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It's The Constitution, Stupid!

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
It's The Constitution, Stupid!
"Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States," Howard Chandler Christy

Hey all! Let’s hop to it.

Recent Work

You’ve probably read it already, but I had a piece in the New York Times’s January 6th package this week. I focused on the institutional factors ⁠— including the Electoral College and the design of the Senate ⁠— that, from my perspective, have built a sense of entitlement to political power on the right:

If the basic mechanics of the federal system were as fair and balanced as we’re taught they are, the extent and duration of conservative power would reflect the legitimate preferences of most Americans. Democratic victories, by contrast, now seem to the right like underhanded usurpations of the will of the majority — in President Biden’s case, by fraud and foreign voters, and in Barack Obama’s, by a candidate who was himself a foreign imposition on the true American people.
But the federal system is neither fair nor balanced. Rather than democratic give and take between two parties that share the burden of winning over the other side, we have one favored party and another whose effortful victories against ever-lengthening odds are conspiratorially framed as the skulduggery of schemers who can win only through fraud and covert plans to import a new electorate.
It doesn’t help that Republican advantages partly insulate the party from public reproach; demagogy is more likely to spread among politicians if there are few electoral consequences. This is a recipe for political violence. Jan. 6 wasn’t the first or the deadliest attack to stem from the idea that Democrats are working to force their will on a nonexistent conservative political and cultural majority. We have no reason to expect it will be the last.

You can hear me elaborate on this thesis at MSNBC, the Majority Report, The Flashpoint, and the African American Policy Forum,


The commemoration of January 6th on the Hill wound up being unsurprisingly farcical, but I was far from alone in trying to think seriously about where the event really came from and what it really meant. At Politico, Corey Robin dispelled the notion that hostility to democracy is new for the GOP. “Ronald Reagan opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act from the beginning, explaining later that he believed it was ‘humiliating to the South,’” he notes. “When the act came up for its third renewal in 1982, Reagan’s lawyers in the Justice Department, led by a twenty-something John Roberts, mightily resisted it and much needed amendments to it. When it came up for renewal again, in 2006, the act nearly broke the House Republican caucus in two.”

Robin also deeply shares my sense that the Constitution itself paved the way to our current political situation; the piece offers a capsule summary of what every American should know about the Senate:

Though the Framers rejected the idea of a hereditary body like the House of Lords, they did accept a compromise in which the Senate would represent states rather than individuals. Contrary to popular lore, Madison thought the central concern of those states had less to do with the size of their populations than with the source of their labor, whether it was enslaved or free. The consequence of that divide is still present in the Senate, which Jonathan Chait has aptly characterized as “the most powerful source of institutional racism in American life.”
While some longstanding, wealthy democracies do have upper chambers, the United States is one of the very few to grant its upper chamber equal power to its lower chamber. The extreme inequality of representation in the Senate, in which the vote of one citizen in Wyoming is equal to that of 67 citizens in California, is even more unique. The combined effect of these twin features of Congress, wrote the distinguished Yale political scientist Robert Dahl, is “to preserve and protect unequal representation” and “to construct a barrier to majority rule.”

At the Times, Jedidiah Purdy also turned a critical eye to the Constitution. “[T]he Constitution is not keeping the peace; it is fostering crises,” he wrote. “Far from being resilient, it is adding to our brittleness”:

Resilience would come from a shift to more constructive politics. Majorities should be able to choose parties and leaders to improve their everyday lives, starting with child care, family leave, health care and the dignified work that still evades many even at a time when employers are complaining of difficulty hiring workers and there is upward pressure on wages after decades of stagnation.
Democracy matters not because there is something magical about 50-percent-plus-one in any given vote but because it gives people the power to decide how they will live together. If we don’t claim that power, the market, a court or a minority government will always be pleased to take it off our hands.
Aristotle called democracy “the rule of the poor,” and he was onto something. Democracy, when it works, puts the ultimate political power in the hands of the people who work, worry and wish they could promise their loved ones more than they can. It gives us back a bit of our world.

