We have a two-party system that has been very successful in containing the political responses in the US to the various conflicts and contradictions that have arisen in its history. During the first half of the 19th century the issue of slavery was compromised and finessed by slaveowner control of the Democratic Party (coupled with the Dems attracting immigrant worker votes in the North), while the opposition Whig Party had slave owning planters like Henry Clay along with the bankers, shippers and industrialists of the North, many of whom profited from slave-grown cotton. These two elites, slaveowners and incipient corporate capitalists, in national parties with constituents everywhere, North and South, together ran the country.
Compromise was possible in this context. But as the settlement of the West continued, the issue of slavery became THE divisive issue in the country. Ironically, American expansionism that has been a part of our history since its inception resulted in the Mexican War, which was supported overwhelmingly by Democrats, and opened vast new territories for settlement that was accelerated by the California gold rush. Along with this westward movement came the question of what system would be established in these new territories – slavery or “free labor.” Southern slaveowners wanted access to the new lands (cotton exhausted the soil) and protection for their “peculiar” property. Northern workers and farmers desired these lands and did not want them taken up by huge plantations; nor did they wish to compete with slave labor there or in the gold fields (where they were more than willing to slaughter the Native Americans who had lived on these coveted lands for millennia.)
Slavery in the West divided the elites and ended in the formation of a new, almost exclusively sectional party, the Republicans, whose aim was to forbid slavery in the Mexican cession territories (while leaving it alone where it already existed) and as Lincoln said, “put it on the course of ultimate extinction.” Lincoln’s Republicans won the 1860 election and the South seceded. No more compromise! The easy conquest and detachment of Mexican territory led to an unintended consequence: the most destructive conflict in our history, the Civil War!
Since then we have had an elite willing for the sake of its power and access to cheap labor of any ethnicity to preside in both parties over the super-oppression of the black working class, from Reconstruction chain gangs to Jim Crow to today’s unbroken segregation and police brutality. Racism continues as the most valuable tool in the corporate capitalists’ arsenal of divisive ideologies and has after a brief civil rights interlude in the ‘sixties, been given new life on the Right with the open fascism being now embraced by the Republicans. This political party that began as anti-slavery, but by no means anti-racist, rapidly developed into THE go-to party of the big monopolistic industries and banks (Rockefellers, Carnegies, Mellons, Morgans) that grew up after the CW. The Republicans in charge of Reconstruction in the conquered South were happy to abandon any protection for freed black people in The Compromise of 1876 that settled a contested presidential election in their favor and left the freed men and women to the tender mercies of their former masters and their KKK terror organization.
The Democrats, who were the party of the segregationist South until LBJ, also found a role for themselves during the Populist era of the late 1890s when they kept the discontent sweeping the country among small farmers and workers safely corralled. Their racism was on display during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, when this president hosted a showing of the pro-Klan film “Birth of a Nation” at the white house, and in 1919 permitted a KKK march of thousands down Pennsylvania Avenue. In spite of this, the Democrats parlayed their “pluto-populism” (see Patrick Cockburn’s article in counterpunch on 1-12) into a long ruling run under FDR, managing both to contain a Communist-led workers’ union drive and promote the idea that they were the party that would do something for workers, while after WW II promoting an anti-communist purge of the unions, removing their most militant, class conscious and selfless leaders.
Today Dems continue to try to channel any potential or actual mass upheavals against the failures and depredations of big capital (their donor class), while they have more or less sidelined the policies that might do the most for working people. Recent Dem history includes Clintonism and DNC dominance maintaining the corporate agenda, while failing to address the racism that keeps our class divided. Instead we get “identity politics” as a way of making it look like “race” is being addressed. This replaces the struggle for class consciousness and solidarity, committed to the destruction of racism, with an essentialist concept that continues to be based uncritically in the idea of “race” as it has developed in US history (pitting white workers against black ones) instead of exposing its class nature as a tool to keep the working class unconscious, fragmented, and with no political options other than the corporate dominant ones. Today’s elite two-party system finds itself in a comparable situation, only with the Reps having to recruit people based on button-pushing “cultural” issues (“race”, abortion, no new taxes, etc.) because they have never supported even modest reforms that helped workers. It is more than ironic that Trump and company pretend to be for the working class. The Republican party has a long post-war history of opposing every policy that might have benefitted workers, while now openly sponsoring a movement (fascism) that historically destroyed workers’ organizations and put workers’ leaders in concentration camps everywhere it came to power in the 1930s, while of course scapegoating the weakest members of society, those least able to defend themselves, as the supposed cause of all the nation’s problems. It is not that we have had no experience of what fascism is and what it does. Is it any different today? Fascism was and is a capitalist tool against the masses of workers in periods of capitalist crisis like the ‘thirties – and today! It is still capitalism that stands in the way of a decent existence for the vast majority of people, here and in the world!
