The Paralysis of Modern Politics: A Socialist Perspective


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Image by Patrick Perkins.

There’s an old saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But perhaps a more apt description of the modern-day United States might be the more things don’t change, the worse it gets.

That’s certainly true for wealth inequality. The average net worth of the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans was 15 times greater in 2022 than it was in 1982, according to the Institute for Policy Studies. Indeed, the richest one percent of Americans now owns more than half of all stock and mutual fund investments.

Meanwhile, the top five executives at the largest S&P 500 U.S. corporations held $8.9 billion in tax-deferred retirement accounts as of 2021. Hyatt Corporation’s chief executive held $91 million in his 401(k), while 36 percent of Hyatt employees had nothing in their accounts. Walmart’s CEO held more than $169 million in his retirement plan. Walmart employees? Nearly half had nothing in their 401(k)s.

That’s the American Dream in digest form, a paradise of wealth for the corporate elite but elusive prosperity for the many millions of working Americans who actually create that wealth. Welcome to the “rich” nation where nearly 25 percent of the population regularly experiences food insecurity, the ranks of reported homeless persons is over half a million, and close to 38 million people live in official poverty.

Along with the growth of poverty, since 2019 life expectancy in the United States has also been on the decline, registering the largest two-year drop in a century. The United States now fares worse in maternal, infant, and youth mortality rates compared to many other high-income nations. The poor public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic, lack of universal health care coverage, and a fragmented health system infrastructure are key factors driving this decline.

At the root of these failures is the corporatized health care system. As Becker’s Hospital Review reports, pharmaceutical and health insurance CEOs are among the highest paid corporate executives. That’s saying something when median CEO pay was $22.3 million in 2022. Unfortunately, all this executive class beneficence hasn’t quite translated into better health care for the public. In 2022, an estimated 38 percent of Americans say they or a family member postponed medical care, often for serious conditions, because of cost concerns.

Inequality is Not Democratic 

It’s fair to ask how democratic can any society be that is so economically unequal? The answer of course is not very much. The United States is a skewed version of a democratic society, one that works for all only in the world of political rhetoric. Indeed, political democracy here is more managed than cultivated, with moneyed elites in charge and the influence of corporate power dominant.

With the 2024 Presidential campaign now shaping up as a potential rematch between President Biden and former President Trump, our electoral choices are also highly circumscribed. Tellingly, an NBC News poll this spring showed a strong majority of American voters don’t want either candidate to run. Among Democrats a slight majority want Biden to retire, due in large part to concerns about his age, while only about three in ten Republicans prefer someone other than Trump on the ballot.

Even with Trump now facing multiple federal criminal indictments, as well as an array of primary challengers, the former president remains first choice for president among Republicans, with more than double the support of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Will Trump’s latest indictment for conspiring to overturn the 2020 presidential election significantly erode support among Republicans? Maybe not. According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll, only 14 percent of Republicans think Trump should even be charged in the case. This compares to 52 percent of Americans overall who consider the indictment justified.

The fact that most Republican voters and party leaders remain loyal to Trump testifies to what a brain-dead, cultish mess the Republican Party has become. That said, most cults are built on shaky foundations with nothing tangible to offer the people. Accordingly, Reuters reports 45 percent of Republicans polled just after the latest indictment said they would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of a felony.

Obviously, Trump’s legacy as a political leader is a landfill of corruption, lies, and incompetence. Mostly, it’s an assault on democracy by a reprobate authoritarian with no plans to fade quietly into the night. One thing is clear: The more Trump’s far-right MAGA movement is allowed to smolder and burn, the more polluted is the air of what’s left of American democracy.

While his primary rivals might be less legally encumbered than the former Grifter in Chief, politically they’re hardly better. As a candidate, DeSantis’ version of the political high road is limited to trying to ignore Trump’s personal insults, while campaigning on how he has turned Florida into a boring “USA!, USA!” propaganda show with his war against “wokeness” in education, business, and society.

Despite the Ivy League education, DeSantis displays a level of political opportunism that is not much better than moronic. For one, it’s taken him two and a half years to admit Trump lost the 2020 election. His war against the encroachments of wokeism, such as it is, includes a call to eliminate federal departments of education, energy, and commerce along with the IRS. Some of the Florida governor’s media-driven stunts, ordering arrests of citizens for “voter fraud” and flying migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and California, (take that liberal elites!), mark him as particularly heartless. His directed reforms of state education curriculum guidelines also reveal him as a bigot and white supremacist. HBO’s Last Week Tonight host John Oliver was right to call DeSantis “a petty autocrat and a bully.” What’s more, along with the entire Republican primary field, he has proven himself an enemy of women’s reproductive rights.

