Democracy Down on the Constitutional Killing Floor

Image by Joshua Sukoff.

I shoulda quit you, long time ago
I shoulda quit you, long time ago
Then I wouldn’t be here
Down on this killing floor

– Chester Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf, “Down on the Killing Floor”

Undelivered Goods

Imagine that you are in a buying club that has a big problem. You and your fellow club members fork over money to a “highly qualified” individual you and fellow club members have repeatedly voted into the position of district club manager. His job is to obtain and distribute items and services you need. He takes your money, votes, and time, promising that he can “deliver the goods.”

But he can’t really deliver, and he knows it. His pledge goes unfulfilled because a higher, 100-person club of structurally entrenched distributors refuse to deal seriously with him and most of the other 434 “district-level” club managers.” And those “higher ups” are opposed to you getting what you want and need.

Still, even as his failed promises pile up, your club manager comes back again and again demanding, sometimes begging more of your votes and money every two years. “The next purchasing cycle is going to be different,” he says. He “can’t make the case to the big shots above him without your votes and money,” he adds. And by the way, he says, you should try to use your votes and money to change the names and faces in the big club above him.

“Democracy can be really messy sometimes,” he tells you, “like making sausage. But you’ve got to stay in the game, or you can’t complain. This is how we get things gone in this great country. It’s not perfect but it’s the greatest country in the world and little by little we can become a more perfect country if you give me your votes and money.”

He doesn’t tell you that the higher-ups – there’s exactly 100 them (give or take one or two) in the country – sit where they do with remarkable institutional advantages that pretty much cancel your votes and your money. Meanwhile he’s taking a ton of campaign money and advice from outside the club. A lot of this money come from rich people who don’t want you and your club members to get what you need and deserve. Those rich folks also pay for campaigns for higher-level big shots, who get elected every six years

It isn’t just about election finance. Also relevant are job offers for the club manager’s family members, employment chances for club managers themselves after they leave the club, investment opportunities, and threats of disinvestment that will hurt the club’s buying power if the club manager doesn’t do what rich folks want. It also matters that rich people own and control the media corporations that shape public perceptions about club elections, priorities, and possibilities.

The Senate is a Killing Floor

Sound like anything else in the transactional United States? This is an imperfect but relevant analogy for what people in “blue,” that is Democratic Congressional districts are up against. They often have seemingly decent and sincere people representing them in the United States House of Representatives the lower body of the nation’s unnecessarily bicameral legislature. Some of these representatives – recipients of district votes and financial contributions – say very progressive and democratic-sounding things reflecting seemingly heartfelt commitments to social justice, human and civil rights, public health, and environmental sanity. The House included including a small number of genuinely leftish progressive people like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both who recently got getting arrested in front of the Supreme Court to protest the Christian fascist Court’s June 24th murder of women’s constitutional right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson.

House Democrats even combine to pass seemingly important House bills for enhanced voting rights, labor rights, women’s rights, environmental protection, gun control, police reform, expanded health care, increased pension and welfare benefits and the like. These measures have significant majority public opinion backing.

Bur, well, how to put this… so what? Who cares? Everything or almost everything remotely decent they pass is blocked in the US Senate, a leading killing floor in the slaughterhouse of American “democracy.” And they know this.

The latest example: last week the House passed two bills aiming at ensuring access to abortion in the post-Roe era. One measure would protect the right to travel across state lines for abortion services. A second measure, the Women’s Health Protection Act, would give health care providers the right to provide abortions and their patients the right to obtain them, invalidating numerous state restrictions enacted in the wake of the Dobbs decision.

Another One Bites the Dust

Great. While both bills are aligned with majority public opinion, neither bill will become law, and everyone knows it. They are both blocked in the US Senate, as is well understood by their House sponsors.

It’s the same story with numerous other House-passed bills, including the following ones that have died in the Senate, whose theme song ought to be “Another One Bites the Dust”:

The For the People Act (2021): To expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and for other purposes.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act (2021), to preserve and expand voting rights protections for minorities.

The Equality Act (2021), to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and for other purposes.

The Bipartisan Backgrounds Check Act (2021), To require a background check for every firearm sale.

The Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act (2021)

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (2021), to essentially re-legalize union organizing and empower unions.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (2021)

The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (2021)

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (2021), to hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct in court, improve transparency through data collection, and reform police training and policies.

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (2021)

The Build Back Better Act (2021), a bill that combined significantly expanded social protections with serious positive environmental action.

The list goes on and on.

The House just passed a bill to protect marriage equality for same-sex couples. There is, The New York Times reports, “no guarantee that Republicans w[ill] allow the measure to move forward in the Senate”

The Senate is a killing floor.

Assault Weapon Ban Kill Soon

Prediction: House Democrats will soon channel popular rage against the latest spate of mass shootings carried out with assault rifles (led by the massacres in Uvalde, Buffalo, and Highland Park) by passing an assault-weapons ban. The House bill will be shot down by the US Senate. Ban, no ban. Hurray, boo! Happy, sad! Live cow, dead cow.

“Another one bites the dust” (Queen)

Get ready for yet more of your fellow Americans of all ages to die en masse in grisly assault weapon slaughters in schools, theaters, officers, bars, restaurants, malls, grocery stores, factories and – Hell, even at funerals.

“And you’ll want to know, when the bullet hits the bone[s]” (Golden Earring).

The still essentially if absurdly Republican, Killing Floor Senate is okay with that. The mass AR-15-arming of much of the populace and the ever more extreme militarization of the police state (always on display after mass shootings) are key parts of the fascitization process that The Amerikaner Party of Donald “Take Down the Fucking Metal Detectors” Trump and Q-curious Marjorie Taylor-Greene is leading at multiple government levels.

Let’s speak candidly: mass bloodshed is their thing. They are long past previously normative bourgeois democracy and rule of law. The fact that most Americans want an assault weapons ban is about as relevant to them as the fact that a super majority of Americans supported the continuation of Roe v. Wade was to the far-right Supreme Court when it ruled in Dobbs.

The Dobbs Backlash “Strategy”

As with the two abortion rights House measures they just passed, Democrats will pass an assault- weapons ban in the House with no serious hope of getting it past the big shots above them. They’ll pass the non-ban to help make the case for voters and donors to give them ballot marks and campaign donations in the 2022 mid-term election cycle. Good luck with that, Pied Piper Dems: it’s an election cycle that by all indications will enhance the Republifascist’s menacing position in state governments and Congress, possibly returning even the House to control by the nation’s now hard right major party. The Dems are banking on the Dobbs decision as their path to something very historically rare: a mid-term victory for the party in first-term White House power. Their chances of pulling this off are slim to none thanks to inflation (not their or Biden’s fault), the bungling and listless, hyper-uncharismatic president Joe Biden’s extremely low approval ratings, Biden’s totally predictable and predicted failure (thanks, Obama!) to stand up forcefully to the challenges of the time (that would be his fault and is consistent with his long conservative history including his 2019 promise to elite donors that “Nothing would fundamentally change” if he lucked into the White House, and the sky-high percentage (88%!) of Americans who say the country is on the wrong track. Is the Dobbs backlash “strategy” part of why Democratic-affiliated “choice” groups failed to take up Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights’ six-month call (daring from last January) for mass mobilizations to save Roe v. Wade and opted instead to surrender in advance to a post-Roe era? More likely it’s just a case of trying to make lemonade out of one’s own failed lemons.

It’s Worse Than Manchin and the Filibuster

Why does the Senate function like this? Liberals and progressives can fume all they want about the revolting atrocity that is Senator Joe “Coal Mine” Manchin (“D”-WV) the nauseating oligarch and de facto Republican. He sickens Democratic souls by regularly blocking liberal legislation backed by the other 49 Senate Democrats and most of the populace and by refusing to support ending the atrocious Minority Rule filibuster, whereby 40 Senators are permitted to prevent votes on most Senate bills.

Manchin, his fellow noxious Republicrat Kyrsten Sinema (“D”-AZ), and the filibuster are lethal stains on “democracy,” to be sure. They are also useful excuses for Biden’s lifelong centrism and broader corporate Democratic inaction.

But the problems with the Senate are much worse than the corrupt politics and regrettable existence of Manchin and Sinema (more on these assholes and their game below).

In Senate races as in House contests and every US election from city council up to president, there’s the problem of campaign finance – of rich folks paying for increasingly super-expensive campaigns with the understanding that their contributions come with policy strings attached. And beyond that there’s the other cords of capitalist political power: job offers, media control, investment opportunities, the threat of disinvestment, and more (please see Chapter 5, titled “How They Rule: The Many Modes of Moneyed Class Power,” in my 2014 book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy).

But the antidemocratic difficulties go much deeper in the Senate. The House has a pathetic gerrymandering problem, the all too constitutionally protected state-level drawing of the geographic lines of districts in such a fashion as to disenfranchise certain voters, dilute votes, and generally guarantee or near-guarantee victory for parties in power. (The same ridiculous problem exists in the commonly distorted construction of state legislative and urban city council districts.) This is completely counter to the elementary democratic principle of one person, one vote, of course.

The Senate arguably violates that principle in an even more egregious way. The democratically unnecessary Senate (bicameral legislatures are not normative in modern bourgeois “democracies”) has an insidiously anti-egalitarian “rotten borough” problem that makes it into a Minority Rule institution with a vengeance. The nation’s absurdly venerated 1787 charter grossly exaggerates the Senate voice of the nation’s whitest, most reactionary, gun-addicted, racist, and woman-hating fascistic regions by assigning two Senators to each U.S. state regardless of (steep) differences in state population. From a “democracy” perspective, it’s ludicrous on a Monty Python scale: “Red” (Republican) Wyoming, home to 581,813, holds U.S. Senatorial parity with “blue” (Democratic) California, where 39,185,605 people reside. That’s one U.S. Senator for every 19,592,803 Californians versus one U.S. Senator for every 290,907 Wyoming residents. Just one of New York City’s 5 boroughs, bright-blue Brooklyn, has 2,736,074 people. If Brooklyn were a state and US Senators were apportioned there with the same populace-to-Senator ratio as red Wyoming, Brooklyn would have 9 U.S. Senators (all likely Democrats). If liberal California had the same populace-to Senator ratio as Wyoming, in basic mathematical accord with “one person, one vote,” it would have 135 US Senators.

Due to “a growing population shift from the agricultural interior to crowded corridors along the coast,” Daniel Lazare noted five years ago, it became “mathematically possible to cobble together a Senate majority with states that account for just 17.6 percent of the popular the vote.”  Indications are strong that the Democrats will lose their tiny Senate majority – already rendered largely ineffective by the de facto “moderate” (yet fascism-enabling) Republicanism of the well-paid Senatorial throat-slitters Sinema and Manchin (recipients of big money from right-wing billionaire donors like Continental Resources chairman and leading fracker Harold Hamm, investor Ken Langone, and Apollo private equity CEO Marc Rowan) – this fall.

This would be less of an authoritarian problem if the US Senate wasn’t an unusually powerful upper legislative chamber, endowed with veto power over US treaties, presidential Cabinet appointments, and federal judicial, including Supreme Court, appointments.

It’s fair to largely blame the current Christian fascist woman-hating Supreme Court – the one that just butchered abortion rights in defiance of super-majority public opinion – on the vicious sexist pig Donald Trump. But let us not forget how the absurdly malapportioned and right-tilted Senate’s brazen refusal to consider a centrist Barack Obama Court nominee (Merrick Garland) before the 2016 election combined with its sickening approval of three lying far right anti-abortion Trump Court appointees (including one on the very eve of the 2020 election) to produce the lethal Dobbs ruling and other horrific right-wing decisions (Vega v Tekoh, Oklahoma v Castro-Huerta, New York Pistol and Rife Association v Bruen, and West Virginia v EPA) this last Court session.

So what if more than two-thirds of the US populace supported the continuation of women’s constitutional right to an abortion? The Kill Floor Senate doesn’t represent that popular super-majority. It doesn’t align with the three in five Americans who back an assault weapons ban, likely to be passed and sent up for ritual Senatorial sacrifice in coming days or weeks. It is all too constitutionally tilted towards the most virulently revanchist sections of the country and ruling class.

