The True Nature of the U.S. Regime

“We’re a republic, not a democracy.” How the institutions of the U.S. government work to oppress.

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During the debate on October 7 between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, the Democratic and Republican candidates for vice president, Senator Mike Lee (R.-Utah) was live-tweeting the event and wrote, “We’re not a democracy.” He was taking exception to Harris’s repeated mentions of “our democracy” — meaning the United States.

Several hours later, Lee “doubled down” with a further explanation. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are,” he wrote. “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

Liberals on Twitter were quick to respond. “The Republican Party — not just Trump — are just saying the quiet part out loud now,” tweeted Sunrise Movement, the youth climate change organization. “They’ve been defined by anti-democratic gerrymandering and voter suppression for decades. Now, they’re poising to reject democracy entirely, because they’re afraid they wont [sic] the results.”

Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn on the New York City Council, tweeted, “One-person-one-vote hasn’t elected a new Republican President in 32 years, so it’s not surprising that a GOP senator is willing to publicly support autocracy. But all who love democracy should be clear what we are up against.”

Analysts chimed in, too, with extensive articles on Lee’s position in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, New York magazine, and other outlets. Others on the Right took up the Lee argument, repeating what Slate called the “timeworn phrase ‘we’re a republic, not a democracy,’ once confined to campus political debates and the nerdier corners of the political internet” but now “bubbling up to mainstream politics.”

Here’s the thing, though. Lee, and that “timeworn phrase,” are correct. The United States is not only not a democracy, but it was never intended to be a democracy. Understanding the framing of the U.S. Constitution by the Founding Fathers (hereafter the “framers”) and the regime that flows from it is key to understanding the racist, disenfranchising, and inherently undemocratic system that governs the United States today.

A Republic Is Founded

In 1788, to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay — three of the most notable among the framers — published a collection of 85 articles and essays under the collective pseudonym Publius. This collection, known as The Federalist Papers, spells out the design of this country’s political system as a republic — a form of government that has come to be defined as one in which the country is the exclusive property and concern not of its rulers but of the public.

A republic is not by definition a democracy, although democracy can be the form by which the government is maintained. Most republics in modern history have mixed democracy and oligarchy — in which power rests with a small number of people, typically the wealthiest — but nevertheless refer to themselves as “democracies.”

In Federalist no. 10, Madison clearly distinguishes between a republic and a democracy:

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

Madison was spelling out that the United States would put power and the wheels of government in the hands of a small number of citizens — thus rejecting, from the get-go, the broadest definition of democracy. Madison’s point about allowing for this to be “extended” is especially important; it essentially means the United States itself (that is, the nation) could be extended without having to introduce new democratic forms to account for larger numbers of citizens. Context is everything here: this was a period when the framers represented interests with big designs on greatly expanding the reach of the United States on the North American continent.

In Federalist no. 51, Madison spelled out even more clearly the framers’ objective in establishing and designing a government:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Note that Madison’s first principle is to enable government to control the governed.

Federalism Is Decisive

Central to the construction of the U.S. government is the federalism embodied in the title of Publius’s writings. Federalism is a mode of government that combines central governing authority for some things and distributed governing authority for others. In the United States federalism is codified in the Constitution; keep in mind that at the founding of the United States, the individual states had all been largely autonomous political entities, first as colonies and then as something interim as they continued to function between the end of the War of Independence and the ratification of a constitution for the newly founded nation.

The United States is not the only country with a federalist system — the list includes Argentina, Brazil, Germany, India, Mexico, and several others — but compared to those, U.S. federalism is considerably more pronounced. The U.S. Constitution spells out federalism as a relationship of parity between the federal and state governments — meaning they are considered, at least on paper, to be of equal status. The U.S. central government is responsible for things such as national defense, while states are responsible for, say, education of its citizenry. The state governments extend their own form of federalism, keeping certain rights and responsibilities centralized while delegating to local governments some others — ranging from tax collection and school funding to more mundane issues such as whether noisy leaf blowers can be used on certain days of the week.

