The Supreme Court and U.S. “Democracy”: Workers Must Fight Attacks on Democratic Rights

by Elisabeth Wichser 

The recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has renewed discussion about the role of the Supreme Court in the U.S. In the middle of the 2020 election cycle, the vacant Supreme Court seat will be added to the arsenal of lesser-evilist arguments in support of either Joe Biden or Trump. The appointment process following her death highlights the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the Supreme Court: appointments are politically motivated by which judge will serve capitalism best. Justices are unelected, and they are unrecallable. The Supreme Court has the power of judicial review—meaning they can decide what laws are constitutional and what aren’t, making them unelected lawmakers. But these decisions are often incredibly subjective, ultimately leaving a major aspect of the legislative process in the hands of a few people who aren’t accountable to anyone. 

Additionally, many are concerned about whether there will be a smooth transition from Trump to Biden in the case of a Biden victory. Although the headline is incredibly inflammatory, the New York Times ran an article suggesting that Trump will not peacefully hand over power. Trump has tried to postpone the election and has attacked the legitimacy of mail-in voting. Texas Governor Greg Abbott also announced that absentee ballot drop off locations will be limited to one per county, making it near impossible for people without cars to vote. But the chances of some sort of organized coup attempt are incredibly slim, especially considering that the military is largely behind Biden. The news that Trump and the first lady have contracted COVID-19 further complicates an already complicated election. It’s likely that we could see a repeat of the 2000 elections where the Supreme Court ended up declaring that Bush Jr. won Florida’s electoral votes and the election. U.S. elections are already incredibly undemocratic, but the use of the Supreme Court to decide which political party will hold Presidential power deepens the undemocratic nature of U.S. electoral politics.

The Supreme Court is not the only fundamentally undemocratic institution in U.S. politics. The U.S. is full of examples of undemocratic “democracy.” The Electoral College, the Senate, and, ultimately, the entire structure of capitalist government protect the interests of a small minority in society against the interests of the vast majority. The ruling class relies on institutions that give the impression the working class has a real say in major decisions so the ruling class can run things behind the scenes. These undemocratic institutions are the cornerstone of capitalist “democracy.” To achieve a real democracy, we need socialism, where the majority of society has control over our economic and political systems.  

The Supreme Court

Supreme Court justices serve on the Supreme Court for life; this has even become too much for some capitalist politicians, who are now pushing for an 18-year cap on appointments. But this is not a solution, especially considering that voters have no direct say in who will be on the Supreme Court or whether an undemocratic institution like the Supreme Court should continue to exist. Nominees are confirmed by the Senate, another of the U.S. government’s undemocratic political institutions. In 2018, in the middle of the #MeToo movement, Justice Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court despite multiple women testifying against him for their rape and sexual assault. The vote to approve Kavanaugh passed 50-48. 

While on the Supreme Court, justices may be labeled liberal or conservative, but these political designations are both in the context of being pro-capitalist. The individual justices always vote in the interests of capitalism. Individual justices sometimes vote differently than their labels as progressive—or not—seem to indicate. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who many liberal pundits saw as a progressive on the Supreme Court, voted for an oil pipeline running under the Appalachian Trail in 2020, for a tough-on-crime criminal sentencing law in 2019. and voted multiple times against Native American tribes gaining sovereignty of their lands. 

Any progressive reforms that are made into a legal framework under capitalism are the result of mass movements exerting political pressure on the capitalist government, including political pressure forcing the hand of the Supreme Court. Brown v. Board of Education or Roe v. Wade are good examples. Brown v. Board of Education mandated racial integration in schools and was decided in the early 1950s during the civil rights movement. Roe v. Wade was decided in the early 1970s in the context of a militant women’s struggle arising out of other mass movements of the time against the Vietnam War, for more civil rights gains, etc. These historic victories demonstrate that what matters is ultimately not who is on the court, but the degree to which working people are organized and can pressure the capitalist class to meet our demands. However, when the working class is not organized, the Supreme Court, “progressive” justices and all, will uphold incredibly reactionary measures attacking the rights of the working class including women, people of color, and prisoners. Once mass political pressure is in decline, the Supreme Court, in the scope of one major decision, often tries to undo decades of progressive political struggle by working people. The Republican and Democratic Parties don’t question the very existence and use of the Supreme Court and always defer to the Court’s power as part of the capitalist State.

The Senate, Voting, and Capitalist “Democracy”

The 50 Senators who voted to appoint an alleged rapist to the Supreme Court didn’t do so because that’s what their constituents wanted—in fact, Kavanaugh was the most unpopular supreme court pick since 1987. There are 100 U.S. senators in total, 2 for each state—regardless of the population of the state. A state like Wyoming, with a population of 580,000 people, has the same number of Senators—and therefore power—as a state like California, which has a population of almost 40 million people. 