Democratic Party: Boldly Going Nowhere

As for Biden’s lackluster support among Democratic voters, this surely reflects more than concerns about his age. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, a Biden supporter, acknowledges the president’s low public ratings reflect the “continuing crises” facing most Americans. “About two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck,” noted Reich earlier this year. “Almost none has job security…. Although jobs are plentiful, wages have not kept up with inflation. When the median wage is adjusted for these price increases, the purchasing power of the typical American continues to drop.”

Significantly, neither major party has been able to win a truly commanding election mandate for years now, while the political divide has grown only more antagonistic and polarized. With this divide has come political paralysis as far as progressive legislation is concerned. Tellingly, one of the few significant Democratic-led social reforms in recent decades, the Affordable Care Act of 2010, managed to combine modest new public health benefits with large state-sponsored subsidies to the commercial insurance industry.

That’s about par for the course. In the United States, social “progress” is largely reduced to legislative reforms whose requisite feature is to somehow always keep the corporate cash flowing. From tax breaks for the wealthy, federal bailouts of Wall Street banks, and loans to pandemic-shuttered businesses, no problem in commercial America is apparently unsolvable. But establish a non-profit Medicare for All public health system, tuition-free higher public education, and meaningfully address rising income and wealth inequality, not so much.

In response to the pandemic public health crisis, the Biden administration early on sought to adopt a relatively more progressive domestic policy agenda (“Build Back Better”) than more recent Democratic administrations. However, proposals for expanded Medicare benefits, paid family leave, and other reforms largely fell before the Congressional saw blade of Republican opposition, with help from conservative Senate Democrats.

In turn, President Biden’s vaunted embrace of bipartisanship in the debt ceiling agreement amounted to Democratic capitulation to the Republican right. In terms of executive options, it was as unnecessary as it was also predictable. As the party of affluent professionals and Wall Street donors, the Democratic Party establishment is just not all that progressive. It’s the latter who hold firm sway over the party leadership and policy priorities, despite the emergence in recent years of a left progressive wing supporting social democratic initiatives.

Obviously, it’s hardly the fault of Republicans alone that the United States occupies outlier status as one of few modern nations without a universal health care system. Nor are Republicans alone responsible for the status of the United States as the most heavily armed, militaristic nation in the world. Nor for the fact that income and wealth inequality is greater in the United States than in almost every developed nation.

It’s fair to ask what kind of political mind-set would motivate President Biden to nominate the nefarious neocon war hawk Elliot Abrams to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy? Or authorize delivery of cluster bombs to Ukraine, whose use more than 100 nations have banned for their indiscriminate killing power? Why also does he align his administration with far-right governments in India, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, while wrongly labeling Cuba a “terrorist” state?

Like its predecessors, the Biden administration’s foreign policy, including its support of Ukraine’s rightful resistance to Russian military aggression, is motivated by strategic geopolitical interests, the core of which constitute corporate interests, not universal principles of democracy and justice. In fact, the Biden administration has shown slight interest in negotiating an end to the war on terms that could be acceptable to Ukraine, as Gilbert Achar of the University of London recently noted. As always, the larger policy goal is to enhance U.S. global hegemony, creating new wealth for corporate profiteers and beneficiaries of the permanent war economy.

Rock and a Hard Place

In theory, the Republican Party with its far-right corporate agenda should be easily vanquished at the polls. Their politics are out of step with a majority of Americans on many key issues, from abortion rights to gun safety reforms, LGBTQ rights, union and civil rights, paid family medical leave, federal student loan forgiveness and other issues. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party establishment are practiced purveyors of high-minded, liberal campaign rhetoric for social justice and equality, even “transformative” change, most of which gets quickly forgotten once elections end.

“Things are not going well in this country and in many other places in terms of what politics is,” observes socialist scholar Nancy Fraser in a recent interview. “It’s not just that we have all the very regressive, reactionary, persecutory forms of politics that we know as Trumpism, MAGA, right-wing politics, and such. It’s also that liberal corporate elites are missing in action on these issues. They will defend gay marriage; they will advocate for ‘cracking the glass ceiling.’ They will defend that elite kind of meritocratic progressivism—but they will not defend the living standards of the working classes. So, we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. We have two options on offer for our politics, neither of which will help us.”

No doubt. It’s taken both major parties to tango their way into the current weathered state of U.S. democracy, crafting over decades both accelerating wealth inequality and an austere social safety net unique among modern nations. Even modest progressive reforms struggle mightily now to overcome legislative hurdles, whether from the languid liberalism of mainstream Democrats or the dedicated fanaticism of far-right Republicans.

Most recent election polls show Biden defeating Trump, if barely, even if a third party campaign enters the 2024 presidential election. Some polls also show Trump beating Biden. It’s a damning commentary either way on the state of American politics that the dodgy Trump even remains a political contender. But that’s the price Democrats pay for their corporate servitude, just not doing much over the years to counter rising class inequality or defend people’s living standards.