Federalism explains why one state might require a fishing license but not another, but it also explains much more insidious differences, such as massive obstacles to Black citizens voting under the guise of local laws. It explains why a woman in Massachusetts has relatively easy access to abortion services that are nearly impossible to obtain in Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and West Virginia — six states with a single clinic. It is why a state can choose not to expand Medicaid. It helps block progressive reforms and creates divisions among those fighting for new rights: they may win in one state but are hampered in developing a unified, nationwide struggle.

The parameters of federalism enshrined in the Constitution were not set in stone — although so-called judicial “originalists” argue otherwise when it serves their political agendas. It has evolved over time, especially after the Civil War, when the federal government grew exponentially and took over from states many more elements of administering everyday life for citizens, as well as business and industry regulations that cross state lines. Part of that evolution includes the appeal, particularly in the South, to the “states’ rights” implied by federalism. This was used to justify the Jim Crow system and to battle against federal efforts to desegregate public schools. Much of the states’ rights claim is based on the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” It reaffirms something Madison wrote in Federalist no. 39 advocating a constitution that is “in strictness neither a national or a federal constitution; but a composition of both. In its foundation, it is federal, not national; in the sources from which the ordinary powers of the Government are drawn, it is partly federal, and partly national.” In other words, U.S. states are given sovereignty over whatever they do not yield to the United States by their own consent. It is easy to see how this would be an issue that could provoke a civil war over the institution of slavery.

The U.S. Pseudo-Democracy

In The State and Revolution, Lenin described capitalist democracy as “always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich.” He explained some of the details of this bourgeois democracy, especially its restrictions:

If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the “petty” — supposedly petty — details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for “paupers”!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc., — we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.

Lenin added that Marx had “splendidly” grasped this “essence of capitalist democracy,” noting that “he said that the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament!” That description fits the United States to a tee.

The U.S. pseudo-democracy doesn’t even rise to the level of many other capitalist democracies when it comes to rights. Notably, the U.S. Constitution makes no mention of a whole host of things that are enshrined as rights in many (if not most) of those other countries, including the right to vote, to healthcare, to a job, to join a union, and so on. What rights do exist in the United States have been largely won through struggle, the bourgeoisie having “granted” them because it decided it wasn’t worth allowing a challenge to its regime go any further. These rights can be taken away, at least legally, at any moment — if the bourgeoisie is willing to risk whatever social upheaval may ensue. That individual states can do this diminishes the power of the working class to respond in a unified manner.

Beyond rights per se, there are also laws. It’s instructive to understand how the machinery of the U.S. pseudo-democracy works every day to maintain capitalist rule. The machine has many parts. There is the representative component (legislatures and elections), which is constructed to create the illusion that the citizenry makes decisions through those it elects, while ensuring that the capitalists ultimately have control — precisely as Marx and Lenin described. The administrative component, which controls a large swath of matters that concern nearly all aspects of people’s everyday lives, is almost completely out of any popular control. It includes the departments and agencies at the presidential cabinet level (State, Treasury, Defense, and so on) and myriad administrative, civil, and regulatory agencies whose decisions have huge impacts nationwide. Then there is the repressive arm of the state — “law enforcement,” which is inseparable from the judicial component, the latter predicated on several theoretical ideals that can be appealed to in principle to mask, or at least attempt to mask, how it functions to reinforce capitalist rule.

The machine at the federal level is organized in three branches, all serving the interests of capital and aimed at reinforcing bourgeois rule.

Three Branches and the “Separation of Powers”

The U.S. three-branch setup, an adaptation of the ancient Greek model of a “mixed regime,” is supposed to ensure a “separation of powers” that is further subjected to “checks and balances” aimed at preventing “despotism” — following the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu in The Spirit of Laws, who specified the legislative, executive, and judicial branches that compose the U.S. federal government and those of the states.

