Political Polarization Today

by Chris Caruso and Sheilah Garland-Olaniran

This political moment is overflowing with stories about the minute-to-minute fights within the two-party system and the changes happening within each party. These battles and ruptures are signs of a time of deeper, society-wide polarization, likely only to intensify. Throughout history, it is exactly contexts like these that have offered real possibility for the poor and dispossessed to build and exert politically independent leadership. But destabilized times are also full of enormous danger and reaction. To move through them effectively, we need to develop a serious assessment of the political dynamics playing out around us, as well as the economic changes that undergird them. 

To help offer a bird’s eye view on today’s lay-of-the-land, we spoke with Chris Caruso and Sheilah Garland-Olaniran, two long-time political organizers and educators. The following are transcribed excerpts from their conversation, facilitated by Ciara Taylor and Noam Sandweiss-Back.

Ciara Taylor: The political status quo really seems to be reaching a breaking point right now. There are big struggles happening inside the Democratic and Republican parties and between them. And if we think of each party as currently being different instruments of the ruling class, we can bet the rich are also trying to get their bearings and figure out how to maneuver. Can you two help break down some of what’s happening within the two-party system, including some of the history that brought us here?

Chris Caruso: It may seem funny to answer this question by beginning 150 years ago, but I think that there’s no single event that better describes this country’s politics than the defeat of Radical Reconstruction after the Civil War. Radical Reconstruction was the single biggest democratic breakthrough in our country’s history. A hugely significant world event. We know that in U.S. history, every time there is a democratic breakthrough, there is a massive wave of reaction. More than anything the United States is a deeply reactionary country. 

The echoes of Reconstruction and its defeat were felt in the wave of reaction that followed the advances of the Civil Rights Movement, which some call a Second Reconstruction. Today, we are still very much living within the reactionary fallout to that democratic breakthrough in the 1960s, which was encoded in politics under the name of the Southern Strategy. This was a very conscious strategy of elites in the Republican Party to win the South. They knew that if they controlled the South, they would control the country and they went all in on racism. 

Racial resentment became the political strategy of the Republican Party for generations. And for generations it worked. The problem is that the demographics of the country have fundamentally changed. You can’t win a national election based on racist appeals to old white people anymore, because they are a dying demographic. If we look at the base of the Republican Party, it’s primarily older, white, male, evangelical. And, of course, the Republicans are actually really bad at winning national elections. They’ve controlled the White House for 12 of the last 20 years, but only four of those years are because they won the popular vote. 

These trends are due to long-term demographic changes and the inability of the Republicans to widen their base because they can’t risk losing their core base if they lay off the gas pedal of nonstop appeals to their most racist, sexist, backward, homophobic, reactionary elements. Right now they’re in a kind of death embrace with this reactionary base. Why? Because their actual policy agenda is deeply unpopular. No one thinks that millionaires and billionaires should get trillions of dollars in more tax breaks. Nobody cares about tort reform and the carried interest loophole deduction, except the 1 percent. 

The Republicans are now an explicitly anti-demoratic party and they cannot allow the majority of people to vote because if they do, they will lose every time. So the other reaction to Trump’s loss is almost 400 bills that have been introduced in states in the last four months to restrict voting. If the Republicans could be stopped from rigging and stealing the vote, they would just be a rump party in the South and parts of the Midwest and Southwest.

With a wider outlook, the stability of the two party system is itself breaking down. That’s a problem for the ruling class — for the Jeff Bezos and Elon Musks and Jeffrey Epsteins -— because they need to keep up this kabuki theater of the two party system in order to absorb dissent. Howard Zinn used to say that the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. Social movements grow and develop, they become popular, they get absorbed into the bureaucracy of the Democratic Party, and they become neutered. Maybe they win a decent law or two as a concession, but then their independent political force becomes absorbed into the Democratic Party. Now, though, the Democratic Party has to play all roles. There’s way more corporate funding going to the Democrats right right now because the rich need the basic functions of the government to exist.

