"By picking up at least a dozen House seats in last week's elections, the Republicans cemented a nearly unassailable majority that could last for a generation..." - this was the conclusion of a New York Times article analysing the 2014 elections.
Maybe. But the fact is, the Democrats still have almost four registered voters for every three the Republicans have. So what explains the Republican "victory"?
Certainly, the Republicans have benefited from redrawing district lines after they swept the 2010 elections, which coincided with the census. They gained over a dozen seats in the House as the simple result of gerrymandering. And they also benefited from their control of state legislatures after 2010 to pass legislation making it somewhat harder for the Democratic party base among the poor layers of the population to vote.
But those measures, which might have weighed somewhat on Democratic results in the 2014 election, can't begin to explain why so many people abstained this year from voting, particularly so many Democratic voters. Nearly two thirds of the voting eligible population did not vote. Turnout was 36.4% - the lowest it's been since 1942, when numbers of men were kept from the polls by the military draft for World War II. The figures were even worse in Democratic party strongholds, like Detroit, where only 31% voted, or Los Angeles, with 25%. In Chicago, even with the Democratic party machine using its vast apparatus to round up votes in a tight governor's race, less than half voted, only 46%. The Democratic governor lost his bid for re-election in a solidly Democratic state. In Maryland, it was the same. The Democratic Party could not turn out enough of its base in Baltimore and Maryland suburbs of Washington DC to keep a Democratic governor in office.
Ordinary people were fed up and didn't see much point in voting. Of those who did vote, many simply voted against the party in power - for no other reason than to express their anger. On the eve of the election, the Wall Street Journal put it this way: "Voter dissatisfaction keeps washing through the electorate and producing 'change elections.'" And the Journal called the last decade "a remarkable period of instability that has left neither party with a firm grip on power.... Going into Election Day, the electorate appeared exceptionally dissatisfied with the political system, and almost four billion dollars spent on the campaign appeared to do little to change that."
Despite a Republican "victory," even Peter Wehner, a former aide to President George W Bush, admitted: "Now, it's as if the seesaw is broken: the public is distrustful of both parties."
Distrustful? Dissatisfied? With good reason!
More than five years after an economic recovery supposedly began, almost every indicator points to this indisputable fact: the situation for ordinary people continues to worsen. To take just this example, median household income, adjusted for inflation, was $4,000 less in 2013 than it was six years earlier, just before the "Great Recession," and $5,000 less than in 2000. The median household income of black households was almost $6,000 less. And while Hispanic household income may have increased in 2013, those households nonetheless recorded a higher rate of poverty than before the "Great Recession."
The situation is not new: workers' wages, when compared to inflation, have been on an overall downward trend for more than four decades. At the beginning, families tried to make up the difference by straining their own resources. Women entered the work force in much larger numbers, even when they were the main caretakers of very young children. Workers, men and women, took on second jobs or worked more overtime. They took fewer days off for vacation and holidays. And most households took on more debt, credit card debt first, then mortgage debt, as the sub-prime scam flooded through working class neighbourhoods, especially the poorest ones.
Grasping for these straws may have alleviated the drain on household income - for awhile. But they were only stop-gap, and the downward push on wages didn't stop. In manufacturing, once the bulwark of solid working class income, wages actually decreased by 5% in five years time - a product in part of wage cuts, but more commonly of so-called "two-tier" wage scales, which established significantly lower pay for people hired after a certain date. And companies resorted to many more temporary and contract workers, whose pay was regularly lower.
Pensions and fully paid health care continue to disappear for all but the most established workers. With the recent move of state and local governments to eliminate pensions for public sector employees, the last big segment of the working class is poised to lose coverage - if they haven't already.
Employment continued on a downward spiral. Despite five years of so-called recovery, the share of people working has continued to decline, reaching a 36-year low. It was not until October of 2014 that the number of people working reached its pre-recession level - but in those seven years, the adult population has increased by 18 million people.
The severe cuts to public services have made the poorest parts of all big cities exceedingly difficult, if not unliveable. Public schools serving many working class neighbourhoods have been eliminated, and the schools that are left are subject to severe overcrowding - not only in the big cities, but also in working class suburbs.
