Federal battles are a showdown over democracy

BY:Sam Webb| November 27, 2013
Federal battles are a showdown over democracy

This is an excerpt of National Char Sam Webb’s remarks to the meeting of the party’s National Committee, November 16-17, 2013. That meeting announced the Party’s 30th National Convention will be held in Chicago, June 13-15, 2014. The part of Webb’s remarks pertaining to the Convention Discusion will be published seperately in the lead up to the Convention Discussion, starting Feb 1, 2014.


This meeting of the National Committee has its work cut out for it. It is our last face-to-face gathering until we meet in Chicago on the eve of the convention.

We have much to think about, much to discuss, and many decisions to make.

These remarks are neither comprehensive nor seamlessly tied together, and I offer them not as a finished product. If anything they have an exploratory character.

I view this as my first foray into the Convention discussion, and my hope is that it will stimulate comrades and friends (a convention shouldn’t be an in-house affair) to think, talk, and write.

My plan was to make my remarks brief, but I have to admit at the outset that I failed in this regard.

The shutdown and its aftermath

Last month’s settlement reopening the federal government constituted a major victory for democratic governance. It firmly rebuffed a reckless attempt by a small group of right-wing extremists to leverage what should have been the routine lifting of the debt ceiling and funding of government operations into something much more serious and consequential.

De-funding Obamacare was to be the first trophy in a far more ambitious and longer-term power play by a reactionary grouping and their big-pocketed financial backers. Their aim: to reverse the 2012 elections, dis-empower President Obama for the remainder of his term, bypass democratic institutions and rules, and, above all, impose a deeply reactionary political agenda on the country – not to mention position themselves to gain control of Congress in 2014 and the presidency in 2016.

That this might entail violating the core democratic principle of majority rule, nullifying an election, courting economic disaster in the midst of an already anemic recovery, and bringing on a political crisis of first-rate proportions, didn’t seem to bother these fanatics of the right. They were prepared to roll the dice.

A combination of factors explains why the extremist tea party crowd came with egg and worse on their faces.

First, the president, to his credit, didn’t blink; he refused to give in to extortion. He evidently understood, in no small measure from earlier experience with the sequester, that if he gave ground again it would be tantamount to surrendering his presidency and much more.

Second, the American people in their majority saw through the “both sides responsible” sham. By the second week of the shutdown nearly three-quarters of the public blamed the Republicans. This no doubt had a sobering impact on established and moderate voices in the GOP.

Third, the tea party wrongly assumed that people were ready to go to war over Obamacare. While many people may not like it (or the caricatured version served up by right-wing media and politicians), few were ready to shut down the government in order to repeal it.

Fourth, organized actions throughout the country stiffened the resistance of Democrats and were surely noted by Republicans representing swing districts.

Finally, pressure from Wall Street and other sections of big capital was a factor in forcing a settlement, demonstrating that this crisis was not a case of class war, “pure and simple,” in which the capitalist class lines up on one side and the working class on the other.

Certainly, on one side was a coalition of right-wing forces, including a sliver of well-heeled capitalists – the most racist, anti-labor, anti-democratic and reactionary. However, on the other side was not only a majority of the American people, but also major sections of the capitalist class who, while sharing many of the aims of right-wing extremists in the Republican Party, were not ready to risk pulling the plug on the economy in order to achieve them.

So much so that as the clock ticked down on lifting the debt ceiling, these capitalists brought their considerable weight to bear on Republican leaders in Congress to agree to a settlement that left Obamacare untouched and essentially mirrored what was on the table just prior to the shutdown.

While this meant throwing the tea party crowd under the bus and being in the company of people and organizations that are normally their adversaries, it was a price that big capital was ready to pay in order to guarantee the smooth reproduction of U.S. and world capitalism as well as maintain the U.S.’s global imperialist hegemony. Capitalists ruthlessly exploit crises and disasters to be sure, but most prefer a predictable economic and political environment in which to accumulate capital and profits; shocks to the system are not their preferred brand.

Thus, this was a particular kind of battle, which brought together a motley grouping of people and social forces and turned, in the deepest sense, on the issue of democracy and democratic governance. And although it was not a case of “class against class,” its outcome will nonetheless impress itself on the class struggle, as well as other democratic struggles, going forward.

This analysis flows from a Marxism that admits new experience, employs dialectics, and has an an eye for the contradictory, concrete, and peculiar ways in which classes and people interact on the ground, far from the neat boundaries of abstract theory and rigidly constructed social categories.  It is an analysis that couldn’t be gleaned from a dogmatic reading of Marxism.