Sheilah Garland-Olaniran: This point about the Democrats’ current position is important. Looking back, there is an historic relationship between the Democratic Party and the working class, especially through organized labor, from the 1940s onward. Unions grew out of a desire not necessarily to overthrow their employers, but to extract what they needed, in terms of some measure of equality and dignity, livable wages, health care, etc. There was a point during the emergence of the modern unions when they could have joined with the international movement toward a real revolution of labor relations, but did not.

During the first half of the 1950s, there was a significant section of the working class that supported the Republican Party, because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln. That was true among African Americans in particular. In the 1970s that shifted, due to the reasons Chris laid out, and the Democratic Party began to characterize itself as the party of the workers and minorities. And the unions opened the doors wide and said, “come on in.”

There’s this notion among some on the left that the Democratic Party can be reformed; that there’s a section of the party that can be made independent and that there are people within the party who can create an independent bloc that’s more to the left of the old guard. There’s also this whole thing about “unite to fight the right” and “unite to fight fascism,” which I think hamstrings us in terms of our ability to really form class independence. Within this framework we also end up tailing the unions, who we often think are the vanguard, even though the position of labor has changed dramatically during the current technological revolution.  

What the ruling class needs to be afraid of is real insurrection in this country. In order to maintain control, we see the flares of fascism and the repression of the state to guarantee that there’s no center of revolutionary leadership and that people are frightened back into their positions. For those of us who are engaged in revolutionary work, understanding the nuances of the agenda of the ruling class is critical. We need to be mindful of who our enemies are and the power they wield. But we also can’t forget the power of our unity as a class. I always go back to the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who was clear that if the poor and dispossessed are able to come together we could change the course of history. 

CC: What Sheilah is saying is absolutely true. That fear of social unrest is very palpable right now. Deep polarizations in both parties are really unsettling things. It’s not at all clear if the Republicans are going to be able to find a way to rehabilitate or resuscitate their party. For the 1 percent, something has to change. So this is going to be a critical time. Do they allow a new party to arise? Is there a possibility of splitting the Democratic Party from its neoliberal, pro-corporate stance to a more progressive one? It does seem that these times are alive with political possibilities. 

The system that they’ve used to attempt to maintain rule is breaking down partially because the economy has been in a long-term crisis. Basically since 1973, the rich have not been able to provide a rising standard of living for a good chunk of the U.S. population in the way they did in the post-war period after World War II. Our kids are doing worse than we did, and their possibilities for upward mobility are increasingly out of reach. This presents a huge problem for the owning class, even though they have benefited mightily, to the tune of trillions of dollars of wealth. Their ability to find any space to reform neoliberal capitalism, such that they could bribe a significant section of the working class to support them, is not present today. 

Are there any new ideas coming from the two parties? Biden has acknowledged that trickle-down economics never worked. That’s very significant for the Democrats, who have long been stuck in the disastrous political paradigm of the Clinton years. The question is whether this marks an actual change in policy going forward or if this is a state of exception because we’ve had this unprecedented 100-year pandemic. Or do they understand that they need to do something about 50 years of stagnating wages? 

I also think the January 6 insurrection attempt scared the ruling class. As did the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer. They’re beginning to understand that if they can’t deliver economically for people, generation after generation, then they have a problem. That’s an opportunity for revolutionaries, for people who see that in this era of unprecedented growth in the productive forces there’s no reason for anyone to go hungry. Today, the only reason we can’t end poverty are the property relations. It’s not because we don’t have the means. But objectively, it is still more important for the ruling class for Jeffrey Epstein to be able buy a private island to rape children than it is for children to be able to eat lunch. But that’s also a pretty weak place for the ruling class to be in. 

Noam Sandweiss-Back: So clearly there is a lot of flux in U.S. domestic policy right now. Internationally though, it feels like more of the same, with maybe even an intensification of old imperialist lines through the current antagonism toward China. Can you talk a bit about this and how we should approach internationalist politics from our position in the United States today?

