Feb 7, 2018
Part One of a Three Part Series
In the United States, the population, when it is outraged, has no electoral way to express its sentiment other than by voting against the party in office, that is to say, to vote for the other of the two big parties. In any case, it has no way to express its outrage, while at the same time preventing the target of its outrage from retaining office.
It’s the consequence of an electoral system that has historically been based on only two parties and that awards office on a winner-take-all basis. In such a system, the only views to be represented are those that gain at least 50.001% of the vote. In other words, there is no proportional representation that would allow the different political trends existing within the population to all be expressed in decision-making bodies.
This system is presented in every high-school history course as uniquely American and even the mark of a U.S. society not riven apart by class divisions. Two assertions, both completely false.
The two parties of today are historical constructions born in periods of revolution when classes did struggle against each other – just as they have in other countries – including by the most violent of means: revolutionary war.
The Democratic Party traces itself back to the earliest years right after the American Revolution against the British, a revolutionary war that eliminated the British mercantilists from contention, but did not settle the contest between America’s Southern slaveholders and Northern merchants.
The Republican Party traces itself back to the second American Revolution, that is the Civil War and Reconstruction, which finally established the Northern bourgeoisie as predominant.
Both parties represented economically powerful, but numerically tiny classes. In the struggle that pitted slaveholders against merchants and budding industrialists, both of the parties had to rest for support on at least parts of the laboring classes – small farmers, city artisans, later on industrial workers, slaves, freed slaves – those oppressed by the opposing faction of the ruling class. For example, the slaveholders, whose Democratic Party under Andrew Jackson controlled the federal government, pushed to extend the franchise among Northern workers. By contrast, the Northern capitalists, represented at the federal level by the Republicans, moved to free Southern slaves during the close of the Civil War and in Reconstruction, when it became the only way to uproot the hold that Southern plantation agriculture held over the economy.
Once the whole country had become fully dominated by a more homogenous bourgeois class, this united class moved to play off one or another of the popular class against each other: small farmers against workers or sharecroppers; “free” workers against freed slaves. Native-born workers and freed slaves found themselves pitted against new immigrants.
With so many competing forces playing out within only two parties, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see the voting constituency of the parties themselves shift several times. The freed black population, which voted Republican from the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction up through the presidency of Herbert Hoover, went over to the Democrats during the economic crisis of the 1930s. Another example: small farmers went back and forth many times, looking for relief from federal policies that favored the banks, starting with the Democrats, then shifting to Republicans, then back to Democrats, then to Republicans. Or more recently, white workers, who had stayed with the Democratic Party for decades, began in the 1950s what would become a strong shift to the Republicans.
The two parties have taken turns dominating political life in this country. On the broad scale, the Democratic Party – along with its predecessor, the Democratic Republicans – was predominant from 1800 up to 1863; the Republicans from 1864 until 1931; the Democrats from 1932 until 1980, with more rapid alternation since. These broad shifts from one party dominance to the other were not simply electoral shifts; they were marked in the nation’s first century by the culmination of revolution, later by economic or social crisis.
The American Revolution in the last decades of the 18th Century was the expression, on a largely untapped continent, of burgeoning economic forces seeking to break free of the restraints that the English monarchy had placed on their development. Played out on the fields of war, it was a liberation struggle against a growing colonial power seated in England. But it was, at the same time, the expression of a very young American bourgeois class split into two parts: the first based on plantation agriculture in the Southern colonies, producing tobacco, rice and indigo by slave labor for trade with England; the second based on shipbuilding, commercial fishing, small manufacture, as well as merchant trade, including the trade in slaves, carried on in the New England colonies by “free labor.”
Protests in the 1760s, at first aimed at wresting better terms of trade and the reduction of taxes placed on the colonies by the British monarchy, by 1775 had turned into a guerilla war against British outposts, carried out to gain political autonomy.
Banking on support from France, the Southern plantation-owners and Northern merchants hoped to enlist enough of the middle classes to drive out the British forces without threatening their own holdings. In the Revolution’s early years, only men with some holding of property were enlisted in the militias that carried out the fights against British troops. But the French played less of a role than hoped for, and those propertied men were not adequate against the British military. As the war developed, “paupers” – that is, those without property – and tenant farmers were of necessity enrolled, promised land and subsistence; slaves were enlisted by both British and American forces, promised their freedom.
At war’s end, the bills came due. Only partially paid as they were, they opened the door to an expansion of the class of small farmers on the Western frontier, and of a relatively small number of freed slaves. It was not critical for Northern merchants if their slaves were emancipated, since production did not depend on them. And some of the slaves that had escaped Southern plantations to join the English army, which had promised them freedom, were also able to find a place in the North or in the isolated Maroon communities of the South. The royal land grants made by the Spanish and English crowns, expropriated by the revolution, provided more than enough land to expand the class of small farmers, while still keeping in reserve vast holdings for the wealthy classes that were the real beneficiaries of the revolution.
Nonetheless, small parcels of land did not eliminate the class struggle; no more than the revolutionary struggle put everyone on an equal footing. Those who faced the military draft in the war’s early years had discovered that wealthy men could buy their way out of the draft by paying someone to take their place. This led to mutinies in some regiments, the leaders of which could be dealt with by summary execution. But the war created growing impoverishment for the families left behind, and other mutineers took their place. Farmers who returned from the fight discovered their property sold to pay for unpaid debts, including those run up earlier under British rule. Several times, armed contingents of farmers attempted to invade the buildings where the Continental Congress sat, and in 1783 were able to drive the Congress out of Philadelphia temporarily. When farmers discovered they faced a new power intent on taxing them voraciously, their revolts spread throughout Massachusetts to nearby states. Slave “disturbances” in Virginia were noted by the Constitutional Convention when it met.