Each branch is supposed to represent the people but gets that “people power” in different ways. In the executive branch, only the president and vice president submit to a popular vote — but that vote doesn’t even determine the winner (the Electoral College is discussed below). The rest of the executive branch is made up of “political appointees” in the various departments and agencies who come and go with each new presidential administration, as well as “career professionals” whose tenure is not linked to a change in administration.

The federal legislative branch, the Congress, comprises two parts: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each state — regardless of population — has two Senate members. Before the Constitution’s 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, state legislatures chose senators; they are now subject to direct popular vote. The House, elected by popular vote since 1789, is often referred to as the People’s House. The framers designed it to be sensitive to the opinion of the property-owning electorate of the time, with short two-year terms and no vacancies filled by appointment (as is done with senators). The House has 435 members, a number fixed by the 1929 Permanent Apportionment Act.

Finally, there’s the judicial branch. All the judges who sit on federal courts are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Only at the state, county, and municipal levels are any judges elected, and it is not consistent across the United States.

“Checks and Balances”

The framers created checks and balances specifically to guard against a single branch — particularly the executive — grabbing too much power. Each branch has a specific role to play in the system. For instance, the president heads the executive branch and serves as commander in chief of the armed forces, but military funds must be secured from the legislative branch, which is also responsible for declaring war. The Senate is supposed to ratify peace treaties. The Senate plays an “advise and consent” role and confirms or rejects presidential nominations of “political appointees” to the executive branch. The Congress has the “power of the purse” and is supposed to control all funds used for any executive actions. The executive branch, of course, routinely seeks ways to work around that control, sometimes opening themselves up to investigations and challenges in the courts.

The Senate and House even have checks and balances between them — in the form of having to pass bills in the same form before they can be sent to the executive branch, where the president may sign or veto them — with a veto subject to being overridden by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress.

The judicial branch reviews laws and presidential actions for “constitutionality,” and this is the role it plays in the checks-and-balances system. Finally, Congress has the power to impeach members of the executive and judicial branches.

The various branches often challenge this system. One contentious area concerns the wide discretion given presidents to declare a state of emergency. Another concerns the use of the military. For instance, Congress in 1973 passed the War Powers Act, largely in response to the successive expansion of the Vietnam War — never officially declared — by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. The Act states that the president must consult Congress anytime U.S. troops are deployed, and that they must be returned within a specific period if Congress does not authorize that use of force or declare war. Nixon vetoed the bill as an “unconstitutional and dangerous” check on presidential duties, but Congress overrode the veto. Presidents since then have largely ignored the Act: Reagan sent military personnel to El Salvador in 1981; Clinton bombed Kosovo in 1999; and in 2011 Obama began military operations in Libya, all without authorization.

Then there’s the oversight role of Congress, which bears much of the system’s checks-and-balances power. Congress doesn’t simply convene its full membership to address everything the executive branch does; rather, it investigates and conducts hearings, calling members of the executive branch to explain its actions, and from that process takes its own action: allocating funds, pursuing legislation aimed at establishing new laws or rules, and so on. This only works if the executive branch cooperates — something the Trump administration has almost universally refused to do. Executive obstructions run the gamut from barring executive appointees from testifying before congressional committees, to appointing “acting” heads of departments and agencies and thus bypassing the Senate’s advise-and-consent role, to using executive orders to allocate funds contrary to decisions of the House — always daring Congress to challenge these decisions in court.

The Main Lever of Pseudo-Democracy: Elections and Voting

The first thing to understand about elections and voting in the United States pseudo-democracy is that the right to vote is not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution; rather, amendments eventually prohibited disenfranchisement of a right not explicitly granted. The second is that the Constitution gives states the power to organize elections however they wish (subject, of course, to court challenges — which explains the widely disparate character of election rules and laws from state to state). Third, what “voting rights” do exist do not derive directly from the equality of all expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Eligibility to vote, left up to the states, was mostly given only to white male adult owners of property. Essentially, being allowed to vote was a moving target for everyone but white male property owners.

