America’s Political Crisis: Dead Center Can’t Hold

David Finkel for the Solidarity National Committee

Posted June 29, 2021

UPDATE: WSCOTUS Guts Voting Rights

ON JULY 1, the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to celebrate the Independence Day weekend, gutting the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act by upholding Arizona’s voter-suppression law. Speaking through its 6-3 rightwing majority, the Court has firmly established its institutional status as the White Supremacy Court of the United States (WSCOTUS). The cynical wording of the ruling, written by longtime voting rights opponent Samuel Alito, says sure, the restrictions on absentee voting make it “inconvenient” for some – as intended by the Arizona legislature, for Indigenous citizens who don’t have easy transportation access — but doesn’t actually bar them from voting. The WSCOTUS ruling opens the floodgates to the dozens of new state laws that reduce access to many methods of today’s voting which, Justice Alito observed, were much less in use when the Voting Rights Act was passed in the first place. The logic, if you’ll forgive the expression, echoes Chief Justice Roberts’ infamous 2013 opinion that protection of Black voting rights in southern states was antiquated since, after all, “America has moved on” with the election of a Black president. WSCOTUS is eager to turn the voting rights clock back to the middle of the 20th century — if not the 19th if they could get away with it — and how far they’ll go is going to depend in part on the level of popular outrage the ruling generates.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell denounces attempts to gut the filibuster, while state Republicans gut voting rights (Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times)

THE UNITED STATES appears headed toward a political crisis of a fundamental kind, in which the stability of a two-party system that has served its elites well for over 150 years since the end of the Civil War — through periods of intense class conflict, racial terror, wars, depressions and the country’s rise to world imperial domination — risks coming unglued. Trump, Trumpism and January 6 were warning signals, not the end of an unfolding story.

There are profound underlying social causes that we’ll discuss further, especially the massive decline of the labor movement, widening inequality, and decades of neoliberal and global “free trade” that have left much of the society, including much of rural and small-town America and millions of white workers, in economic insecurity if not ruin and despair (along with bringing mass refugee flight from Central America to the U.S. border, fleeing the destruction of their countries by “free trade” and Washington’s insane “war on drugs”). It’s these very policies celebrated by elites during the Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes through the Obama administrations that have done much to produce the present political breakdown.

By custom the two U.S. capitalist parties compete bitterly in the electoral arena, but on the basis of certain shared assumptions — for example, that they’ll alternate in power, that there isn’t a one-party monopoly, and above all that there’s a “bipartisan” consensus on protecting the political system itself and holding the country together.

Either way, capital gets what it wants — huge military budgets, minimal regulation and favorable tax policies for corporations and the super-wealthy, subsidies and/or “stimulus” when needed, and preventing upheaval through reforms and social safety nets if necessary. This has been particularly true at the top levels of party and Congressional leadership, which are most responsive to ruling-class signals.

Those common assumptions began wearing thin during the racist backlash against the Obama presidency (e.g., following the 2010 midterms), but under Trump and subsequently have frayed to the breaking point. We’re seeing this right now in the gridlock not only over infrastructure and things like policing reform, but most importantly over voting rights which are under brutal assault in Republican-gerrymandered state legislatures, while federal legislation protecting the right to vote is stalled by the Senate Republican filibuster, including the so-called GOP “moderates.”

Voting rights for citizens have only been fairly well secured during the nearly half-century from the 1965 Voting Rights Act until 2013, when the Supreme Court under John Roberts began dismantling it. Now the Act is being systematically shredded.

We are not concerned here with the usual sausage-making tactics of legislative negotiation, which, for example, may or may not produce an infrastructure bill. Those are for discussion in their own right (see, for example, the new Against the Current editorial “Infrastructure: Who Needs It?”) Rather, we face a situation where holding national political power depends, for one party, on voter inclusion while the other requires systematic voter suppression.

Tragically of course, the threat to bourgeois political stability doesn’t arise from an insurgent left, let alone a revolutionary challenge. It comes from within the system itself, via one of America’s two traditional ruling-class parties. The Republican Party has become a far-right amalgam of plutocracy, social reaction and pseudo-populist white racism. It’s using the very same entrenched, deeply undemocratic features of U.S. political “institutions” that were longstanding pillars of conservative stability against rapid change, now deployed to disrupt “normal” politics toward establishing itself as a national minority, but ruling, party.

Mainstream and liberal media (CNN, MSNBC, NYT, Washington Post, etc.) are full of news coverage and documentaries on “the threat to our democracy.” In this case, they happen to be on target. What we’ve seen from the Grand Old Party since the Biden inauguration is more like “Gangster Operation Politics,” a continuation by other means of the Trump/far-right January 6 riot to de-legitimize the clear outcome of the 2020 election as well as targeting Black Lives Matter and other popular movements. Belatedly, Democrats and the Biden administration understand the problem — even though Biden continually reaches out to Mitch McConnell, who responds by promising to block everything — but the immediate tools at their disposal are limited.

Most striking about the voter-suppression bills is their sheer blatancy. The Georgia governor, for example, says it’s about “ensuring voter confidence in election integrity,” while the obvious effect and intent is to “ensure” rightwing white voters that they can’t lose even though they’re a slowly shrinking minority.

There’s no need here to review well-publicized details of the various state bills — from reducing voter access through procedural roadblocks and restrictive ID requirements, all the way to putting state legislatures instead of election officials in charge of certifying results — something unthinkable in previous eras. In Texas, the law will also enhance the power of partisan “observers” in ways clearly aimed at voter intimidation in polling places — in a state where gun open-carry is also the law.

