More Gridlock — Or Worse?

Against the Current, No. 163, March/April 2013

The Editors

FOUR MONTHS AFTER the November 2012 election registered a small but measurable leftward shift in the population, it’s an open question whether the result will be continued political “gridlock” – or something much worse.

Millions of African and Latino, immigrant, youth, women and working class voters came out to repudiate the Romney-Ryan platform and the hideous social policies of the Republicans. Same-sex marriage rights made progress, and state referenda for legalizing marijuana possession passed in Colorado and Washington State. These are important partial gains in the face of a socially repressive climate, and a repudiation of the penal victimization of youth and African Americans in particular for nonviolent drug “crimes.” There is a growing understanding that what is called “The New Jim Crow” system of mass incarceration is destructive, racist and dysfunctional.

Some 30 state governments, however, remain under Republican control waging ever more vicious assaults on unions (Indiana and Michigan are now “Right to Work-for-less” states), abortion rights and minority voters (voter suppression laws), noncompliance with the Affordable Health Care Act, etc. These developments are serious threats to democratic rights, particularly as they may open the door to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

More and more state legislatures are making abortion effectively inaccessible, even while a clear majority of the population believe it should be legal under many or all circumstances. (Dianne Feeley’s article in this issue traces the past 40 years of “pro-life” trench warfare against women’s right to choose.)

 In fact, the opinions of the majority are increasingly ignored on questions from reproductive freedom to inequality and social justice. At the national level, due partly to the urban concentration of Democratic votes and even more to blatant state legislatures’ manipulation of districts, the outcome of Congressional elections no longer represents a rough national referendum. A majority of votes in November were actually cast for Democratic candidates, but the Republican Party — as fractured and absurd spectacle as it presents — retains a safe majority in the House of Representatives.

The enormous impact of money and influence of reactionary think tanks continually leverage the entire political spectrum further to the right. To be sure, there is also a substantial reservoir of white support for socially reactionary politics, including parts of the white working class. The Republican Party today has staked out a position further right and more racist than, say, Newt Gingrich.

In response to their electoral dilemma, one instinct among the Republican leadership is to shelve their more extreme anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-tax and anti-government policies and become a shade more ”bipartisan” on the issues that bit their butts in November. The other option, if they can’t win presidential elections, is to steal them outright.

In their most brazen move yet, rightwing legislators in several states that have voted Democratic in recent presidential races — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia — are floating laws to assign their Electoral College votes for president not by statewide results, but by individual Congressional districts, which by virtue of gerrymandering would give the majority of those states’ electoral votes to the Republican candidate. This incredible, undemocratic and blatantly racist scheme would have thrown victory to Mitt Romney in this past election — an election that president Obama incontestably won.

Is more proof needed that the peculiar institution of the Electoral College needs to be abolished altogether? It appears that this scheme won’t go too far immediately, if only because it’s hard to imagine the U.S. ruling class allowing up-front electoral theft to threaten the legitimacy of the central institutions in U.S. bourgeois politics. If allowed to go forward, however — and in today’s climate, the hardline right wing is capable of almost anything as it sees its power starting to slip away — this electoral rigging scheme could ultimately provoke the United States’ most profound Constitutional crisis in well over a century.

The paradox of a right wing growing ever more vicious, even as it becomes more unpopular, offers a window onto what drives U.S. politics today, against the backdrop of an uncertain economic recovery. It’s important to understand the fundamental reason why Republicans are always on the offensive, even when they lose, while the Democrats seem always in retreat even when they’ve won — in one word, austerity.

After the Election, What Next?

There’s no question about a corporate ruling class consensus for austerity, especially for ”competitive” (i.e. lower) wages,  entitlement and education ”reform” (cutting Social Security and Medicare, gutting  teachers’ unions and the public school system).  There’s an argument to be made — as in Charles Post’s article in this issue of Against the Current — that this strategy is entirely “rational” for the restoration of longterm  capitalist profitability.

What’s less clear is whether the current state of bourgeois party politics is an asset or liability for this ruling class program. According to conventional analysis, the political system is “gridlocked” due to the capture of the Republican Party by an extreme fiscal and social right wing. There is an extensive volume of punditry dedicated to this view, and some truth in it: Passage of legislation to avoid the artificial ”fiscal cliff” and lifting the  debt ceiling now requires a bloc of “centrist” Democrats and Republicans, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and brinksmanship that can be damaging to confidence in the system.

Certainly, the rightwing stranglehold has become an obstacle to desperately needed investment in crumbling infrastructure, reform of the financial system, rebalancing of the absurdly distorted tax system, etc. There is even a possibility of miscalculation or ideologically driven intransigence over funding the government, or the absurd “debt ceiling,” producing a real disaster for U.S. and global capitalism.

