Chileans Revolted Against Their Constitution. Americans Should Too.

In recent years, Chileans have struggled to overturn their undemocratic political system and write a new constitution. Americans should take Chile’s lead and fight for a new constitution too.

A child observes a Mapuche ritual during a demonstration on the first day of the Constitutional Convention. (Felipe Figueroa / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

On June 24, the Supreme Court announced its long-awaited Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, overturning Roe v. Wade by a 6–3 vote, ending fifty years of federally guaranteed abortion rights in the United States. Up to twenty-two states will soon have total or partial abortion bans, stripping the rights of millions of people and making the essential medical procedure far more dangerous and deadly for the poor. The same day the decision was released, tens of thousands of protesters mobilized across the country to defend free and safe abortion on demand without apology.

Chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, the Supreme Court has got to go” and “Fuck SCOTUS” broke out across protests in New York, rightly identifying the Supreme Court as an antidemocratic institution with the power to create and eliminate rights and laws outside the purview of popular democracy. The 6–3 far-right majority seems to have no qualms with wielding the court as a right-wing legislative body, and Justice Clarence Thomas has even argued that the court should roll back gay rights and access to contraception next. The idea that we’re effectively living in an oligarchical Christian theocracy is in many respects not far off. It is an obvious stretch to claim we live in a functioning democracy.

Just weeks ago, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez articulated that same sentiment, arguing: “It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to defend the stance that we live in a democracy, in a true one. . . . We’re living in oligarchy that has its democratic moments.” She went on to outline the myriad ways the US political system enshrines corporate minoritarian rule and argued that certain structural factors block progressive change. She’s right.

Just like AOC, the earliest socialists recognized the connection between political and social revolution. A more democratic society was seen as better terrain to win and establish social rights and wage class struggle. These same socialists identified the working class as the force that could win political democracy for everyone. Today, left-wing and popular movements around the world have taken up the question of political and constitutional reform, tied to proposals for public programs that can provide tangible material benefits for average people.

Notably, Chileans have been engaged in a decades-long struggle for a new constitution to break from the corporate domination of the country, and will vote on overturning their old political order this summer. Americans have much to learn from their struggle for building the mass movements we need here in the United States to deliver a more free and democratic society.

The Neoliberal Revolution

Chile didn’t always have a wildly pro-capitalist constitution. From 1970 to 1973, the Chilean working class embarked on the world’s first democratic socialist experiment. In the decades that followed, capitalist reaction established a neoliberal economy and an undemocratic system of minority rule much like the one we see in the United States.

Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, which came to power in 1970, sought to transform the economy from one dominated by landed elites, family monopolies, and foreign capital to one owned and managed by workers for the collective benefit of all, achieving this revolution through liberal-democratic institutions. During Allende’s three years in power, Chilean workers made immense gains, nationalizing key industries, launching ambitious redistributive social policies, and pioneering worker management of firms. Outside the front of one textile factory in downtown Santiago where workers had successfully won control hung a banner that declared it a Territorio Libre de Explotación, a territory free of exploitation.

A banner hung by workers at a Yarur factory, 1971. (Armindo Cardoso / Biblioteca Nacional de Chile)

Conflict reached a fever pitch in the face of immense capitalist reaction, ultimately resulting in a US-backed military coup that killed Allende, the Chilean road to socialism, and the dreams of the Chilean working class.

Led by General Augusto Pinochet, the new military dictatorship executed, tortured, locked up, and “disappeared” thousands of working-class activists and socialists. Pinochet brought in a cadre of young Milton Friedman acolytes — the Chicago Boys — to manage the economy. The Chicago Boys initiated privatizations, introducing for-profit competition to formerly state-guaranteed social rights, deregulated major industries and cut taxes, and worked to crush labor unions and attract foreign capital, effectively launching the world’s first national neoliberal experiment.