In the post–Civil War period known as the Reconstruction Era, the 15th Amendment gave Black men in the former Confederacy the right to vote. This led to Black members of the House of Representatives and even two Black senators selected (although not concurrently) by the Mississippi legislature. Women won the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th Amendment.

As Reconstruction was destroyed, Jim Crow laws in the South — enabled by federalism — became a tool for preventing Black people from voting. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other barriers were established. Eventually, voting discrimination — and a massive revolt as part of the civil rights movement — led the federal government to intervene, and the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965. It has since come under attack in the courts, and its most protective elements — direct, county-by-county review of voting rules in the most discriminating states — have been largely gutted by the unelected Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, federalism maintains an inherently undemocratic system by leaving just about every aspect of elections up to states and localities. There are no uniform rights to convenient polling places, ballot access for candidates, and so on. U.S. elections are fundamentally unfair, and those in power can easily manipulate them to perpetuate their hold on power. The boundaries that establish districts from which representatives are elected are easily gerrymandered to ensure a party stays in power. For instance, many states have mostly Republican members of Congress even though the aggregate statewide popular vote for members of the House of Representatives always goes to Democratic candidates, often by wide margins. And without any proportional representation, seats in Congress always go to the winner of the popular vote from one of the two ruling-class parties, even when neither won an actual majority because of the presence of third-party candidates on the ballot. The Electoral College takes this perversion of majority rule to an extreme.

So-called minor or third-party candidates have tremendous hurdles to get on ballots in the U.S. pseudo-democracy. It is different in virtually every state, and even at more local levels for local candidates, but generally candidates of the major parties have permanent ballot access, while others must gather the signatures of voters who agree simply with their right to be on the ballot. The formulas for this “petitioning” are different from place to place, but include all manner of barriers that make it nearly impossible and financially unfeasible to put up candidates.

Voter Suppression — The Evil Child of Federalism

To all of this must be added voter suppression — almost a cottage industry in the United States. There are legal, illegal, and extralegal efforts across the country to keep people from voting. The extralegal measures include the kind of intimidation Trump has been threatening: an “army” of “poll watchers” showing up at community polling places to menace voters. Perhaps it’s armed white men in a Black neighborhood. Notably, the Republican National Committee is only allowed to participate in poll watching because the federal courts in 2018 lifted a consent decree after the party was found to have been running a widescale operation in New Jersey to intimidate voters back in 1981. Extralegal measures also include distributing incorrect information about when or where to vote, or simply trying to diminish confidence in the security of voting.

The legal measures are broad. There is gerrymandering, which involves the drawing of election districts (something left to the states) in convoluted ways to ensure that candidates of a certain party are elected. These measures also include all sorts of other steps the federalist system allows because states and localities have full power over how elections are organized. The only way to overturn these voter-suppression efforts, other than by outright revolt of the masses, is to rely on courts that serve the ruling class to rule against them. The most common measures are the onerous voter ID laws; these work because voters — especially low-income voters and people of color — may not have easy access to IDs, or because the law requires underlying documentation that is difficult to procure, or because obtaining it may be prohibitively costly. More than 21 million U.S. citizens lack government-issued photo IDs, and for some of them traveling to obtain it in advance of voting adds an additional burden.

There are the registration restrictions that limit when voters can enroll — and even being registered may not guarantee the right to vote. Many states purge voter registration records, ostensibly to account for voters who have moved or died, but really to suppress groups of voters. Jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in particular try to purge Black voters for no cause. Linked to this are the felony conviction restrictions in all but two states, which ban incarcerated people from voting. Many states have gone further and ban convicted felons from voting for life, even after their release from prison. The racist nature of the judicial system means these restrictions keep Black people from voting at a much higher rate than other populations.

