Obama’s re-election doesn’t end clash of two worlds

From the new November-December 2012 issue of News & Letters

Obama’s re-election doesn’t end clash of two worlds

by Franklin Dmitryev

The two worlds of the rulers and the ruled shone through the suffocating blanket of propaganda surrounding the election in which Barack Obama won a second term. A pronounced gender gap and long lines at the polls in African-American and Latino areas reflected the determination to defeat the reactionary Republicans and retain the first Black President. The biggest defeats were handed to the Tea Party and the Religious Right, notably with votes in four states in favor of marriage equality.

At the same time a number of protests immediately made it clear that the struggle continues. During early voting, Floridians in a long line chanted, “Let us vote!” after doors were closed in their faces. Following the election, protesters in Phoenix chanted, “Count our votes!” after learning of hundreds of thousands of provisional and early ballots still uncounted, most of them cast by people of color. Outside Democratic Senator Durbin’s office in Chicago, several people were arrested during a Budget Showdown rally (see “Chalking a felony?” page 2), demanding deficit cuts be at the expense of Wall Street and the wealthy, not cuts in social programs. Sit-ins are opposing the administration’s behind-the-scenes preparations to approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. And a gathering wave of strikes at Walmarts was building momentum at press time toward planned nationwide actions on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

Part of the Budget Showdown action in Chicago on Nov. 9.  Photo by Carole Ramsden.

Part of the Budget Showdown action in Chicago on Nov. 9. Photo by Carole Ramsden.

HURRICANE REVEALS TWO WORLDS

Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath put the two worlds in stark relief. Its destruction punctuated the last few days of an interminable campaign marked by silence from both Obama and Mitt Romney about the mounting harm from global warming. Instead, each had jockeyed for position as the true champion of coal mining, of oil drilling, of fracking for natural gas. “We’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the entire Earth once,” bragged Obama. Despite the campaigns’ silence on climate change, the storm’s devastation brought the issue to the forefront of many American conversations.

While people of every race and class suffered from Hurricane Sandy’s blows, in areas like New York City’s Red Hook, Far Rockaway and Staten Island many of the working class and people of color faced serious neglect from the government in the storms’ aftermath. Occupy Wall Street activists, 350.org and others decided that they could not wait for the state to act. They created Occupy Sandy Recovery to help people on the ground, declaring, “We are creating autonomous zones for community and solidarity, not camps for managing the lives of powerless victims.” In some areas this was the only help available for a week or more.

It was not only in the storm-ravaged areas that voters faced chaos at the polls. Especially in predominantly African-American and Latino areas of swing states, voters faced long lines, incorrect or misleading instructions, last-minute changes, and privately funded attempts to intimidate them. In Florida, some had to wait seven hours to vote, and Tea Party activists blocked volunteers from handing out water to voters standing in the sun. Republican-controlled state governments had passed a blizzard of measures trying to prevent people of color and students from voting, such as photo ID requirements, restrictions on registrations, and cutbacks in voting hours. Many laws were blocked by courts, but some election officials and volunteers still tried to enforce them. Blacks in Ohio and Latinos in Arizona were disproportionately forced to cast provisional ballots that may never be counted.

But the long lines were a sign that these attempts backfired, hardening the resolve of communities with a history of resisting discrimination. The racism pervading the campaign was already obvious enough. In the end, close to 750,000 more Latinos voted for Obama than in 2008, and Black turnout, while down nationally, rose substantially in the battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina.

WOMEN FIGHT BACK

Ayn Rand booster Paul Ryan and the Republican platform share the basic views on rape, abortion, birth control and women’s role held by Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. Akin and Mourdock just made the mistake of making it too clear that they believe every pregnancy, even from rape, is a gift from God that must not be questioned–and they were soundly defeated, with a decisive women’s vote against them, as were several other Senate candidates. The same fate befell a proposed amendment to Florida’s Constitution that would have prohibited use of public funds for abortions or health insurance covering abortion.

