In most ways, the 2014 Congressional elections represented “more of the same” for mainstream U.S. politics. The Republicans’ increased majority in the House of Representatives and their capture of the majority of the Senate in 2014, despite appearances, does not represent any more of a “sea change” in public opinion than their 2010 victories. The substantial shifts in party representation were the results of miniscule shifts in the popular vote. In the more representative House, the Republicans won 52 percent of the popular vote, but secured 57 percent of the seats. In the Senate, a model undemocratic representative body, the Republicans won only 51 percent of the vote, but now hold nearly 66 percent of Senate seats.1
Continuing declines in voter participation only further exaggerate the effects of small shifts in partisan voting patterns. Despite claims from both the mainstream and elements of the “progressive” left,2 voter participation in 2014 hit its lowest level since 1942. Only 36.4 percent of all eligible voters turned out in 2014, compared with 40.9 percent in the 2010 midterm election—a drop of over 10 percent.3 Not surprisingly, working-class and poor voters—generally those earning less than $50,000—are over-represented among the “non-voters” party in the U.S. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, slightly over 75 percent of all Americans earned less than $50,000 per year in 2010.4 However, only 36 percent of those who voted earned less than $50,000 per year.5 Put simply, tiny changes in voter preference among an increasingly professional, managerial, and wealthy electorate propelled the Republicans to majorities in both houses of Congress. Working-class and poor people, traditional Democratic constituencies, have become profoundly alienated from a party who has consistently disappointed them as it embraces neo-liberalism and austerity.
There were some minor changes in the impact of capitalist campaign financing on the election results.6 As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens Uniteddecision, it has become more difficult to track the sources of capitalist funding to Republicans and Democrats. Contributions from individual businesspeople and corporate-business Political Action Committees, which are public, increased slightly from $1.358 billion in 2010 to $1.433 billion in 2014, while the proportion of capitalist funding actually dropped from 74.2 percent to 69.8 percent. “Dark money” from organizations that do not report all or some of their donors jumped sharply from $160.8 million in 2010 to over $219 million this year. Corporate funding went overwhelmingly (58 percent) to Republicans in 2014, especially compared to 2010, when Republicans received only 49 percent of capital’s largesse.
The Tea Party Insurgency
What may be different about the 2014 elections, compared with 2010, is the relationship of social forces within the Republican Party. Since the U.S. Civil War, the Republicans—the party representing the new industrial capitalist class—have been the U.S. capitalists’ “A-Team.” While capitalists in certain industries (telecommunications, media/entertainment), from newer immigrant groups (particularly Jews and Catholics), and in urban real estate and construction have dominated the Democratic Party for over a century, the Republicans have always been capital’s preferred political representatives. Capital turns to the Democrats when the Republicans have been compromised by scandal or political missteps, or during periods of working-class and popular insurgency when the former’s ties to the labor officialdom and the middle-class leaders of people of color, women, and L.G.B.T. people prove useful. However, no matter how far the Democrats drift to the right and embrace pro-capitalist policies, capital views the Republicans, with their historic links to key transnational industrial and financial corporations, as their most reliable spokespersons.
The rise of the right-wing populist Tea Party threatened to undermine capital’s traditional dominance of the Republican Party.7 As Kim Phillips-Fein pointed out, Citizens United undermined “older ruling class institutions […] making it far more difficult for the business lobby to act in any concerted way. [It] enables wealthy individuals to spend lavishly and to do so with little sense of collective purpose.”8 As a result, right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers and their Club for Growth have backed the Tea Party since its emergence in 2009. However, it is professionals, managers, and small businesspeople—what Marxists have called the middle class—who lead the Tea Party and provide the bulk of its electoral support.
On many issues, capitalists and the Tea Party agree: lowering corporate taxes, cutting social services, dismantling any and all regulations (financial, environmental, etc.) on capital, and, of course, attempting to completely destroy the remaining unions. However, middle class populism is also hostile to capital. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a key Tea Party leader, was quite clear: “Big business is very happy to climb in bed with big government. Republicans are and should be the party of small business and of entrepreneurs.”9 The conflict between capital and a radicalized middle class is clearest in the Tea Party’s willingness to shut down the federal government and risk a credit default, and on immigration reform.
