdrawn from the southern U.S. and Reconstruction governments dominated by Republican African Americans were overthrown by the racist Democratic Party with the help of its Ku Klux Klan bands, the Democrats established a lock hold on the South. The southern Republican Party, which had been based on the freed former slaves, virtually disappeared.
The degeneration of the populist movement—inevitable in the absence of a working-class party—played a crucial role here. Bending to the pressure of the ruling capitalist class, many white populist politicians became virulent racists and entered the Democratic Party. These degenerated populists played a major role in the origin of the Dixiecrats, or southern Democrats, which continued to play a big role in U.S. politics right down to the 1960s. The Dixiecrats combined a certain amount of anti-Wall Street demagoguery with extreme in-your-face racism. The racism of the northern Democrats, though more subtle, was no less real.
For example, the “radical” Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan, who did so much to lead the Populist farmers back into the Democratic Party during the depression of the 1890s, did not say a word against what was happening in the South. In fact, Bryan was a close ally of the southern racist Democrats. Despite the claim by liberal historians, Bryan did not play a progressive role in the U.S. with his appeal to “angry white men.”
In the South, the poor white population was bombarded with propaganda about the glorious “lost cause” of the “war between the states.” Poor whites were told that they should be proud of their “rebel” traditions. In the North, the leaders of the slaveholders’ rebellion were pictured as great patriots who should be admired. Somehow, a rebellion that aimed at tearing the U.S. apart and cost the lives of more than 700,000 Americans just did not rise to the level of treason, because it was fought in order to defend private property in human beings. The U.S. South was
transformed into a solid bastion of political reaction that it has largely been since.
In the North, the Democratic political machines such as New York’s Tammany Hall also used racism. The machines enrolled waves of immigrants arriving in great numbers from southern and eastern Europe into the Democratic Party. The local Tammany leaders would help newly arrived immigrants find housing and get jobs and intervene to settle any problems they had with the police or landlords. Democratic machine “ward healers” made it clear that all the good jobs were reserved only for white people. Craft trade unions controlled by the Democrats used their power to keep African Americans out of such industries as longshore and construction, which were reserved for white European immigrants.
In return, as soon as the immigrants became formal citizens—if not before—when election day came around they were expected to “vote early and vote often” for the Tammany candidates. In the suburbs, reform liberal Republicans complained about the hold the corrupt big-city political bosses had over the immigrant population, which increased the cost of doing business.
On a national scale, the Republican Party maintained its dominance in U.S. politics, though the Democrats, because of the “solid South” and many of the racist corrupt big-city machines, remained a viable second party within the two-party system. Between the elections of 1868 and 1928, the Democrats won the presidency on only four occasions. One was the 1884 election cycle.
In 1881, a disappointed federal job seeker had assassinated the newly elected Republican James Garfield (1831-1881). The vice president who became president, Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886), was considered a corrupt figure and was extremely unpopular. Some people at the time even suspected that Arthur was behind the killing of Garfield. This allowed the pro-Wall Street, racist Democrat Grover Cleveland to win the White House in the following election on a program of introducing a system of civil service employment for the federal government designed to reduce the extreme governmental corruption that increased the costs of doing business for the capitalists during the Gilded Age.
Cleveland, who had won a reputation as a “reformer,” managed to win a second nonconsecutive term in 1892 but then became one of the most hated presidents due the “Panic of 1893” and depression that followed. During the crisis/depression, Cleveland did virtually nothing for the unemployed, much as Herbert Hoover was to do nothing for the unemployed during the super-crisis that occurred on his watch. The memory of the second Cleveland administration helped keep the Democrats out of the White House for many years to come.
In 1912, a split within the Republican Party between the conservative William Taft and popular “reform” Republican Teddy Roosevelt allowed the extreme racist Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the 1912 presidential election. Among the “reforms” that Wilson carried out was to formally ban African Americans from civil service jobs within the federal Government.
Despite this, U.S. liberal historians continue to insist that Wilson was a “great progressive U.S. president.” In 1916, Wilson ran on the slogan “He kept us out of war” and a few months later asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Let’s hope that Hillary Clinton, assuming she manages to defeat Donald Trump in November, does not turn out to be as “great” a liberal president as Woodrow Wilson was!
Throughout the era that lasted from 1868 to 1928, the Democratic Party was the more openly racist party. On election day, the few African Americans who could actually vote—mostly in the North—were encouraged to vote for “the party of Lincoln,” which did avoid the cruder in-your-face racism of the Democratic Party but otherwise did little for the former slaves and their descendants.
But two profound events were to throw the U.S. two-party system as it had functioned between 1868 and 1928 into crisis. One was the Russian Revolution, and the other was the super-crisis that hit the U.S. economy with devastating force within a year of the election of Republican Herbert Hoover in 1928. Once again, however, the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans was saved, though in a somewhat modified form. How it was saved I will examine next month.
1 The possibility of a recession hitting in the second half of 2016 remains very real as of this writing. Renaud Laplanche, the head of the Internet lending outfit Lending Club—essentially a “non-bank bank” that specializes in making loans to the high-tech sector—has been forced out by the board of directors for making “unauthorized loans.” This is occurring against the background of the fading of the post-Great Recession boom in high tech, which lifted profits in much of the sector to record highs, and a wave of bankruptcies in the oil sector. In the days following Laplanche’s departure, interest rates of short-term U.S. Treasury bills rose sharply relative to the rates of long-term bonds. This is a sign of tension in the credit markets that may extend far beyond the bad loans made by Lending Club. Short-term interest rates tend to rise sharply relative to long-term rates just before a recession hits.
