The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 62 (Winter 2001). Further coverage of the U.S. election is available in the hard-copy edition of the magazine, including an article on the Ralph Nader campaign and polemics against “socialists” such as the ISO or Socialist Alternative who supported Nader.
"The System Works.” The U.S. ruling class breathed a collective sigh of relief when Al Gore conceded the presidency to George W. Bush. There would be no more “prolonged agony,” no more indecision—above all no mass protest.
Yes, their system worked. Tens of thousands of Black people and others were denied their right to vote, but this didn’t stop the Republican Supreme Court, backed by the Republican administration and legislature of Florida and the Republican Congress, from stepping in to decree Bush the president. And the Democrats went along, with minimal complaint.
Preserving the “rule of law”—however unlawful—was the priority. As Chief Justice Rehnquist bluntly put it, when it comes to the presidency “there is no right of suffrage”—the Constitution says almost literally that the ruling class shall choose the president, not the common people. And as Justice Scalia accurately pointed out, counting all the votes would indeed have meant “casting a cloud on what [Bush] claims to be the legitimacy of his election,” since counting votes “is not a recipe for producing election results that have the public acceptance democratic stability requires."
That is indeed how the electoral system works. It was designed in the 18th century as a compromise between Northern capitalists and Southern slaveowners. (See below for more on this history.) Today its methods include not just official fraud so prevalent in Florida (and elsewhere), but an array of tricks to keep working-class voters, mainly Black, from voting: police roadblocks in Black neighborhoods, false criminal accusations, “lost” registrations, missing ballot boxes, early poll closings, unavailable interpreters for Haitian and Puerto Rican voters, and much more.
This time, however, there was a major glitch. The electoral squabble threatened U.S. imperialism’s international prestige, and more. The specter of thousands of Black people taking to the street to denounce their disenfranchisement could have sparked a deeper and bigger movement against the racist system.
The five-week legal and political conflict over Florida attracted far more interest than the interminable pre-election race between two barely distinguishable candidates—because it exposed a good part of the dirt that American “law and order” rests on. The revelations about racism, fraud and judicial bias were undermining regard for bourgeois legality and exposing the capitalist class power that hides behind the facade of democracy.
But where was the outrage? Among Blacks, voters and non-voters alike, there was plenty. Some Democratic politicians and journalists howled out of partisan pain. But the Democratic Party as a whole played its traditional role. Black leaders like Jesse Jackson and labor leaders like John Sweeney obediently called off the protest rallies they had planned when Bush won the initial Florida count by a few hundred votes. Then they sat by quietly when Gore insisted on downplaying racism in favor of a focus on electoral technicalities and waging only a legal and public relations campaign. When Gore’s “fight” failed and the Supreme Court stopped the count, Sweeney and Jackson came up with feeble “Count Every Vote” marches—too little and far too late.
Jackson, according to the January 2 Village Voice, had been ordered to make peace with Bush by Wall Street financial backers of his Rainbow-Push Coalition. He telephoned Bush to “heal the nation and bring it together”—a far cry from Jackson’s previous declarations that he rejected Bush’s legitimacy “with every bone in my body and every ounce of moral strength in my soul.” Thus he carried out his class interests, selling out the rights of working-class Black voters. Even the most liberal Democratic Party leaders preferred to surrender their chance to win rather than encourage a mass struggle for democratic rights.
The final insult came on January 6, when Congress met to ratify the Electoral College vote. Not one Democratic Senator out of the 50, not even one of the handful of so-called progressives, decided to support the Congressional Black Caucus’s challenge to Florida’s electors. Of course, the Black Caucus members will show the limits to their principles by sticking with the Democratic Party that once again betrayed their constituents.
In dramatic fashion, the electoral farce has affirmed the Marxist understanding that bourgeois democracy masks the dictatorship of the capitalist class over the workers. While the contests between Democrats and Republicans reflect differences within the ruling class, the two parties are united in defending the interests of the capitalist bosses at the expense of the working class.
As working-class socialists, we supported no bourgeois side in this election. Voting for Democrats or Republicans means supporting both parties’ attacks against the working class and especially its most oppressed layers.
Moreover, the interests of the working class cannot be won through elections. The working class cannot gain state power through elections. Even when working-class or “socialist” parties are voted into office, the state remains capitalist as the bourgeoisie retains control over the apparatus of repression—the army, courts, police, etc. A fight for the real interests of workers requires mass struggle to smash the capitalist state. It means the building of a revolutionary party to lead the fight for socialist revolution and the creation of a workers state based on proletarian democracy.
