Book Review: The Constitutional Bind by Aziz Rana

Aziz Rana’s new book, The Constitutional Bind, provides a blueprint for the Left to return to agitating against the constitutional order. We should follow it. 


 

East Bay DSA recently concluded a two-part political education series about the Constitution’s undemocratic structural provisions and the Left’s rediscovery of democratic republicanism. Discussion topics included the malapportioned Senate, the obstructionist Article 5 amendment process, the political demands in DSA’s platform, and YDSA’s scintillating 2023 resolution, “Winning the Battle For Democracy.” Questions abounded, including the relevance of constitutional obstacles to socialist organizing, the reasons for constitutional reverence, and how to make the United States an actual democracy. 

Aziz Rana addresses many of the above questions in his latest book, The Constitutional Bind: How Americans Came to Idolize a Document that Fails Them. Rana is a professor of law and government at Boston College. He has written for Jacobin, spoken at the annual Socialism Conference, and been interviewed for Class, the National Political Education Committee’s podcast. With The Constitutional Bind, Rana has succeeded in creating a resource for all interested in critically exploring the framers’ creation.

An important question sits at the heart of The Constitution Bind: why has constitutional veneration remained “a naturalized, unremarked-upon feature” of American life? In search of an answer, Rana explores US history using the first (1887) and second (1987) centennial celebrations as reference points. The first centennial celebration was underwhelming. The Civil War and increased economic inequality during the Gilded Age made the founders appear less than sagacious. Criticism increased in the leadup to World War I, as seen in the popularity of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose national party platforms consistently called for the abolition of the Senate, the direct election of federal judges, the termination of judicial review and the presidential veto, and the convening of a second constitutional convention to make its democratic demands a reality. The SPA-affiliated paper, Appeal to Reason, ran regular constitutional polemics. Prominent party members across the political spectrum, including Eugene Debs and Victor Berger, denounced the Constitution as “in every sense a denial of democracy.”

Socialists, grounded in the democratic republicanism of Marxism and the homegrown democratic republicanism of Thomas Paine and Radical Republicans, used to discuss the Constitution prolifically. Rana writes that their “rhetorical bashing of courts, constitutions, and judges knew few bounds.” Many socialists, like Crystal Eastman, who co-founded the parent organization of today’s American Civil Liberties Union, defended civil rights as innate human rights endangered by the Constitution’s denial of universal and equal suffrage. Eastman’s defense of civil liberties intentionally avoided praise for the Bill of Rights. She and her socialist co-thinkers wanted to “uproot the existing mode of constitutional decision-making” and ensure “meaningful control by working people over the constitutional system as a whole.” 

Criticism of the Constitution changed when nearly a century of war, hot and cold, provided a much-needed boost to the document’s public image. Rana writes: 

By the early 1940s, issues of fundamental reform no longer shaped the constitutional discussion. Instead, conversations reflected a consolidating faith that the document was central to an anti-totalitarian American way of life, which culturally and politically safeguarded citizens from dictatorship. 

War shrank the parameters of political imagination. Americans were presented with three choices: fascism, communism, or constitutional republicanism, which went by the name of democracy. The Constitution looked increasingly attractive, and many previous skeptics, including iconoclastic historian Charles Beard and legendary organizer A. Philip Randolph began to have a change of heart. The United States wasn’t flawless, but constitutional critiques were too dangerous during times of “Stalinist purges” and “fascist tyranny.” By the second centennial, the “constitutional creed” appeared rock-solid. A few dissenters remained, including W.E.B Du Bois and later Afeni Shakur and Huey Newton. Still, these holdouts were increasingly isolated and had stopped critiquing the structural denial of universal and equal suffrage (with the notable exception of Du Bois). 

The past six years have now led to a revival of constitutional criticism. In a recent interview, Rana explained how contemporary events shaped the creation of The Constitutional Bind. At first, the book was constructed as a wake-up call, an attempt to spread indignation by presenting the little-known history of constitutional disloyalty. However, several events, including Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory and a host of Supreme Court rulings, threw the legitimacy of American political institutions into crisis. Constitutional veneration was fading, and a document once capable of hiding in plain sight was becoming increasingly conspicuous. As a result, The Constitutional Bind in its finished form is less a wake-up call and more a resource for those already looking to free the country of its constitutional chains and escape what many have called a second Gilded Age.  

Significantly for our organization, Rana references DSA’s platform and its constitutional analysis two times. First, as an exception to the otherwise “limited nature of the current reform conversation.” While most discussions are “largely centered on particular, if valuable, procedural adjustments,” DSA alone calls for the abolition of the Senate and Electoral College and a second constitutional convention. Second, and most notably, Rana calls the platform a “conscious effort to update the 1912 SPA legal-political agenda for the present day.” 

Rana’s words should be taken as a challenge, not flattery. While tens of millions will vote for Biden in November, far fewer believe the Democratic Party is in any way a champion of democracy. Today, there is an obvious need for precisely what Rana describes as a modern version of the SPA’s platform. Will DSA make that effort? Regardless, The Constitutional Bind is essential to the struggle for a democratic constitution — one that can fully live up to the principles of one person, one equal vote.