The hearings that went on in the U.S. Capitol last week are a clear violation of democratic principles: a categorical opponent to the right to abortion is about to get a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. In this position, Amy Coney Barrett will be able to undermine reproductive rights for millions of people (as well as labor rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. etc. etc.). This is despite the fact that a clear majority of people in the U.S. (61% or 79%, depending on how the question is framed) believe that abortion should remain legal.
How is this possible in a democracy? According to one calculation, the 47 Democratic senators expected to vote against Barrett represent 169 million people, while the Republican senators planning to vote in favor represent just 158 million. This goes hand in hand with the profoundly undemocratic Electoral College, which in the last 20 years has put two Republican presidents in the White House who each won fewer votes than their opponents.
The U.S. Constitution was long treated as a kind of secular holy book, held up both by the ruling class and protest movements as a perfect form of democracy. But the world’s “greatest democracy” is in crisis. Where critique of the U.S. regime was once limited to the back rooms of independent bookstores, there is now no lack of liberal pundits who point out that the U.S. Senate is a “deeply unrepresentative body” (Paul Krugman), that the constitution needs a “page one rewrite” (Bill Maher), or that they “long ago gave up any hope of [their vote] ever mattering” (Farhad Manjoo).
It would be impossible, in one short article, to list all the ways the American political system denies basic democratic rights, both historically and today. The U.S. Constitution protected the institution of slavery, and two centuries later, Black people are regularly disenfranchised: they are forced to wait in lines for eight or more hours, they have their ballots disqualified, they have their votes diluted by gerrymandering, they are not allowed to vote because they lack required I.D., or they are simply denied democratic rights because they have been convicted of a felony.
This is why the U.S. political system produces results that are not, by any measure, democratic. While 69 percent of voters support Medicare for All, they have to choose between two candidates who forcefully reject it. Laws passed by elected representatives of the people can be cancelled by an unelected Supreme Court.
Is it any wonder that it has been more than 50 years since even 60 percent of eligible voters turned out for a presidential election?
Designed that Way
The U.S. system — in which the unrepresentative Senate has veto power, the unelected Supreme Court decides about the rights of millions, and the arcane Electoral College picks the President — is undemocratic by design. The large landowners who wrote the constitution designed the Senate to protect them against demands by the majority for land reforms.
Every child learns in school that the system of “checks and balances” is intended to prevent mob rule — the majority, so the founders worried, could fall under the sway of a demagogue. But what does this “mob rule” look like concretely? It is nothing but these aristocrats’ fear that the majority of the people might support a land reform or other policies that affect the rich. That is why they designed these “checks” and “balances” on majority rule: to protect the interests of a tiny minority. This is particularly true of the courts, with judges who are supposed to be “independent” — but from whom are they independent? They are independent of the people — functioning as a privileged caste connected by a thousand threads to the ruling class.
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A truly democratic system would be based on: 1) a single chamber that is elected by every person living in the United States; 2) executives that are elected and subject to recall — not just the President, but every official in the state apparatus; 3) a judicial system with elected judges and verdicts made by juries.
Such a system, however, could easily fall victim to the “passions” that so worried the framers of the U.S. Constitution. In other words, the majority of the people might be able to impose their longstanding desire for universal healthcare, free college for all, or a limit to staggering inequality.
The Democratic Party should, at least if their name means anything, be the champions of basic democratic reforms. They could start with easy things, like making Election Day a federal holiday or eliminating the filibuster in the Senate. They could begin to campaign for more profound changes, like eliminating the Electoral College. Yet they do none of this. The Democrats, just like the Republicans, are a party of the capitalist class. It is true that different sectors of the capitalist class prefer one or the other party — oil and real estate sectors skew Republican, while tech skews Democrat — but both parties rule in the interest of capital. In the last analysis, they both reject real democracy as a force that could truly express the will of the majority.
This is why Democrats talk about “protecting the constitution” — a document written by enslavers and aristocrats — instead of expanding democratic rights.
Other capitalist countries have constitutions that are far more democratic than the U.S. (as Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out). But are any of these countries true democracies?
Let us look at the United Kingdom, the birthplace of bourgeois democracy. As the name suggests, the country is ruled by an unelected monarch. An unelected House of Lords (including aristocrats and clerics) restricts the elected House of Commons. And a first-past-the-post election system all but guarantees a two-party system.