For all the heat generated by the competing parties in the post-election squabbling, for weeks the wiser heads in the ruling class were able to treat the whole affair with relative detachment: in the end it did not really much matter to them who won. Compare 1992: then, Bush the Elder’s inability to soothe the anger that sparked the Los Angeles “riot” drove ruling-class opinion to Clinton’s side. This time the bourgeoisie saw no immediate cause for worry, and neither candidate stood out as a significantly better bet for the capitalists. That is a major reason for the near-tie vote.
The electoral standoff could only have taken place because of the low level of organized class struggle on the U.S. scene—along with the absence of any powerful challenger to America’s predominant imperialist position. Had the bourgeoisie felt that their state power was in any way threatened, cooler heads would have prevailed and compelled one or another of the contenders to concede without further fight. But they figured their Jacksons and Sweeneys would be enough of a border guard against unrest.
Bourgeois democracy in reality means the dictatorship of the capitalist class over the working class and all oppressed peoples, with only the slightest veneer of mass participation. The “democracy” so proudly hailed in the U.S. keeps elections safe for capitalism by insuring that only the super-rich and those backed by giant corporations get to compete. And when that isn’t enough, the state authority steps in with methods lawful and unlawful.
Both bourgeois parties violate their own election laws and engage in obscene spending orgies to win office. In the 1996 presidential race, Clinton and Gore beat the Republican crooks at their own game, breaking laws that would get any ordinary government worker fired in a second. In contrast, Teamsters president Ron Carey was booted from office for electoral improprieties (involving illegal funds going to the Clinton campaign) that pale in comparison.
This year Florida revealed how the electoral machinery down to the grassroots level is controlled by flunkies from both parties. Across the country, Democrats and Republicans in every state control the ballots, the vote counting process, registration, the ability to get on the ballot, etc. Gore and the Democrats worked hand-in-hand with the Republicans to keep Ralph Nader out of the televised presidential debates. In Democratic-controlled districts, they screw Republicans, and the Republicans do the same where they rule. And they join together to screw everyone else.
Thanks to the dogfight in Florida, the corrupt nature of the U.S. electoral system has been bared before the eyes of the working class here and internationally. The evidence points to the conclusion that Gore would have won Florida and the presidency if all who tried to vote had been allowed to do so and had their votes counted. But the Democrats ignored the fact that tens of thousands were denied the vote, concentrating only on voters whose votes never got counted.
Gore, like Bush, is a loyal member—and servant—of the capitalist class. But the Democrats, unlike the Republicans, rest on a base of Black voters and organized labor. That is why Gore had to be more careful than Bush in waging the post-electoral battle—mobilizing his constituencies can easily get “out of control” and encourage struggles that will threaten the capitalist system. Thus Republicans could organize a “bourgeois riot” by their hired operatives to stop the recount in Miami. But the Democrats had to ensure that their protests were first peaceful and then non-existent.
This sellout was nothing new. The Democratic Party under Clinton and Gore has taken the side of the bosses and racists against the workers and the oppressed in myriad ways—welfare “reform,” NAFTA, the health care debacle, the “three strikes” crime bill, new anti-immigrant laws, keeping the U.S. military in Puerto Rico, doubling the prison population, the “effective death penalty” act and putting even more cops on the street to intimidate people of color and the poor. It is not only “Governor Death” Bush who has committed murder in the name of the death penalty; Gore, like Clinton, also championed state killing as he challenged Bush for the racist law-and-order vote.
The unquestioning support of the Democrats by labor leaders as well as Black and Latino leaders is exactly the reason Clinton/Gore have gotten away with all of their attacks on workers and oppressed peoples. For all the reactionary rhetoric of Reagan and Bush the First, even they never dared to dismantle the welfare system and impose “workfare” to undermine union jobs. They feared the protests that such moves would unleash. But Clinton got away with it because the leaders of the mass organizations were committed to supporting him for re-election no matter what—and therefore committed to preventing mass action. Far from being the “lesser evil” for workers, for the past eight years the Democrats have been the greater evil that was capable of forcing anti-worker attacks down our throats.
The crimes of the Clinton administration extend far beyond attacks on workers in the U.S. They have repeatedly used the repressive might of both the U.S. military and economic dominance to bully nations all over the world. They have bombed Serbia, Iraq, the Sudan and Afghanistan. The embargo on Iraq alone has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. IMF domination of economies in Latin America, Asia and Africa is deadly to workers and oppressed peoples.
Given the unappealing choices available, half the electorate remains too disgusted or demoralized to bother voting at all. But this year 51 percent of eligible Blacks voted, up from 48 percent last time. Many Black people who had never voted before went to the polls this time, believing they had a real stake in this election.