On the other hand, the Republican right wing in its current form, even if unable and unfit to govern on its own, serves as a battering ram that forces  ”entitlement reform” onto the political agenda with the backing of the array of the reactionary “Club for Greed,” “Americans for Prosperity for the One Percent,”  Koch brothers, etc.

Liberals, who regarded Obama’s reelection as a major victory, now object that “the president gives away too much when he has just won a mandate to advance his own agenda.” There are certainly plenty of justified worries about the budget and debt-cutting negotiations to come. The liberals’ complaint, however, fails to recognize the extent to which “entitlement reform” — beginning with the Trojan horse of “adjusting” the cost-of-living calculation for Social Security, and possibly raising age eligibility again for Social Security and Medicare — is actually a central part of this president’s own agenda.

The president’s assertion that “I will not negotiate with Congress” on debt and deficits may be taken to indicate that he won’t engage in more fruitless bargaining with John Boehner. Instead, we’ll more likely see vice-president Biden  negotiate a deal with Mitch McConnell  that gives a cover for entitlement and budget slashing. Will Congressional Republicans accept this process — or pursue the same kind of ruin-to-rule politics they deployed in the first two years of the Obama presidency with considerable success, leading to the big Tea Party gains of the 2010 midterm elections?

Whether such tactics would succeed again, or blow up in the Republicans’ face, depends first of all on whether the economic recovery continues, or at least appears to be continuing. It has also become fairly clear that running against lesbian/gay rights and immigrant youth is a loser for the Republicans, so these particular points of the right wing agenda may be toned down at least on the national stage.

Poisonous Bipartisanship

It’s not really true, of course, that “bipartisanship is dead.” In fact, the very worst pieces of legislation and policy are truly bipartisan: By overwhelming majorities, Congress reauthorized and institutionalized the criminal acts of the GW Bush regime — Guantanamo, indefinite detention, “extraordinary rendition” and presidential authority to authorize assassinations including U.S. citizens.

From drone warfare to the prosecution of Bradley Manning to massive surveillance of U.S. citizens’ emails and phone calls — indeed, on the whole range of civil liberties and democratic rights, with the exception of LGBT rights where the power of the movement has achieved gains — the record of the Obama administration has been unforgivable.  Not one perpetrator of torture has been prosecuted, but John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower who exposed the practice, will serve a 30-month prison sentence.

This attack on basic democratic rights and individual freedoms of the U.S. population in the name of “security” will continue into the future, under either capitalist party, precisely as the growing power of the imperial presidency intersects with the deeper reality of imperial decline.

As is well known, under the Obama administration deportations have increased over the numbers of the GW Bush regime. The massive Latino turnout for president Obama’s reelection has produced impetus toward “immigration reform,” but with how much progressive content remains dubious. The fight has only begun, and the movement of the undocumented and allies has a crucial role to play in shaping it. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” of the Senate Gang of Eight’s “reform” is outlined elsewhere in this issue.

Regarding the climate catastrophe, it can safely be predicted that nothing will be done to stop the escalation of greenhouse gas emissions. The new vehicle fuel standards announced by the president will go forward —why not, since these can always be dropped or delayed later? —while the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will very likely be approved in the name of “energy security.” Arctic oil drilling will be a bargaining chip for further political deals. All this is called “triangulation,” and the sacrifice of humanity’s future to narrow political calculation is as cynical as sounds.

Tens of thousands of activists converged on Washington DC for the February 17 mobilization to stop the ecocidal Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Will this administration listen to the voices of sanity, or the fossil fuel industry of global death? It was the president himself who called on his supporters to remain active and “build movements” to force positive change on Washington. This same president responded to the real live Occupy movement with a federally coordinated, systematic police suppression of encampments all over the country, crushing the movement’s hopes to claim an ongoing public space.

Fighting Back For Survival

The fact that unions in the United States teeter on the verge of functional extinction is a powerful enabler of the corporate and rightwing rampage. But there has been no shortage of will to resist the neoliberal/rightwing anti-labor rampage, from Wisconsin and Ohio to the Occupy upsurge, immigrant youth, Chicago teachers, Walmart workers and other examples. In a new development, teachers in Seattle have taken a powerful stand in refusing to administer pointless and wasteful standardized tests — a centerpiece of the truly bipartisan, corporate-funded campaign to destroy public education by “reforming” it.

These struggles continue, and new ones will arise. The biggest limitation has been the weakness of continuity and momentum from one episode to the next.

To repeat, the fundamental reality and context for all this is the corporate austerity offensive, which — despite all the complexities and frictions caused by partisan warfare and elements of political gridlock — is creating an ever more brutally unequal and unfair society. This can only be halted by the revival of mass organized movements, or some form of social explosion — if not both.

March/April 2013, ATC 163