The Tea Party is a “political Frankenstein”10 for capital. While important segments of the capitalist class funded Tea Party candidates during the 2010 election, by early 2011, they found themselves endangered by their own creation. Specifically, the Tea Party’s opposition to an immigration reform that would maintain a workforce without citizenship rights and their willingness to risk the global credit of the U.S. capitalist state and shut down the federal government alienated the two most important capitalist-financed and -led policy planning networks: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. While the Chamber represents a broad cross-section of the U.S. capitalist class and the Roundtable speaks for the largest transnational corporations, both clearly opposed the Tea Party on these issues in 2011 and 2012.
Scapegoating immigrants for rising crime, deteriorating public services, and growing unemployment, segments of the middle class and the native-born working classes support tightening of the borders and blanket deportations, and oppose any form of amnesty or legalization for undocumented immigrants. Capitalists, however, have a very different perspective. Not only do high-tech industries want access to skilled foreign professionals, but labor-intensive industries like agriculture, construction, landscaping, domestic service, child-care, health care, and hospitality rely on low-wage, vulnerable immigrant labor. Capital wants a precarious migrant workforce without legal status, disciplined by selective deportations, to labor for substandard wages in these industries.11
Both the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable have been leading the fight for an immigration reform that would preserve and regulate a new migratory workforce in the U.S.; and in opposition to wholesale deportations and other policies that reduce the immigrant workforce. The Business Roundtable has long advocated a comprehensive immigration reform that would “strengthen border security”; allow more workers, skilled and unskilled, to enter the U.S. on temporary work visas; and provide a “path to citizenship” for the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.12 In 2010, the Chamber joined the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of United Latin American Citizens in challenging Arizona’s anti-immigrant law (SB 1070) which resulted in thousands of immigrants fleeing the state in fear of arrest and deportation.13 More recently, the Chamber has argued that comprehensive immigration reform is necessary to “address worker shortages, not only in high-skilled jobs, but also in lesser-skilled industries […] like home health care, landscaping, and hospitality.”14 The Tea Party’s opposition to any immigration reform that is not based on massive deportations of those in the U.S. without papers has profoundly alienated U.S. capitalists.
Capital also wants massive cuts to social spending in the U.S. However, the Tea Party’s political brinkmanship—its willingness to let the U.S. default by failing to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 and to shut down federal government operations in 2013 in order to leverage cuts in spending or short-circuit the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”)—has also estranged capital. In 2011, the Chamber’s executive vice president for Government Affairs, Bruce Josten, mobilized members to urge their Congressional representatives to raise the debt ceiling, in order to prevent rising interest rates that would make “car loans, mortgages, and business and student loans … more expensive.”15 The Business Roundtable, in a letter to the Congressional leadership co-signed by the Chamber of Commerce and a dozen industry-based associations, claimed that raising the debt ceiling “is critical to ensuring global investors’ confidence in the credit worthiness of the United States.”16
The fall 2013 government shut down marked the end of any uneasy alliance between the Tea Party and the capitalist class. John Engler, President of the Business Roundtable, and leaders of the Chamber issued numerous statements to the press condemning the government shut down and again warning of the dire consequences for capital of a government default.17 The clearest sign of a schism between the Republican populist right and capital was the emergence of “Campaign to Fix the Debt.” Originally formed in early 2012 in the wake of 2011 debate on raising the debt ceiling, Fix the Debt brought together dozens of former Senators and Congressmen and over 150 C.E.O.s of some of the largest U.S. transnational corporations,18 with a budget of nearly $50 million. Their “core principles”19 formed the basis of the proposed “grand bargain” of closing corporate tax loop-holes while lowering the overall tax rate “in exchange” for “restructuring” (massive cuts) to federal pensions, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. While the “bargain” garnered the support of Obama, the Democratic leadership, and mainstream Republicans, key leaders of the Tea Party refused to accept this compromise, sparking the government shut down of fall 2013.