Why is this? With the supposed economic “boom” now fraying at the edges, many Black people—both working-class and better-off—are becoming aware that their economic and political gains are precarious in this racist society. And the rabid impeachment campaign against Clinton impelled by the far-right-led Congress in 1998 made the Republicans look even more threatening to Black rights. There was also a concerted registration drive by Democratic strategists, who saw that Blacks would be the most reliable voting base for Gore. Special efforts were made in key states like Florida.
Nationwide 90 percent of Black voters chose Gore, as did 63 percent of Latinos and 62 percent of union members. (The latter figure is due to the 25 percent Black and the growing Latino presence in the unions, since only a bare majority of white unionists went for Gore.) Non-union white workers who voted, as far as can be determined, preferred Bush by a small margin.
In Florida, 94 percent of Black voters supported Gore. The Black turnout leaped from 10 percent of all voters in 1996 to 16 percent—an increase of 350,000. (Blacks are 13 percent of the voting-age population.) A top reason was anger at Governor Jeb Bush, who had moved to end affirmative action in the state. Last March, 50,000 people rallied against Bush’s moves, the largest civil rights protest in Florida history.
But because of the racist exclusions, 16 percent of the ballots cast in majority-Black Florida precincts were thrown out, more than twice the percentage thrown out from white precincts. Worst was Duval County, which contains the city of Jacksonville and a large poor and working-class Black population: in some Black precincts there, 30 percent of ballots were excluded.
Ironically, Gore’s failure to win Florida decisively was the fault not just of vote fraud (or of Ralph Nader, as some Democrats claim), but of the racist “law and order” policies strengthened by the Clinton/Gore administration. Florida is one of nine states that bar convicted felons from voting for life; this law permanently disenfranchises about 14 percent of Florida’s Black residents, 31 percent of the state’s Black men. Tens of thousands of Blacks in Florida who might have voted for Gore were barred from the polls because Clinton/Gore policies put them in jail.
Tragically, many Black workers, as well as Latino and white, were misled into supporting Gore despite the fact that he represents the enemy class—as the Democratic Party’s record demonstrates. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) that Gore, Clinton and Lieberman all belong to has turned the Democratic Party to the right and downplayed even mild reforms against racial injustice along with its assaults against the working class.
In this election, the DLC aimed to recapture the once solidly Democratic racist vote in the South, but this strategy failed miserably: Gore won not a single Southern state outside of Florida. The regions Gore won nationally are the strongholds of the working class and above all of Blacks. Indeed, it is only the Black vote that keeps the Democratic Party alive on a national level. Rarely have so many been betrayed by so few.
The bourgeoisie’s electoral crisis highlights the crisis of leadership facing the working class. It is a crime that the leaders of our class allowed thousands of workers’ votes to be stolen without mobilizing massive outrage. Workers now face threats from both ruling-class parties as Bush continues Clinton’s assault on the most vulnerable layers of our class. Bush is likely also to look for a military intervention abroad, in an effort to gain the “legitimacy” he couldn’t win in the election. The liberals, with their party out of power, will adopt a leftish posture and claim that the only way to stop Bush’s attacks is to vote Democratic in 2002. This will be the stock answer of union bureaucrats, community leaders and the like, when they are looking to avoid real struggles. It will be a central task of revolutionaries to try to guide struggles away from the Democratic Party electoral trap and toward mass confrontation with the ruling class.
Many Black and Latino workers understand that the outright fraud in the 2000 election was not an aberration but was inherent in a racist, undemocratic system. Certainly white workers also developed greater contempt for the whole process, but far too few opposed the racist exclusions.
Capitalism is a decadent system that offers no future for workers of any color. Black workers in this country, already pushed to the wall by racist and class attacks, have the capacity to play a leading role in the development of communist consciousness in our class. The fact that racism and exploitation are so interrelated makes it necessary and possible for this consciousness to develop, and it will if a vanguard takes the lead.
A key step would be a sharp break from sellouts like Jesse Jackson and a turn toward massive explosive action like general strikes against the capitalist attacks. In Los Angeles in 1992, when pro-capitalist misleaders like Jackson and Minister Farrakhan tried to quell the rebellion, they were disregarded by the masses, led in large part by youth. Had there been even a small revolutionary nucleus on the scene in Florida, there would have been a real chance for mass action linking the disenfranchisement of American Blacks, Haitians and Puerto Ricans to the overall attacks on the oppressed and the working class.
There was no choice for workers in this election. As our accompanying article on the Ralph Nader campaign shows, a third bourgeois party is no answer either. But there was also no revolutionary party to offer a real alternative.
In going to the voting booth in greater numbers, Black workers recognized that a political answer is necessary to the growing threats. That they, along with other workers, could be misled again into the Democratic Party trap is the responsibility of the misleaders of all colors who teach that workers have no power and must rely on either benevolent saviors or so-called lesser evils.
