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It’s Time to Fight for a Truly Democratic Republic

The US political system was intentionally set up to thwart popular democracy. To win Medicare for All or any other transformative measures, we’ll need to push for radical political reform that finally democratizes the country’s institutions.

Supporters hold signs as US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a health care rally at the 2017 Convention of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee on September 22, 2017 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty

Let’s indulge in a bit of political fantasy. It’s January 20, 2021. After a long and grueling campaign, Bernie Sanders, a rumpled, cranky democratic socialist who spent his entire political career on the margins of mainstream political life, is sworn in as president and assumes the most powerful political office in the world. What kind of political terrain does he inherit?

Let’s start with a basic constraint socialists face in any capitalist country: private control over investment decisions, which governments depend upon for steady economic growth, tax revenues, and legitimacy. A Sanders victory probably would have tanked the stock market and generated a crisis of “business confidence,” laying siege to his administration before Bernie could even take the oath of office.

In addition to these built-in capitalist constraints, Sanders’s agenda would have run headlong into America’s political institutions, which, for democratic socialists and everyone interested in a more just society, amount to one giant collective action problem.

Say Democrats expanded their current majority in the House and captured the Senate, winning unified control of the White House and Congress for the first time since 2008–2010. We all know how well that turned out last time. Despite a strong majority in the House, sixty votes in the Senate, and Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Democrats failed to use the Great Recession to push through even a minor overhaul of the nation’s political and economic order. A President Bernie would take a much different approach than President Obama, but he would have been handicapped by the absence of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. And even if he had one, it is far from assured, unlikely even, that he could have counted on sixty votes to consistently push through his agenda.

How about the courts? The Supreme Court is dominated by robed ghouls who would like nothing more than to reverse all of the twentieth century’s major popular gains. Less remarked upon, but just as important as Trump’s transformation of the Supreme Court, is his success in stocking the lower federal courts with right-wing judges. Since taking office, Trump has appointed roughly two hundred federal judges, including over fifty to the pivotal US courts of appeals. With lifetime tenure — and many in their thirties and forties — Trump’s appointees will shape American jurisprudence for decades to come. And they will not be favorable to an egalitarian agenda.

What Was the “Political Revolution”?

Bernie Sanders, to his great credit, knew all of this. That’s why he repeatedly called for a political revolution to break the entrenched power and privilege of the billionaire class. Still, he was vague about what exactly he meant by “political revolution” — it was more of a floating signifier for his anti-establishment brand of politics than a vision for a new political or constitutional order. The closest he got to defining the concept was when he spoke of the need for millions of ordinary people to vote in greater numbers and to mobilize for Medicare for All, tuition-free public higher education, and all of his other signature demands.

The formula was a good one: big demands plus street heat equals political revolution. It reinforced the crucial message that Bernie wouldn’t have been able to accomplish everything on his own, even with the power of the presidency. As his campaign slogan put it, “Not Me, Us.”

But as big an advance as this was, it’s still not enough. For one thing, the entire democratic socialist tradition is grounded in a commitment to winning the battle of democracy and extending democratic rights and freedoms as far as possible. Friedrich Engels summarized democratic socialism’s fundamental strategic premise in 1891: “our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic.” This is what distinguishes democratic socialists from anarchists who reject political action, insurrectionary socialists who fetishize general strikes and soviets, and left-liberals who just want to pressure the existing regime to make concessions.

The main forces behind the Bernie movement must broaden the concept of political revolution to encompass not just mass protest, but a far-reaching program of radical political reform — one that links popular economic demands like Medicare for All and higher wages to a democratic reconstruction of government institutions. It’s time, in other words, to put the fight for a truly democratic republic at the forefront of our political program.

Undemocratic by Design

The basic failure of the US political system is that it does not translate the needs, interests, and preferences of the vast majority into government action. It’s fundamentally undemocratic, an engine of minority rule.

This is by design. The founders were deeply concerned with preventing an “interested and overbearing majority” from pursuing “improper or wicked” projects like a redistribution of property or the abolition of debts, as James Madison famously put it in Federalist 10. They established a republic where representation was a means of avoiding, not instituting, democratic control of government.

One way of doing this was through the separation of powers, which filters popular opinion through a complex of elite-dominated institutions like the Senate and the judiciary. Another way was federalism, which fragments political authority, encourages decentralized political parties, and makes it extremely difficult to build and sustain a nationally coordinated majority.

