In the fight against oligarchy, our best weapon is the Constitution

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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.

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The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitutionby Ganesh Sitaraman

Penguin Random House. 432p, $28

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.

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J Cosgrove
3 months 1 week ago

The author should define what he means by middle class. It is a vague concept and according to one definition from a few years ago, it is shrinking because those who were once middle class have moved to a higher economic classification.

Two things:

First, Is that something to be afraid of?

I hardly see that most of the people getting more affluent is a negative thing. Second, an apparent reason for an increase in the number at lower income levels is due to the 60 million immigrants that have come to the US in the last 50 years. Most were without skills and ended up in the lower economic classifications.

Second, Does this mean we should be afraid of oligarchs?

Maybe but who are the oligarchs? The fastest growing economic organizations are due to the digital revolution. With tens of millions working for these new oligarchs at high wages, it is hard to point to the oligarch's negative influence economically except if you are looking for a home in the San Francisco area. Their affect on morals and culture is another story but not economically.

As a personal feeling I am getting a little scared of Amazon because of its success but readily admit I am a prime member and order things from it nearly every week. It is so much easier than going to a store. But then again It is getting to be a scary choice and I wish there were a couple of alternatives.

-------------------
PS - If you want to destroy an economy and make us all equal, just put Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders in charge. They talk a good game but would be devastating to the average person as they regulate out innovation and chances to get ahead.

Dionys Murphy
3 months 1 week ago

Goodness. Boogeyman immigrants and fear of "the other" tactics coming from a supposed Catholic. You'd think all Catholics were watching EWTN and Faux News and embracing neo-evangelical christianist theologies not in keeping with Christ's teachings. The "middle class" is shrinking because they're all wealthy now? What fantasy country do you live in? Certainly you're not speaking of America where so many have been driven into poverty thanks to GOP "trickle down" economic policies and corporations first realities.

J Cosgrove
3 months 1 week ago

The "middle class" is shrinking because they're all wealthy now?

I did not say they are all wealthy now, that is your misrepresentation. That is what is called the "straw man" fallacy. This is when one makes up something which has not been said and then mocks the misrepresentation or straw man.

You should read Pew research. They are not all wealthy now but a significant percentage has moved up out of the so called middle class category so they are "wealthier" but not "wealthy." The lower categories have been increased by low skilled immigrants. Not all are low skilled but a large percentage. So it only makes sense that the middle class may be shrinking in terms of percentage.

You'd think all Catholics were watching EWTN and Faux New

We do not have television in the sense that we have access to any TV channels. Our family is one of the millions that have gone TV free. We do have what is called a television but use it to watch DVD's or streaming from Netflix and Amazon. So whatever generalizations you are making are not based on any reality.

Certainly you're not speaking of America where so many have been driven into poverty thanks to GOP "trickle down" economic policies and corporations first realities.

I do not know where you are getting your information.. None of the economic reports show any sign of this. There are pockets of poverty but wages are rising and the problem is lack of people for the jobs. Consumer confidence is currently at a 17 year high. All this could change.

coming from a supposed Catholic

You do like to spread the ad hominems. But I am always glad to hear from my betters.

Christopher Lochner
3 months 1 week ago

What we have is a situation where one oligarchy is to be destroyed and simply replaced with another. The desire for power and control knows no bounds. If this was admitted to then the future discussions might become fruitful.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 months 3 weeks ago

Outstanding article...thanks!

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