Daniel Lazare looks at America’s primitive constitution, the Sanders surge and asks ... ‘what if’.
The big political news in America is that Bernie Sanders has taken the lead in the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. He does not have a majority following victories in Iowa and New Hampshire - merely a plurality. But, although a thousand pitfalls lie in the way, it may conceivably be enough for the rest of the party to fall into line. If so, 2020 could be the most momentous president election since Eugene V Debs won a million votes, while stuck inside a federal penitentiary, exactly 100 years earlier. Only this time a self-proclaimed “socialist” might actually win.
In order to understand what the Sanders upsurge means, it is necessary to know something about the peculiar political institutions behind it. One is the concept of the primary, while another has to do with idea of a political party, as refracted through the lens of 18th-century American constitutionalism.
Let us take them in reverse order. In most of the world, the idea of a political party is simple: it is what citizens form in order to fight for a certain programme or set of ideas. Whether their concern is drug legalisation or socialist revolution, the thing to do is to seek out co-thinkers, hammer out a programme, field candidates and agitate for support. In parliamentary democracies based on proportional representation, the barriers are not insurmountable, which is why micro-movements like animal rights have been able to gain toeholds in places like Portugal and the Netherlands.
But the United States lacks anything remotely similar. America’s ‘founding fathers’ shared a horror of ‘faction’ that was especially strong in a wing of 18th-century Anglo-American thought, known as the ‘country opposition’. For James Madison - the Virginia planter who more than anyone helped craft the US constitution in 1787 - the very idea was synonymous with “violence … instability, injustice and confusion”, as he put it in the famous 10th Federalist Paper, not to mention “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property or for any other improper or wicked project”. Parties were subversive, inimical to the public interest and dangerously democratic. The goal, therefore, was to neutralise them via a system of separation of powers, and checks and balances, that would divide the demos against itself, so that the mass of ordinary Americans would be unable to realise their common self-interest.
In terms of office-holders, the ideal was not that of a party loyalist, but of a proud and independent statesman who was contemptuous of riches, power and the mob, and beholden to no-one other than his own conscience. Parties were corrupt and demeaning, and therefore had no place in a stern and upright republic. Needless to say, the ideal did not last long in a country that would soon become famous for political venality. But enough of it survived to see to it that parties would remain in a permanent state of arrested development.
The upshot is that today’s Republicans and Democrats are in no sense parties, as the rest of the world understands the term. No-one joins them, no-one pays dues to them and no-one attends monthly meetings to debate party policy or ideology. Instead of programmes, they have ‘platforms’ that are mostly for show and which candidate are free to ignore. When a neo-Nazi named Arthur Jones ran for Congress in 2018 in Chicago, shocked Republican officials could not expel him, since he was not a member and no such disciplinary procedure exists even if he was. All they could do was advise residents not to vote for him. The same thing happened when a white supremacist named Russell Walker ran on the Republican ticket for the North Carolina state legislature. “We can’t stop him from running,” one GOP official explained. Since they could not kick him out, they could not stop him from proclaiming that Republicanism and racism were one and the same.
Political parties in America are thus not something that citizens form, since ‘Repocrats’ have existed since time immemorial. They are not something that citizens employ to fight for certain ideas or beliefs, since they are devoid of programme.
So we have the odd spectacle of a self-proclaimed socialist seeking the nomination of a bourgeois party he has never belonged to, does not identify with and, by all appearances, does not like. If he wins, he will head up a ticket composed of hundreds of state, local and congressional candidates who think the same of him. (“Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done,” Hillary Clinton recently said of Sanders.) As for socialism, it is something that 99% of Democratic candidates positively abhor. If Sanders wins the nomination, he will thus find himself in the middle of an armed and hostile camp.
Which brings us to that other peculiar institution: the primary. An outgrowth of the ‘Progressive Era’ of the 1890s and after, primaries were a reaction to parties that were viewed as more corrupt than ever, thanks to the rise of urban political machines, and hence even more at odds with the public interest. Cleaning up the cities meant bringing in jut-jawed prosecutors to go after ‘bosses’ who monopolised offices and elections. Among other things, this meant taking the nominating process out of their hands and placing it in those of a disinterested public. Instead of ‘smoke-filled rooms’, nominations would occur in special, state-supervised elections. You still could not join a party. But you could register as a Republican or Democrat and thereby control whom they ran for office.
