July 07, 2024

The US Ruling Class is In Deep Despair

Vijay Prashad

IT is a fair question to ask: how does a ruling class that controls more money ($45 trillion), nearly twice the annual gross domestic product of its country, produce two men who should not be leading a country, let alone a country with the most powerful military in the world? When Joe Biden, the incumbent president of the United States, and Donald Trump, the former president, met to debate each other in late June, they confounded anyone who watched them. The expectations for the two men were extremely low: for Biden, age 81, the expectation was that he would not demonstrate any cognitive impairment during the ninety minutes that they spent on stage; for Trump, age 78, the only expectation was that he should not appear to be too much of a bully. Neither met their expectation. Biden was dazed and confused, while Trump was his normal belligerent self. As soon as the debate ended, there was chatter that Biden should step aside and let someone else face Trump at the US presidential election on November 5, 2024. By then, Biden’s health might have deteriorated further, and Trump must have been sentenced to jail. It is fair to ask why this is the best that the US ruling class is able to produce.

All the polls that are out there show that Trump is ahead of Biden, even if only by a few percentage points. The main issue is not the national average, but the state averages. In the United States, most of the fifty states are not in contest because the general tendency in those states is to vote for one or the other party (for instance, California is reliably Democratic, while Idaho is reliably Republican). As the US public gets more and more electorally divided across the map, fewer and fewer states are treated as ‘swing states’, or states where any one of the two parties could possibly win. In 2024, the expectation is that there will only be six ‘swing states’, which will be Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The total population of these states is 42.9 million or about 12 per cent of the US population (this is just more than the population of California, the largest state in the US which has 39 million people). That means that the registered voters in very small states will decide the election for the 333 million people who live in the United States. In every one of these ‘swing states’, Donald Trump is polling higher than Biden, in some cases far above the margin of error (in Arizona by a split of 44 per cent to 39 per cent). If the election were to be held today, Trump would return to the White House.

It is easy to see why Biden is polling so poorly. His health has declined visibly, with the most distressing signs being his poor cognitive abilities in public. During the G7 meeting, he wandered off and had to be rescued by Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni (who was born when Biden had already been a US Senator for five years). Biden’s unscripted remarks about just about anything have been fodder for memes and social media. Of course, he is 81, which puts his twenty years more than median age of living state leaders (which is 62); only 5 per cent of world leaders are in their 80s (Biden shares this honour with Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, age 80, and Namibia’s president Nangola Mbuma, age 82, who took over from the recently deceased Hage Geingob, age 82). Age by itself is not a factor, but Biden’s deterioration is certainly related to his age and is a concern to those who are around him. That the Democratic Party was unwilling to unseat him is not surprising, since the power of incumbency in the United States is custom (few presidents face a challenge within their own party). But now there are loud noises asking him to step aside.

But the only issue is not Biden’s cognitive capacities. He has lost the support of the centre-left and the left over his decisions regarding the Israeli genocide in Gaza (he is known in these ranks as Genocide Joe), and his policies regarding backing Ukraine to the hilt and preventing negotiations with Russia have certainly imported inflation into the United States and created distress in large sections of the middle-class. The slow deterioration of basic infrastructure in the United States and the lack of any kind of project to revive the US economy, where unemployment amongst young people is rising as well as precarious employment across classes, has prevented Biden from being able to run on any major issue. The only fall-back position is that Trump is a threat to democracy, and that Biden will save the constitution if re-elected. This is a compelling argument used every four years in the United States to galvanise people to vote for the ‘lesser evil’ and it might work in the ballot box, the loneliest place in the United States.

When Trump left office two-thirds of the US population despised him. But now he is viewed favourably by 44 per cent of the US public, higher than Biden at 38 per cent. It might be that Biden’s utter collapse is making Trump seem like a legitimate option. Indeed, despite the facts, which are anyway not really the basis for perceptions when it comes to the gladiatorial contest of US elections, most people in the United States seem to believe that the US economy was in better shape under Trump than under Biden (something Trump has been saying at his rallies and in interviews, which – again – regardless of the truth, has made an impact on the electorate because the economy now has wandered into the doldrums of low growth and low decent employment creation). The disregard for fact has nothing to do with disinformation, but has a great deal to do with the situation of indifference to the election campaign itself. Only 32 per cent of the US public says that it is following politics ‘very closely’, down from 42 per cent in 2020. Turnout in US elections fluctuate between 50 per cent and 60 per cent, with a high of 66 per cent to elect Biden over Trump in 2020. Lacklustre campaigning by the Democrats might mean a lower turnout, which would favour Trump.

But all of this does not answer the core question: why are Biden and Trump, both unpleasant candidates in one way or another, the frontrunners? Why can’t the US public produce better candidates? Part of the answer lies in the absence of any real democratic process in these parties, whose candidates are chosen not by the primaries – which are a façade – but by the large capitalist donors who back candidates, the media houses that these capitalists’ control that supports the candidates, and by the electoral machines that the established parties control. Neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties are real parties, since they do not truly have membership and democratic structures to give the members power over their apparatus. A permanent network of donors and party officials control the process and make decisions in airless rooms where the meetings are not televised. The political system in the United States, despite the rhetoric about democracy, has a system that is not really democratic; the stain of the old plantation oligarchy defines the party system. The capitalist class has decided that this is the contest, so this is the contest. That is the reason why it is appropriate to say that the US capitalist class is a class in despair, a class that has neither a project for the public nor people capable of carrying forward a project. It had political cadavers, people who are like zombies, saying things that they do not believe in order to maintain a collapsing system for as long as they can.