The US Constitution is clearly an antidemocratic force in American politics. Supporters of Resolution 21 argue that it is the greatest obstacle to socialism and that overturning the current constitutional order is our most important task.
Eugene V. Debs once wrote that it was the duty of all socialists to act in unison “not only to back up the economic struggle of the trades-union, but to finally wrest the government from capitalist control and establish the working-class republic.” This vision rings true today.
On and off campus, we are witnessing the first stirrings of a militant new labor movement rooted in the power of the rank and file. YDSA has played a crucial role in this movement, and will hopefully only become more vigorously involved with time. As socialists, there is one thing we bring to the table in our labor work that non-socialists cannot: a vision of mass politics capable of uniting disparate struggles of individual workers into one unified struggle by the working class as a whole, the struggle for emancipation from the political system that enshrines the daily tyrannies of bosses and landlords in the law of the land. The momentum of the class as it leaps into motion to fight for its own survival becomes momentum for socialism when it is directed towards an all-out fight for the political power the working class needs to shape its own destiny free from the domination of those who live off its perpetual servitude.
Winning this fight is our highest duty as socialists at the present moment, and the greatest obstacle we face is the US Constitution. Far from guaranteeing every resident of the United States “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of 1787 emerged from an unholy pact between slave owners and capitalists designed to protect the property of the wealthy minority from the interests of the exploited majority. It continues to serve the interests of the capitalist class to this day by surrounding the levers of public power with an impregnable fortress of antidemocratic institutions.
The independent presidency and the bureaucracy sprawling out from the executive cabinet create an almost monarchical concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. This individual is indirectly elected by an electoral college that distorts voting power in favor of whiter, more sparsely populated states. The division of the legislative branch into two chambers elected at different intervals ensures maximum difficulty in convening a Congress that accurately represents the electorate at any given time. The upper of these two chambers, the Senate, distorts the power of the ballot in much the same way as the Electoral College, but by up to a factor of eighty, making a complete farce of the principle of “one person, one vote.” Federalism replicates all of these structures in miniature fifty times over with each state, while also giving state governments extensive control over issues like labor law, abortion rights, or carceral policy, creating a network of reactionary fiefdoms across the country.
As if those provisions were not undemocratic enough, our constitutional regime has grown even more grotesque with time. Institutions which were not provided for in the original Constitution, but were not proscribed against either, like judicial review, the peacetime military, and the free market in legal services, media, and elections, have further estranged our political system from anything resembling a democratic republic. Judicial review has become the basis for a top-to-bottom judicial dictatorship, and at its head, the unelected lifetime appointees to the Supreme Court effectively rule by decree. The peacetime military is the final guarantor of the capitalist state’s authority, the bite that will back up its bark if it is ever seriously challenged on its own turf. Lastly, the subjection of the law, the press, and elections to market forces ensures that they all favor those who can put up the highest price for them at auction, guaranteeing unchallenged capitalist rule through “soft power.”
A socialist program could not possibly be enacted under this framework. Even a commanding popular majority in favor of socialism would likely not translate to socialist control of Congress or the White House, and even if it did, the policies of a socialist administration would be dismantled at the state level before dying a prolonged death in a hostile court system. Unable to pass any of their promised reforms, socialists would be ill-equipped to keep their base from growing dissatisfied and voting them out of office in the face of a capitalist-controlled media sphere working overtime to discredit them.
Amending the Constitution is not a viable way out of this bind. The absurdly difficult amendment process has ensured that no amendment has been successfully proposed in the last fifty years, and only seventeen new amendments have been ratified in the 232 years since the Bill of Rights was adopted. Perhaps as few as seven of those had a clear democratizing effect, and three of those seven were only possible because of a civil war. With the population growing increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer states, it is unthinkable that there will ever again be a progressive amendment to the Constitution through the established channels.
As socialists, we must have the courage to violate the boundaries of what our ruling class considers acceptable politics and put forward a bold new solution: in the words of DSA’s political platform, “a second constitutional convention to write the founding documents of a new socialist democracy.” To live up to the task, this convention must not be an Article V convention, nor any other constitutionally-permitted means of political reform, but a revolutionary constituent assembly elected in defiance of the existing regime on the basis of proportional representation and universal, equal, and direct suffrage for all residents. To convene such an assembly and make the new republic a reality, we will first have to build a mass party with the support of a majority of the working class – no easy task.
How can YDSA contribute? First, by making intransigent opposition to the Constitution a core part of our public identity. Second, by bringing youth into the movement for a democratic republic through political education and campaigns that center the democratic struggle. To that end, we should pass “Resolution 21: Winning the Battle for Democracy” at this year’s national convention. If passed, R21 would declare YDSA’s opposition to the Constitution in no uncertain terms. It would also direct the Youth Political Education Committee (YPEC) to assist chapters with political education about the Constitution and democratic republicanism. These are crucial steps for us to take as an organization because they get to the heart of one of the core questions facing the socialist movement, and by extension YDSA: how do we intend to take and use power in a way that reflects our unique commitment to democracy? The various “common sense” answers out there – elections, the mass strike, workers’ councils, grassroots direct democracy, etc. – all contain kernels of wisdom. But without a clear analysis of the Constitution and how it shapes the capitalist regime in the United States, we lack a target to organize against and define our positive vision for socialist democracy in contrast with. To move mountains, we first have to know where to push.
The tyranny of the Constitution is not abstract or far away for our members and peers. We all suffer from the judicial dictatorship’s decrees against student debt relief and affirmative action. Many of us live under regressive state laws restricting abortion rights or the rights of queer people thanks to federalism’s empowerment of reactionaries. We encounter the peacetime military in our day-to-day lives whenever we see fellow youth swallowed whole by the ROTC or military recruiters and spat out as footsoldiers of our ruling class in the global class war. YDSA is already on the front lines of the battle for democracy – let’s pass R21 and start fighting to win it.