What I really appreciate about Purdy’s piece is that it does a version in miniature of what I’m going to spend much of the year trying to do at length in my book ⁠— it winds up being about first principles and makes an argument about what democracy really means to begin with. And as he suggests, it’s incredibly difficult to talk meaningfully about democracy without talking about economic or material life. I don’t just mean that in the sense that economic inequality makes democratic institutions function poorly or in the sense that our institutional dysfunction can be traced back to the designs of property-owning aristocrats. Both of those things are true and important. But anyone who professes a belief in democratic values has to contend with the fact that those values don’t really obtain in our working lives.

In a recent piece on a pair of industrial disasters ⁠— a factory collapse in Kentucky and an Amazon warehouse collapse in Illinois that killed workers on the clock in dangerous weather ⁠—  Jamelle Bouie highlighted the work of University of Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, who’s written extensively about “private government” and the tyrannies embedded in work:

With few exceptions — like union members covered by collective bargaining agreements or academics covered by tenure — an employer’s authority over its workers is, Anderson writes, “sweeping, arbitrary and unaccountable — not subject to notice, process, or appeal.”
If “private government” sounds like a contradiction in terms, that is only because in the modern era we have lost an older sense of government as an entity that, as Anderson says, exists “wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in one or more domains of life.” The state, then, is simply one kind of government among others, albeit one with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
For most of human history, the state itself was essentially private; few individuals outside of the ruling class had any standing to question its decisions or demand accountability for its actions. The extent to which the state is public at all is, as Anderson notes, “a contingent social achievement of immense importance,” the result of a centuries-long struggle for “popular sovereignty and a republican form of government” such that the state is now “the people’s business, transparent to them, servant to their interests, in which they have a voice and the power to hold rulers accountable.”
With that in mind, to say that most workers are subject to unaccountable “private government” is to make clear the authoritarian character of the American workplace. And it is to remind ourselves that in the absence of any countervailing force, the bosses and managers who wield that authority can force workers into deadly environments and life-threatening situations, or force them to remain in them.

I recently read John Dewey’s 1888 essay “The Ethics of Democracy” and had pretty mixed feelings about it as a whole. But it contains a pretty good reflection on the questions Bouie and Anderson raise and a pretty good case for economic democracy. “[D]emocracy is not in reality what it is in name until it is industrial, as well as civil and political,” he wrote. “And the reflex influence of this upon our civil and political organization is such that they are only imperfectly democratic. For their sakes, therefore, as well as for that of industrial relations, a democracy of wealth is a necessity.”

He doesn’t explain what he means by “democracy of wealth” with any real specificity, but he does say that it would fundamentally be a matter of understanding the social nature of the economy ⁠— seeing it not as a realm ethically detached from politics, but a part of our lives that poses the same questions to us that politics does. “We admit [...] that ethical rules are to be applied to this industrial sphere, but we think of it as an external application. That the economic and industrial life is itself ethical, that it is to be made contributory to the realization of personality through the formation of a higher and more complete unity among men, this is what we do not recognize; but such is the meaning of the statement that democracy must become industrial.”

I’ll have more to say about this in the book, but I’ve come to believe that economic inequality and political inequality are really the same problem, and that the solutions to both are best derived from democratic principles.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Student workers at Columbia have a union contract. From Truthout:

In the late hours of January 6, after more than two months on strike, the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC-UAW) reached a tentative agreement for their union’s first contract with Columbia University.
Contract wins include significant raises for workers, bringing annual compensation for those on 9-month appointments to just over $40,000 and raising the minimum wage for hourly workers from $15 to $21. SWC members also won dental insurance, childcare stipends, and an emergency healthcare fund available to all union members. They also won full recognition of all student workers as part of the bargaining unit and provisions for neutral arbitration of harassment and bullying cases. Full details have yet to be released to the public.
The strike lasted ten weeks, but this agreement is the culmination of almost ten years of organizing.

Good night.