How do we explain the 2016 election?

May 3, 2016 contributor Wael Elasady spoke on U.S. politics and the 2016 elections at a meeting of Socialist Forum in Lebanon, where he analyzed developments such as the Sanders campaign and the rise of Donald Trump for an audience from the Middle East. His speech was subsequently published on the Socialist Forum website

THIS ELECTION season has been unlike any other that I have lived through. More and more, American politics had been looking like a contest between political dynasties--between the Bushes and the Clintons. Instead, we have seen a real polarization which has surprised everyone's expectations of what would happen.

On the one hand, there is the rise of Donald Trump--a candidate who makes the most appalling and idiotic statements, yet it seems like nothing will damage his campaign. He has called Mexicans "criminals" and "rapists." He has promised to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S., and make Mexico pay for it. He has said the most sexist things, most recently stating that women should be punished for having abortions. Most notoriously, he has called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.

Trump has set as a goal to get rid of so-called "political correctness," which is to say he wants to make open racism and sexism acceptable. And in some ways, it's working. One poll in South Carolina found that among Trump supporters in the state's primary, some 80 percent want to ban Muslims from traveling to the U.S. At Trump rallies, his supporters have attacked protesters, with Trump encouraging them from the stage, vowing to pay people's legal fees if they hurt a protester.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic Party debate
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic Party debate

Trump is giving legitimacy to disgusting racist and reactionary ideas, and confidence to the most right-wing elements of U.S. society--and he is doing this at a time when Islamophobic hate crimes are on the rise.

On the other hand, there is Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders' campaign, which many thought would not seriously challenge Hillary Clinton, has gained more support than anyone would have imagined. The campaign has helped to change the election season to one in which the anger at the system and aspirations of millions are being expressed in heated national debates. All of a sudden, it has become acceptable in mainstream American politics to demand free education, taxing the billionaire class, universal health care, ending racial profiling, and equal pay for women!

Sanders' rallies are drawing thousands of supporters. In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, Sanders' rally drew some 27,000, and a recent rally in New York City drew some 48,000. But it is not just that Sanders has left-wing ideas and is inspiring a young and radicalizing base. It is that Sanders, as a self-identified socialist, has helped to bring forward a discussion of socialism in a way that none of us in the U.S. have seen perhaps since the 1960s.

For example, in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, 43 percent of Democrats used the word "socialist" to describe themselves. Not just that they prefer socialism--which is also very high--but that they would describe themselves as socialists. This is incredibly exciting for those of us who are building explicit, independent, socialist organization in the United States.

But to understand the elections today, we must look beyond this particular moment to understand the deeper roots of what is happening in U.S. politics. So I want to take a moment to lay out that context.

The Neoliberal Offensive and the Immiseration of the American Working Class

This polarization both to the right and the left has its roots in a 30-year neoliberal assault on the working class of the U.S. and the 2008 economic crisis, which further increased class inequality. In the 1970s, the U.S. was faced with a global economic crisis of profitability, rising competition from Japan and Germany, and radical struggles in the streets--from the civil rights movement, to the women's liberation movement, to the antiwar movement. The capitalist class of the United States decided to carry out a massive counteroffensive to restore its profitability and roll back the gains won by the working class in the struggles of the 1930s and the 1960s.

To restore its profitability and global competitiveness, the U.S. ruling class worked to reduce the social wage by defunding and dismantling government programs like welfare, which had previously provided poor Americans with some relief, as well as attacks on unions, which had guaranteed workers wages and benefits.

To accomplish this, they needed to attack the social movements and gains of the 1960s. So there was a ratcheting up of racism and sexism. Direct, open institutional racism was no longer possible, but instead Blacks in the U.S. were referred to as "thugs" and "criminals" to promote the idea that "law and order" needed to be restored. This led to the rise of mass incarceration, with the U.S. having the highest rate of people in jail in the entire world, and Blacks suffering at much higher rates. Today, there are more African American men in prison or under state supervision than were enslaved in 1850.