The Whole Slaughterhouse

The profound democratic illegitimacy of US-American government is hardly restricted to the Senate, of course. Let us not forget the excessive and extreme power of judicial review that is granted to the absurdly lifetime-appointed Supreme Court under an ancient but still intact decision (Marbury v Madison, 1803) – the remarkable Simon Says authority to cancel executive actions and legislation, far beyond the norm in modern “democracies.” Those who understandably denounce the terrible role that plutocratic campaign finance plays in cancelling US “democracy” (turning US elections into what current House Representative Jamie Raskin and his fellow law student John Bonifaz once cleverly termed “wealth primaries”) would do well to register that the Court has (in Buckley v. Valeo 1976 and Citizens United 2010) used judicial review to define unlimited corporate election funding as constitutionally protected free speech.

Let us further recall the antidemocratic absurdity of the openly ludicrous Electoral College, which permitted the pathological fascist malignancy Trump to become the fifth US president installed in the White House after losing the national popular vote. This ludicrous (from a democracy perspective) system (have fun trying to explain it to someone from another country, fellow US-Americans!) renders millions of popular votes superfluous while narrowing the real presidential contest to a small handful of contested states.

Five of the nation’s nine Supreme Court Justices — Roberts (George W. Bush appointee 2005), Alito (George W. Bush), Gorsuch (Malignant Orange-MO), Kavanaugh (MO), and Coney-Barrett (MO) were appointed by a POTUS who rose to power by losing the popular vote in a presidential election. All were approved by an absurdly malapportioned, right-leaning US Senate.

Meanwhile, the American “system of governance” that Joe Biden ludicrously called “the envy of the world for more than 240 years” while counseling citizen “patience” with their “messy democracy” even as the pandemicist Trump prepared (as repeatedly warned and easily predicted well before the election) to rally paramilitary Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and Oath Keepers for a fascist coup that came closer to success than many of us seem to want to know. This grotesque caricature of popular self-rule is plagued by the further right-leaning atrocity that is “states’ rights”: the remarkable power of fifty separate state governments (replete with their own legislative, executive and judicial branches) to make important policies – for example, outlawing abortion, criminalizing teaching the truth about American racism, and suppressing and even cancelling voting rights (all underway now in “red states”) – in brazen defiance of majority national opinion.

The US constitutional slaughterhouse of democracy has multiple killing floors.


Understood within the killing confines of this multi-level parody of popular sovereignty, our local blue district-level club managers – the still majority Democratic House members – are sadly reduced to theater. They put on electorally motivated shows of allegiance to the majority sentiments of the populace, which would set the political and policy terms in a functioning democracy. Beyond passing legislation that is doomed before the Senatorial butchers make fatal throat slits, the role-playing includes sometimes useful (I think) demonstrations like female Congresspersons getting arrested to protest the Dobbs decision (good for them!) in front of the Supreme Court (something millions should emulate and replicate) and the ongoing remarkable House January 6th committee hearings. The hearings are compelling but lack the power to compel the nation’s lifeless coward of an Attorney General (aptly surnamed after an inert decorative object) to prosecute Donald Trump for…you know, conducting a many-sided “multi-spoke” fascist coup attempt against the 2020 presidential election and the US government – for trying to overthrow what’s left of US bourgeois democracy and rule of law and set himself up as a white supremacist patriarch-dictator for life.

The risk is high that Merrick Garland will don the Schlachthof butcher’s smock and knife hopes for a Trump indictment in good Weimar fashion. If so, he will thereby help turn January 6th into a 21st Century Amerikaner version of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch and turn the Attack on the Capitol into a far-right training exercise. Donald “The Guys with AR-15s aren’t Here to Hurt Me” Trump or perhaps the possibly more dangerous fascist chieftain Ron DeSantis are chomping at the bit, with fever dreams of Reichstag moments to come.

American Fascitization is richly bipartisan. The Biden-Obama-Garland Democrats are deeply complicit.