When the primaries had barely started, women were already organizing, galvanized when state legislatures’ ongoing attacks on Planned Parenthood were joined by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, a move that they saw as supremely political from an organization formed to fight breast cancer.

The attack by reactionary state governments on women’s right to an abortion–including mandating invasive vaginal ultrasounds and forcing doctors to lie to women or allowing them to withhold vital information from patients–caused women to organize in every state. No matter how Republicans denied that there was a “war against women,” women saw it and knew it as a violation of their human rights.

Republicans voted against the Lilly Ledbetter equal pay act but hoped to capitalize on the poor economy’s negative effects on women. Most women rejected these attempts but know that the challenge is to keep up the pressure rather than letting all that organization fall by the wayside because there is now a supposedly pro-choice president. It was President Bill Clinton, after all, who gutted welfare.

After four years of Obama’s pragmatism and caving in to reactionaries, much of the margin that returned him to office had to do with voting against the Tea Party and the Religious Right. That does not cancel the significance of the big gender gap–even bigger among unmarried women–the gap among the poorer half of the electorate, and the huge Obama margin among people under 30, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Gays.

LGBTQ STRIDES

As against the passage in 2008 of California’s anti-Gay Proposition 8, this year voters approved same-sex marriage in Maine and Maryland, upheld it in Washington state, defeated a Christian Right initiative to ban it in Minnesota, and elected the first openly Gay Senator, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

It was a stinging defeat not only for the evangelical Christian Right but for the Catholic Church hierarchy, which basically campaigned against Obama by hysterically accusing him of attacking religious liberty–that is, the “right” of employers to deny health insurance coverage of contraception for women. The Church also campaigned against abortion and, along with the Mormon Church, spent millions to oppose the marriage equality initiatives.

Labor faced a mixed outcome. Measures in California and Florida blocked cuts in education and public services; the minimum wage was raised in Albuquerque, N.M., and San Jose and Long Beach, Calif. Anti-teacher referenda were defeated in Idaho, South Dakota and Illinois, but one passed in Alabama. Michigan voters repealed the state’s anti-labor “emergency manager” law but defeated a union-backed amendment to put the right to collective bargaining in the state Constitution.

Most seriously, labor–both organized labor and the working class as a whole–has to confront the large number of white workers who voted for Romney. Romney won 59% of the white vote, and nearly two thirds of white men, including many workers. The fact that such a weak candidate could gain nearly half the national vote is sobering. It can only be explained by the appeals to sexism, homophobia and above all racism.

In the face of the President losing the majority of the white vote, those who exploit racism in order to drag us ever closer to fascism are not just going to give up. The Tea Party and the Christian Coalition may be spent vehicles, but their members are still venting hysterical rage. If they agree with rightists from Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly to the neo-Nazi Stormfront who are mourning the death of “the white establishment,” will they turn away from primarily electoral means to impose their will?

VOTER SUPPRESSION AND MINORITY RULE

Their leaders, however, have not given up on transforming the electoral arena through voter suppression. The Supreme Court–which established its anti-democracy credentials by selecting George W. Bush as President in 2000 and opening the floodgates for corporate campaign money with the Citizens United decision in 2010–has accepted a case challenging the Voting Rights Act. There is a real chance that the Court will gut the Act, which was instrumental in blocking several of the recent crop of voter suppression laws. And while the administration did fight those laws, it has no objection to the most important voter suppression instrument: the racially biased criminal injustice system, coupled with laws that disenfranchise felons.

It is true that the core of today’s Republican Party is dedicated to preserving white rule over people of color, even after whites become a minority in the U.S. The greater truth is that both major parties are part of maintaining rule by a minority: the capitalist class. Though a small minority, the capitalists dominate the political system precisely because of their economic supremacy.

Campaign contributions are only one of the ways that economic power is deployed. In 2012, it added up to an estimated $6 billion for Presidential and Congressional campaigns, with another $1.8 billion for state and local races and ballot initiatives. That sea of money, enough to feed 1.5 million poor families for a year, was slanted toward the Republican side, but failed to deliver total control of the federal government to them.