This was also the period in which the Republican Party in the United States began to turn to the Christian fundamentalist right to attack the gains of the women's movement and oppose LGBT rights.

Caricatures of Blacks were also central to attacking the welfare state in the U.S. Ronald Reagan used the racist stereotype of the "welfare queen"--a lazy Black woman who simply has children to collect checks from the government--to justify "smaller government" to white voters and attack welfare programs. This hurt the living standards of all American workers, Black and white.

This racism and sexism was central to dividing the working class, and allowing and justifying the attacks on workers' living standards in the U.S.

The rightward shift was carried out by both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans were the sharp edge of the attack, while the Democratic Party followed, providing a liberal veneer to mask the massive misery that was being forced on the working class.

This lowering of the living standards of Americans was accompanied, of course, by the weakening and disorganization of social movements and working-class organizations. There is perhaps no better gauge of this than the number of workers organized in unions in the U.S.--the basic form of workers' organization and fightback. Today, that has dropped to about 10 percent, while 50 years ago, nearly 30 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union. Today, strike levels are at all-time lows.

As a result of this decades-long offensive, by 2008, Americans were working longer hours at worse jobs, for less pay, and paying more for education and health care, with little to no hope of being able to save for retirement.

Then, the 2008 economic crisis hit, further exacerbating these problems as the government rushed to rescue the banks and financial institutions using the taxes of working-class people while millions lost their jobs and homes without any help.

Today, the U.S. has the most extreme inequality in the whole of the developed world. Fully one out of every four jobs are considered "low wage." Male workers' wages are actually lower than they were in 1973, and overall household income has fallen 9 percent since 2000.

And if you want to get an education in the hopes of trying to avoid a low-paying job, you will be wracked with crippling debt, with the average college student graduating with $30,000 in debt. On top of lower incomes and increased education and health care costs, working families have taken a huge hit to their number one source of savings--their homes--with some 5 million homes going into foreclosure since 2008.

This is the first generation in the U.S. that will have a lower living standard than its parents' generation, and for the first time, life expectancy is dropping. In every single one of these statistics, the conditions facing Blacks and Latinos and women workers are even worse.

There is perhaps nothing that better symbolizes this neglect than Flint, Michigan, which is a poor and majority Black city. Flint had its water supply contaminated and poisoned by lead because city officials wanted to cut back on spending. And there are many places in the U.S. that have this type of crumbling and dangerous infrastructure.

This is happening at the same time as 60 percent of Americans don't have $500 in the bank to handle a basic medical emergency. Far from the "American dream," the U.S. today, for millions of Americans, is nothing short of a nightmare.

It is these conditions which provide the context for the polarization we see expressed in the elections today. On the one hand, worsening conditions are producing a huge amount of anger. On the other, the working class, after 30 years of attacks, lacks organizations to provide sustained mobilization and expression for that anger.

Therefore, this accumulated anger by the working class is being expressed in the only game in town in the U.S.: the two-party capitalist system.

The Trump Phenomenon

Trump's campaign reflects both the bitterness and sense of hopelessness that many white Americans feel. He has been particularly effective at playing on the discontent at declining living standards by attempting to scapegoat and blame immigrants, foreigners, women and Muslims. He also appeals to people's sense of disempowerment--especially the feeling that the government doesn't work in their interests and that politicians are disconnected from their concerns--by promising that he alone can "make America great again."

Many try to explain Trump's support as coming from easily duped and racist white workers. But people in the U.S. today don't have to be duped into thinking their living conditions are deteriorating. Trump's message resonates because the politicians both of the Democratic and Republican Parties, which represent "mainstream" American politics, have offered nothing but misery, and more economic misery, for ordinary people. And they have fostered racism, sexism and the most reactionary ideas to further their anti-working class agenda. This is what opens the door to Trump's racism and scapegoating.

Therefore, Trump, far from having nothing to do with American politics, is a monster that this system spawned, and which it now cannot control. For this reason, the only way to curb support for Trump is not to vote for the same politicians that created these conditions, but rather to directly challenge his bigotry, as thousands of young people in Chicago did when they went out and protested his rally and forced him to cancel his event.

