Watching the excellent new film The Trial of the Chicago 7 as Donald Trump refused to acknowledge his election defeat at the hands of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, was a timely reminder that democracy in America repeatedly hangs by a thread.
In 1968, a variety of activists and organisations like Students for a Democratic Society and the Yippies planned a protest outside the Democratic Party’s convention in Chicago. They wanted presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey party to abandon support for the disastrous Vietnam War intensified by Democrat president Lyndon Johnson.
Mayor Richard Daley, a Democrat notorious for running the city as a personal fiefdom, ordered the police and the national guard to clear protesters, which they did with enormous brutality. Republican Richard Nixon easily won the election that year. Seven activists were then framed up on conspiracy charges, convicted after a show trial in Chicago and only freed on appeal.
Nixon, as we know, then constructed a kind of police state of his own to bolster his grip on power. The FBI under the virulent anti-communist and witch-hunter J. Edgar Hoover spied on, infiltrated and disrupted protest groups. The CIA organised coups in Chile and elsewhere. Nixon personally authorised the bugging of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate. He was impeached and resigned in 1974, two years into his second term.
By then, the post-war economic boom based on fixed currencies and capital controls had collapsed in every country. Mass unemployment, rampant inflation and militant trade union fight backs were the norm. America’s economic pre-eminence in the capitalist order vanished in 1971 when Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard – and it has never returned.
After Reagan and Thatcher’s scorched-earth monetarist assaults, capital turned to neoliberal free-for-all market economics and corporate-driven globalisation, championed by Bill Clinton and all Democrat presidents since (not to mention Tony Blair and New Labour).
The rest, as they say, is history. As former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has written:
“When Wall Street’s house of cards collapsed in 2008, so did this post-war social contract between America’s working class and its rulers… A majority of Americans were thus treated, in quick succession, to negative equity, home repossessions, collapsing pension kitties and casualised work – all that against the spectacle of watching wealth and power concentrate in the hands of so few.”
He adds: “By 2016 [when Trump was elected], the majority of Americans were deeply frustrated. On the one hand, they lived with the private anguish caused by the permanent austerity to which their communities had been immersed since 2008. And, on the other, they could see a ruling class whose losses were socialised by the government, which defined the response to the crash.”
Enter Trump, who defeated the investment banks’ nominee Hillary Clinton.
Revulsion at Trump’s racism, misogyny, lying and disdain for constitutional rights produced the largest turnout since 1900. A mass movement of first-time voters, Black men and women – many of whom took to the streets in the summer to oppose police brutality and proclaim that Black Lives Matter – got Joe Biden and the Democrats over the line. Noticeably, the Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives and failed to capture the Senate.
Biden will take office – always assuming he is actually allowed to do so – in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed over 225,000 Americans, a divided country and with the economic and political conditions that created Trump very much in place. Addressing these issues in any meaningful way is, frankly, beyond the capacity of the Democratic Party or the American state.
As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of several books, wrote in the New Yorker magazine:
“Like tens of millions of Americans, I voted to end the miserable reign of Donald J. Trump, but we cannot perpetuate the election-year fiction that the deep and bewildering problems facing millions of people in this country will simply end with the Trump Administration… systemic inequity is not an error but an emblem of American capitalism. The two parties have worked to create a condition under which the spoils of economic exploitation are increasingly concentrated at the very top, and practically everyone else struggles to make ends meet.”
Taylor points to a huge shift in public attitudes to climate change, racism, public housing and wages, a sea-change, which has been drowned by the din of Trumpism. She describes in graphic detail the poverty in Philadelphia, the largest city in Pennsylvania where a huge turnout of Black voters enabled Biden to get over the finishing line. Most other Democratic Party-controlled urban centres endure the same conditions.
Taylor bemoans the fact that the Democrats don’t have a substantive policy to tackle racial inequality and that the left in what is essentially a liberal-capitalist party has little influence:
“White workers may be better off, on the whole, than Black workers, but that is a pyrrhic victory in a race to absolutely nowhere. Our economy is built on jobs that lead to nothing for some and to otherworldly riches for others. And they are usually connected. Those who toil in the low-wage world create the wealth enjoyed in the world of the elite and powerful. To be sure, this is an argument that can be won or lost, but it is not one that Nancy Pelosi [Speaker of the House of Representatives] will ever entertain.”
Philadelphia is where the first public reading of America’s Declaration of Independence from Britain took place in 1776 and the site for the signing in 1787 of the first written constitution in history, laying the basis for representative democracy. Now the revered constitution is no longer fit for purpose – and hasn’t been for a long time.
The constitution has come to enshrine corporate, landowning and financial power rather than the natural rights of American citizens. Taylor’s view is that the constitution had a “founding contradiction”– namely “freedom and democracy bound to racism and inequality”.
Resolving this fundamental contradiction through a renewed democratic revolution is surely the most pressing issue of all. A series of conventions took responsibility for drafting the original constitution. As Taylor illustrates, resistance to Trump and growing poverty was the work of hundreds of grass-roots groups and activists who self-organised in the absence of any leadership from the Democratic Party.
Here is a ready-made network that could and should campaign for delegates to a new convention on the constitution. The convention would be charged with creating a real democracy that at last gives effect to Abraham Lincoln’s pledge that after the Civil War, America would build a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.