Finally, there is systemic voter suppression through restricted access to polling places. Black and Latinx people typically have fewer polling sites and poll workers per voter than everywhere else. States with large populations of college students from out of state keep these students from voting, even though they live in the states for most of each year. And the vote is further suppressed by Election Day itself, which takes place on what is a workday for most people, who often must forgo pay or rush to polling places during the limited hours when they are not working.

Voter suppression works. In Georgia, 70 percent of voters purged in the run-up to the 2018 gubernatorial election were Black. The Black Democratic candidate for governor was narrowly defeated; most analysts attribute that to the purge — which was undertaken by her Republican opponent while running for office. He was secretary of state at the time and thus responsible for Georgia’s elections — and refused to recuse himself from any involvement with how the election would be conducted.

Beyond all these examples, there is the de facto voter suppression of the majority built into the U.S. Constitution itself — in the form of one of the most undemocratic components of any bourgeois democracy in the world, the Electoral College.

Pseudo-Democracy Sui Generis: The Racist Electoral College

When the Constitution was being drafted, no country in the world directly elected its executive. Having just overthrown a king, the framers were loath to give that power to Congress, but they had no intention of leaving it up to a popular vote. So, they devised a system of intermediaries — “independent” electors — whom the states would assign to select a president as part of an Electoral College.

But more than that, the Electoral College is the direct descendant of slavery and the framers’ intent to accommodate slaveowners so that they would adhere to the new country.

The Electoral College formula was to be population based, which raised the issue of how many electors each state would be assigned. As with the distribution of House seats, this meant grappling with how to count the slave population. In 1787, 40 percent of people living in the Southern states were Black slaves, and Madison in particular — he was from Virginia, which was 60 percent Black — knew the white plantation owners and farmers he represented wouldn’t stand for electors divvied up according to the white population alone, which would diminish their say in the federal government.

They struck a compromise to ensure that Southern states would ratify the Constitution: they would count Black slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating representatives and electors. With 200,000 slaves, Virginia ended up with more than one-fourth of the total electoral votes then required to win the presidency. Today, the number of electors — 538 — is equal to the size of each state’s congressional delegation, which means no fewer than three, plus three additional electors for the District of Columbia.

The Constitution says nothing about how states should allocate their electoral votes, and the framers didn’t foresee the development of political parties. Eventually, all but two states enacted laws that give all their electoral votes to whoever wins the popular vote statewide, which helps skew power in U.S. presidential elections to a minority of overall voters nationally.

As evidenced by the 2000 and 2016 elections, the Electoral College allows a candidate to win the White House even though his opponent receives more votes. That’s because Electoral College votes are awarded in toto to the winner of the state’s popular vote in 48 states. In 2012, Barack Obama won Florida by less than 1 percent of the vote; he still got all 29 electoral votes. He lost North Carolina by only 2 percent, but Mitt Romney got all 15 electoral votes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won a significant majority of the 139 million popular votes, but lost the Electoral College count to Trump; analyses suggest that a shift of 79,646 votes in three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — would have tipped the Electoral College balance. Instead, 0.06 percent of the overall national vote decided the election.

The picture painted by the pseudo-democratic U.S. elections is only one part of the canvas of how the bourgeoisie maintains its rule and oppresses the vast majority of people. There is also the legal system, its courts always intervening to some extent in every election cycle, but primarily doing its work through the laws, rules, regulations, and practices that control the working class.

The Federal Judiciary as Arbiter of Bourgeois Rule

The federal judiciary’s primary role is to settle matters of constitutional and administrative law. Most, but not all, criminal prosecution plays out in state, county, and local courts. Federal judges’ two main functions are to determine whether enacted laws are “constitutional” — that is, whether they fall within the purview of the interpretation by those judges of the framers’ intent and the wording of the document — and to adjudicate whether government actions are permissible within the constitutional framework. The latter typically involves ruling on whether groups or individuals have been harmed or had their rights impinged. For example, a suit may be filed in federal court seeking to overturn legislation; similarly, an individual who was wrongly arrested may file a suit seeking a court ruling that her constitutional rights were violated. While the courts may rule “against” the government, they make sure not to diminish bourgeois control.