It has taken a self-identified socialist, Bernie Sanders, to provide a more hopeful, left-wing alternative. That's the secret of Sanders' extraordinary success.

And a final note on Trump: It's important to note that it's not Trump who is winning over working-class voters. Poll after poll show that Trump has not been able to expand his vote count beyond the traditional base of the Republican Party. In fact, he has some of the lowest likability ratings, even among his supporters, and contrary to the image put forward by the media among white voters, Trump gets a lower percentage of the vote among white voters than both of the previous two Republican candidates. He has continued to lose support lately, and every poll shows Trump being handily beaten by both Democratic candidates. This is part of the reason the Republican elite are opposed to his campaign--because they know it will spell disaster for the Republican Party in the general election.

Bernie Sanders

It is actually Sanders and his radical message that has captured the support of young and working-class Americans. I want to say a few things about the Bernie Sanders campaign and how some socialist groups in the U.S. are orienting on this campaign.

The first thing that I think has to be said is that Sanders has certainly helped to give expression to, embolden and validate a growing left-wing radicalization, especially among young people. But Bernie Sanders himself did not create this radicalization, and it can't simply be reduced to his campaign or support for his campaign. As I mentioned earlier, what has set the stage for this growing left-wing consciousness among young people in the United States is the dismal economic conditions they experience in their everyday lives, which are exposing, for millions, the nature of capitalism.

As my comrade in New York put it, "Bernie's message around universal health care is popular because today, health care costs are the leading cause of bankruptcy, and Bernie's message around free education is popular because today, college students graduate with $30,000 debt."

Bernie Sanders' campaign has benefited from a host of struggles and social movements, both national and international, which emerged after the economic crisis 2008. They changed the horizon of what was possible, increased people's confidence and expectations and set the ground for the support Sanders is getting.

This started in 2011, with Egypt and the Arab Spring, when a generation of young Americans saw for the first time the idea that revolution was a real living, breathing possibility. The effect of the Arab uprising cannot be underestimated internationally. A whole generation of activists in the U.S. were glued to their televisions watching Al Jazeera's live stream, and seeing for the first time a living, breathing revolution in the making.

It is no surprise that, several months later, teachers and students who took over the capitol building in the state of Wisconsin held signs which said "Walk like an Egyptian" and compared the hated governor of their state to Hosni Mubarak.

Not long after, the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted in cities across the U.S., taking over hundreds of public squares and parks, just as Egyptians had done in Tahrir, and bringing the language of class back into U.S. political vocabulary with their slogans of the 99 Percent versus the 1 Percent. It is the language which Bernie Sanders today uses.

And it was the rebellions in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore by the African American population in response to police murders of Black youth, and the hundreds of cities that joined in protest to say that Black Lives Matter, which has made racism a central issue that every single Democratic presidential candidate has had to seriously address.

Sanders' campaign message and the progressive reforms he proposed have given voice to the sentiment behind many of these struggles, and the reforms he suggests would be a huge step forward for workers and students. But Bernie Sanders' campaign has decided on a strategy of running inside the Democratic Party, one of the two major parties of the capitalist class in the United States, which stands against everything that is unique about Sanders' campaign and the "political revolution" he promises.

Furthermore, Bernie Sanders has promised over and over again that if he loses the nomination, as is most likely the case, he would not run as an independent, but rather that he would endorse Hillary Clinton, the candidate of Wall Street and the 1 Percent. However much he disagrees with Hillary, Sanders will agitate for social movement activists to vote for the lesser of two evils. The result is that he will help pull people on the left from taking any steps toward building a genuine alternative to the two-party status quo and toward the dead-end task of attempting to reform the Democratic Party, a task that has failed every time it has been attempted in the history of the U.S.--and it has been attempted many times.

Rather than pulling the Democratic Party to the left or transforming it, those trying to reform the party inevitably end up being pulled to the right. It is for this reason that the Democratic Party is called the "graveyard of social movements." It is a shock absorber for the capitalist system and the primary mechanism that capital uses to incorporate and dominate social movements and paralyze any attempt to break out of its rule.

This, of course, is no conspiracy of Bernie Sanders. He is genuine about the reforms he wants to enact, and I believe he is a genuine social democrat. But he has been very forthright. Since the 1990s, he has stated openly that he does not believe third parties are possible, and today, he openly states that his hope is to "revitalize the Democratic Party by bringing millions of young people and movements into it."

It is just that this strategy, whether intentionally or not, ends up breathing life back into the Democratic Party at exactly the time when its policies were becoming discredited and when the opening to begin building a genuine alternative for the working class was becoming possible.

Socialists and "The Bern"

This is the central challenge that faces socialists and revolutionaries in the United States: How to relate to the very real and very promising radicalization of the millions of Bernie Sanders supporters, without strengthening or getting pulled into one of the historic parties of capital. The organization that I am a member of, the International Socialist Organization, is approaching the Sanders campaign by engaging and debating with the massive audience that Sanders is reaching, without endorsing or participating in his electoral campaign.

Furthermore, we are honestly telling Sanders supporters that we agree and support many of the reforms being proposed, but we disagree with Bernie's strategy and do not believe the Democratic Party itself can be reformed or revitalized. Instead we are calling for a protest vote for Jill Stein, the independent Green Party candidate, who has just as progressive of a domestic program, but is much better on questions of imperialism than Sanders, who opposes the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, supports Obama's imperial position on Syria, and supports the U.S. drone program.

At the same time, we continue to carry out a united front with Sanders supporters by working with them around initiatives and actions outside of the electoral arena--organizing against police brutality, in support of union struggles, fighting for minimum wage increases and building the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israeli apartheid. We participate in organizing forums, debates, exchanges and dialogues with Sanders supporters and others on the left in unions, on campuses and in our communities.

We have generally found a great willingness among Sanders supporters to discuss and debate many of these issues, and we hope that we can win a minority of them to independent socialist politics through the course of the elections and beyond. However, we understand that the pressure to line up behind the Democratic candidate will be massive, and many Sanders supporters who today loathe Hillary Clinton will be pressured into voting for her.

Perspectives for the Left

It is important to note that, in the United States, we are still at the very beginning of the radicalization process, which is still very far from breaking the monopoly of politics that the two parties of capital hold. First, there is a large gap today between the level of anger at the system, and the political and organizational capacity to translate this anger into lasting blows against capital. After 40 years of a one-sided class war in the U.S., which has severely weakened and disorganized the social movements and labor unions, the left is at the very beginning stages of rebuilding our political and organizational capacity.

Furthermore, unlike Europe, in places like Greece or Spain where Podemos and SYRIZA were able to break the hold of the neoliberal parties, in the U.S., we face a very rigid and undemocratic two-party system. It will take much higher levels of struggle and working-class organization and militancy for us to begin to mount a serious challenge to break this system in the U.S.

At the same time, the election cycle this year has shown the anger of millions of Americans at the inequities of the capitalist system. The world economy today stands on the edge of another recession, and we know that the 1 Percent has only more economic misery, more wars, more racism and sexism in store for us.

People will fight back and struggle, as they did in 2011, and throughout history. This we can be sure of, just as the Chicago teachers did two weeks ago when tens of thousands flooded the streets their city to demand that we tax the rich and fund schools; just as Kuwait's oil workers who are on strike are doing today; just as our Egyptian brothers and sisters have been bravely doing this past week; and just as the people of France have been doing by their hundreds of thousands.

But the main lesson we learned from every struggle in this past period, whether it was the Arab revolts or the Occupy movement, is that political organization matters.

Polarization does not only occur to the left during capitalist crisis, but also to the right. If the left and revolutionaries are not able to build their organizational strength and capacity to lead, we know all too painfully that even the largest mass struggles can be defeated and captured by reactionary forces.

For this reason, our organization sets as a primary task to help train experienced Marxist cadre, to connect our movements together and to help in building an independent party of the working class to fight, overthrow capitalism, and build the better world we all deserve.

First published at

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