First Impressions of the Election: What We Should do

Although there is both anger and despair at the election results among all anti-Bush forces, it is important that we think and act as Marxists. The first question we should ask is: what would Marxists do in analyzing this election.

Lenin’s argument that the most important virtue for a revolutionary is patience is a good beginning. Defeatism and despair feed on themselves and lead nowhere. Bourgeois elections for the left are exercises in mobilization and in this election in the short run the most reactionary sectors of the Bourgeoisie did strengthen themselves. We can expect that they will seek to take advantage of their position by further attacks on labor, the looting through 'privatization' of social security, and of course, new wars most likely in the Near East. They will have to be fought every step of the way, and in the process of fighting them every step of the way we will win over more and more people and gain political strength for the broad left.

Elections are mobilizations in the class struggle and the Republican leadership, particularly Karl Rove, the Goebbels of the Bush administration, understands that, dealing with this election both as a military campaign and as psychological warfare.

Rove’s tactical focus on Gay Marriage was a gambit to bring out right-wing Protestants ('evangelicals') and also limit the vote for John Kerry, the second Roman Catholic presidential candidate with a good chance to win the election, among socially conservative Roman Catholics. The purpose here was to offset the mobilizations launched by labor and the broad left primarily in urban working class communities to register voters to defeat Bush.

U.S. elections are still unique in the low turnout of eligible voters compared to most of the rest of the world where universal suffrage exists (even in this election, with its touted 'high turnout' significantly less than 60% of eligible voters turned out), and the non-voters are still drawn overwhelmingly from the lower 50% of income earners. The right-wing Republican strategy since the 1970s has been to use 'cultural issues' ('wedge issues,' Richard Nixon called them) to mobilize through conservative protestant Churches, which come to function more and more as political clubs, a section of these lower income voters to offset the normal large edge that Democrats have among lower income voters who do vote and accentuate the normally large edge that Republicans have among upper income voters. You do the math, throw in voter suppression of African Americans and other minorities for whom the influence of religion does not translate into support for conservative and Republican politics and candidates, and the right has a winning formula, which they have used over the last thirty years.

These social resentment issues go back a lot longer in U.S. politics than Richard Nixon’s raising of the abortion issue after Roe v. Wade, Anita Bryant’s 'crusade' against Gays in the 1970s, and the well funded Moral Majority and Christian Coalition organizations that right-wing Protestant ministers Gerry Falwell and Pat Robertson respectively established in the 1970s and 1980s. Progressive politicians like Robert La Follette in Wisconsin at the end of the 19th century and Franklin Roosevelt nationally in the 1930s faced such divisive 'social issues' substituted unifying economic interests for them, and often defined 'social issues' in economic terms.

Roosevelt for example called for the repeal of prohibition in 1932 as a way to provide more jobs at the height of the depression. The CIO particularly in the South faced a legion of anti-labor preachers who used their pulpits to attack union organization. The answer of the Communist led left in the past, which was in itself completely non-clerical, was to work with and strengthen left-wing Protestants, groups like the Reverend Harry Ward’s Methodist Federation for Social Action, actively support the left ministries of men like the Reverend Claude Williams, and seek to united the left church with the working class.

While this continues to be done in the larger peace movement, left-wing Protestants, Quakers, unitarians, unitarian-universalists, and left groupings within the larger predominantly white Northern Churches, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc., have not actively sought to bring their ministries and their message to those sections of the working class under the influence of the religious right. Also, the lower Roman Catholic clergy, which did support New Deal and CIO labor initiatives in the 1930s while remaining viscerally anti-Communist, (a factor that weakened the left in responding to McCarthyism greatly) and which responded to the liberalization of Vatican II and the rise of Liberation Theology positively in the 1960s, has found itself caught between its own divided constituents and an upper clergy intent on social conservativism.

As a result, a 'negative united front' between right-wing 'evangelical Protestants and many socially conservative Catholics has taken shape, a front also joined by some socially conservative Orthodox Jews and those right-wing Jewish supporters of Sharon and the Likud in Israel, for whom 'evangelical' support for Israel is the only issue (these groups either don’t understand or don’t wish to understand that 'evangelicals' support Israel as part of their belief that the Apocalypse, the 'end times,' will soon be at hand, with the conversion of the Jews and the end of the material world).

Roosevelt sometimes used religious imagery, as did others on the left; but their Jesus was the Jesus who drove the money changers from the temple, and the prophet of love and peace, not the anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic policeman Jesus of 1920s right-wing fundamentalists or the businessman-salesman Jesus of Madison Avenue advertising man and later Republican congressman Bruce Barton. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, all have their right and left interpretations. All can be used and are used by ruling groups to keep masses subservient to those groups and hostile to anyone outside the group.

They can also be used, as the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. showed most dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, to build alliances across ethnic and religious lines to advance a social justice program, as both secular and religious Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, African-Americans and whites, joined a movement whose most important unifying leader was a left-wing African American protestant minister, Martin Luther King.

There are other factors besides organized struggle around and for working people influenced by religion, even though Bush’s victory appears to have been based on the successful campaign to mobilize religious voters under right-wing clerical influence. The labor movement which is now in greater danger because of the Bush victory, must involve itself at a much higher level in urban working class politics, taking leadership from rather than providing support work for Democratic organizations, many of whom remain much more interested in local patronage and unwilling to organize masses of low income people outside the political process because they fear that they cannot control these voters.

As an anecdote to this, the town I live in New Jersey, a low income shore community controlled by a traditional Democratic machine, voted very narrowly for Bush over Kerry to the surprise of many local people. In the town the machine had its people and its posters out for its local candidates, who won the election but did very little for the Kerry campaign. Meanwhile, in the wealthier areas of the town, the posters and the politicking was going on for Bush-Cheney. When the election was over, the local Democratic leaders as reported in the local newspaper celebrated their victory and said nothing about Bush’s re-election (New Jersey of course did vote for Kerry, but both the turnout and margin of victory could have been much more substantial).

In New Brunswick, where I have taught for 33 years, some students found themselves unable to vote and this is now becoming an important local issue. It has long been a practice for the Democratic machine to do what it could to keep student voters from the polls (and not to organize low income nonvoters) because these are groups that it cannot count on to vote for it in local patronage elections. Along with the crude and brutal Republican vote suppression, this sort of vote suppression also acted to limit the anti-Bush vote.

Organization, patience discipline, clear analysis, and the use of analysis to guide policy is what we can and must bring to the struggle. Organizing the Unorganized, both in and through the labor movement and in electoral politics is the key to defeating these truly dangerous reactionary forces in the long-run. Developing activists who will function as cadre, not perhaps in the old sense of full-time party cadres, but with a much higher level of commitment to work in communities, to do the political work in urban and rural areas, including cadres who can challenge the hegemony of the right among people influenced by religion, is the highest priority. The labor movement and the peace movement, where a good deal of the organization remains through left-wing protestant religious circles, will, I think, have to serve as the centers to provide the organizational and financial support for the development of such activists. Denouncing the Democrats, blaming the Kerry campaign, is not the way to go. Kerry ran a decent campaign by Democratic party standards against a sitting president with much greater resources and a stronger political party (while the Republicans are a party of the right and the ultra-right, they are much more of a political party than the Democrats, with a much better organized central party structure, and much closer links to mass organizations like the NRA, the NAM and UCC, and of course the 'evangelical' churches than the Democrats have to any set of mass organizations except perhaps the AFL-CIO. The left can only become stronger by actively fighting the right, not by attacking the Center. And the left can only become stronger in alliance with the center (meaning those called liberals in the U.S.) and vice versa.

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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