To help institutionalize the regime after seven years of military rule, the government passed a new constitution, written by right-wing ideologue Jaime Guzmán, through a sham plebiscite. The Constitution effectively locked in place the elite-led economic and political system. Chile underwent a process of democratization in the late ’80s and early ’90s after a 1988 plebiscite ended Pinochet’s fifteen years of rule, and the 1989 election delivered the opposition into power. Nonetheless, the process was a managed one, giving the old regime much say in what the new one would look like and largely leaving intact the same Pinochet Constitution and economic model.

In recent decades, new social movements in Chile have emerged, challenging neoliberal orthodoxy and elite rule. Mass uprisings in 2019 rocked the country and forced the Chilean government to allow the Chilean people to write a new constitution.

Recently, the Chilean Constitutional Convention released a draft of a new constitution that will be voted on later this summer. The new constitution, if passed, would be a fundamental break from the current political system, enshrining important social rights and dramatically expanding democracy and popular participation.

Demonstrators display flags and banners during a protest against the government in Santiago, Chile, October 21, 2019. (Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images)

The US Constitution has a much different provenance than Chile’s. Still, it serves a similar role Chile’s Constitution has for the past few decades. The US Constitution effectively emerged as a series of agreements and compromises between economic elites with heterogenous interests — those of Northern merchants and bankers and those of Southern Planters. Many of America’s founders explicitly wrote that the system of government they were establishing was built to prevent democratic rule by the masses.

James Madison made clear his disdain for democracy in the Federalist Papers, arguing that “democracies . . . have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

In recent decades, the further entrenchment of right-wing minority rule in the United States and elite control of the political system have prevented the government from addressing the myriad crises facing Americans. Chileans needed a new constitution and full democratization of society; we in the United States do too.

The Chilean Struggle for a New Constitution

In October 2019, Chile erupted in massive protests, first directed against a Santiago metro fare hike but then toward the entire political and economic system. Since the coup against socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973 and the institution of Pinochet’s military dictatorship, Chile has been at the forefront of the neoliberal revolution that swept the globe, with the erosion of the welfare state in the Global North and the developmental state in the Global South.

As a result, while Chile can boast itself as one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America today, intense inequality reigns supreme. According to sociologist René Rojas in an interview with Jacobin, “somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of Chileans . . . work in the informal market, so they don’t have secure employment for income and to feed their families,” and “about 70 percent of retired elderly workers in Chile make under half of the minimum wage.”

Half of Chileans make roughly $550 every month. Across the board, basic social goods are privatized and commodified. This brutal economic status quo, coupled with a long history of elite domination of the political system by a neoliberal center right and neoliberal center left coalition, has led to sharp declines in voter participation since democracy was reintroduced to Chile in 1989.

The mass uprising, dubbed the estallido social, or social outburst, coalesced around major demands to end austerity, neoliberalism, police repression, and political rule by the economic elite, and guarantee important social rights like health care and housing. Millions took to the streets, faced a brutal police force, and burned down metro stations and buses throughout the country. Nearly two months after the protests began and just days after a nationwide general strike, the national congress approved a referendum on the question of writing a new constitution. The referendum ultimately passed with nearly 80 percent of the vote, along with an uptick in voter turnout.

Months later, voters elected a left-leaning Constituent Assembly to write the new constitution, a draft of which has recently been finalized and will be voted on later this summer. In the presidential elections that followed, Chileans elected Gabriel Boric, a former leader of the 2011 student mobilizations and leader of the new political left in Chile.

A combination of deteriorating global conditions, rising crime and inflation, an uprising among Chile’s indigenous Mapuche population in the South, a more moderate Congress and Senate, and more, has unfortunately fed into the right-wing rechazo (reject) campaign, which is currently leading the polls. But no matter how the vote goes, the fact that Chilean workers have gotten this far is impressive, and the fight for a new constitution and a more expansive democracy is nowhere near over.

