In 1935, glimpsing the gains of the New Deal amid the wreckage of the Great Depression, W. E. B. Du Bois took stock of the last major attempt to use the power of the federal government to advance labor and democratic rights. His subject: the Reconstruction era, when former slaves were enfranchised, Southern schools and hospitals were built, and black workers and poor whites threatened not just the recently deposed planter class of the South but the rising industrialists of the North.
Forced to choose between allowing a potentially united working class and a new iteration of Southern tyranny, Northern capitalists opted for despotism. The remaining troops were summoned back North in the 1877 Great Compromise.
“They did not know,” Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction in America, “that when they let the dictatorship of labor be overthrown in the South, they surrendered the hope of democracy in America for all.”
A new oligarchy sprung up in the North, aided by strikebreaking and union-busting. Socialists like Eugene Debs charged that the new “titans of industry” were making a mockery of democratic forms: How could the people be said to rule when worker organization was suppressed and both parties’ plutocrats effectively called the shots?
The South, by the end of the century, had slid into Jim Crow authoritarianism — a vicious social order that used one-party rule, racial apartheid, and unsparing attacks on union organizing to keep blacks political nonentities, poor whites subordinate, and living standards for all workers in the basement.
Although the situation we confront today is rather different — with the major victories of the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement (the “Second Reconstruction”) under attack but still standing — the defeats of the past have deposited more than mere sediments on the present. They’re more like boulders.
Saying the problem is “money in politics” doesn’t quite cover it. At the moment, three billionaires are running for president, with one already sitting in the White House. Even if their names weren’t on the ballot, it would hardly matter — billionaires and business interests would still fund the candidates and underwrite the think tanks, foundations, lobbyists, news outlets, university positions, and cultural institutions that shape America’s political horizons.
This is the obstacle-ridden playing field on which socialists are forced to compete, outnumbered and outgunned. Working-class candidates for political office are a distinct minority. Impressive public support for social-democratic policies like Medicare for All and full employment runs smack dab into the plutocrats’ retinue (K Street ciphers, business-coddling think-tankers, capital-loving politicians). The trade union movement, once able to fend some of them off, has been left flat on its back. “Although public issues and citizen concerns may come and go,” the foremost experts on political inequality have written, “the affluent and well educated are consistently overrepresented.” Or as scholar E. E. Schattschneider memorably put it, the US political system “sings with a strong upper-class accent.”
Some of the impediments to popular control are built into the architecture of US politics. The Senate and “winner-take-all” electoral system benefit sparsely populated areas — imagine how different the country would look if the Bronx, a city borough with nearly three times the population of Wyoming, had two senators. There’s also the enormous decentralization of political institutions. The United States’ federalist structure makes it easier for companies to abscond to other states seeking better “business climates” and harder to harness the federal government to break up private concentrations of power.
The hostility of the Democratic Party to working-class power doesn’t help either. Unlike every other developed country — where bona fide labor parties drew the bulk of their resources from the union movement — the Democrats have always incorporated unions as junior partners at best. As union density dropped, and the weight of big-dollar donors and affluent suburbanites shot up, unions’ devotion to the Democratic Party has gone unrequited.
Bernie Sanders’s bold calculation is that his insurgent campaign can sidestep the plutocratic trapdoors of US politics by relying on small-dollar donations and the collective might of those eager to duke it out with the “billionaire class.” He might be right. The multiracial, working-class base he’s assembled is unlike any seen since Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, and a general election triumph would be a stunning win for the project of democratic reform.
As Sanders himself understands, though, carrying out his “political revolution” will only get harder once in office. He’d confront the entrenched institutions of America’s capital-friendly political system — the Supreme Court and the Pentagon in one corner, corporate politicians and media outlets in another — along with the pitched cries of the business community, who would likely insist they couldn’t invest in such a hostile climate. At best, Sanders would be able to score some legislative victories, raise people’s expectations about the social rights they deserve, and foster a political environment where unions and other working-class organizations could organize without being on their back foot.
Despite the challenges of his project, Sanders is right to place workers of all hues at the heart of it. No other social group has the same potential to grind business to a halt — just imagine the latent power of Amazon warehouse workers — and historically, both in the United States and throughout the world, no social group has been more effective at checking the dominance of the rich. A democratic movement without the working class at the center is a contradiction in terms.
But workers are a feeble force without institutions that can give them collective heft. The precondition for political revolution is a strong union movement and some sort of party working as their agent — one that can root out the oligarchic rot that pervades capitalist democracies. Ultimately, we’ll need a new constitutional order that guarantees the basics of life (housing, health care, education) and establishes collective self-determination as the core principle of social and political life.
For too long, property rights have trumped democratic rights in the United States. Our aim is to finally deliver on what Du Bois championed so many decades ago: breaking capital’s dictatorial power over society, so all can flourish and all can control the forces that shape their lives.
Call it a Third Reconstruction, call it a political revolution. I’d just call it democracy.
And the struggle for it must continue no matter what happens today.