It was in the context of such events that the Southern planters and the Northern mercantile class joined together to establish a new power, formally expressed in the Constitution of 1787, which made clear the property basis of American sovereignty. The famous phrase in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, which declared that we all have “certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” was transformed in the Constitution to “life, liberty, or property.”
The first part of that famous phrase, which declared that “all men are created equal,” was modified in the Constitution by the recognition of the slaves as being only 3/5 of a person. While this was a compromise between the South and the North, aimed at balancing their competing political interests, it symbolically expressed the common view, North and South, that the slaves had no place in this new “equality.”
In the very first years, political activity was carried out directly by members of these two ruling classes, without the intermediary of political parties. The 55 delegates to the Convention of 1787 that wrote the Constitution were among the richest in the country. Many had been educated in the law. But what was critical was not the law, but the property they held. The vast majority of them owned property in what was then the means of production: slaves, manufacturing, shipping/trade companies, large land holdings, and/or money loaned out for interest. Forty of these men – and they were all men – who cobbled together the Constitution held bonds issued by the newly establishing state power.
Almost all of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention saw the need for a strong power enabled to protect their differing forms of property – not simply what they themselves owned, but what their own class owned. Northern manufacturers needed tariffs to protect against competition from English trade; slaveowners needed the absolute assurance that their chattel slaves would continue to be viewed as property and not as human beings; owners of money who had lent it to the new government needed a protection against the failure of the bonds they held, and that meant they needed a central power able to raise taxes to pay off the bonds; those who held large tracts of land on the frontiers of the 13 colonies needed military forces to drive out the indigenous tribes that inhabited the land and to prevent European powers from gaining another entry on the continent. Those who engaged in shipping and trade needed protection from British privateers, etc.
And then there was this: the spreading revolts of Northern farmers and tenant farmers, and the continuing attempts by slaves to escape alarmed all these men of property. The interests of their own class required a central power which had the means to stop the rebellion of those sections of the population that had taken part in the revolution and now expected their due.
James Madison, in a series of letters he and Alexander Hamilton wrote to promote the new Constitution, argued that the government structure they had created would have the means to suppress rebellion if necessary – but what was more important, it would have the means to prevent rebellion from spreading and becoming consequential. Declaring that “the first object of government [is] the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property,” he concluded that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” Madison wrote that “representative government” was needed to maintain peace among the differing social interests that inevitably lead to disputes. The aim of that “representative government,” one engraved in this new Constitution, was to have decisions made by a majority vote inside “an extensive republic.” In other words, it was necessary to have a single nation, spread over all 13 colonies – what was then an enormous territory – so that if those with a “common motive” are to create a faction, “it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.” For Madison, “representative government” over “an extensive republic” was simply the means to protect the classes that possessed the means of production: “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.”
The letters written by Madison and Hamilton make clear that this “representative government” was aimed at maintaining a tight control by the owning classes. “In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government” – those “diseases” being the desire of the people to intervene themselves. The Constitution, along with the new state constitutions, directly established a vast number of safeguards that prevented any direct representation of most of those people.
While the form of those safeguards has changed over the years, the purpose of them has not. The fact that the president still is not voted on directly leads to what we saw in 2016 and also 2000, that is, a candidate chosen by a minority of those who actually voted could be elected president. The Senate, which at first was appointed, not elected, still does not proportionately represent even the actual numbers in the population, since each state gets two senators, no matter how many people there are. Moreover, the fact that only one-third of the senators are chosen in any election, enables the past to weigh on the present, just as does the fact that most judicial posts are designated “for life.” A later letter, either by Madison or Hamilton, discusses very directly the Constitutional Convention’s aim when it created the Senate:“There are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”
In other words, “representative government,” as set out in the Constitution, was not “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” but a government in which a “temperate and respectable body of citizens,” that is, the Senate, would be there to “interfere” against the people.
More than nine-tenths of the people inhabiting the first 13 states were excluded from voting: women, slaves, indentured servants, “free” men without property and indigenous peoples. And while certain kinds of property requirements have been dropped over the years, other criteria have taken their place. Representatives to the lower house of Congress are elected according to criteria which still prevent very large numbers of people from voting. It’s enough to mention that millions of immigrants who have worked here for years cannot vote; nor can many people who were once imprisoned even decades ago. Not to speak about all those decades when Jim Crow laws prevented black people from voting throughout the South, as well as other places. Some of the criteria for voting can change from state to state.
The fight against Britain ended in the creation of a new nation, bourgeois from the beginning. But like later anti-colonial revolutions, the military victory of 1783 left unbroken the ties of trade that still bound the new American nation to England in a status of dependency. And the Constitution left unsettled the competing and finally counterposed interests of Southern plantation agriculture, organized on the basis of slave labor, and Northern production for merchant trade, based on “free labor.”
Those competing economic interests were to take political form first in the Democratic Party, more or less under the control of the slaveowners; then in the Republican Party, under the control of the new Northern industrial capitalists. Once strongly opposed to each other based on two different contenders for dominance within the bourgeois class, the two parties have long been able to compete with each other on the electoral level, while functioning alongside each other to pull the laboring population behind the needs of the united bourgeoisie.
This three part series will continue in the next two issues of the Class Struggle: Part Two will examine concretely how each of the two parties, Democrat and Republican, came into existence, and which class they each rested on; Part Three will look at how these two parties and the system in which they exist has been used to prevent the development of other parties representing working people – and what that means for us today.