Kick the can

Some said that the shutdown settlement just “kicked the can down the road.” This is true – but incomplete too. It failed to note that the lay of the land changed in significant ways in the course of this struggle.

The Tea Party and the Republican Party were weakened, while the President and Democrats came out of this struggle energized, if not fully united.

And beyond Washington, the people’s movement in the shutdown’s wake had more bounce in its step and a new confidence that significant gains could be won in next year’s mid-term elections.

But much of this advantage was dissipated with the epic failure of the roll-out of the Affordable Health Care Act. Overnight the atmosphere changed. The President and Democrats found themselves on the defensive. The Republicans got out of the woodshed. And the shutdown became a distant memory.

Now, if the health insurance exchanges are running smoothly by the end of the year, much of the furor will die out. But if they aren’t, Obamacare will turn into a metaphor for “broken government” and the prospects of unseating Republicans next fall will become more problematic.

Thus grumbling about the failure of the health care roll-out, although understandable, has to give way to actively resisting the right wing’s campaign to  “kill” Obamacare and regain the initiative leading into the midterm and 2016 elections.

Energizing, uniting, and raising the understanding of ever more people to oppose right wing extremism in every arena of struggle – not least of which is the defense of the Affordable Health Care Act – is the order of the day.

Of critical importance is the fight against racism in its material and ideological forms. Racism was the main vehicle used to bust up the New Deal coalition and fuel the ascendancy of the right wing, and the struggle against it is at the core of building a movement with the ideological, political, and organizational capacity to dislodge the right and usher in an era of deep-going progressive, even radical, change.

In all this, the left, broadly defined, can make a notable contribution, provided that it is fully embedded in the trenches of struggle, while shedding any sectarian ideas and practices.

The election results

With the shutdown still fresh on people’s minds, voters went to the polls in November and registered their hopes and expressed their anger.

Despite a few setbacks, notably in New Jersey where Republican governor Chris Christie won reelection by a large margin and catapulted himself into the front ranks of GOP presidential hopefuls, the results are cause for optimism.

By far the most impressive victory was here in New York. The landslide win of Bill De Blasio represented, in the words of the New York Times “a sharp leftward turn for the nation’s largest metropolis.” In my words, it was a sea change.

During his campaign, De Blasio passionately decried the city’s widening income inequality, gentrification, the hollowing out of the middle class, and the rise of two New Yorks – one living in grand style, the other increasingly in poverty.   

De Blasio also vigorously expressed his opposition to the city’s racist “stop and frisk” police practices, to the shrinkage of affordable housing, to the lack of pre-kindergarten classes, and to the unfair system of taxation that favors Wall Street and the one percent.

What is more, it was driven from below and part of an even broader progressive sweep in the city council and other citywide offices. One of the latter was the election Letitia James as Public Advocate. James, an African American woman, has been a tireless anti-corporate critic and eloquent champion of New York’s multiracial, multinational, immigrant and native born working class.

But the country’s growing frustration and anger with widening inequality and poverty didn’t stop at the Hudson. Nearby voters in New Jersey and distant voters in the city of Seatac, Washington, approved raising the minimum wage. Seatac’s “Good Jobs Initiative” raises it to $15 an hour for workers at the Seattle-Tacoma airport and at airport-related businesses.

Adding to the good news on Election Day, the Illinois state legislature passed marriage equality legislation, and Seattle elected a gay mayor. Not to be outdone, the Senate at the same time voted in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to ban discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It is almost mind-boggling to remember that not that long ago homophobia was a “wedge issue” of the right.

If we had nothing more to report on the elections, it would be considered a good day’s work. But there is more.

In Boston, State Rep. Marty Walsh, a long-time labor leader, edged out City Council member John Connolly to become the next mayor. With the support of unions and key community and minority activists, Walsh won with 52 percent of the vote.

Two socialist city council candidates, one in Minneapolis, garnered more than 40 per cent of the vote, the other in Seattle had a sliver of lead with the vote count not yet completed. For many reasons, we should especially note this.

Other independent candidates also did well. And independent political formations, like the Working Families Party in New York, came out of the elections with new stature and support.

Nobody would call Terry McAuliffe’s victory a blow out, but progressives and liberals are nevertheless embracing his victory in the Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday.

Not usually on our radar, but worth mentioning is that the campaign to legalize marijuana gained new momentum when voters in Portland, Maine by a significant margin approved a ballot measure that would make its recreational use legal. Isn’t it time that that we joined the growing chorus of organizations and individuals supporting the legalization and regulation of marijuana?

Finally, it is also worth noting that in Alabama, business interests poured money into a Republican congressional primary campaign to defeat a wing nut Tea Party candidate, running against a more rational, though conservative, opponent.