It did, however, remind both Republicans and Democrats who fills their feed troughs. It illustrates yet again how self-defeating it is for labor unions and mainstream environmental, women’s, Gay, Latino and civil rights groups to chain themselves to the Democrats–as if that will yield more than a few crumbs. It is true that there is more than a whiff of fascism in today’s Republican Party, and the Right’s electoral defeat gives movements from below more room to develop, but that will not stop the Democrats from compromising with the Republicans, or from trying to co-opt any independent movement.

SECOND TERM AGENDA vs. WORKERS

However much both of the capitalist parties had tried to co-opt the Occupy rhetoric of the 99% and the 1%, President Obama’s victory speech laid out a second-term agenda replete with the kinds of anti-working-class goals that the Occupy Movement had risen against in the first place. He identified “the challenges” as “Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil.”

Though he mentioned “the destructive power of a warming planet,” anything he has done about global warming is a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of the problem–and will be wiped out by his plans to “free ourselves from foreign oil”–which means first and foremost expanding fracking and approving the Keystone XL Pipeline to carry bitumen from Canada’s tar sands.

“Fixing our immigration system” was a nod to the Latino vote, but what Obama and the Democrats have been pushing as the Dream Act is a half-measure that would leave in place the U.S. economy’s structure. The existence of a superexploited undocumented work force is essential to its functioning, both for the direct profit-making of agriculture, construction, restaurants, and so on, and as a weapon to force all workers to accept worse wages and conditions. In addition, Obama has presided over more than 1.2 million deportations in his first term, surpassing any other President.

Finally, “reducing our deficit and reforming our tax code” is the banner under which Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs will be attacked.

Obama’s speech vaguely mentioned fighting for new jobs, but said nothing about the reality of capitalism’s ongoing depression. He did not mention the five million people unemployed for six months or more, and that Black unemployment is twice that of whites. He did not mention that living standards for working people have been falling for a decade, and that many of the added jobs he celebrates have been low-paying part-time jobs without benefits. He did not mention the epidemic of foreclosures and the spike in homelessness.

Instead of these pressing matters, Obama identified “deficits and debt” as the “first order of business.” Social Security is not running out of money, as is often claimed, but he supports the Bowles-Simpson Commission, which recommended cuts to Social Security and Medicare. To avert the “fiscal cliff,” an artificial product of Tea Party politics, Democrats and Republicans are angling for a deficit-reducing deal that would depend mainly on cuts to social programs. A small rise in taxes on the rich will give the cuts a populist covering.

MILITARISM vs. NEW OPENINGS

The military, however, is likely to be spared. The U.S. has withdrawn troops from Iraq and is reducing U.S. troops in Afghanistan–but at the same time the administration is projecting a “strategic pivot” to the Pacific to confront the rising power of China. And drone strikes will continue, no matter how many civilians they kill (see “Yemen: famine, drones and freedom“).

The revelation, two days after the election, that Iranian warplanes had shot at a U.S. drone five days before the election was a pointed reminder of the possibility of war against Iran. Obama’s reluctance to wage such a war is no guarantee that he can avoid being dragged into it, especially since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to start one.

In his brief victory speech, Obama twice referred to the U.S. retaining “the most powerful military in history.” However, the Arab Spring and the leftward move of much of South America have shown a determination to get out from under U.S. domination.

Neither that international domination nor the division into two worlds within this country, neither the recurring economic crises nor the steady descent into climate chaos can be abolished through the electoral process. What is needed is the kind of leap to freedom that can only come from below, from masses in motion, from the unity of all races, women and men, Gay and straight, immigrant and citizen, organized and unorganized, and, crucially, theory and practice.

Whether it is the revolts in the Arab lands and Latin America, the strikes and occupations in Europe, the Occupy Movement and Walmart strikes in the U.S., or still newer movements, the drive of the struggles for freedom is what must be built on. These new openings need to be developed, their contradictions faced, and a banner of total freedom unfurled to give them a direction toward the establishment of a new human society.

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