Elections are arenas of class struggle
Through a prolonged fight for health care for all many Democratic Party lawmakers have been pressured into supporting Medicare for All. Universal health care won't be achieved without making electoral gains. | Lynne Sladky/AP

As the 2020 election draws near sections of the American left are debating whether or not to support an establishment Democrat against a right-wing Republican. I first encountered this question during the 1964 presidential campaign, when I was still too young to vote, and have encountered it again in every election since. This question was debated in all elections going back to the founding of our Republic.

I call it the struggle between “the lesser of two evils” theory and the “evil of two lessers” theory. Generally speaking, both sides agree that establishment Democrats and the Republican Right are evils and that they aren’t necessarily exactly the same, but disagree on whether the differences are significant. So how can we resolve this issue?

One side says “never Biden,” and approaches our political election system as if it’s democratic, almost utopian, with all citizens equally participating and making informed decisions based on their values, full access to facts, and a wide fair choice of candidates. But it isn’t and they know it.

They also know that U.S. capitalism is a predatory, exploitative, and racist system, where the bosses treat us badly and have too much power over our lives. They also have too much respect for American elections even though they understand that the Capitalist class owns almost all the news media that shapes public opinion, and dominates most of the remainder like PBS and NPR, not to mention the teachers, clergy, and social media or the rampant cheating and voter repression that takes place.

They idealize an election system as democratic even though they rarely find a candidate worthy of their support and won’t sully their hands by pulling a lever for a Joe Biden. Divorced from the collective class struggle taking place all around them it becomes: “How can I ever vote for that bastard?” This is an individualist petty bourgeois worldview in spite of its radicalism. It’s not based on a concrete analysis of the political conditions, alliances, and demographics of the country and of their locality. It doesn’t take into account that great reforms are won by massive public pressure from below – putting pressure on politicians to act.

The other side comes from a working-class worldview and calls for booting Trump out. Working people organize themselves into labor unions whenever they can and are always fighting collectively to defend past gains and win further concessions from their bosses. They need more sick days, better pay, a shorter workweek, an end to discrimination, and safe working conditions. They engage in collective bargaining with the worst bosses, taking work actions, and going on strike against them.

The workers may not be demanding socialism, but these class struggles are the schools where workers learn class consciousness because it pits working people against capital. American elections are also arenas for class struggle where workers need to defend past gains and win concessions.

The Sanders and Warren campaigns have helped educate Americans about the need for a universal healthcare system, but it can’t be won without the overwhelming support from Democrats in Congress. If Trump is beaten in November, the progressive movement will be struggling to win Democratic Congress members to a better health care system much the same as we would have been doing if Sanders became president. So it may not be Bernie’s “single payer” but more people will get coverage. But Sanders’s “Medicare for all” is also a compromise, nationalizing insurance only—nowhere near the comprehensively socialized medical system that even right-wing conservative-ruled European countries like the UK enjoy.

Working people are now on the defensive from an administration and right wing that wants to roll back environmental, civil rights, reproductive rights, and first amendment liberties, practically everything working-class struggle has gained since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Climate change is, meanwhile, threatening all life on the planet. And there’s growing support in the Democratic Party for some parts of Warren’s and Sanders proposals for improved health coverage, forgiving student loans, real immigration reform and more. Working people, their unions, and progressive allies will be in the thick of the 2020 election campaign because we have to be there to defeat Trump and McConnell. Class struggle will be taking place and we need to be there with our allies.

Historically, American political parties have not been class-based like their European counterparts. European parties each nominate their own candidates who are generally loyal to the party’s agenda. In the U.S., the nomination process is usually conducted by state and local governments at taxpayer expense in primaries where any citizen can participate like I did when I changed my registration to Democratic so I could vote for Bernie, and millions, now billions, of dollars in corporate money plays a major role. The candidates are overwhelmingly Republican and Democratic with the small and poorly funded number of independents and minor party candidates finding it increasingly difficult to get on the ballot and campaign.

Here in Arizona, for example, state law explicitly bars the Communist Party from the ballot—not the only state with such undemocratic laws. We have one corporate party with two heads, or as a North Dakota farmer was quoted 100 years ago, “The difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is like the difference between a pig and a hog.” Our election system is not particularly democratic, it’s not holy, or sacred. You never get to vote for the best person because their integrity keeps them out of capitalist politics. 2020 might be the most important election since 1860 with a fierce class struggle taking place. It’s not about who we vote for as much as who we campaign with—which side we’re on.

The capitalist ruling class continues to adjust the electoral system to perpetuate its dominance. Back in the 1960s, the worst right-wing segregationists and warmongers were southern Democrats, and the best liberals were northern Democrats. Things have sure changed, but let’s not get hung up on the system the ruling class is now using to make us think we have democratically chosen our leaders. The class struggles go on and the American working class is still forced to ally with a section of the ruling class to win concessions and defend past gains. We need to be in the thick of the struggles in a broad coalition with Labor, African American, Latinx, Native, LGBTQ, women’s movements, and all other oppressed people to defeat Trump, and also the Bidens and Pelosis. Our role is to bring class politics into this mix. And now the entire planet is in danger; Mother Earth will never forgive us if we don’t.

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Joe Bernick
Joe Bernick

Joe Bernick is the Director of Salt of the Earth Labor College, Tucson, Arizona.