Republican senator Mike Lee of Utah recently set off a controversy when he tweeted, “We’re not a democracy.” But in a fundamental sense, he was right. The country’s founders were deeply, mortally opposed to democracy — which they equated with the rule of the poor — and the political system they established was designed to thwart it. Whatever democracy we have is the result of struggles against eighteenth-century standards of political inclusion and participation that have kept so many Americans down and out for so long.

There is a rising tide of sentiment in favor of abolishing the Electoral College, perhaps the most glaringly undemocratic political institution we have. But the Electoral College is just one of the many impediments to effective popular control of government that must be addressed if democratic socialists’ ambitious agenda is to become a reality. If we want to win Medicare for All, tuition-free public higher education, higher minimum wages, and a guaranteed right to organize, we need to advance a comprehensive program of political reconstruction as well.

A Democratic Agenda

So, what is to be done? Democratic socialists, progressives, and labor activists should work to initiate a national debate over our constitutional order and how we might change it for the better. Unfortunately, the formal constitutional avenues are effectively closed off. Under the Article V amendment procedure, just thirteen states representing a small minority of the population could band together to block an amendment that a popular majority supports. This situation will necessarily mean coming up with creative ways to impose legislative and popular sovereignty over an anti-democratic political system.

To reduce the power of a conservative judiciary, we should promote jurisdiction stripping and other measures beyond court packing. As Samuel Moyn and others have argued, packing the court would only reinforce the judicialization of politics and provoke a cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation the next time a Republican is elected president. Congress has the power to block the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, from hearing arguments on certain topics or even particular cases. This would prevent Trump-appointed judges from making decisions concerning health care reform, taxation, reproductive rights, workers’ rights, and other important policy areas. It would also constitute an extremely necessary assault on the undemocratic power of the judiciary, the Supreme Court in particular.

The US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

Other potential measures to roll back judicial power include raising the number of votes needed to accept a case or making it easier for Congress to override court decisions. Congress can reverse a presidential veto with a two-thirds vote — why shouldn’t it be able to do the same with Supreme Court decisions?

In addition to curbing judicial prerogatives, we should carry forward Bernie’s call to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with a national popular vote for the presidency. We should campaign to abolish the Senate, enlarge the size of the House of Representatives, and fight to pass the Fair Representation Act, which would create multi-member congressional districts elected by ranked-choice voting. We should reclaim those forgotten provisions of the existing constitution that could promote democratic rights and popular rule, such as the potentially mighty Guarantee Clause and Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which says states that deny their citizens the right to vote will have their congressional representation reduced. Finally, we should formulate and, whenever possible, put into practice proposals for direct-democratic and popular institutions to operate alongside of, in support of, and, where necessary, to check representative institutions.

A Political Revolution

This is a huge agenda. How might we start advancing it? For one thing, we have to keep electing committed democratic socialists to public office. Their bully pulpits are crucial platforms from which to popularize and fight for the deepest possible political democracy, and to implement reforms that undermine the most violent, repressive, and anti-democratic aspects of the state. Beyond this, we should work to stimulate a national popular debate on the failures of the current constitutional order and the possibilities for constructing a truly democratic republic.

One potential option is to build a convention movement, mirroring the Colored Conventions Movement that swept black communities in the nineteenth century. These meetings created space for the articulation of various demands and promoted the establishment of new political organizations. Today, informal gatherings could potentially gain popular legitimacy over time and serve as a source of pressure and demands that politicians would ignore at their peril. Such a movement would begin to practice what Staughton Lynd, in his unjustly forgotten book Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, called “bicameralism from below.”

We can also draw inspiration from recent events on the other side of the continent. For months, millions of Chileans have participated in cabildos, or self-organized popular assemblies, to debate and advance demands inspired by the vast protest movement that swept the country last year. Last Sunday, Chile voted overwhelmingly to scrap the Pinochet-era constitution and begin drafting a new one through a freshly elected constituent assembly. This was the leading demand of the cabildos, and it seems likely that these popular assemblies will be institutionalized in the constitutional process that will soon begin. The majority of Chileans wanted to break with the neoliberal political-economic order they inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship. They couldn’t do so as long as their constitution entrenched minority rule against widespread demands for popular power and social equality.

It’s time for Americans to begin questioning the outmoded and undemocratic constitution we’ve inherited from the eighteenth century. Disillusionment in the political system runs very deep. Most people know the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well connected. But they rarely make the connection between the miseries of daily life and the constitutional system of minority rule that does so much to enable them in the first place. Similarly, the Left has grown unaccustomed to addressing these kinds of political and constitutional tasks. But if we want to make the political revolution a reality — and stave off the growing possibility of an authoritarian turn in US politics — these are the kinds of questions we need to start asking, and giving answers to.