Or let’s look at South Africa, which RBG referred to as a model. South Africa has a parliament elected by completely proportional representation and a constitution guaranteeing basic human rights like housing and water. Yet the government is controlled by politicians in the service of billionaire corporations, who massacre striking workers in order to guarantee profits. Under this “democracy,” the inequalities between Black and white people have grown to unprecedented levels.
We could look at every single capitalist country. No matter how democratic a constitution might be, society’s wealth remains in the hands of a tiny minority — the capitalist class. As V.I. Lenin put it: “a democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism.” The capitalists have endless means to control such a “democracy,” from buying political advertising to controlling the media to bribing politicians. And the capitalists, no matter who is in government, control the economy. Most people have no choice but to sell their labor power in order to survive, and they have no say in how their workplaces are run.
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The central question for any society: What should be produced? Who produces, and for whom? In a capitalist “democracy,” that question is outside of any kind of democratic control. The means of production — the factories, the machines, the computers, and everything else needed to create value — all belong to a tiny minority of people. Jeff Bezos controls wealth created by millions of people — and he can do whatever he wants with it, independent of any democratic control.
What would a truly democratic society look like? This would involve working people taking control of the means of production. Working people would run production, transportation, the media, the education system — all in order to satisfy human needs, not to generate profits for a handful of capitalists. This requires far more democracy than just voting every couple of years — or as Karl Marx put it, “deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament.”
Originally, Marx and Engels saw that the working class must rise “to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy” — but they did not elaborate about what a working-class democracy would look like. As scientific socialists, they did not speculate about what socialism might look like. But in 1871, the working people of Paris took power. They elected a Commune based on delegates from the city’s different districts. These delegates were directly elected and could be recalled at any time. This Commune did not attempt to take control of the state apparatus, but rather demolished it, and governed via the self-organization of the working class. This was, in Marx’s words, “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.”
The Russian Revolution almost 50 years later developed this form. Workers, soldiers, and peasants formed soviets (Russian for councils) based on delegates directly elected in the factories, neighborhoods, regiments, or villages. Each local council would in turn elect delegates for regional councils. And this council democracy culminated in a national congress of soviets. Rather than a bourgeois democracy in which parliamentarians are voted into office and then can do whatever they want for several years, the council system represented a living mass democracy, where working people could take direct influence on national decision-making. The soviets, after the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky had won a majority, decided to set up a workers’ government, ended the First World War, gave all land to the peasants, and began the construction of socialism.
This kind of workers’ democracy was not conceived on a drawing board by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, or anyone else. Rather, it was created by workers in struggle. Marxists just needed to show, at decisive moments, how these organs of struggle against capitalism could be the basis for a working-class government.
The lesson of the last 170 or so years of working-class struggle is clear: the way to create real democracy is by abolishing capitalism — expropriating the capitalists’ property and destroying their state. This cannot be done by using or even reforming the capitalists’ democracy. Instead, it requires building up workers’ democracy. That is why we, as communists, use a soviet strategy of building up bodies of democratic self-organization (assemblies, delegate bodies, workers’ councils, or soviets) in every struggle.
Nonetheless, communists are champions of democratic demands within capitalism. We do this not to improve or perfect the capitalists’ system. Quite the opposite: when most working people have strong illusions in the possibilities of bourgeois democracy, we raise democratic demands to help them gain experience with all the “democratic” promises of the ruling class.
We call for voting rights for all, the abolition of the Senate, and the abolition of the Supreme Court not because we think the U.S. state could ever be truly democratic. Instead, we are trying to expose the so-called Democratic Party of the ruling class: why are the Democrats not calling for such basic democratic reforms? As the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci put it in the Lyon Theses of 1926:
the Communist Party will obtain the best results by advancing the actual solutions which would be those of the so-called democratic parties, if they were in fact capable of waging a consistent struggle for democracy with all the means required by the situation. These parties, thus subjected to the test of deeds, will unmask themselves before the masses and lose their influence over them.
In this spirit, as communists we fight for every democratic demand within “their democracy.” But we do this as part of the fight for a fundamentally different system: for a workers’ democracy. Such a democracy will mean that working people have collective control over the state — to the point that a state of any kind becomes unnecessary and is gradually replaced by cooperative self-organization.