Capital Disciplines the Republicans: The 2014 Primaries
In the midst of the 2013 budget crisis, leaders and staff of key elements of the “business lobby,” including the National Retail Federation, National Federation of Independent Businesses, National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, and the Fix the Debt campaign began to discuss “helping wage primary campaigns against Republican lawmakers who had worked to engineer the political standoff in Washington.”20 The Tea Party’s initial success in raising funds for the primary races21 led the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to take the lead in mobilizing for mainstream Republicans. Scott Reed, the Chamber’s chief political strategist, launched “Vote for Jobs,” targeting key Senate and House races to defend incumbents like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and defeat Tea Party intransigents. In a public statement, the Chamber argued “Americans need leaders with the courage to govern on issues that matter, not those who refuse to acknowledge the unsustainable rate of federal spending or consider pragmatism to be an antiquated concept.”22
In the first Republican primaries in March 2014, the Chamber of Commerce saw the first fruits of its efforts to discipline the Republican Party in the interest of capital. John Cronyn of Texas soundly defeated his Tea Party challenger, Steve Stockman by a margin of 59 percent to 19 percent. In the next wave of primaries in early May, the results were a bit more mixed. Mainstream Republican Shelly Capito of West Virginia garnered 87.5 percent of the vote, but Chamber-backed candidates barely squeaked out a victory in North Carolina (45.7 percent for Thom Tillis versus 43.6 percent for two Tea Party candidates) and lost in Nebraska to “moderate” Tea Party candidate Ben Sasse.23
Chamber of Commerce-backed candidates swept the Republican primaries in Kentucky, Idaho, and Oregon on May 21st. Senate minority leader McConnell easily defeated his Tea Party challenger 60.2 percent to 35.4 percent, after spending over three times his challenger in the Kentucky primary. In Idaho, Mike Simpson easily defeated Bryan Smith of the Tea Party 61.6 percent to 38.4 percent, with nearly $2 million in support from the Chamber and other mainstream groups in a key House primary. In Oregon, Monica Wehby defeated her Tea Party challenger by an almost two-to-one margin. The only setback was in Georgia, where no candidate won a majority in May, but David Perdue—the only Republican elected to the Senate in 2014 without Chamber endorsement—eked past his opponent 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent in a July run-off. Despite this minor setback, the Washington Post declared the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “the biggest winner in primaries” who “spent more than $12 million in races around the country and came through […] with an undefeated record.”24
During the Summer 2014 primaries, the Chamber’s candidates were generally successful, but there were important setbacks for capital’s struggle to discipline the Republicans. Tea Party challengers were defeated in Kansas, Tennessee, and South Carolina, returning mainstream Republicans committed to immigration reform and keeping the federal government operating. However, the Chamber suffered a near setback in Mississippi and a stunning defeat in Virginia. In the initial Mississippi primary, incumbent Senator Thad Cochran actually received approximately 1,400 fewer votes than his Tea Party challenger. Because neither candidate had received an absolute majority, there was a runoff in September, where Cochran squeaked out a victory of fewer than 7,000 votes—mostly from African-American Democrats in an open primary.25
The biggest defeat for the Chamber and mainstream Republicans came in Virginia on June 10th. Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor was defeated by an almost unknown Tea Party challenger David Brat. While Cantor outspent Brat 10 to one in the primary campaign, Brat won the election with more than 60 percent of the vote. Brat successfully mobilized middle-class voters with his denunciations of “crony capitalism” and “the collaboration of public and private elites at the expense of workers and small businesses.” Brat “denounced Cantor for being too close to Wall Street [...] explained business support for immigration reform as a ploy for cheap labor and demonized the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.”26
