With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

American Democracy Was Never Supposed to Work

If the United States were a democracy, this election wouldn’t have been close. The fate of the world wouldn’t depend on a handful of suburban precincts. The winner would have been known immediately. With a comfortable lead well into the millions, the president-elect and his party could have moved on to crafting and passing the program that gained them an undeniable mandate.

But we do not have a democracy, and not because Trump undermined it but because the framers of the Constitution did not create one. They felt the Articles of Confederation left too much power in the hands of economic populists in the states, and so they constructed a system meant to serve and protect the rich. The Constitution was designed specifically to prevent, as James Madison put it in the Federalist Papers, “an abolition of debts” or “an equal distribution of property” from passing into law.

Nearly two and a half centuries on, the antidemocratic provisions of the Constitution are still working as the framers intended. Even in an era of global capital, the wealthy benefit from a sclerotic, dysfunctional government. When early election results suggested a Joe Biden presidency with Republicans maintaining their grip on the Senate, the Associated Press reported that “stocks rallied on Wall Street as investors embraced the upside of more gridlock in Washington.” Divided government, these investors seem to think, will derail what Madison called “wicked or improper projects”: the abolition of student debt, higher taxes on the wealthy, the Green New Deal.

More than progressive economic measures, however, democracy itself is being thwarted by the Constitution. In the summer of 1787, opposition to rule by the people was one of the few things the delegates in Philadelphia could agree upon. They spent the first few days of the convention reassuring one another of their antidemocratic credentials. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts was typical in deeming democracy “the worst of all political evils.”


Merely ousting Trump is not enough without addressing more fundamental weaknesses in our political system, especially an outdated Constitution that continues to serve a minority of wealthy and white citizens and to curb any movements that might threaten their wealth and power. The antidemocratic Senate, for example, is the main obstacle to passing serious legislation on climate change. Without a practical plan for revising the Constitution, Democrats will be condemned to play by rigged rules.

Read entire article at The Nation