Likewise, the many Black, Latino and white workers who sneer at the capitalist parties and therefore the voting booth also have found no real answer to powerlessness and desperation. Political attacks from the ruling class do require a political response. Unless we form a working-class political party we are accepting the rule of the capitalist parties.
Workers and all people of color do have a stake in the struggle for democratic rights, including the right to vote. While the working class cannot attain power through bourgeois-democratic means, working people must make use of democratic rights under capitalism to build their own organizations of struggle: the trade unions, organizations of the oppressed—and most of all, the revolutionary party. Revolutionaries always join our brothers and sisters in struggles to defend democratic rights. In doing so we point to the ability of the working class to bring down this wretched system of exploitation, oppression and sham democracy. It is vital therefore that revolutionary workers and youth join protests like the counter-inaugural rallies in Washington this January 20—both to challenge the electoral fraud and to fight the illusions in the out-of-power Democratic Party that the demonstration leaders will inevitably push.
The working class needs a political alternative that meets the needs of our class and a strategy based on our class’s power. Our strength is not in the bourgeoisie’s elections but in collective struggle. Most essentially it is in the power of the working class to run the economy and to shut the profit-making system down. We need a workers’ party that can offer leadership to every struggle in order to win workers and the oppressed to revolutionary consciousness. Such a party will be dedicated to overthrowing both the capitalist economic system and the state that defends it. It will be a revolutionary socialist vanguard party of the working class.
Masses of workers and the oppressed will not join such a party today. But small numbers of workers and youth already see the need to get rid of capitalism; they must begin to build such a party now. The League for the Revolutionary Party fights for this goal today. More must join us if we are to win greater numbers of workers and youth to our banner tomorrow.
Gore won the national popular vote by about half a million, while Bush was awarded a majority of the Electoral College that actually elects the president. This contradiction brings out the built-in anti-democratic structure inscribed in the U.S. constitution, of which the Electoral College is not even the worst.
From the beginning, voting qualifications and procedures have been a matter of states’ rights. Not only did most states limit voting to white men who owned property; some states even required voters to belong to a particular religious group. The system has only conceded voting rights to masses as a result of struggles. In Rhode Island, one of the last states to grant the right to vote to all white males, it took an armed attack on the state capital before universal white male suffrage was enacted. Black males only gained the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1870, while women gained full voting rights in 1920 with the 19th Amendment. Nevertheless, Blacks were denied the vote through Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan terror. Even with the legal gains in the 1960’s as a result of the mass Civil Rights struggle, intimidation continues—as Florida demonstrates.
The Electoral College was initially established for two reasons. One was to add voting strength to the Southern slave states: Black slaves counted as “three-fifths of a man” for the purpose of apportioning representatives, even though they counted not at all for voting or any other civil rights. Another reason was to insert an elite layer between the popular vote and the presidency—hence the Supreme Court’s “no right of suffrage.” In theory at least, whatever the popular vote, the electors can overturn the wishes of their constituents, as actually happened more than once in the 19th century.
The three-fifths rule increased the South’s strength in the House of Representatives and lasted until the Civil War. The U.S. Senate is biased even more grossly: each state, no matter how small, gets two senators. This imbalance is carried into the Electoral College, since the states get as many electors as they have senators and representatives together.
The effect this has on presidential elections is complicated. First, since most states require a block vote—that is, all the state’s electoral votes go to the winning candidate even if that candidate won by a narrow margin—a big margin in one state means no more than tiny margins in other states; Gore’s 1.5 million vote lead in New York, for example, could not overcome a deficit of a few hundred in Florida. A candidate who wins narrowly in many states but loses by larger margins in a few big states (as Bush did) can thus become the legal winner.
Second, the College is weighted in favor of small-population states, since it incorporates the Senate’s inequality, even though today the House is apportioned according to population. That tilts the balance of power away from urban states where Blacks and the working class generally are strong, towards the whiter, more rural states. Given that abolishing the Electoral College requires a constitutional amendment, which means ratification by three-quarters of the states, this institution will not be altered peacefully while racism rules in the U.S. It will take a massive upheaval for the bourgeoisie to surrender so useful a tool.
The last time a presidential election was so close in the Electoral College was in 1876. Republican Rutherford Hayes was handed the White House after a deal with the Democrats that promised the white rulers of the Southern states that the last of the Civil War Union troops would be withdrawn from the South, so that the rights that Blacks gained during the revolutionary post-war Reconstruction period could be taken away. The whole history of Jim Crow laws, and the racist brutality that went with them was built on the 1876 precedent.
It is absolutely characteristic of U.S. “democracy” that the 2000 election also turned on the disenfranchisement of Blacks.