Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2083

US politics: are the Democrats any different?

This article is over 14 years, 0 months old
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s fight to be Democratic candidate for US president is exciting the media, but they and their party offer no hope to the US poor, says Martin Smith
Issue 2083

The battle to see who will be the next president of the US began last week with the Democrat and Republican parties holding caucuses in the state of Iowa to begin choosing their candidate. The 2008 election is going to be the most expensive election campaign in history.

The candidates will spend $1 billion (£500 million) over the next ten months in the run-up to the election set for 4 November. In a country where one in six children go to bed hungry that money could feed them all for the next four years.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the two key Democratic candidates, have election war chests exceeding $100 million (£50 million).

War and neoliberal madness have been the hallmarks of George Bush’s presidency. It is no wonder that millions of people, both in the US and around the world, will be hoping and praying that the Republicans don’t get back in.

There is a real possibility that for the first time a woman or a black man could become the president of the US.

The idea that the Democrats are the lesser of two evils between the two main parties is a very popular argument in the US. Many on the radical left accept this as common sense.

Behind all the election razzmatazz, many are asking whether Clinton, Obama or any other Democratic presidential candidates are different from their Republican rivals and do they really offer the poor and working class of the US any hope?

Both Clinton and Obama offer some slight rhetorical changes from the Bush years. Both are pushing the idea of diplomacy instead of aggressive, unilateral foreign policies.

On the domestic front they even promise to roll back some of the tax breaks for the wealthy. But as one journalist on the Washington Post remarked, “Both candidates are offering the electorate as little as possible and their policies don’t even begin to undo the damage of eight years of George Bush.”


On the key question of the war in Iraq, there is little hope for the anti-war movement. Clinton voted for the war and that is a decision that haunts her election campaign.

Obama is little better – he is refusing to commit to withdrawing US troops from Iraq even by the end of the next president’s first term in 2013 and said he would be prepared to attack Iran.

There is a debate raging inside the US ruling class about how to get out of the debacle of Iraq while at the same time continuing to maintain their imperialist interests. The Democrats want to achieve the same aims as the Republicans but by different methods.

The media in Britain likes to paint the Democratic Party as a coalition of trade unions, civil rights groups, women’s groups and single issue campaigns – a Labour type party. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In Britain the Labour Party is still mainly funded by the trade unions. This is not the case for the Democrats. Around 93 percent of all US trade unions’ political contributions go to the Democratic Party, yet this represents only 14 percent of Democratic funding.

Money from big business makes up as much as 67 percent of the money raised. At the 2004 presidential election, Democratic candidate John Kerry raised a staggering $187 million for his campaign.

The key donations came from some of the US’s biggest corporations including Time Warner, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Microsoft and IBM.

These are the companies pulling the strings inside the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party is a capitalist party representing the interests of the US ruling class. Of the top 13 corporate donations to the Democratic Party in 2004 over half gave to the Republicans as well. Some give exactly the same amount to both parties.

Big business influences the Democrats in a myriad of other ways. It funds many of the party’s think-tanks and research units and advises Democratic candidates and politicians.

Once in office the record of the Democrats is no better than that of the Republicans. For example the balance sheet of Hillary’s husband Bill Clinton’s time in office from 1993-2000 does not make for happy reading.

The gap between rich and poor increased almost ten-fold. The number of federal prisoners nearly doubled. Clinton ordered US forces into combat situations as many times as his four previous predecessors combined and ended the federal welfare system – something right wing president Ronald Reagan could only dream of doing.


Hillary Clinton’s attempts to talk up the successes of her husband’s rule did not play well in last week’s Iowa caucus, where she was beaten into third by Obama and John Edwards.

From its very inception the Democratic Party has been the second party of US capitalism.

The victory of the Northern industrial capitalists in the US Civil War of 1861-5 created a modern capitalist economy governed by two parties – the Republicans and the Democrats.

The Republicans’ power base was the Northern industrialists and the Democrats represented the segregationist ruling elite of the South.

The loyalties of the working class were also divided.

Protestant workers and those black people who had the vote tended to support the Republicans, and the new immigrant workers, often Catholics from Europe, backed the Democrats.

Yet today the Democratic Party has a reputation as “the party of the people”. This is largely as a result of the party’s “Golden Age” of 1933-45.

The 1930s were a time of severe economic crisis and mass unemployment in the US. At one point one in four workers were unemployed.

Democratic president Franklin D Roosevelt introduced a number of important social reforms to counteract this massive crisis.

Roosevelt pulled together a “New Deal” coalition – an alliance of trade unions, black people and the poor.

But behind it all was a massive realignment of business forces backing the Democratic Party.

This included capital-intensive industries, investment banks and internationally orientated commercial banks.


These corporations were in favour of Roosevelt’s reforms because they were designed to save US capitalism and not challenge it. Roosevelt argued that he was the “savior of the system of private profit and free enterpise”.

The reforms instituted during this period go a long way to explain why the trade unions today act as some of the Democratic Party’s key supporters.

The explosion of the civil rights movement in 1955 and the Black Power movement in the 1960s created a challenge to the Democratic Party.

But through a series of skilful manoeuvres it was able to co-opt a significant section of the movement. Between 1964 and 1986 the number of black elected officials rose from 103 to 6,424. Today black people vote solidly for the Democrats.

The history of the Democratic Party shows that it is a very resilient organisation that has been able to incorporate mass movements and also govern in the interest of the US ruling class.

The Democratic Party offers no hope for the poor and working class of the US. This is why only around 50 percent of Americans will vote in the presidential elections in 2008.

Disillusionment with politicians in general is high and millions of Americans believe there is no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. They are right.

There is a need for a radical alternative. This is not a pipe dream. We have seen the possibilities of such an alternative developing in the past.

In 1920 a socialist named Eugene Debs won nearly one million votes when he stood for president. In the 1930s and 1960s there were real possibilities to create a radical alternative to the Democrats.

In 2000 the radical campaigner Ralph Nader won 2.7 million votes in the presidential elections.

Today what is needed in the US is a party that is going to address the massive economic inequality that exists in the richest country in the world and end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This would give hope to millions of Americans and a reason to vote. Clinton and Obama will never do this – it goes against everything the big business backers of the party believe in.

The US ruling class has the best of both worlds – both major parties represent its interests. The difficult task facing the US left and peace campaigners is to set about building a new party that truly represents working people.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance