In recent years, Daniel Lazare has emerged as one of the most provocative and insightful critics of the us federal constitution and the superstitious reverence for it which is cultivated by the American political establishment. In his brilliant polemic The Frozen Republic (1996), Lazare subjected American political arrangements to the kind of analysis from which they are usually exempt.footnote1 In ‘America the Undemocratic’,footnote2 Lazare builds upon arguments he made in his book.

Many of Lazare’s criticisms of particular features of the us constitutional order—the grotesquely malapportioned Senate, for example, or the crazy quilt of local jurisdictions—are justified. So is the iconoclastic ridicule he heaps upon the cult of the Founding Fathers. Unfortunately, Lazare’s case against the American constitutional tradition is seriously weakened by his socialist ideology and his majoritarian theory of democracy. The American tradition of constitutionalism deserves to be criticized—but not because it has proven to be an impediment to socialism or simple majority rule.

Lazare shows the extent of his divergence from the mainstream American Centre-Left when he cites ‘Marx and Trotsky’ as preceptors and looks to ‘Russian social democrats’ in the ‘polyglot Czarist empire’ as models for American reformers.footnote3 Writing in the tradition of the European radical Left, Lazare associates ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’ politics with a secular society, economic socialism or comprehensive social democracy, and centralized government, preferably under the control of a working-class-based socialist or social-democratic party. For thinkers in this tradition, societies such as the United States that have not evolved in these directions are aberrations that must be explained.

Needless to say, if one does not believe that all societies are evolving in the direction of what the economist Robert Heilbroner has called ‘a slightly imaginary Sweden’, one will be inclined to conclude that there may be multiple and equally legitimate paths to ‘modernity’ and ‘democracy’. There is no Sonderweg because there is no single way. To American liberals in the tradition of Herbert Croly and the two Roosevelts, the question ‘Why no Marxism in America?’ is about as interesting as the question, ‘Why no positivism in America?’. Both Marxist socialism, in its several denominations, and Comtean positivism were pseudoscientific nineteenth-century secular religions. Versions of each were adopted by modernizing élites in peripheral countries, such as Russia, China, Brazil and Mexico—whose leadership put the Comtean motto ‘Order and Progress’ on the flag. Just as Comte’s ‘science of society’ never had much influence in the United States, so Marxist socialism never gained much of a foothold beyond the beach-heads established by European immigrant minorities such as the German, Scandinavian and Russian–Eastern European Jewish diasporas in the North-East and the prairie states.

Perhaps the favourite topic of the marginal American radical Left has been the absence of class-based parties in the United States, Lazare’s contribution to this debate is to assert that the adoption of proportional representation in the us after the Civil War—a reform that was actually proposed by one Reconstruction Republican congressman—‘might have provided the opening wedge for a genuinely interracial socialism—not just a socialist movement, one might add, but a disciplined, unified socialist party’ uniting ‘educated Northern workers, immigrants, and barely literate Southern blacks’.footnote4 Perhaps; but almost certainly not. The replacement of plurality voting by pr in the 1860s or 1870s would not have reduced the hostility between largely Catholic immigrant workers and their black competitors in Northern cities; at best, it would have strengthened the anti-Southern Bourbon alliance of Northern Protestant élites, Southern blacks and some white Southern populists. The enduring cross-class alliances between the élite in one section and non-élites in the rival section are the result of deeply rooted conflicts of interest and identity among American groups, not artefacts of either the constitutional structure or the electoral system.

At the end of the twentieth century, we now have enough examples of democratic régimes to know that parties based on class affiliation rather than other aspects of identity—regional, ethnic, linguistic, religious—are the exception, rather than the rule. American politics has often revolved around ‘culture war’ issues like abortion or prohibition, which have symbolized clashes between ethnic groups, races or subcultures—Protestant ‘drys’ versus Catholic ‘wets’, evangelical conservatives versus secular feminists. Similar patterns are familiar in other democracies. In parliamentary Canada, the party system is Balkanized along regional and linguistic lines, not class lines. Regional partisanship is important in European democracies such as Italy and Germany and Asian democracies, for example, South Korea. Even in Britain, with its Labour and Conservative parties, the pattern of partisan alignment has as much to do with region and ethnicity—the Celtic periphery versus the English ethnic core—as with socio-economic class. Since most democracies are parliamentary régimes with pr voting, and since few democracies have consistent and competitive ‘labour parties’, the reason for the absence of one in the us cannot be that the federal constitution or the plurality voting system is an impediment.

In many democracies, then, class alignments are fairly weak, compared to ‘primordial’ ties, particularly where there are deep and enduring cleavages among sub-national communities defined by race, religion, region or other non-economic factors. Marxists may wish that most democratic party systems were organized around debates over the means of production, but they are not, and it simply will not do to dismiss all of the non-economic concerns of real voters in real democracies as trivial diversions by ‘bourgeois’ parties—particularly given the fact that many of the intellectuals and activists of ‘proletarian’ leftist parties are so seldom proletarians themselves. Confronted with the fact that the majority in most democracies, including a majority of the working class, rejects radical leftism, middle-class leftists often console themselves with the thought that the ‘people’ have been brainwashed by ‘the capitalists’ or ‘the interests’. Of course, if the people are really so stupid and vulnerable to propaganda, one must wonder whether they are capable of self-government at all.