In Michigan, voter suppression legislation moving through the Republican-gerrymandered legislature will be vetoed by the Democratic governor — but there’s a trick by which the well-funded right wing can collect enough public petition signatures to come back and enact it veto-proof.

Taken to their full extremes — hard to predict at this juncture — all these measures could produce in 2022 and 2024 both houses of Congress, and then the White House, ruled by a party hostile to democracy and clearly rejected by a firm majority of the population. On the other hand, the continuation of a Democratic-majority national government could fuel another backlash from the fanatical QAnon/Infowars/Fox/One-America-Network nexus (with or without Donald Trump as its figurehead) that is not necessarily responsive to the mainstream of the ruling class. Either way, the result could be an explosive full-scale crisis of legitimacy with unpredictable consequences.

Restoring Elite Stability?

Obviously, unlike the U.S. Civil War this is not a conflict between rival social systems and ruling classes, where the westward expansion of slavery was unresolvable by peaceful means. It’s a political struggle breaking out of previous established parameters, and therefore in the interests of the U.S. capitalist class to contain. But this is not so easy after the ruling class over recent decades became fabulously rich and largely indifferent to disasters like the Iraq war, systemic racism and mass incarceration, and the neoliberal hollowing out of much of America. There’s also the spawning of a super-wealthy cohort of plutocrats (for example, the Koch brothers) capable of funding their own political factions independent of the previously dominant Business Roundtable, National Association of Manufacturers, etc.

Ideally from an elite perspective, the solution might be the construction of a new “center” party (generally center-right but socially “moderate”) cutting out the so-called “radical left” (i.e., social democratic) minority wing of the Democratic Party and the not-so-small lunatic fringe of the Republicans, including militia and wild-conspiracy types and the more extreme Christian evangelical forces. Such a project, however, requires a quality of political leadership and crisis-management that hasn’t been in evidence recently and can’t be quickly conjured up. The Never-Trump Republicans and establishment Democrats by themselves don’t carry enough weight.

Failing this kind of drastic solution, maintaining a fragile stability of the U.S. political system may come down to state and federal courts curbing the more extreme anti-democratic voting restrictions, as well as anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ laws careening through uncontrollable state legislatures. With the federal judiciary and Supreme Court successfully packed with reactionary cadres, this can hardly be assured.

The SCOTUS ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act suggests that the rightwing Court majority is sensitive to the risk of creating chaos. On the other hand, its post-election rejection of Trump lawsuits rested on the evasive doctrine that “states run their own elections,” opening the possibility of upholding odious, clearly unconstitutional racist state laws. The outcomes may depend on conflicting political pressures, including mobilizations in the streets.

What About the Left?

It’s an uncomfortable fact that the U.S. left all combined — DSA, the far left, the various issue-oriented activist campaigns, important and essential as they are — will not play a decisive role in the immediate fights over voting rights and reactionary anti-social initiatives in the courts, state legislatures and Congress. We do have important responsibilities, however.

There are important discussions in the left about electoral strategy and detailed tactics, but those are not our subject here. We’re concerned with left and socialist perspectives in the context of a serious and at the extreme possibility, existential crisis of the U.S. two-party system.

First, obviously, we are not only defenders of existing democracy but advocates of expanding it to the fullest. Of course we support all the challenges to voter restriction laws, including the Department of Justice lawsuit against Georgia and others to come, but that’s just the beginning.

The problem isn’t just a reactionary Supreme Court majority, it’s the lifetime appointment of Justices. It’s not just the Senate filibuster — it’s that the U.S. Senate itself is the most unrepresentative elected body in the more-or-less democratic world. It’s not just that a presidential election can be decided by a manipulated vote in one or a few states — it’s the absurdly anachronistic Electoral College itself. As we’ve indicated, these “peculiar institutions” were forged to ensure stability for the privileged elites; now they’re becoming means for the system threatening to shake itself to pieces.

None of these obstacles will be overcome in the near term, but it’s important educationally to broaden the discussion around “this is what democracy looks like.” And if there’s one thing that still unites the two battling parties, it’s maintaining their duopoly by keeping independent forces like the Green Party out of the picture. In this respect the Democrats are often even worse than the Republicans, and establishment liberals worst of all.

Second, our most fundamental job as socialists and activists is getting at those deep issues at the roots of political dysfunction, voter alienation and popular demoralization. That begins with rebuilding the U.S. labor movement. As the “commanding heights” of the economy now belong to new giants and centers of corporate exploitation like Amazon, the transformative potential of organizing that juggernaut can’t be overstated. Whatever and wherever we can contribute to such efforts, and what’s learned from both victories and inevitable defeats, is essential.

Third, It’s important not to concede to arguments especially from establishment Democrats that issues of racial justice, fundamental transformation of policing, reproductive freedom, queer and especially transgender people’s rights and protection, are too “divisive” in the struggle against a militant reactionary right wing. These issues are not distractions from working-class and democratic fights. No one’s rights can be sacrificed on the altar of the next electoral spin of the wheel.

Finally, the left must be about the biggest crises facing not only the United States, but humanity. COVID ravages the global South, which remains largely unvaccinated. Climate change and environmental destruction threaten everyone on the planet, including the U.S. west trapped in the 100-plus degree heat dome. That’s one reason why “infrastructure repair” that doesn’t point toward a sustainable Green future doesn’t amount to much even in the short term, let along the longer.

Democracy is at stake. Our future survival is at stake. There isn’t time to lose, and sooner or later a “dead center” can’t hold.