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.
Categories: Marxist theory, Uncategorized, United States
John, you are only partially correct here. The Constitution was, by and large, a *compromise* between the wealthy merchants/bankers/manufacturers/guild members and some New England farmers on the one hand…and the slavers on the other. Madison and Hamilton (the latter splitting with the former during Adam’s administration). The underlying issue was slavery and nation building. During his period among the Federalists, Madison, and with uber-Federalist and *actual* architect of the Constitution, did in fact fear the plebeian masses. However this was in *part* and in large page due to the manipulation of the Constitution by the anti-Federalists, like *Jefferson* whose belief in ‘democracy’ really mean States Rights (he was the best known originator of it) because it meant, for him, the Connecticut Compromise and the counting of 3/5 of the every slave as a vote, thus giving the “people’s house” to the Slavers in the South, particularly Virginia, Jefferson’s home state.
The issue for Hamilton…who, btw…was a staunch abolitionist as were most Federalists, only care about one thing: building the U.S. as a nation that could stand up to the British and the French. This meant a strong “Big Gov’t” bent on developing industry, tying the country together by assuming the states debt accumulated through the Revolution, and a strong army that could defeat any invader (as opposed to the 2nd Amendment ‘militia system’ advocated by many but couldn’t withstand an actual invasion, nor did they in 1812). All this was seen as a threat, and rightly so, by the anti-Federalists who in their Southern contingent dreamed of a pastoral, expanding US with and expanding slave system which would lock them into a neo-colonial status with the British and French.
Hamilton and Madison certainly were as you described them, but it wasn’t for the narrow class interests you project onto them. Indeed, Hamilton virtually invented banking in the US but his view of it wasn’t ever about unmitigated speculation but as a credit system. His belief, false of course, that “men of means” (as opposed to those with inherited wealth or that granted by a monarch) got to their position through ‘wise use’ of their investments were the best to run the nation. Largely because he was projecting his own idealist views onto his class partners. Madison, Adams and Hamilton rather disdained the vast accumulation of wealth and considered, oddly, considered Jefferson’s “out of the box” theory that all land everywhere should be distributed to others every 20 years.
In this sense Hamilton and some of the other Federalists were far closer to Marx’s view of how the political economy of capitalist should develop than anyone else in the US fight for independence from the British.(which, unfortunately, he didn’t study enough, focusing as he did on the UK). If in the late 18th Century you were for the development of the productive forces (as Marx was) then Hamilton is your man and no other.
I’m writing this not to disagree what you wrote about the Constitution (all accurate as far as I can tell) but to place in context the rather simplified class relations of the period you impart. It’s far more complex than what you wrote, politically and economically.
I should add, as well, that it’s a good thing the President can’t tear up NAFTA. Otherwise you are bestowing upon the President powers that were deliberately withheld (though Hamilton was for it) so as not to turn him into a tyrant. Treaties can only be overturned by the Senate. The President has no say in the matter nor should he (IMO). The Ted Cruz right wing is big on this question of the Constitution. He’s not altogether wrong in his criticisms of Obama though I personally support some of his motions like stopping the deportation of ‘dreamers’ and some other undocumented workers. In fact we should demand he do more. But from a constitutional POV, not so much.
Thanks for your note, David Walters. However, I think you are incorrect. You should read “Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States” by the well-known US historian Jame Beard. For one thing, he gives thumbnail sketches of every single delegate to the Constitutional Convention (which, by the way, was a runaway affair; the convention was only authorized to revise the Articles of Confederation, not write an entirely new Constitution). Every single delegate was from the strata the article mentions, and they were all very aware of their class interests. If there was a compromise, it was between the Southern slave owners and the northern merchants/bankers. That, for example, was what the 3/5’s was all about.
Beard makes very clear that a primary concern of the classes represented at the convention was the weakness of the federal government, in particular its inability to have a national army, with which it could put down revolts of slaves and/or revolts of the small farmers. They met under the influence of Shay’s Rebellion, for example. And they were also very aware of the danger of the small farmers combining with the slaves.
And when they referred to a “majority” oppressing a “minority” they meant the impoverished majority potentially oppressing the rich minority. Yes, they were partially concerned with the possibility of an oppressive state, but not from the point of view of the state oppressing the majority but from the point of view of the state oppressing the rich minority.