The undemocratic nature of the Senate is compounded by the undemocratic nature of voting in the U.S. in general. Entire sections of the population are systematically disenfranchised through gerrymandering and voter suppression measures. Gerrymandering is how the two capitalist parties divide up voting districts to ensure that one of them wins. A great example is Louisiana, where the 2nd district looks like it is a splinter inside the 6th district. These districts were drawn up along racial lines to ensure a Republican victory by cutting Baton Rouge in half. In addition, the working class as a whole, including people of color, face systemic obstacles to voting. For example, in Florida, formerly incarcerated people now have the right to vote, but in order to do so, they have to pay a fine that many cannot afford. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key clause of the Voting Rights Act, effectively allowing states to disenfranchise millions of poor people and people of color. This clause necessitated that any changes made to voting procedure in areas with a history of racially-motivated voting discrimination, like voter ID laws or closing polling centers, be approved by the federal government. The Voting Rights Act was one of the landmark pieces of legislation that came as a result of the civil rights movement; it was fought for, tooth and nail, in the streets and then weakened to the point of uselessness 50 years later by a handful of people. It’s important to realize that both the Republican and Democratic parties are responsible for many laws limiting democratic rights in the U.S.

These issues are far from new. At its inception, the U.S. Constitution stipulated that only white, property-owning men could participate in U.S. “democracy.” Since then, voting rights have been struggled for and won by working people as a whole including overcoming repression of voting rights specifically directed at women and people of color. Hugely significant victories have been won in the fight for a right to vote, but even if everyone in the U.S. could fully exercise their right to vote, it wouldn’t solve the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the U.S. political system. Under capitalism, we can’t have political democracy without economic democracy. The exploitation, destruction, and inequality that capitalism creates and runs on cannot miraculously produce or allow real political democracy. In a capitalist “democracy,” your wealth determines your political power. The solution is not to take wealth out of politics through tweaks to the system like campaign finance reform; instead, we need to take wealth out of the equation entirely. There are a handful of people hoarding 80% of the world’s wealth while people starve and are without homes. We can’t expect the system that created and allowed these conditions to fix itself through a few reforms. To draw on Lenin’s State and Revolution, the real decisions are made behind the scenes by appointed officials—like heads of departments, Pentagon positions, and city managers—while discussion in Parliament or the Legislature is “for the special purpose of fooling the common people.” As Lenin states, 

To decide once every few years which members of the ruling class are to repress and crush the people through parliament—­­this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary­ constitutional monarchies but also in democratic republics.

And this is because democratic republics and parliamentary systems under capitalism are designed to give working people the impression that we can make the capitalist class listen to us through voting or petitioning them when in reality the most effective way to have our voices heard is through organized action that threatens the ruling class’s profits. 

A common example of our democratic rights being taken away is the suppression of progressive third parties in the U.S. During the current election cycle, in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the Democrats have used the courts to keep the Howie Hawkins/Angela Walker campaign off the ballot. The Independent Socialist Group (ISG) has critically endorsed the Hawkin’s campaign because of its commitment to independent working-class politics. Keeping them off the ballot is yet another set of barriers constructed by the ruling class to maintain its political duopoly of its Republican and Democratic Parties. The Hawkins/Walker campaign is running on an ecosocialist platform, calling for a socialist Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and other demands that have popular support and are desperately needed. Voters in PA and WI, among others, won’t even have the option to vote for a working-class representative. 

Democracy under Socialism

Real democracy for the overwhelming majority of people and socialism are deeply intertwined; you can’t have one without the other. Despite distortions of socialism like Stalinism or Maoism that were undemocratic, true socialism depends on true democracy. 

In a democracy under socialism, democratic rights would be tremendously expanded including bringing democracy into a new economy. Instead of the undemocratic, authoritarian capitalist economy, a new socialist economy would be run by democratic planning and decision making by all people instead of economic rule by corporate boards and billionaires. A socialist economy based on human needs instead of profits for a few would democratize economic power. Economic power translates into political power. Socialism would create the living conditions and political organization to allow real democracy to flourish. The extremely limited voting rights, the backroom decisions, undemocratic appointments, and rule from above of capitalism would no longer exist. Historically, working people have successfully organized workers’ parties and revolutionary parties to overthrow capitalism and begin the transition to socialism, even if only for a brief time. Of course, any attempt to build socialism came under immediate military and economic attacks from the capitalist class and its allies on a world scale. Important historical examples of revolutions transitioning from capitalism to socialism include the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, both of which began to develop a deeper and more direct democracy than capitalism ever could because they successfully took economic power away from the capitalist class. For example, in the Russian Revolution, worker’s councils (soviets) formed the basis of the worker’s government with mass meetings that linked elected representatives from workers, small farmers, the military, etc. A representative government under socialism would truly reflect the needs of working people. A socialist planned economy would allow the working class to directly implement the collective decisions made by our democratic organizations.

Unfortunately, we can’t just reform our current government to socialism. The objective of the government under capitalism is to maintain the current system of economic exploitation and oppression of working people. While we continue to build for a socialist future, we must organize and demand that our current political and electoral system be as democratic as possible. We need to defend democratic rights working people have fought for and to use these in the class battles to come. Rights like freedom of expression, to rally, to organize, to be in a union, to organize a new political party, and to use the capitalist electoral system to gain some immediate political power will all help us in our fight against the capitalist class and capitalism itself. 

The Independent Socialist Group calls for: 

  • Lowering the voting age to 16. Allow all people to vote, regardless of incarceration status, race, class, or location. Make election days paid holidays for all. 
  • Abolishing the Electoral College. 
  • Ending gerrymandering and ending the monopoly of the two corporate parties. End undemocratic ballot access and campaigning restrictions orchestrated by the two parties of big business. 
  • Abolishing undemocratic institutions like the Supreme Court and Senate and replacing them with democratically elected representatives, subject to recall, and only receiving the average wage of working people. 
  • A new political party of, by, and for working people!

Image Credit: Joe Ravi via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0