They wrote the US Constitution for contingencies exactly like this.
On the one hand, there is Bernie Sanders. Free higher public education? End “Citizens United” to “take the money out of politics”? Change the tax code to eliminate the corporate loopholes? Wall St. and Corporate America in general do not like this since it might cut into their wealth and power.
Then there is Donald Trump, who promises to end NAFTA and other such trade agreements and to cut off money transfers to Mexico from undocumented Mexicans working in the US if the Mexican government doesn’t pay for his wall. While these wouldn’t redistribute money away from the rich, it would seriously disrupt their system, throwing an element of uncertainty into it.
Never fear, though. Enter the US Constitution.
James Madison, the intellectual leader of the writing of the Constitution seemed to be talking about Trump and Sanders when he wrote, “In future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation… or, which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition.”
How to prevent such a situation, but still maintain the appearance of democracy, in order to get the Constitution passed? They hit upon a diabolically clever scheme: The division of the powers of the government. Here’s how it works:
- The President – elected every four years, and not by popular vote. His major appointments subject to approval of the Senate. Can approve of or veto new laws but can’t create them himself.
- Congress: Divided up into two houses. The upper house – the Senate – has a check on the president’s appointments. But only one third of them are elected in any election, meaning if there is a real popular upsurge they can only change one third of the senators at most. (Originally, US Senators were voted in by each state legislature, also, rather than popularly elected.) Any new laws must, of course, pass both houses of congress.
- The Judiciary: Federal judges are appointed for life, meaning they are immune to a popular uprising. The Senate’s veto power over the appointment of judges means that both they and the president have a hand in picking them. At the same time, once appointed, the judges have veto power over any new laws or other actions.
So the net effect of this is that in the event of a voter upsurge, the majority could at worst only vote in “their” president, one third of the Senate and a majority of the House. That would leave 2/3 of the Senate and the Court system to keep them in check. It’s what they meant about preventing the majority (that is, the workers and poor farmers) from oppressing the (rich) minority.
President Trump or Sanders?
Which brings us back to Trump and Sanders. A Sanders presidency would be nearly unable to get anything through congress. Even with a Democratic majority in the Senate (possible) and in the House (almost ruled out), it would be arranged that just enough Democrats would vote against anything he proposed that it wouldn’t pass.
And Trump? He could try to eliminate NAFTA by executive order, for example. The day after he tried, it would be challenged in the courts, which would inevitably throw out his order.
“Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens,” wrote Madison. “If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the (property owning, rich) minority will be insecure.” The “division of powers” ensures that the “rights” (read: “interests”) of the property owning rich will be secure, even under a Trump or a Sanders presidency. Things might be a little less stable, but it would probably be manageable.
This doesn’t mean that reforms are impossible. But it will take a lot more than electing one person as president. It will take those without wealth (that is, the working class) combining into a political party that they, themselves, set up, not only to elect their own representatives into office (vs. electing a member of one of the two parties of big business) but also to combine this with the struggle in the streets, communities and work places and to coordinate and advance that struggle. Now that would be a real first step. Not a “political revolution”, but at least a first step.
It also means that our form of “government” was set up in order to prevent the working class majority from ever really controlling it. Influence it? Yes, at times. But a real revolution means owning it. For that, an entirely new format will be needed.