SG: Looking at history gives us a clue about where we are, particularly when we consider the past Cold War period and the possibility that we’re approaching a new Cold War with China. Today, for the ruling class, challenging China is ideologically necessary for America to maintain economic, social, and political hegemony. It’s necessary for America to pursue its imperialist goals. So for them, creating an image about what China represents is critical. The sinophobic, or anti-Chinese, rhetoric we hear today is necessary as the potential grows not just for trade wars but actual skirmishes in places like the East China Sea. 

This ideological battle is also present in the way the West focuses on racism in China, which is completely absurd both when you look at how China has addressed social issues and when you consider the state of things in this country. We have to examine these dynamics closely, especially because how we understand them will have an impact on our political work, including on the folks coming into our movements from places like China and Southeast Asia. We have to be mindful of how international politics impact our ability to fight for and form real independent politics in this country. 

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the emergence of modern China and its path toward some measure of independence in the world. You know, in the last four or five years, China is maybe the only major country that has actually decreased poverty, even in the midst of a boom in Chinese millionaires. That’s a dynamic we need to watch closely. And of course, China has had fewer than 5,000 COVID-19 deaths, even though the first major outbreak of the virus was in Wuhan. That speaks volumes about how China has been able to deal with the pandemic. 

During the pandemic, China has used the power of the state to carry out a major public health offensive and decide how people are going to get resources. Compare that to Trump and even these first months of the Biden Administration. One might have expected a real push under Biden around public health. Yes, vaccines are rising and cases are lowering. But what would it look like if the government made it an historic push to really go into every community and knock on every door? What would it look like if our government used its resources to make public health the first priority? 

CC: We in the United States have a particular duty on the question of internationalism. I sometimes wonder how different the world would look if in the 1960s and 1970s the U.S. labor movement had directed some of its huge coffers towards helping workers of the Global South organize militant unions of their own, rather than taking a nativist turn because of the threat of outsourcing. I think we’d live in a different world today. 

Right now, we’re seeing way more continuity than discontinuity between the foreign policies of Trump and Biden. By and large, the United States is pursuing its imperialist policies undeterred. And I think what Sheilah is pointing out about China is really important. This “new” Cold War is really the product of a 50-year project of encircling China economically and physically with military installations. And this stuff can get out of control very easily, which would be very bad. I don’t know how to emphasize that enough. 

A lot of the basis for U.S. attacks on Chinese sovereignty and on the Chinese economy is about the defense of intellectual property. One of the main drivers of this conflict is the American attempt to force China to, in the Marxist sense, pay rent to the owners of intellectual property. If the United States had had to pay intellectual property rents to Britain during the Industrial Revolution, it would never have industrialized. We stole wholesale every idea we could get our hands on from Britain. Part of what we’re seeing today is a sabotaging of the economic ladder to ensure that the next country can’t rise in the way the U.S. did.

Now, especially in the technology sector, instead of a single global standard of interconnectivity, we are seeing this fight over things like 5G that threatens to split the world between U.S. and Chinese technological infrastructures. Now every country will need to choose between the two, meaning a kind of regionalization of the global economy which, if we look at historical parallels, does not bode well. Often, when that begins to happen, more direct conflict arises.

Solidarity with China at this moment is essential. And we must say that not only is China a socialist country, but that much of what will happen in terms of the fight for socialism in the 21st century depends on what happens in China. We have to fight the rise of this very racist, jingoistic language that not only justifies conflict with China, but fans the flames of anti-Asian violence here at home. And the source of this anti-Asian rhetoric and violence is not Trump and Trumpism. It’s the bipartisan result of the U.S. foreign policy establishment that needs the next boogeyman to justify their trillion-dollar military budgets. We should call that out every chance we get.

