Electoral politics in this country is a cover for oligarchic rule. Democratic party victories provide very little material benefit for the people they depend upon for support.
Democrats have so far failed to move forward even the most watered-down legislative agenda after a year in power. And while this has been largely chalked up to either holdout “moderates” or bad actors like the senate parliamentarian, it has ultimately masked the vacuous nature of American politics, one that consistently trades the preservation of power to the exclusion of even the mildest of reforms. The list of failures, intentional and otherwise, is long—Migrant Protection Protocols, student loans, and critically, the slow death of the Build Back Better Act—to name a few. While these have an erupting mountain of excuses piled next to them, the rather important but unstated one is that major reforms will almost always cede their priority to political jockeying for power. This is clearest in the Democrats recent shelving of BBB (before Manchin decided he wouldn't vote for it anyway) in favor of electoral reform; the fear that they will lose seats to increasingly gerrymandered states largely controlled by Republicans.
While it's being sold as protecting democracy and minority interests in the electoral process (voter ID laws are sometimes quite explicitly racialized and targeted), in the end, this is only a concern to them because those interests often vote Democrat. Though noble on its face, Democrats have shown themselves in the last year alone to be far less kind in their treatment of those same minorities at the border (possibly because those individuals cast no votes). While the right has been targeting Democratic votes for some time now, Democrats are not interested in electoral protections for the sake of those impacted but for its own ability to remain in power. While these two disparate goals can and do align at times, in the instant case, they reveal the fundamental disconnect between US partisan politics and even the remote semblance of representing the interests of the people.
Not that electoral reform is a sound strategy, even if pursued for noble reasons. The current Supreme Court will likely be hostile to large-scale voting reforms. More significantly, there is no indication that such protections would have an immediate payoff in the upcoming midterms, especially if Democratic votes are too poor and defeated to even get to the polls. While this ill-advised move detracts from the soundness of the strategy, it does not remove the cynicism at the heart of the approach—protecting power takes precedence over all else, albeit however poorly chosen the approach is. The starkest failure in this tradeoff between BBB and voting reform is that the interests of the people have been sacrificed on the altar of the status quo. While the watered-down BBB Act had little emancipatory about it, a number of its provisions would serve to uplift the material conditions of millions of Americans. As an example, the temporary legalization program for migrants, while a far cry from what the masses have advocated for and what migrants have long deserved, would still be a material improvement for a large segment of the population.
For the working class, the fights over gerrymandering, restrictions over mail-in votes, voter IDs, etc., lose all significance as we come closer and closer to the fullest culmination of capitalist electoralism. The two parties have everything to gain by ensuring their prominence in the halls of government, vying to be the most ideal pawns of neoliberalism's rendition of capital. Neither party requires the consent of the majority of the people to govern, only a majority of those that they can get to show up at the polls (or in the Republican case, not show up). Selling voting reforms as protections to minorities is the worst kind of lip service to their emmiseration, that the promises of relief can only come after the masses have once more helped ensure that one party maintains a position of power over them.
And herein lies the critical failure of the Democrats’ most recent pivot--guaranteeing electoral power is of little use to the working class if it is never deployed to their benefit. The Democrats recently received historic levels of votes, in part, on the promises of large reforms that would at least marginally benefit the working-class. But even in the context of capitalist politics, the Democrats have shown themselves unable to secure even the most paltry benefits to those they allege to represent. It is but one example in a long series of capitalist pretenses at delivering supposed political equality to the masses through the vote, while firmly leaving the material conditions (like the means of production) that affect the people the most out of reach.
The struggles of the working class, whether it be to have affordable child care or protection against the cruelty of family separation and deportation, increasingly serve only as playing cards for the respective sides to combat one another with, rather than as provocations to address actual needs within their populaces. In the end, these crises of relief are also ones of legitimacy, where the political elite has floated so far away from those they purportedly serve, that all that remains is for them to get some minimal assent to continue governing. It belies the lie of neoliberal politics—that people, rather than capital, are the focus of "good governance."
It also reveals that we cannot, and possibly should never, expect remotely emancipatory potential to emerge from within the political confines of our present moment, even as we look to those in power to fulfill long-standing demands to shore up the worst damages done to the masses under global capitalism's weight. Even mild relief is too much to ask for anymore, despite the growing din of alienated people. Relief, albeit, has often been used to mollify the working class from making and taking more radical positions. Nevertheless, its absence has aided the growing sense of nihilism and emptiness even within an already facile electoral structure. That we should all continue slaving away at the interests of capital, ceding what little collective power we possess so that a few might “improve” our material conditions. Whether through impotence or indifference, the result is the same—the status quo has entrenched itself to such a degree that all but the most rosy-eyed can hardly bear the sight of it.
And in noting this, we should also note a moment of possible clarity in the thread-bare system. All that the political elite can offer in a moment of global despondency is a demand to help maintain itself—but no longer with even a reasonable assurance that the favor will be returned. That the parties are so easily able to bounce from one politically expedient moment to another, both within and without their turn at holding the keys, has made it clear to the masses that we are treading water with a political elite who are far more interested in remaining on top than getting us all ashore safely, even if they drown everyone in the process. And as they hold us below the surface, it might become axiomatic that the trade between people and power is one we’re no longer interested in making.
Daniel Melo is a public sector immigration lawyer in the American Southeast. His book, Borderlines, is out now from Zer0 Books.