When laws are struck down, legislators typically look for ways to enact new laws that serve the same purpose that will pass the courts’ “constitutional muster” — a process facilitated by the fact that federal courts issue extensive motivations for their decisions that point to ways to remedy situations, not just simple up-or-down votes. Federalism promotes this “game,” which allows for what seem to be never-ending efforts by this or that sector to wage a battle to overturn rights won — as in the case of abortion — or prevent rights from being granted.

Unelected federal judges are appointed for life. Thus, a president and compliant Senate can “pack” the courts with young judges of a particular ideological bent and influence decisions for decades — including long after that president and those senators are gone, and long after prevailing societal views have changed (same-sex marriage being a prime example) — as a way to realize political goals they cannot achieve through the political process. The Republicans have made this almost an art. The New York Times, the semiofficial voice of one wing of the U.S. ruling class, calls this effort a “firewall against majority rule.” The federal courts are a tool for carrying out the capitalist agenda. From time to time they issue historic rulings about rights for the majority of people, but far more often they rule in favor of large corporations and special interests. A case in point is the Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court granted to corporations the exact same rights to free speech as is stated in the Constitution’s First Amendment.

Federal judges are more willing than ever to support the most specious of legal claims — the way the law is being used to attack the Affordable Care Act is a good illustration — to skew the system to the right. This is not an aberration; it works precisely according to plan, and exposes as not only undemocratic but the very foundation of a system that does not protect rights. The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which is mischaracterized as guaranteeing the right to an abortion, reveals how this works.

The Supreme Court ruled in Roe that the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment provides a “right to privacy” that protects a pregnant woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, and characterized that right to choose as “fundamental.” That established a requirement that all federal courts evaluate challenges to abortion laws under the “strict scrutiny” standard — meaning the law must be necessary to a “compelling state interest” and is “narrowly tailored” to achieving that purpose using the “least restrictive means.” At the same time, it ruled that the right is not absolute; rather, it must be balanced against the government’s interests in protecting women’s health and prenatal life.

It’s easy to see where this leads without an explicit statement of a woman’s right to an abortion in the Constitution. Federalism allows any state to pass a restrictive law and see whether it survives challenges in the federal courts. In the nearly half century since Roe, conservative-leaning states have tried to restrict abortion rights however they can, and then they test that in the courts — part of a concerted effort to find the narrow pathway to get Roe overturned while waiting for the composition of the unelected court to change so that there are enough votes to reverse the ruling. That is what is happening right now, when the anti-choice right wing sees an opportunity to eliminate abortion rights with a new vote from religious zealot Amy Coney Barrett.

Such is the federal judicial system: elite judges — unelected, unrepresentative of the majority of people, and largely unfamiliar with their lives — decide life-and-death issues. In the context of capitalism, this system is an abomination.

Racism and Oppression Enforced through the Criminal Legal System

In his 1884 book The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels traced the evolution of what in the United States is constituted as the institutions of the criminal legal system. Describing the distinguishing characteristics of the “state,” he wrote of “the institution of a public force” necessitated by the “cleavage into classes” of the people.

This public force exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men, but also of material appendages, prisons and coercive institutions of all kinds. … It becomes stronger in proportion as the class antagonisms within the state become sharper and as adjoining states grow larger and more populous.

Engels’s description fits today’s U.S. criminal legal system, which is organized primarily at the state, county, and municipal levels throughout the country. The courts, prosecutorial offices, and police agencies are part of a complex web devoted mostly to protecting private property, criminalizing poverty, and repressing the entire working class — most notably Black and Latinx people — precisely because of the “class antagonisms” to which Engels referred.

Let’s look first at the police, which along with a “standing army” is one of what Lenin called the two “chief instruments of state power.” There are thousands of police agencies at the federal, state, county, and municipal levels. These departments are the direct descendants of organized patrols whose job was to catch and return runaway slaves. They exist precisely because class society exists.

