Writing for the radical journal Salvage, Benjamin Kunkel analyzes the history, economics, and class politics that have informed the exasperating and depressing US presidential election of 2016, which will mercifully be over roughly a week from now. Kunkel predicts a Hillary win, but that's the least interesting part of the piece. More importantly, he suggests that out of the crazy morass of the presidential campaign, a genuinely progressive force might emerge, thanks in part to the peculiar rules of the US electoral system. Here's an excerpt from Kunkel's text:
And yet in recent days it has come to seem that, by a Hegelian ruse of reason, Trump the pluto-populist and quasi-fascist may have been selected by history to accomplish progressive ends. Hillary sought to improve her chances at the presidency but surely hurt the prospect of a Democratic congressional majority when she decided to portray Trump as a renegade from both parties rather than the inevitable excrescence of the GOP. Nevertheless, the cartwheeling disaster of Trump’s campaign now looks as if it may depress Republican turnout so much that the GOP loses control of congress. If so, Trump will have delivered in 2016 what even Bernie the dreamer was sober enough to know would have to wait at least until the 2018 midterms: namely, a Democratic congress, without which any progressive let alone social democratic agenda is stillborn at the national level. In such a case, the old fear that Clinton might ‘get things done’ by collaborating with congress would yield to a mixture of hope and fear reflecting the fact that the Democratic Party shelters many hawks (who will press for war in Syria) and neoliberals (glad to degrade public education through so-called charter schools and publicly-funded retirement through obligatory Wall Street-controlled pensions) but also the leftmost national legislators in the US. These include Bernie Sanders, prospective chair of the Senate Budget Committee, and at the moment the most popular politician in the country.
Bernie and Trump have performed the service of revealing the Democratic and the Republican parties to be largely empty vessels, much more readily commandeered by their ideological fringes than anyone supposed. But the empty vessels are not frail barks; these have been the two principle parties in the US since before the Civil War, and no matter what other developments perturb US politics neither party will readily cede to an upstart. Much easier than to displace either party, if still daunting enough, is to take it over, as Trump has at least temporarily done to the GOP, or to radicalise it from within, as a generation of politicians, activists, donors, foundations, and publications did in shifting the Republicans ever-further to the right.
The idea of similarly remaking the Democrats from the left, as well as attempting from now on to field presidential candidates closer in outlook to Sanders than Clinton, may not seem alluring or plausible after party officials undermined Bernie in the primaries and Clinton courted Republicans to counter Trump. But the party is essentially a shell, with a small permanent organisation in the form of the Democratic National Committee and no formal dues-paying membership in the European style. The gerrymandering of congressional districts meanwhile renders most contests for the House of Representatives uncompetitive: whoever wins the primary of the dominant party, wins the general election. The same goes for the majority of Senate races in a country for the most part divided into inertly red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states with two senators apiece. (The national electorate is far more evenly split between the parties than most states or districts.) The advantage of long-established parties is that much of their support is habitual, as that of younger parties can’t be; the advantage of populists is the capacity to attract passionate new support. Together, these conditions suggest left populist candidates affiliating with the Democrats have a future to seize in the US, particularly if Congress lies in Democratic hands. Sentimentally, this may be a repugnant conclusion, given the long history of Democratic collusion with the worst of US politics, and it underscores all the classical left fears of electoral participation as, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, apostasy. Logically, however, if US radicals are to have anything to do with contests for national office under a system innocent of proportional representation, then occupying and redirecting the Democratic Party as far as possible looks more promising than launching a new party onto the margins of American politics. My somewhat embarrassed conjecture is that the failure of social democrats in office to effect the transformation that only revolution can achieve will do more to hasten the break with capitalism than their continued exclusion from power. In the face of reactionaries, reform seems adequate – in the face of reformists, only revolution will do. I hope the thesis isn’t too dubious to debate with comrades come 9 November, the day after the election, and, by the revolutionary calendar, the 18th Brumaire. Until then, liberalism has us where it wants us, desperate not to lose and with no hope of winning.
Image via Salvage.