A review of Democracy in Chains

A review of Democracy in Chains:
The Deep History of the Radical Right’s
Stealth Plan for America
(New York: Viking, 2017)

Is the U.S. a democracy?

by John M Repp

There has been a lot of talk lately about democracy in the United States. We like to think we are a democratic nation and contrast our system with the other two great powers in the world, Russia and China.

Nancy MacLean published Democracy in Chains in 2017. The main story focuses on a Nobel prize-winning  economist who developed the “ideas” that the vast Koch network of organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), (the whole stealth network is larger than the Republican party) uses to undercut the will of most of the American people, opposing popular programs Social Security, Medicare, and public schools. The basic assumption of their brand of economics is that markets should decide everything even if markets are dominated by giant for-profit organizations. It is OK with these libertarians if property owners are organized and work together in corporations but working people should not be able to cooperate in unions for example. They see democracy as the tyranny of the majority.

On page 226, MacLean quotes the work of two political scientists, Stepan and Linz, explaining that there are phrases written into the Constitution that keeps the United States from being a true democracy. The people’s collective will cannot be achieved through the legislative process in our nation, and that is unusual among advanced industrial countries. The “veto players” that block the people’s will are four in number: 1) “absolute veto for the Senate, 2) for the House, and 3) for the President” and 4) the fact that the Constitution itself cannot be altered without the agreement of two-thirds of the states. In effect, it is not “majority rules”, but “two-thirds rules”.

These Constitutional blocks to democracy are strengthened by the winner-takes-all Electoral College that locks in the two-party system, the Tenth Amendment that gives the states great power, and the Senate representation that clearly violates one person, one vote. 

As a confirmation of Stepan and Linz thesis, we must remember that the 73rd and 74th Congresses that brought us the New Deal was more than 70 percent Democratic. Yes, there was a split between the Democrats in the north and the Democrats (or Dixiecrats) from the south based on racism, so many of the benefits of the New Deal were denied to black people. For example, Social Security was at first denied to maids and farm workers, which were the jobs most blacks in the Jim Crow south performed.

If this analysis of our Constitutional system is correct, then we are going to have to get two-thirds of both houses of Congress and a progressive President to move our country forward.