With that, politics grew more depoliticised, while parties became ever more superfluous. By the 1970s and 80s, the electoral process revolved around individual political entrepreneurs raising money and hiring a team of pollsters and consultants to craft an image that would hopefully appeal to the voting public. What followed was the stuff of a thousand satires about the empty-headed politicians with dazzling smiles, who sally forth to meet and greet, while avoiding any subject that might get them in trouble. The local party apparatus shrank to the role of umpire, as it enforced rules and saw to it that candidates played fair and square, but otherwise remained aloof.
Sanders is different, of course, which is the reason for his appeal. A cranky Jewish septuagenarian has emerged as America’s most popular politician, precisely because he is abrasive and un-photogenic. His white hair is his trademark, because it is a mess. But Sanders is not just a candidate: he is the leader of a movement. A recent ad, set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s ‘The times they are a-changing’, makes this clear: “I want you all to take a look around and find someone you don’t know,” he brays in a thick Brooklyn accent. “Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know, as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?”
Peace, land and bread it is not. But, however vague and sentimental, political solidarity of this sort is worlds apart from the fragmented, self-nullifying politics that Madison saw as the key to stability and the preservation of private property. “If you are willing to fight for a government of passion and justice and decency,” Sanders goes on, “not only will we win this election, but together we will transform this country.”1 This is un-Madisonian as well. Bourgeois politicians do not transform: rather, their goal is to restore American greatness by returning the country to its roots. They also do not call on people to fight: instead, they ask for their vote, so they can fight on their behalf - which in reality means engaging in the corrupt, self-serving games that define politics on Capitol Hill.
Sanders has come out ahead by virtue of America’s attenuated 18th-century political system. But, the more he does, the more at odds with the system he becomes. The contradiction is no secret; in fact, it is what gives his campaign its edge. But, while millions of impassioned supporters think they can overcome it through sheer force of will, they are mistaken. Centuries of accumulated institutional weight do not give way so easily, while behind America’s peculiar party system - or, rather, anti-party system - lies a stultifying, pre-modern constitution that is even more intractable.
So, while Sanders might win the nomination or even the election, the big question is, what happens next? At best, he will face a Congress controlled by timid Democrats who will panic at the thought of enacting any of his reforms. At worst, he will face angry Republicans eager to do to him what Democrats have done to Trump over the last four years: ie, investigate him to death, while bringing in the FBI and CIA to drive him out of office. If Democrats had a field day with a 20-minute meeting in June 2016 between top Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya - a meeting that proved entirely innocuous despite thousands of headlines to the contrary - imagine what Republicans will do with Sanders’ long association with the Socialist Workers Party, the old Trotskyist party of James Cannon and Joseph Hansen; with his 1985 trip to Nicaragua, in which he attended a Sandinista rally, marked by chants of “Here, there, everywhere, the Yankee will die”; with his 1987 trip to the Soviet Union, in which he joined in a tipsy rendition of the Popular Front favourite, ‘This land is your land’, and so on.
If Trump is any indication, they will immobilise Sanders from the start. Meanwhile, he will come under intense pressure to get tough with Russia, to step up arms deliveries to the Ukraine and to confront Iran over its allegedly subversive activities in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He will meet with howls of protest if he tries to do away with economic warfare against Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, and he will also have to deal with Binyamin Netanyahu (assuming he is still in office), who is a good deal more formidable than any Republican on Capitol Hill. If the economy crashes, Wall Street will issue marching orders to bail out the banks, which means another massive wealth transfer from the workers to the bourgeoisie. How will he respond?
Meanwhile, he will have no party behind him - just a loose circle of advisors and a disorganised mass of followers out in the hinterlands. ‘Bernie Bros’ will find that raging against the machine is one thing: toppling it quite another.
Besides, there is the fact that Sanders has shown himself to be constitutionally conservative in certain respects, refusing even to come out against the Senate filibuster - an obscure yet powerful mechanism that allows 41 senators representing as little as 11% of the population to block any government initiative. It is a monstrously anti-democratic relic that should have been abolished decades ago.2 The fact that Sanders defends it to this day suggests that he will not have a clue what to do when the ancient machinery chews up his programme, as it surely will.
If so, will Sanders surrender or will his supporters demand a confrontation? No-one knows. The only certainty is that the contradictions can only grow more explosive.
. The ad is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=OythsfCi6JA.↩︎
. See my article, ‘Abolish the filibuster’ Weekly Worker September 26 2019.↩︎