Most media commentary have argued the Chamber and other capitalist lobbying organizations’ strategy was successful, producing a primary season where “mainstream Republicans have enjoyed most of the victories,”27 which allowed Republicans to increase their majority in the House and win the Senate in November.28 Business groups have greeted the general election results with a cautious optimism. Bill Miller, a senior vice president at the Business Roundtable, told the New York Times, “There is a pent-up demand for legislative action, and there was a logjam because of the campaign […] The three issues we’ve got teed up now are corporate tax reform, then immigration reform, as well as getting new trade agreements passed.”29 The Fix the Debt campaign praised the House and Senate Republican leadership’s commitment to tax reform, debt reduction (social service austerity), and to keeping the federal government running and paying its debts. Thomas Donohue, C.E.O. and President of the Chamber of Commerce, was also cautiously optimistic, claiming that “voters made it clear: They want a Congress with the courage to lead and the ability to govern,” and pledging to pursue the Chambers’ agenda of “comprehensive tax reform, immigration reform, domestic energy production, regulatory reform, and international trade.”30
The business lobby’s caution is well founded. Only one Republican was elected to the Senate without the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce—David Perdue of Georgia. However, there is still a substantial number of incumbent Tea Party Senators who follow the lead of Ted Cruz of Texas. Even more worrisome for the capitalist class is the fact that of 244 Republicans in the House, 32 were elected over the opposition of the Chamber. Even though six or seven House Democrats were elected with Chamber support, at least 13 percent of the Republican House caucus remain independent of, and possibly hostile to, the business lobby’s agenda in the coming Congress.31 While the 33 Republicans outside the capitalist mainstream of their party is many fewer than the six dozen elected in 2010, they may have the capacity to undermine the Republican leadership’s commitment to keeping the federal government open and paying its bills, and to a comprehensive immigration reform that will regularize precarious migrant labor.32 The test of the ability of capital to discipline their “A-Team” may come in the next few weeks, as Congressional Republicans respond to Obama’s attempt to bypass Congress on immigration reform with the issuing of Executive Orders that might reduce deportations, grant legal status to some undocumented immigrants, and expand various work visa programs.
Unfortunately for much of the “progressive left” in the U.S., in particular the leadership of the labor, civil rights, women’s, and LGBT organizations, the main lesson of the 2014 election will be to deepen their support of the rightward-moving Democrats. Despite the abysmal failure of this strategy to deliver any gains for working and oppressed people, other than during the tumultuous social struggles of the 1930s and late 1960s, the forces of official reform continue to tell us to support the Democrats as the “lesser evil” compared with an increasingly militant right-wing. Unfortunately, it is precisely the failure of the organizations of working people in the U.S. to act independently and against the Democrats that has opened the road to the right. The absence of any real left-wing alternative to the Democrats has made the Tea Party and other right-wing populists the only viable alternative to a bipartisan neo-liberal consensus. Only when working people begin to act independently of the Democrats—and of their official leaders—struggling in their workplaces and communities for their own agenda, will we be able to stem the rightward drift of U.S. politics.
- “Green Papers: 2014 General Election” (n.d.)
- Nate Cohn, “Turnout, a Scapegoat, Wasn’t Always the Difference This Time” New York Times/The Upshot (November 6, 2014); Rick Yeselson, “Six Points on the Midterm Elections,” Jacobin On-Line (November 8, 2014)
- United States Election Project, “2014 November General Election Turnout Rates” (November 7, 2014); Michael Roberts, “Who Won the US Congress Mid-Term Elections? The No Vote Party Again” Michael Roberts Blog (November 6, 2014)
- US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, “Distribution of Personal Income, 2010” 2011 Annual Social and Economic Supplement
- CNN, “US House Results: Exit Polls” (November 14, 2014)
- Russ Choma, “Money Won on Tuesday, But Rules of the Game Changed”OpenSecrets.com (November 5, 2014); “Business-Labor-Ideology Split in PAC & Individual Donations to Candidates, Parties, Super PACs and Outside Spending Groups” (n.d.)
