By David Sole
The campaign by the Republican Party is easy to understand as they work to suppress voting rights. In a fair fight the Republicans are losing ground as they cater to the vilest white supremacy, bigotry, misogyny, religious fundamentalism and general ignorance to gain votes. Voter suppression today is an intensification of Republican efforts, which was given a green light by the United States Supreme Court, whose 2013 ruling gutted enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Why can’t the Democratic Party secure voting rights in the United States?
They have benefited from large voter turnouts, especially in this last national election where they won the presidency and control of both houses of Congress. But examining the class character of the U.S. shows that the country is actually in the hands of a small capitalist class. The “Occupy Wall Street” protesters years ago dubbed them the “One Percent.” It is more accurate to say the “One Tenth of One Percent.”
Naturally being in control of this large country and having their wealth depend on the continuing exploitation of hundreds of millions of workers, the capitalists are always fearful of resistance and revolt by the masses they keep in poverty. The electoral system, “democracy,” has worked pretty well for the parasitic bosses and bankers.
It wasn’t always so. At the start of the republic in 1789 voting rights were severely limited to white men with property. Even the first draft of the U.S. Constitution failed to include rights for the masses. It took a struggle before the “Bill of Rights,” including the freedoms of speech and assembly, was added. That’s why they are called Amendments.
Voting rights expanded in the face of struggle, but also as the ruling class gained experience and confidence. The Civil War (1861 – 1865) didn’t start out with the aim to end slavery, but only to put the southern plantation owners in a secondary place to the growing northern capitalist class. Abolition was only resorted to when winning the war could only succeed by marshalling the participation of Black people.
Giving the vote to the four million newly freed people wasn’t done right away. It was another five years before the XV Amendment was added to the Constitution. And except for a few years of what is called “Reconstruction” the voting rights of African Americans were systematically attacked and eliminated in the defeated states for almost 100 years.
Women advocated for the right to vote from before the Civil War. A Women’s Rights Conference at Seneca Falls, NY in 1848 saw the escaped slave and great abolitionist Frederick Douglass rise to support a motion demanding the right to vote for women. But it wasn’t until 1920 that the XIX Amendment became law.
A cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s was the fight to restore the right to vote guaranteed in the XV Amendment. After years of confrontations, struggle, death and terrorist bombings the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed. The capitalists feared that the growing mass movement would be more dangerous than expanding voting rights.
So why then is protecting the right to vote uncertain even though the Democratic Party needs the broadest voter turnout to stay in office? It is because the ruling capitalist class is profoundly aware of their precarious position as a small, exploiting minority.
As a small minority ruling over a huge oppressed majority it is essential that those at the “bottom” are not able to overthrow them. Ignorance and confusion are effective tools. Divisions, particularly racism, have proven successful to keep unity of the working class from being achieved.
Even the modern form of the Democratic Party is a concession to the masses who have been conditioned to see the Democrats as their party, as a vehicle for progressive change. It is clear that in every crisis in the United States, where mass struggle has erupted in the streets, election season has drawn many activists into campaigning for the “lesser of two evils” or what they perceive might be a progressive candidate. This has often sapped momentum from the mass struggle – exactly what the ruling elite want.
Even elections themselves, however, can frighten the ruling class. If the masses of people get too radical and expect too much from the electoral process, that could threaten the far from stable capitalist system.
One can look back at the campaign of African American activist Jesse Jackson for president in 1988. Jackson, certainly no revolutionary, was not seen by Wall Street as “safe.” When he started to sweep Democratic primaries he became a target of most of the big business media, and was forced out of the race.
Come forward several decades. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “socialist”, was a serious contender for the 2016 Democratic standard bearer. He drew huge crowds and was inspiring tens of millions, especially among the young people. Leaks from top Democratic Party sources show that Sanders was stopped by hook and by crook from gaining the nomination. Even inside the Democratic Party most progressives often talk about the “Corporate Democrats” in frustration with who really rules that party. The Corporate Dems, heavily supported by mainstream media, conspired again in the 2020 elections to keep a “socialist” candidate from gaining the Democratic Party’s nomination.
To some the year 2020 will be remembered for the defeat of reactionary Donald Trump who garishly revealed the true face of the capitalist ruling class. But for others the unprecedented Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 is more significant. The brutal, televised police murder of George Floyd on May 25 sparked street protests of a scope not seen in a long time. The demonstrations went on for months. The participants were not just from the African American community but included all races, religions and ages.
This is what makes the ruling class so nervous. They may not want to take a chance of protecting and expanding the right to vote. They certainly will continue to expand the militarization of police forces across the country. As a ruling class they are well aware, even if the mass of the people do not yet know, that elections can be precursors to struggles much broader and more radical than were imagined.
Fighting to defend and expand voting rights are necessary and laudable goals. But real change that can secure progressive advances, defeat white supremacy and all oppressions, and radically improve the standard of living can, and will, eventually be fought out in the streets and workplaces.