Further underlining the recession danger for late 2016 is a rapid rise in initial claims for unemployment insurance over the last few weeks. If a recession is now beginning, and economic conditions in the U.S. deteriorate sharply over the summer and fall, Donald Trump’s chances of being elected president will rise considerably. (back)
2 Marx used the term “manufacturing” in a different sense than official U.S. statistics do. He used the term to refer to the stage in the development of capitalist production where workers have ceased to work with their own means of production but instead work in a centralized workshop owned by an industrial capitalist. These early factories used an extensive division of labor but did yet use machinery on a large scale.
The introduction of machines, originally driven largely by steam power, marks the beginning of what Marx called modern industry. Later, after Marx’s death, industrial production entered a new stage when steam power was replaced by electricity as the main motive power.
We should remember that many workers who are not employed in large-scale industry such as workers in transportation, warehousing and restaurant, hotels and so on are industrial workers in the broader sense in that they produce surplus value.
Financial, military and political power in the modern world grow out of large-scale industry, or what U.S. government statistics call “manufacturing” industries. The decay of U.S. capitalism is marked by the decline of large-scale industrial production within the U.S though not the world economy as a whole. The U.S. has become increasingly dependent upon the industrial production of other countries to maintain its historically high standard of living and the financial and military power it needs to run its world empire. The decay of the production of the core country of an empire always indicates that the empire has entered a phase of irreversible decline, though it might be many years before it falls. (back)
3 The serfs had to compensate the landlords with monetary payments for the loss of the landlord’s property. Thus the aftermath of formal legal serfdom in Russia was in many respects worse for the “liberated” Russian peasants than formal serfdom had been. This was one of the root causes of the Russian Revolution.
Despite the theoretical absolute power of the czar, which was supposed to be above classes, the political system of Russian czarism, because it remained the political expression of the power of Russia’s ruling landlord class, could not take the one measure that might have avoided history’s most radical revolution—a thoroughgoing radical land reform that would have given land to the peasants of the Russian Empire. (back)
4 While the attempt to build a socialist society within what had been the Russian Empire had some spectacular successes and overall mixed results, and was ultimately reversed, the old feudal system crowned by the autocratic czar has not returned. We shouldn’t allow our well-justified disappointment over the abandonment of socialist construction under Gorbachev to obscure this important fact. (back)
5 William McKinley was the pro-Wall Street pro-gold standard Republican who defeated William Jennings Bryan, whose platform in the 1896 election centered on free coinage of silver (into silver dollars) at a ratio of 16 to one. If Bryan had actually won the U.S. presidency and carried out this proposal, the U.S. would have been forced off the gold standard and onto a silver standard, along with Mexico and China. Far from lowering interest rates at which farmers and small businessmen were forced to borrow, as Bryan claimed, if this proposal had been carried out interest rates would have risen.
In addition, the ability of the U.S. capitalists to borrow on the London capital markets would have been undermined and the continued rapid development of U.S. capitalism would have been bought into question. Horrified by Bryan’s nomination by a coalition of silver mine owners—the one group of industrial capitalists who supported Bryan—and indebted family farmers and small business people, Wall Street and the U.S. industrial capitalists—minus the silver mine owners—went on a massive campaign to defeat Bryan.
It is beginning to look as though this year’s presidential election will be a grotesque parody of the 1896 presidential election with Trump playing the role of a latter-day William Jennings Bryan and Hillary Clinton cast in the role of the conservative William McKinley. (back)
6 That is counting from the Normandy invasion of Europe by U.S. and British forces that began in June 1944, exactly 72 years ago. (back)
7 Originally, the Bill of Rights—the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution—was proposed by the political leaders of the slaveholders in order to defend themselves against the rising power of the capitalists who exploited wage labor. The slave owners never intended the Bill of Rights to apply to their slaves, who had no rights whatsoever under their system. But centuries of class struggles have changed the character of the Bill of Rights. (back)
8 Despite the doctrine of the separation of powers under the U.S. Constitution, the president has both legislative as well as executive powers. The legislative power includes the right to propose laws and veto laws that are passed by Congress. A presidential veto can only be overturned by a two-thirds’ vote of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This gives the president as an individual more legislative power than any individual member of Congress. (back)
9 An elementary democratic demand is the abolition of the upper house of parliament. In the U.S., this would mean the abolition of the Senate, which U.S. socialists have called for in the past, though this demand has been little emphasized by U.S. socialists for decades. (back)
10 Recently, the largest U.S. state, California, adopted an even more undemocratic version of the primary system called the “open primary.” Under this system, with the exception of the U.S. presidency, people get to vote for any candidate regardless of their declared party preference or lack thereof. This “reform” was adopted because in California more “progressive” Democrats were being elected than elsewhere, particularly as California was ceasing to be a majority white state.
The capitalist press that supported this “reform” explained that it would guarantee that only “moderate” candidates—meaning pro-business candidates—would make it to the general election in November. In practice, this means that in the November election two “moderate”—pro-business—Democrats get to run against one another. Under the open primary system, the right of people to form political parties to their liking able to run for office is even further negated. Instead, the electorate is dissolved into an atomized mass that can easily be manipulated by the moneyed capitalists who monopolize the mass media and hire the “opinion makers.” (back)