Corporate interests worry that the Tea Party is destroying the GOP’s legitimacy. Recent polls show that as many as 40 Republican House members are vulnerable to defeat next November as the party’s favorability ratings sink among moderate and independent voters, who blame the GOP for the government shutdown and for the gridlock in Washington. The Democrats, who have 200 seats in the House, need to add 18 members to take back control of Congress’ lower chamber.

Rebuff to the right and more

That the election results were a rebuff to right wing extremism is indisputable, but only part of the story. They also reflect a growth of direct opposition to economic equality and corporate power, and put the Blue Dogs and centrists in the Democratic Party on notice as well as the Republicans.

The outcome in New York, for example, was an undeniable and powerful rejection of the Bloomberg-Giuliani years.

But we can also say that it was a challenge to neoliberalism and the rise of the neoliberal city – by which I mean a system of political and economic governance at the city level that favors commercial, real estate and banking interests, facilitates gentrification, scales back the public sector, ramps up policing, promotes privatization of functions that previously were in the public sphere – not least of which is education, and generates inequality. This model finds advocates in the Democratic as well as the Republican Party.  

I have to think that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel reflected, probably for more than a moment, on the meaning of the results in the Big Apple and elsewhere.

New York isn’t Lubbock, Texas or Lincoln, Nebraska or Lansing, Michigan to be sure, but I can’t help but believe that anger at growing inequality and class privilege is felt by tens of millions across the country. Maybe not to the same degree and maybe not in the same way as New Yorkers, but this anger is surfacing nonetheless in ways that increasingly reject the economic orthodoxy of the top circles of the Democratic Party as well as their Republican counterparts.

At the same time, the election results give fresh momentum to the liberal and progressive wing of the Democratic Party – not to mention the broad labor and people’s movement and the left – to press their agenda with greater confidence and vigor.

They also make any Grand Bargain a dead issue and can only positively impact on the current budget negotiations. I’m not exactly sure what Patty Murray, who is leading the Democratic side of the negotiations, is thinking, but she can’t help but feel compelled to strike a tougher bargaining posture after these elections as she sits down opposite Paul Ryan, her Republican adversary.

The results also underscore the fact that state and city politics provide spaces for the emerging people’s movement to leave their mark and score victories, while at the same time gathering strength to mount a fresh offensive at the congressional level to unseat obstructionist right wingers on the one hand and to elect liberals, progressives, and radicals on the other.

Breaking good

That the November elections broke in a very positive way should come as no surprise. Indeed, they continued a wave of rising struggles and people’s victories that have dotted the political landscape over the past year.

They take inspiration from and are of a piece with the “Moral Monday” movement in North Carolina, immigrant rights activism, battles to protect women’s health clinics from state budget cuts, strikes by low-wage workers, civil disobedience to challenge voter suppression, growing opposition to stop and frisk and the Keystone pipe line, student campaigns against global energy corporations, the passage of marriage equality legislation, the ground breaking convention of the AFL-CIO, the anniversary celebrations of the 1963 civil rights march, and the massive opposition to the administration’s planned military strike against Syria.  

Admittedly, this surge isn’t at the level where it has the ideological and practical capacity to resolve the current crisis of capitalism in a democratic and working class manner.

But at the same time life isn’t standing still. The movement isn’t in the same place now as it was a year ago, or even 6 months ago when I made that observation to our Annual Membership conference.

What does this mean? In general, it creates new opportunities to extend and deepen the people’s movement, to curb corporate power and roll back the right, and to register victories, including in next fall’s congressional elections.

Thus, our focus (and the focus of the broader left) in the coming period should be not on what this surge lacks, but on the new opportunities that it offers.

Thus, how do we help deepen and broaden this surge? How do we give it greater organizational and political coherence? How do we expand its reach to more people who are moving in a good direction politically, but are still passive? How do we give the many strands of the surge a multi-racial, multi-national character? How do we further build independent political movements and alternatives in the context of this surge? How can we help this surging movement flip the House out of the hands of right wing Republicans in next year’s election? How do we build the left and the party in size and influence in this new political environment?

These are questions that should take up a lot of the oxygen before and at our convention in Chicago.


Attribution Some rights reserved by Ron Cogswell



    Sam Webb is a member of the National Committee of the Communist Paryt USA. He served as the party's national chairperson from 2000 to 2014. Previously he was the state organizer of the Communist Party in Michigan. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.

    He is a public spokesperson for the CPUSA, and travels extensively in the U.S. and abroad, including trips to South Africa, China, Vietnam, and Cuba where he met with leaders of those countries.

    Webb currently resides in New York City, graduated from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and received his MA in economics from the University of Connecticut.


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