Not Just Any Old Bourgeois Democracy

Bourgeois democracy is deceptive cover for de facto capitalist class rule in all its different forms, from London, Paris, and Bonn to Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and Ottawa, etc. Still, the US variant is well, exceptionally bad, reflecting among other things the remarkable and telling durability (for all its subsequent modifications) of an 18th Century charter crafted by and for wealthy, aristo-republican landholders, slaveowners, merchants, and publicists for whom democracy was the ultimate nightmare – and for whom Black people, women, Indigenous North Americans were unworthy of citizenship. As any reasonable review of key primary sources produced by the idiotically revered US Founders and Constitution Framers (the Federalist Papers, the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention, correspondence between the early republic’s leading lights, etc.) reveals, there is nothing “un-American” or contrary to the supposedly egalitarian “spirit of the Founders” in the deepening disenfranchisement of millions of US-Americans by “their” ILLEGITIMATE killing floor government. Popular sovereignty was the last thing the nation’s militantly propertarian Founders ever wanted to see break out in the new republic they’d birthed. The framers crafted a brilliant proto-bourgeois blueprint for keeping “we the people” in check – a structure that is now all too perfectly suited to the needs of Republifascist fascist gangsters whose low culture, sociopathology, and violent reptilian ways would have horrified Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton.

There’s something about the US national experience – giant scale, a distinctive geographic sheltering from foreign upheavals, an ascendancy to historically unprecedented world power in the mid-20th Century are among the distinctive factors – that has allowed its ancient founding charter (drafted when Louis XVI still reigned atop France) to stay extraordinarily and atypically intact across nearly two and a half centuries. Anachronistic as the holy charter from the days of horse-drawn carriages and powdered wigs might seem, the nation’s thoroughly modern corporate and financial ruling class has long grasped the functionality of this badly dated structure for contemporary capitalist and imperial purposes.

Judas Goating

Ask your buying club manager – your Democratic Congressperson if you have one– what they want to do about all the anti-democratic kill floors built into Biden’s “system of governance that’s been the envy of the world for 240 years” – a system the Republi-fascists are all too easily turning into a mechanism for cancelling what’s left of bourgeois democracy in the world’s most powerful state. He or she won’t have a satisfying answer. All they’ve got is “vote harder and give us a contribution.” All they’ve got is prayers, faith, and magical thinking meant to keep you stuck in the killing confines of a bankrupt order. All they’ve got is “hope” for “change” meant to help them stay in office, raise money, and climb the oligarchy themselves as the nation slides further into terminal neo-fascist and eco-cidal ditches.

It’s sheep-dogging or, worse, to continue the slaughterhouse analogy, it’s Judas-goating (please no fake-woke emails absurdly charging anti-Semitism):

“A Judas goat is a trained goat used in general animal herding. The Judas goat is trained to associate with sheep or cattle, leading them to a specific destination. In stockyards, a Judas goat will lead sheep to slaughter, while its own life is spared. Judas goats are also used to lead other animals to specific pens and onto trucks. They have fallen out of use in recent time but can still be found in various smaller slaughterhouses in some parts of the world, as well as conservation projects.” (Wikipedia)

Charters Matter

It’s bullshit. To paraphrase the legendary bluesman Howl’n Wolf, we shoulda quit this system a long time ago.

The problem is the whole damn class rule system, including the ever more transparently illegitimate political superstructure atop the regime – a system that is tipping humanity into irreversible ecocide in no short historical order.

Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to draft an entirely different and revolutionary constitution driven by the goal revolutionary communist Bob Avakian properly identified for in 2004: “to get rid of this rotten, foul, oppressive, horrendous society and everything this system does to people all over the world, and bring into being a radically different and better world – a communist world”? Wait, Avakian did that?

Don’t like Avakian’s draft constitution for “a radically different and better world”? Start another, better one. Charters matter. The slaveowners’ one we’re stuck with here in the US today is a straight-jacket on the popular will and the common good. Put a new, actually democratic people’s charter together. But don’t pretend you can just send it out and say “voila, democracy!” Getting off the current capitalist super-structural killing floors and onto the social and political and legally enumerated path of human liberation beyond oppression means a revolution first – an actual revolution, nothing less. Organizing for that is job number one in What is to be Done.

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