The Pinochet Constitution

Many Chileans view their current constitution as a major impediment to ending neoliberalism and inequality in Chile. Since the document’s original passage and the subsequent “managed transition” to democracy that began in 1988, the Constitution has undergone major reforms to eliminate the most antidemocratic vestiges of military dictatorship. However, that constitution is still largely seen as illegitimate due to its undemocratic provenance, and because it blocks major changes to the political and economic system.

A neoliberal economy is practically baked into Chile’s Constitution. Enshrined in it are “right to work” labor laws, the “choice” of private health care, and the prohibition of strikes by “state or municipal functionaries” and workers at public utilities or firms at which “stoppage would seriously endanger the health, the economy of the country, the supply of the population or national security.” The constitution outlines expansive private-property rights and protections from government expropriation.

Critics of the constitution argue that it privileges elites and makes it difficult to effect structural reform. Changes to the electoral system, including healthcare, water rights, pensions or the power of the Constitutional Court, require up to a two-thirds approval by Congress. The voting system has also historically privileged the two largest vote-getters in congressional and senate districts, creating a near two-party system of an elite center-right and an elite center-left coalition.

The electoral reforms in 2015 created far more proportional representation in the Chamber of Deputies, Chile’s lower house, and a bit more in the Senate — one of the factors that allowed the Frente Amplio, Chile’s emergent independent new left, to break up the traditional two-party system in the 2017 elections. Despite these advances, the relative nonproportionality of the Senate, along with high vote thresholds on meaningful changes to the political and economic system, makes it incredibly difficult to achieve greater social equality under the current Constitution.

The US Political System

Chile’s economic system is defined by neoliberalism, austerity, privatized social goods, and the domination of politics by economic and political elites, a political regime that has historically privileged two elite party coalitions and insulates the government from majoritarian decision-making, making it nearly impossible to meaningfully reform the system. If this sounds familiar, that’s because this also describes the political situation in the United States.

Similar to the Chilean Constitution, the US Constitution consists of multiple layers of what Chris Maisano calls “engines of minority rule,” the exact same features of the American system that led AOC to describe the US as an antidemocratic oligarchy. Among these is the Senate, one of the most malapportioned upper chambers in the world.

California, home to nearly 40 million Americans, has the same amount of representation as Wyoming’s nearly 600,000. The far-right Republican Party holds half the seats in the Senate, despite representing 40 million fewer people than the Democrats. In fact, the Senate is designed so antidemocratically that a 1964 Supreme Court decision said that it would be illegal for states to apply the same structure to their state legislatures.

The same malapportionment rears its head in presidential elections through the Electoral College. In the past nine presidential elections, Republicans have only won the popular vote twice, but have ruled for half that same time. Further, the Supreme Court, which is appointed by the undemocratically elected president and confirmed by the undemocratically elected Senate, can veto laws supported by vast majorities of the population via judicial review, a power most high courts in other countries either don’t have or use very sparingly.

In 2000, the court’s conservative majority carried out what was essentially a judicial coup, stealing the presidential election for George W. Bush. Its 2010 Citizens United decision allowed for an even greater influx of corporate money into the electoral system, making it easier for the corporate elite to buy elections. The court’s recent repeal of Roe v. Wade has now rolled back millions of peoples’ fundamental rights, despite majority opposition to the move by the American people.

In addition to the US Constitution, there are other antidemocratic measures incorporated into the American political system. The Senate filibuster, combined with the Senate’s malapportionment, creates a similar situation to the one that exists in Chile, enshrining yet another elite minoritarian veto against popular legislation.

Perhaps most central to the inability of workers to express independent politics in the state is the structure of one-member, “first past the post” legislative seats, which, along with regular one-round presidential elections, all but enshrines a two-party system. In this respect, our political system is even less democratic than Chile’s post-2015. And of course, the endless money in politics makes it extremely difficult for grassroots working-class candidates to compete.