- For good background analysis of the social base of the Tea Party, see Charles Post, “Why the Tea Party?” New Politics 53 (Summer 2012) 105-112; Kim Phillips-Fein, “The Business Lobby and the Tea Party,” New Labor Forum 23,2 (May 2014) 14-20
- Phillips-Fein, p. 19
- “Ted Cruz Interview: On Obama, GOP, and Big Business” Williamson, Elizabeth. Wall Street Journal (May 29, 2012)
- Phillips-Fein, p. 18
- For an excellent analysis of the role of deportations in the reproduction of migratory labor systems in the U.S. and Canada, see Susan Ferguson and David McNally, “Precarious Migrants: Gender, Race and the Social Reproduction of a Global Working Class” in L. Panitch and G. Albo (eds.), Transforming Classes: Socialist Register 2015 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014), pp. 1 – 23
- Business Roundtable, “Policy Burdens Inhibiting Economic Growth” (June 21, 2010); Greg Brown, Chair, Immigration Select Committee, Business Roundtable (CEO Motorola Solutions, Inc.), “Letter to Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Pelosi on Immigration Reform” (June 17, 2013)
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “U.S. Chamber Urges High Court to Strike Down 2007 Arizona Immigration Law,” (August 31, 2010)
- David C. Chavern (President of US Chamber of Commerce Center for Advanced Technology & Innovation), “Why Immigration Reform is the Right Thing for Our Society and Economy” U.S. Chamber of Commerce (April 24, 2014)
- “Default is Not An Option—Spread the Word,” Chamber Post: A Blog for Business, (July 21, 2011)
- “Letter on Debt Limit to Congressional Leadership (May 12, 2011)
- Carter Wood, “Troublesome Shutdown, More Serious the Threat of Default”The BRT Blog (October 8, 2013)
- The Campaign to Fix the Debt, CEO Fiscal Leadership Council
- The Campaign to Fix the Debt, Core Principles
- Eric Lipton, Nicholas Confessore and Nelson D. Schwartz, “Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House G.O.P.” New York Times (October 9, 2013)
- Nicholas Confessore, “Fund-Raising by G.O.P. Rebels Outpaces Party Establishment,” New York Times (February 1, 2014)
- US Chamber of Commerce (Rob Engstrom/Senior VP Political Affairs and Scott Reed/Senior Political Strategist) “2014 Elections: Big Opportunity” (February 11, 2014). A key component of the US Chamber of Commerce, agribusiness, was also mobilized against the Tea Party’s support of “immigration laws that […] prevent […] from fielding a steady reliable work force.” Jennifer Medina, “California Farmers Short of Labor and Patrience” New York Times (March 29, 2014)
- All primary results from Politico.com “2014 Senate Primaries Results” (November 15, 2014); Ashley Parker, “North Carolina Shows Strains Within G.O.P.” New York Times (April 12, 2014); Betsy Woodruff, “Crazy Smart: Why the Tea Party is More Saavy, Sophisticated and Disciplined Than You Thought” Slate.com (November 9, 2014)
- Tom Hamburger, “The Biggest Winner in Primaries: US Chamber of Commerce” Washington Post (May 21, 2014).
- Alan Blinder, “Immigration is Key, Not Top Issue in South Carolina Country” New York Times (June 13, 2014); Jonathan Martin, “Challengers from the Right Struggle in GOP Senate Primaries in 2 States” New York Times (August 4, 2014); Jonathan Weissman, “Senator Pat Roberts Beats Tea Party Challenger in Kansas” New York Times (August 5, 2014); Sean Sullivan, “The 5 Biggest Takeaways from the 2014 Primaries” Washington Post (September 10, 2014)
- Michael Lind, “Why Big Business Fears the Tea Party” Politico (June 15, 2014); Jake Sherman, “Cantor Loses” Politico (June 11, 2014)
- Paul Steinhauser, “Fewer Wins This Time, But Tea Party Has Changed the GOP” CNN.com (September 15, 2014)
- Jeremey W. Peters and Carl Hulse, “Republicans’ First Step Was to Handle Extremists in the Party” New York Times (November 5, 2014); John Trebush, “How the Tea Party Lost the 2014 Midterms” The Week (November 5, 2014)
- Nelson D. Schwartz and Clifford Krauss, “Business Leaders Cautiously Expect GOP Win to Open Some Doors” New York Times (November 5, 2014). See also: BRT Blog, “Starting With Growth: Setting the Right Priorities After the 2014 Election” (November 6, 2014)
- US Chamber of Commerce Press Release, “Americans Vote for a New Direction, Says U.S. Chamber” (November 4, 2014)
- Computed from the US Chamber of Commerce’s “Vote for Jobs” website
- Jeremy W. Peters, “New Senators Tilt GOP Back Toward Insiders” New York Times (November 15, 2014)
Charlie Post is a long-time socialist political activist who teaches at the City University of New York and is active in his faculty union. This essay is adapted from the conclusion to his book, The American Road to Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012).