In the ‘thirties it was depression, fascism and imperialist war; today it is endless war, depression and fascism now under the musical chairs rule of both our corporate political parties. The big capitalist class consolidates its power over more of the economy and governing institutions while reverting to its early and favored laissez-faire ideology under the current label of neo-liberalism. None of this, however, has gone unchallenged in recent history. The upheavals of the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies alerted our rulers to the “dangers” (for them) represented by both the ‘sixties movements against imperialism and racism that showed at least a potential to unite the masses against not only the war and depression “abuses” of capitalism and its failures (war in Vietnam, stagflation, ad nauseum) but against capitalism itself. Reagan and Thatcher represented the rulers’ commitment to both restoring profits and blunting the recent mass movements for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. To do this they undertook to destroy the gains made by a hundred years of working-class struggle, especially mass unions and “welfare state” reforms under FDR. This was eagerly undertaken by the Republicans who had “always” hated FDR’s policies; but the Dems made their adjustments and went along with the program. There are too many examples to cite all; pick your favorites, like the Clinton destruction of welfare and the racism with which this was sold, and the Clinton/Obama sabotage of single payer healthcare during Dem administrations.
The Rep/Dem rope-a-dope has helped our rulers prosper in the ‘eighties as corporate wealth went off the charts while workers’ wages stagnated. Nor did our rulers slow their imperialist drive for world hegemony, intervening in Chile, Central America, Afghanistan, and the Middle East to give us the “endless wars” of the last forty years. There was a brief period when the US could proclaim itself “top dog” after the collapse of the USSR in the ‘nineties, but those days are long gone, and now our rulers are gearing up for not just the usual interventions and “war on terror,” but an all-out struggle with Russia and China for control of the world. How are the mass reactions to this to be contained?
And people can see where their tax money goes: the astronomical military budget, and tax cuts for the rich; but not one penny for health care, housing, job creation and infrastructure. Today with rampant Covid-19 killing millions we get derisory $600 checks, while jobs disappear and workers are confronted with the choice of risking death by Covid by going to work (if they still have a job), or staying at home unable to earn a wage.
What can/will our rulers do about this? Well, they will continue to divide the population with an increase of racism (and every other divisive ideology available via the corporate media), but they will also prepare a fascist street movement in case the working-class protests that are bound to continue and grow raise the possibility of an end to capitalism. Trump may have been at least partially a fortuitous phenomenon, but he has had his uses. He has galvanized a crowd of disorganized and discredited fascists who ran around the Congress like decapitated chickens. They have gotten police protection, covert corporate financing and a veneer of legitimacy behind labels like “patriot.” Their true ideology and intent, however, has now been unmasked in their chicken coup, as they waved Confederate flags and wore Auschwitz hoodies.
Trump may have overreached and exposed himself with this display of what he has been all about from the beginning. He still got 72 million votes in the past election. When little else but racist scapegoating and victim blaming (or assuming the mantle of victimhood) is available in the mass media to explain your plight, what are you going to think? Look at the publicity given to Trump endlessly; compare this to Occupy Wall Street; Black Lives Matter; or any kind of socialist-communist pro-working-class alternative discourse! Bernie broke some ice with the latter (except not communism! Heavens! We would not want to study past revolutionary movements that actually were able for a time to break the power of capital, and strategize to do it again, this time successfully and permanently. Is there a reason why the cutting edge of the current fascist movement is attacking socialism and communism with every breath? Racism runs just a close second to this.)
Trump’s chicken coup appears to be a failure, but if we continue with the same political pattern that has prevailed in the post-Vietnam era – of Dems abandoning completely the working class that they only ever halfheartedly embraced, and doing little even when they have the potential power to make reforms (witness the first two years of Obama), then we can expect that what Trump has sown will be reaped by someone smarter and more able than he. Fascism is not going away, because US corporate capitalism is unable to resolve its crises and cannot seem to avail itself of the tools of the past (FDR/Keynes, etc.) Even if some resort were made to these tools, US rulers are intent on continuing to dominate the world. If they cannot do this by capitalist economic competition (against China? What do we manufacture today? Does China need loans from our banks?), they will try to do it militarily. Does this portend a nuclear confrontation? And what in all this will happen to the climate crisis that grows more threatening each year?