The Recurring Nightmare of America’s Political Tradition

The recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade once again reminds us of how minority rule can be effectuated through an arcane and undemocratic American political institution. Another traditional political institution, the Electoral College, occupies center stage in the Congressional investigation of the January 6th coup attempt by Trump and his minions.

Analyzing the coups that brought to dictatorial power Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 and Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in 1851, Karl Marx made this critically relevant remark: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” We are now confronting a nightmare bequeathed to us from the past – a past informed by the politics of a slave republic. Indeed, this dead weight is about to crush any remaining pretences of a democracy based on majority rule.

Of course, the framers of the US Constitution were both fearful of democracy and wedded to white supremacy. These two overlapping orientations were evident not only in the foundational documents of the new nation, but also bred into the political institutions and traditions that haunt us even today. While the reactionary Republican Party has created even more of a nightmare in contemporary US politics through their manipulation of these institutions, the inability and even unwillingness of the Democratic Party to challenge inherent inequities and antidemocratic nature of these political institutions and traditions only reinforces the dead weight of the past.

Constant references during the January 6 Congressional hearings to protecting “our democracy” are, ironically, premised on restoring the legitimacy of the Electoral College, especially since the Trumpsters tried to foist alternative electors as a lead-up to the formal certification by Congress of the Electoral Votes. Yet, the Electoral College is an antidemocratic remnant of the promotion of the racist 3/5th Clause of the US Constitution. The closest that any Congress came to getting rid of the Electoral College was in the late 1960s when the House’s overwhelming vote for its elimination fell to the filibuster by Southern Senators.

The filibuster was originally a term applied to freebooting vigilantes, organized to intervene in territories and foreign states with the intention, often, to create white supremacist political rule. Interestingly, the filibuster became that vehicle for white supremacists in the Senate to block legislative efforts to end segregation and achieve a modicum of racial equality. Now, those Senatorial upholders of the filibuster cling to it as a way to prevent any fundamental reforms to the status quo.

The only real change to the voting rules in the Senate came when the Republicans under Mitch McConnell clawed back the confirmation of US Supreme Court justices to a simple majority. This allowed for the imposition of judicial extremists with lifetime tenure on the Court. Hence, the present composition of the Supreme Court is but a reflection of how political coups can be legally enacted through an institution that cries out for radical transformation.

Then, again, the US Senate, itself, is an institution that flies in the face of the democratic vision of “one person/one vote. The original composition of the US Senate was intended to be a brake on the popular will. It wasn’t until 1916 when a Constitutional Amendment was passed for direct popular vote of the Senate. Even then, because of institutional racism and lack of women’s suffrage, this vote still remained the privilege of a minority of white men. Now, the disparity of 40 million fewer US citizens represented by the same number of Senators should be evidence that this body cannot be reformed. In fact, it needs to be abolished.

Let’s face it. Unless there is a mass uprising by the people of this country, there will not be a ghost of a chance for a multiracial inclusive democracy. One recent example of how a people rose up to cast off the dead weight of the past was in Chile were a popular and sustained uprising led to a new constitution and new political generation in power. To achieve such a radical transformation in this country might be almost impossible. Given the weight of the dead generations and traditions that permeate what passes for democracy in the United States, we are now contending with an increasingly nightmarish landscape of authoritarian minority rule. A rule that has more to do with the political institutions of a slave republic than a true democracy.

Fran Shor is a Michigan-based retired teacher, author, and political activist.