Slaves to the Constitution

Photograph Source: Eli Christman – CC BY 2.0

Slavery lives on in U.S.-American life, crippling “our” supposed grand “democracy” in numerous ways. The massive wealth, income, and health gaps between Black and white Americans and the related persistent segregation and mass arrest and incarceration of Black Americans cannot be properly understood without reference to the two and a half centuries in which Black Americans were enslaved.

The racist police state that has produced the cop murders of Milton Hall, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Brionna Taylor, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Daunte Wright (killed not far from the site of Floyd’s murder during the trial of Floyd’s murderer Derek Chauvin) and so many more Black victims has a dark historical connection back to the Slave Patrols of British colonial North America and the pre-Civil War US republic.

People who fly the Confederate Flag (as did many of the fascist January 6 Capital Rioters) are waving the banner of slavery. The Confederacy was formed southern slaveholders who calculated that the newly elected U.S. president Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to slavery in the nation’s western territories spelled doom for their racist forced labor and torture system. Anyone who says that the Confederate symbol is about “states’ rights” and not slavery is either a liar or a fool.

Slavery also distorts American political life and policy in ways that are rarely noted. The American political system violates the elementary democratic principle of one person, one votes in numerous interrelated ways, including widespread and absurd gerrymandering of US House and state legislative districts and campaign finance rulings that grant concentrated wealth massive power over U.S. elections. Two constitutionally encoded and openly anti-democratic barriers to popular self-rule – the Electoral College and the granting of two US Senators to each of the nation’s 50 states regardless of their wildly divergent populations – trace back to slavery.

Why can a right-wing U.S. president be elected over a centrist opponent who receives more votes than him, as in 2000 and 2016? Why do US presidential elections focus almost completely on a small number of battleground states, largely ignoring most of the rest of the nation? And why does white, rural, and reactionary Wyoming, home to less than 600,000 people, get to have as many representatives in the powerful upper body of Congress as liberal, multicultural California, home to nearly 40 million? If Chicago or the New York City borough of Brooklyn were states and had the same ratio of U.S. Senators to population enjoyed by Wyoming, they’d have roughly 10 Senators each. It’s absurd. The Senate is so lopsided right now that 26 states containing just 17 percent of the U.S. population elect a majority of senators before the 2020 election. The people in the smallest 26 states elected more than half of the US Senators. The Republican Party’s Senate majority and near majority in recent years has been based on its strength in these disproportionately rural, white, and reactionary states.

And that absurdly apportioned Senate is a great barrier to progressive legislation backed by most Americans. Some of that legislation has already been passed by the more genuinely representative if still badly gerrymandered House. The stymied measures include a major labor law reform that would re-legalize and empower union organizing and collective bargaining and a voting rights bill that would roll back racist voter suppression and gerrymandering.

That absurdly right-wing Senate is why we are absurdly saddled with a 6-3 supermajority right-wing Supreme Court far to the right of majority public opinion.

What’s it got to do with slavery? Quite a bit. During the nation’s Constitutional Convention, the representatives of the slave-owning southern colonies-turned-states required the now utterly preposterous presidential Electoral College (which badly over-represents small states by including the Senatorial over-weighting in the assignment of Electors per state and by granting victory on the basis of 270 votes from winner-take-all state-based Elector slates instead of a national popular vote) and the two senator-per-state rule as prices for agreeing to join the Union from which they would later secede. The South relied on the (viciously exploited) labor of Black non-citizens, something that caused the slaveholders’ delegates to fear under-representation in a federal government that might (they worried) abolish their morally abhorrent chattel regime. They found part of the solution in a presidential election system that combined the indirect election of the American chief executive – the openly democracy-flunking Electoral College – with the revolting “Three Fifths Compromise,” which let southern states count their slaves, albeit with a two-fifths discount, as part of its total number of Electors (and House Representatives). Another part of the solution was the granting of just two Senators per state, regardless of population size, which meant that the reduced number of voting citizens imposed by slavery would not crush strong southern representation in the powerful upper Congressional chamber.

Here we are now more than 23 decades after this horse-and-buggy-era Constitution was drafted and passed by and for merchant capitalists, publicists, and slaveowners for whom democracy was the ultimate nightmare. We play a ridiculous game of Simon Says with the absurdly venerated, aristo-republican Founders. We nod along like hopeless idiots at the authoritarian insult of a government that grants Wyoming one US Senator per 284,506 people and California one US Senator per 19,992,131 people.

We are slaves to this ridiculous charter. It’s pathetic.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).