Ganesh Sitaraman offers a wide-ranging treatment of economic, political and constitutional developments across three centuries of the American experience in Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution. He reaches back to Aristotle, Machiavelli and Locke to inform a reading of Madison, Jefferson and Adams. But his chief inspiration is a lesser-known 17th-century English political theorist: James Harrington, who argued that political power goes hand in hand with economic power. Harrington stressed that a republic cannot sustain itself without equality (always relative equality—Harrington conceded persisting economic and class differences, as does Sitaraman).
The author sets European-crafted “class warfare constitutions” starting in Athens and Rome against the American founders’ “middle class constitution.” The first assumes a society with a permanent wealthy minority and poor majority, and seeks first and foremost to prevent revolution. The second resembles Harrington’s model of relative equality, with a majority in the middle—not too rich, not too poor—to sustain democracy and to share prosperity. That, says Sitaraman, is the origin of the U.S. constitution.
Sitaraman refutes Charles Beard’s economic interpretation of the Constitution that saw the charter serving financial interests of an already-established elite class. Instead, he says, the Constitution responded to the failure of the Articles of Confederation and an economic crisis of the mid-1780s, with provisions meant to safeguard both democracy and economic equality, at least among the not-too-rich, not-too-poor majority of white male Americans who could vote.
Events in the two centuries following adoption of the Constitution presented constant challenges to its middle-class foundation and required monumental reform efforts to pull back from the brink of oligarchy.
The author is careful to acknowledge the problem that slavery presents to his thesis. He addresses it in the context of another extended argument: that events in the two centuries following adoption of the Constitution presented constant challenges to its middle-class foundation and required monumental reform efforts to pull back from the brink of oligarchy.
The first great challenge was precisely that of slavery and the secessionists’ move toward a class warfare constitution, on that would uphold the power of the landed elites versus slaves and poor whites. The Civil War and the postwar amendments to the Constitution resolved that challenge, although it took another century for the civil rights movement to embed reforms in legislation.
The next challenge took shape in the late 19th century Gilded Age of robber barons, monopolies, labor suppression, unbridled political corruption, and resulting economic and social inequality. Progressive Era reforms such as the establishment of a civil service, the federal income tax, antitrust laws, the direct election of senators, the first campaign finance rules, food and drug regulation, and public utility and common carrier regulation turned back that oligarchic tide.
The New Deal reforms of the 1930s tackled renewed economic divisions that broke out in the Roaring Twenties boom and the Great Depression bust. President Roosevelt invoked constitutional principles in arguing his case against “economic royalists” and in launching broad legislative reform.
Sitaraman points out that courts came late to the reform movement. Into the mid-1930s, so-called Lochner Era analysis still prevailed, taking its name from a 1905 Supreme Court decision that struck down legislation regulating worker safety. The court nullified several early New Deal initiatives, prompting Roosevelt’s ill-fated “court packing” plan to name more justices.
Sitaraman credits the “switch in time” from a 5-4 Lochner-thinking court to a new majority for the eventual New Deal era support for minimum wage laws, workers’ organizing rights, unemployment insurance, Social Security and other economic equality-promoting steps. As with the post-Civil War and Progressive Era reforms, the now constitutionally validated New Deal measures pulled the country back from impending oligarchy toward a restored middle-class constitutional foundation.
Economic and political developments in recent decades have brought us again to the edge of oligarchy and the demise of the middle-class constitution.
He argues also that economic and political developments in recent decades have brought us again to the edge of oligarchy and the demise of the middle-class constitution. In line with Harrington’s thesis, he writes, intensified inequality has pushed political power to the top of the American economic divide.
Symbolized most starkly by the Citizens United decision, which allows unfettered corporate contributions to candidates, rich and powerful companies and individuals increasingly control levers of political power to serve their own interests, in particular by keeping taxes low and by blocking reform measures to rectify economic and political inequality. Worse, rich people have come to think they deserve their wealth and privilege, making them even more self-righteous and fervent in resisting equality-generating reforms. Worst yet, with federal courts composed mostly of judges with corporate law backgrounds and pro-business biases, a trend toward Lochner-style constitutional reasoning is aggravating the new class divide.
Sitaramam concludes with a call for renewed efforts to reduce inequality and re-grow the middle class. Government policies should close tax loopholes, raise the minimum wage, regulate campaign finance and provide universal health insurance, he writes, all policies well within mainstream progressive thinking.
But calling these “technocratic” reforms, he concludes they are not enough. He advocates going beyond to “structural” moves to break up big banks and big companies, measure corporate performance by long-term results rather than quarterly earnings, promote employee stock ownership and German-style co-determination, and strengthen labor’s hand in union organizing and collective bargaining. He even suggests a “trigger” mechanism to automatically increase taxes on the wealthy when the “U.S. Gini coefficient” (a standard measure of economic stratification) hits an inequality crisis level.
Closely linked to Senator Elizabeth Warren (he was her policy director and senior counsel before moving to the legal academy), Sitaraman provides a sweeping intellectual underpinning for the progressive agenda identified with that U.S. senator from Massachusetts and with 2016 Democratic presidential-primary contender Bernie Sanders. Sitaraman’s more than 1,500 endnotes reflect an enormous research effort in both classic and obscure sources on history, economics, politics, sociology and constitutional theory.
The author surely worked on the book throughout the Obama years and largely completed it before the 2016 elections. In a short passage near the end, he calls Donald Trump’s win a reaction to the very economic inequality, anti-elite sentiment and “rigged” political system that he documents in The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution—though this was clearly not an outcome the author preferred. It remains to be seen whether Senator Warren, Senator Sanders or another progressive champion can change America’s political course in years ahead. Whoever emerges will presumably have Sitaraman’s work in mind.