Finally, the 2007-08 collapse of the mortgage markets led to a vast increase in foreclosures aggravating the situation in the neighbourhoods. The election of the first black president in 2008 may have sparked some hopes at the time, hopes renewed somewhat in 2012, with Obama's re-election. But regardless of who has been in office, reality intrudes: there has been no recovery for the ordinary population.
Ostentatious feast in the midst of famine
But, of course, there has been a recovery in the United States - for some. Profits reached historic highs in 2013, touching 10.8% of the gross domestic product. Those profits were distributed to the wealthy class - 900 billion dollars worth in dividends and 750 billion dollars in stock buy backs - which contributed to an even bigger gap between them and everyone else. In 2013, the wealthiest ten percent of the population received almost half the year's total income - 47.3% - with the bottom 90 per cent dividing up the other half. The gap in the ownership of wealth is even greater, with the richest one per cent owning 40% of the nation's financial wealth, and the bottom 80% owning only 9%.
The record profits are the direct result of rapidly increasing exploitation of the working population. The auto companies proudly announce their profits are greater than ever before - while the abomination of the lower two-tier wages spreads widely out from the auto industry. And, while auto production has resumed its pre-collapse levels, auto employment has not: there are twenty per cent fewer workers putting out the same number of autos as were produced in 2007.
The ordinary population is being strong-armed for the benefit of the wealthiest - not only on the workplace floor, but in all those public aspects that define people's daily lives. Claiming there was no money, the city of Detroit put itself through a bankruptcy, using it as a pretext to cut the pensions and almost all health care for retired city workers. No money? The downtown area and large stretches of land attached to downtown have undergone a real renewal, much of which was paid for with public tax money for the benefit of the so-called "developers" and "entrepreneurs." The workers' neighbourhoods go without street lights, without decent sewers to evacuate the rain, practically without public transportation in a city where 40% of the households have no car, without adequate sanitation or emergency services. In Chicago, the Loop and the Gold Coast glitter with new development, paid for by property taxes originally established to support public schools, while schools in poor neighbourhoods, particularly poor black neighbourhoods, are closed due to "lack of funds." In Los Angeles, students languished for a month without classes or teachers, but the public school system had billions to give to Apple and Pearson for I-Pads that did not work.
Behind the move into charter schools stand some of the biggest banks in the country, as well as some of the wealthiest right-wing billionaires, who compete with each other to come up with another scheme for turning the public schools into little more than a field for hunting profit.
In the midst of growing impoverishment, the signs of a vast recovery for the wealthy are everywhere. Evidence of their all-encompassing greed for more is blatant.
What choice for the working class?
It's not such an unhealthy thing that many workers no longer want to vote.
Of course, not voting can mean that workers are simply demoralised, not ready to do anything. And the lack of struggles, even just on the shop floor, show that this is one aspect of today's social reality.
But by not voting, workers at least aren't giving their stamp of approval to their class enemies. Abstaining may not take the working class very far. For the workers to have any impact on their situation, they are going to have to fight. But it's important that they have no illusions in those who would try to tie them into the existing system.
In such a situation, the left, as small as it is, could play a role. By offering candidates that speak to the workers' situation and point to the power the working class could use to address their problems, revolutionaries could offer a way for the workers to express their own class interests. And that could serve as a down payment on the future if such a campaign were to attract the attention of any fraction of the working class, no matter how small.
Advocating for a working class policy does not mean proposing a slightly higher minimum wage than the capitalist politicians are willing to consider - as was done in Seattle, by the supposed "socialist" candidate.
It means to offer a real working class policy, that is one which discusses what the workers' own response to the capitalist crisis must be. And, in fact, that is what a campaign in Michigan did this year (see the appendices of this article).
Almost a century ago, Eugene Debs said that he would rather vote for what he wanted and not get it, than to vote for what he didn't want and get it. And he made it clear that what the working class needs are representatives who stand openly for the power of the working class, for its capacity to throw out the capitalist class, and to find its own answers to the situation, that is, finally, to make a revolution.