In addition to these structural impediments, the increasingly minoritarian Republican Party has staked its future electoral successes on purposeful partisan malapportionment via gerrymandering and explicit attacks on voting rights. In Wisconsin, In These Times reports that “gerrymandering efforts have been connected to the passage of extreme policies that don’t have broad voter support, such as six-week abortion bans, anti-union laws and dismantled employee rights.” These checks on popular democracy strictly circumscribe political possibilities, similarly to Chile’s Constitution, blocking progressive change and protecting the status quo.

Mass Action Gets the Goods

As long as the current American political regime remains, there is no clear path to socialism, let alone crucial social democratic reforms like Medicare for All. Even the liberal agenda of the current Democratic administration remains seemingly impossible to achieve.

In the wake of yet another devastating school shooting under a Democratic president ostensibly committed to gun control, we should remain highly skeptical that any meaningful legislation will pass, given Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema’s continued commitment to the Senate filibuster and the rest of the party’s commitment to “party unity” and backdoor negotiations. Just weeks later, the Supreme Court gutted New York’s gun restrictions. Many rightfully ask how many more kids have to die until the government does something. That number increasingly seems limitless.

The centrality of political reforms to achieving social reforms is not a novel idea. Socialists have long led with demands for universal suffrage, proportional representation, and expansive political freedoms. Friedrich Engels, in his commentary on the German Social Democratic Party’s 1891 Erfurt Program, wrote that “the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic.” Chilean workers recognized this as their struggle against neoliberalism came up against the limitations of their constitutional order. American workers must do the same.

In the United States, major political reforms such as abolishing the filibuster, Senate, Electoral College, and Judicial Review, as well as establishing universal suffrage, proportional representation, and other measures that promote democracy (like making Election Day a national holiday), should be at the forefront of a socialist program to transform the state. These demands would be directly tied to a broader program of social and economic transformation — a different conception of how to organize society and the relationship between people and the state.

Grassroots activism around nonpartisan redistricting in Wisconsin provides an instructive example. At a 2020 redistricting commission, workers mobilized and testified before the panel and demanded nonpartisan redistricting, arguing that the political status quo insulated their representatives from democratic accountability and from having to address the issues they face every day, such as addressing the COVID-19 pandemic or expanding Medicaid. AOC’s recent video critiquing the American political system’s antidemocratic nature is a great example of how socialists should talk about and lead on the issue of democracy.

There are some reforms that are more achievable in the near term: the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would help fight Republican attacks on voting rights, the Fair Representation Act, which would establish proportional representation in the House of Representatives, and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which, while not eliminating the Electoral College, would be a stopgap to guarantee that the winner of the popular vote wins presidential elections. We can also pass laws establishing true universal suffrage in the United States, enfranchising those currently and formerly incarcerated.

Further, the Democratic Party could end the Senate filibuster today, or, even more radically, Joe Biden could pack the Supreme Court, institute term limits for justices, or, more preferably, announce that the court decided Marbury v. Madison incorrectly and that the Supreme Court doesn’t have the power of judicial review, returning democratic decision-making to the legislative and executive branches of government. This would prevent the Supreme Court from striking down progressive bills and rolling back social rights, and would also allow the government to reimpose restrictions on money in politics.

These reforms fall short of the major constitutional overhaul necessary to democratize the United States, such as stripping or eliminating the power of the Senate. However, they would create democratic openings for American workers to win meaningful gains in health care, abortion rights, the minimum wage, and gun control, and eventually achieve a constitutional convention. The struggles in Chile also show reciprocal relationships among mass movements against neoliberalism, democratic reforms like establishing proportional representation, the rise of independent left-wing political parties, and a trajectory toward constitutional overhaul.

Chile and other workers’ movements for democracy show that only a mass disruptive political movement with independent expression in the state, streets, and workplace can overturn our current political order and set us on a better terrain for class struggle. We should heed those lessons and build the movements and political institutions necessary to win a truly democratic republic in the United States, a prerequisite to achieving a more equal, just, and free society.