Today, all 50 states have their own state police forces. Every U.S. city and nearly every town has its own police department: large cities have thousands of cops (the New York Police Department has 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees) and some tiny hamlets have at least one or two part-time officers. In many states, particularly in the South, Midwest, and West, counties have sheriff departments responsible for wide geographic areas. On top of this, government agencies, public transit systems, hospitals, universities, and so on often have their own police departments, with armed officers. In Boston, for instance, people are policed by nearly 20 agencies.

The cops directly cooperate with state courts and prosecutors, the latter most often called district attorneys (DAs), who preside over staffs of attorneys that try cases in courts. Most DAs are elected. In cities with large populations of oppressed minorities, candidates often run on platforms of “criminal justice reform,” promising to eliminate some of the worst excesses of the inherently racist and anti-working-class “justice” system. But they rarely deliver on these promises because the police are so powerful (thanks in part to their phony “unions”). Most significantly, they rarely bring the full power of existing laws against cops responsible for the worst excesses — namely, brutal beatings and murders, especially of Black people. DA offices rely on these same cops every day, and study after study has shown that DAs are reluctant to prosecute people who are essentially their “coworkers.”

DAs prosecute criminal cases before state, county, and municipal judges who may be elected or appointed, depending on the state. However they get on the bench, these judges are the final nail in the coffin of a criminal legal system structured on racism and oppression. They oversee the post-arrest prosecutions and mete out the sentences that illustrate the deeply embedded structural racism and other biases in a system that exists to police “class antagonisms” and was originally designed to incarcerate poor people, especially people of color.

It is a system that works precisely as intended. The United States has more than 800,000 Black people in jails and prisons. Black men are nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Hispanic men are 2.3 times as likely. The inherent racism plays out at every stage of the system, from arrest to incarceration to the possibility of release from prison — and even beyond imprisonment, for those who have “served their time.” Having a criminal record impedes one’s ability to get a job generally, but for Black men it is especially onerous. Many studies show that white men with a criminal record have a significantly better chance of getting a job than Black men. On top of this, a criminal record disenfranchises people. An estimated one of every 13 Blacks in the United States has lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction — despite having served a sentence and thus “paid their debt to society” — whereas this affects only one of every 56 non-Black people who would otherwise be eligible to vote.

Thus, the criminal legal system comes full circle, serving the Constitution’s original aim of keeping poor and especially Black people from participating even in the pseudo-democracy that is the U.S. republic.

Some Last Words on the U.S. Framework

Bourgeois democracy is not workers’ democracy. Workers in a bourgeois democracy secure their rights only insofar as they fight for them and fight to protect them once they are won. A federalist republic such as the United States, masquerading as a bourgeois democracy, has an additional layer — one designed to be largely impenetrable and tremendously disorienting and disarming — that serves to solidify the truly undemocratic nature of the bourgeois state.

Much of the argument among the different wings of the bourgeoisie regarding all this involves appeals to what the framers “intended.” That is a bullshit argument. If the framers could be called before Congress to testify about what they think, the first thing many would say would be, “What the fuck are those women and slaves doing up there on that committee?!”

But these appeals serve a purpose. They perpetuate the myth of American exceptionalism, that the U.S. system of government is unique and better than any other nation’s because it grants “rights” and creates “opportunities for all.” Moreover, they always steer discussions back to a framework that has worked very well for the bourgeoisie except when it provoked the U.S. Civil War. But even that worked out well for the ruling class, because it crushed a feudal system that was holding back the development of capitalism.

This divisive system is by design. Our contemporary version of what Publius spelled out in The Federalist Papers is its logical conclusion: a combination plutocracy and oligarchy wrapped in an illusory democracy aimed at masking its worst excesses from a populace that has been schooled (also by design) to believe in a pseudo-democracy in the “land of the free.”

About author

Scott Cooper

Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.