If you watch MSNBC, you might almost get the impression the central struggle for democracy and social justice today revolves around Trump’s legal troubles. But even an imprisoned Trump will not be the end of the far-right threat. As independent presidential candidate Cornel West recently noted, the rise of Trump and his debased politics is rooted in the historic failures of the Democratic Party to effectively represent the interests of working-class Americans. However viable West’s potential independent Green Party candidacy may prove to be, his point that the potential threat of a future far-right, even fascist, takeover of power should not be dismissed or underestimated.

The larger threat to society’s survival is the capitalist system itself. In an era imperiled by destructive climate change, the result of long unchecked global capitalist development, this should already be clear. As a socio-economic system, capitalism normalizes everything aberrant in human society, from endemic wars to racism to corporate greed and more. Under capitalism, even advances in technology and productivity become new tools to further exploit the many for the benefit of the few.

The latter reality especially has exploded into view in the strike by actors and writers in the film and television industry, as SAG-AFTRA and the WGA (Writers Guild of America) lead an industry-wide shutdown against Hollywood studios and corporate streaming services. The latter are using changing technology not to spread prosperity throughout the industry, but to facilitate deteriorating benefits and compensation for tens of thousands of actors, writers, and related media professions.

“What is happening to us is happening across all fields of labor, when employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run,” explained Fran Drescher, President of SAG-AFTRA, at the press conference announcing the strike.

 Fortunately, as Drescher’s remarks reflect, the worse things get scenario also contains its opposite—the seeds of resistance. In this, times are also changing. While CEO pay has grown by 1,460 percent since 1978, compared to 18.1 percent for the average U.S. worker, a recent Gallup survey also shows 71 percent of Americans are pro-union. Labor militancy from hotel workers to Teamsters is now on the rise. The latter is where political hopes for the future can start to find new footing.

New Vision, New Politics 

Today, a more powerful popular mass political response is needed to reverse the far-right’s assault on equality, justice, and democracy, one that transcends the stifling limits of mainstream two-party politics. The Democratic Party’s anti-Trump politics is regrettably limited largely to electoral campaigns and legal challenges, the people less mobilized citizens than background actors cast as loyal voters and campaign donors.

In the last two presidential elections, many young voters embraced Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) Democratic primary campaigns as an attempt to break through the limits of corporate politics. Despite his popularity, however, the machinations of the party machine proved highly resistant to Sanders and his social democratic politics. In 2024, with the exception perhaps of progressive Marianne Williamson, Sanders-style democratic socialist politics will apparently not even be a primary option for Democratic voters.

Tellingly, earlier this year the House of Representatives passed a resolution sponsored by Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL), a supporter of the far-right “Freedom Force” caucus, denouncing “the horrors of socialism.” The resolution passed only thanks to the support of 109 Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), and other party leaders. House Minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) took the nuanced position of voting for the anti-socialism resolution while also denouncing it as “phony, fake, and fraudulent.”

What a pathetic state of affairs! Unfortunately for the red-baiter types, socialism as the proverbial swamp creature of U.S. politics is a tired, and increasingly irrelevant, theme in the public imagination. But there is a more serious discussion of socialist perspectives that should be taking place, starting with a question posed by Fraser and other socialist thinkers. Why can’t major industries be run according to a rational, democratically determined plan, instead of left to the inherent chaos of “free market” capitalism?

“This whole question of what to produce, how much, and what to do with surplus that is profit, these should be fundamental political questions,” concludes Fraser. “Socialism is the democratization of the decision making about all those questions. Socialism is essentially egalitarian in vision.”

We could use more egalitarian vision in politics. Instead, it’s as if political power in the United States exists now not for democratic representation or to improve society, but as just another elite mechanism for the extraction of wealth from working Americans. This is neoliberalism stripped to its essence, a system that asks working people to demand nothing, and expect even less. It’s a broken system.

The existential question of our age, as Cambridge sociologist Göran Therborn observes in New Left Review, is why society allows this broken system to persist, as if no alternative is possible. As Therborn asks, “Why should we accept that our current socio-economic system—of affluence for at most 30 percent of the human population and exclusion, exploitation, and lives brutish, nasty, and short for the rest—is the best humanity can build?”

Certainly revolutionary change is not easy, as history attests. But, that does not mitigate its necessity. As has become clear in recent years, millions of young people especially have little faith in the viability of the two-party system. There is a need now for more anti-capitalist politics in American life, for a progressive socialist and labor movement that campaigns for the rights of all working and exploited people. We need new, independent politics to chart a path out of society’s long malaise and political paralysis.

From the millions who supported Black Lives Matter protests to workers organizing for better wages and benefits, to defenders of women’s reproductive rights, peace and climate activists and more, the socialist vision has the potential to speak to all those who dream of equality and a cooperative, peaceful future for humanity.

Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He grew up a few blocks from the site of the old Lindlahr Sanitarium frequented by Eugene Debs in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. However, none of the teachers in the local schools ever spoke a word about Debs or the clinic. He does remember Carl Sandburg’s Elmhurst home, which was torn down in the 1960s to build a parking lot. Email: [email protected]

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