NSB: The conversation so far raises the question of how the poor and dispossessed relate to electoral politics and each party. How do we use them without being used? How do we approach them strategically?

SG: I think there is a real lack of understanding about what the Democratic Party represents, historically, and that misunderstanding is an impediment to knowing how we engage in electoral politics in a way that advances our agenda. How do we understand the machinations, divisions, and polarizations between the parties and why they’re happening? And what does all of that mean in terms of being an opening for our own politics? If we stand aside from electoral politics, we needlessly move outside of where the action is or may be in the future. This work may be distasteful for some. But on the other hand, wherever there’s an opportunity to capture and advance a real working-class agenda, we need to seize it. 

CC: That’s spot on, Sheilah. In the American scene, we have to reject the purity politics we often see on the left. Getting something done always requires compromise. The ability to effectively compromise means you’re very clear on your goals and your strategy. Willie Baptist often says that stupid people can’t compromise because they compromise away their principles, their goals, and their strategy. People who are clear can make principled compromises that advance their work. 

Our society is undergoing a profound polarization, with a fifty-plus year acceleration of poverty and world historic levels of inequality. When we have a society that is polarizing to this extent, in terms of who owns what, institutions begin to polarize and pull apart. Are we going to continue to organize society around the interests of the 1 percent? Or we will organize it around the interests of the poor and dispossessed? There’s a fight going on, at every level, in every institution, across our country. 

We have to be present in these struggles. As these institutions and the places where we live and work polarize, revolutionaries have to be present. And the electoral arena is one of those places, though of course it’s not the only one. If we were to neglect actually organizing people and only focus on electoral organizing, we’d be making a big mistake. Political power requires a lot more than winning elections. On the other hand, we can’t give up the fight for state power, which much of the left in the United States has absolutely done. 

There are all these books being written about winning without taking power. But if we can’t build power at the level of the state, we will be unable to put things in the interest of the majority of people. Purity politics obscures the dialectical relationship between reform and revolution. We have to fight for reforms, because in many ways there’s nothing else to fight for. As things polarize, we have to make a fight for reforms with a revolutionary outlook. 

Take an example right now. Bill Gates is in this grotesque race to be the first trillionaire on the planet and is actively blocking a people’s vaccine. Now we have to fight for a people’s vaccine. Is that the revolution? No. Is that a fight we have to make? Yes. How do we fight for a reform like this in the context of being revolutionary minded? By carrying out the fight for reform with an eye toward identifying and developing leaders from the ranks of those most affected. By connecting our immediate struggles to a long-term structural vision of change. When we carry out political education alongside the practical day-to-day fight activities, we can build a core of leaders who are steeled and prepared for the next round of battle. We fight for reforms not for reform’s sake, but to use them to build a stronger fighting force, committed to carrying things forward. 

That’s what’s at stake. And yeah, it’s messy. We have to get our hands dirty. We can’t afford a kind of politics that says that we are above the fray. There’s nothing revolutionary about that. That’s just armchair politics, no matter how right it sounds or how good it looks. 

CT: Thanks Chris and Sheilah. To me, all of this is an invitation for us to continue to study history and the economy, as well as to assess the terrain so that we can avoid the pitfalls and seize on the openings. I think we’re raising the real necessity of rigorous debate, and saying we need a politics of the poor and dispossessed that is independent of either of the ruling class parties and their proposals. Not just that, but a politics that can build power independent of the interests and manipulations of the ruling class as a whole.

Chris Caruso, Ph.D., is a popular educator, community organizer, and educational technologist.

Sheilah Garland-Olaniran grew up in Flint, MI. As a child she walked the picket lines with her father who was a member of the United Autoworkers Union for 35 years. Sheilah has organized across the country, most recently with National Nurses United, organizing Registered Nurses into the union from Nevada to Florida. She is currently a member of the IL Coordinating Committee of the Poor Peoples Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival. She has been a board member of the National Welfare Rights Union. 

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