The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution. Ganesh Sitaraman. New York: Knopf, 2017.
“The number one threat to American constitutional government today is the collapse of the middle class” opens The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution. According to Sitaraman, the erosion of the middle class directly threatens the assumption of the United States Constitution of relative economic equality in society. The founders believed that class conflict was not inevitable and therefore did not add a provision in the Constitution that entrenched one economic class in power. For Sitaraman, the founders had internalized James Harrington’s theory of republican government that advocated property be widely distributed as possible in a republic. The founders consequently created a Constitution that promoted the middle class. Over time the Constitution had to be reformed to continue to support the middle class (e.g., the Progressive era, the New Deal) so that republican government could continue to exist.
The book is divided into three parts with two chapters per part. The first chapter of the first part, reviews the constitutional traditions of Athens, Rome, Florence, and the political thought of Harrington to show that expanded enfranchisement and new opportunities in economic, social, and political mobility for citizens created the conditions for republican government to flourish. Sitaraman also gives particular attention to Aristotle’s theory of the middling element for republican government as the best way to guarantee its stability.
With this historical and philosophical backdrop, Sitaraman examines the American Constitution where at the beginning of the nation relative economic equality existed among citizens (although there was inequality among regions of the country, with the South having a Gini coefficient of .464 compared to New England’s .367). Acknowledging that women, Native Americans, and slaves were excluded, Sitaraman highlights that economic opportunity and social mobility was available to almost all citizens. However, after the Revolution the United States economy was devastated with men fighting, trade halted, and farms burnt. The Articles of Confederation was not able to revive the economy so a new Constitution was created that addressed the economic problems of both farmers and merchants, debtors and creditors, ordinary people and elites.
Article 1, section 10 of the Constitution prohibited states from engaging in a number of economic activities, including the “impairing the obligation of contracts” and “lay[ing] any imports or duties on imports or exports.” These two provisions were an effort to solve the problem of both creditors and bondholder elites and the ordinary citizen. When Congress passed tariff legislation, the federal government obtained revenue levied in port towns so farmers did not have come up with gold and silver to pay federal taxes. Wealthier people would have to bear the lion’s share of the national government’s revenue burden, which was necessary to pay debts and fund government activities. States, in turn, could alleviate the tax burden they had imposed on ordinary people who now would have the ability to engage in economic activity without fear that the money earned would go to taxes or creditors.
Part two, “A Brief History of the Middle-Class Constitution,” reviews the history of the country from the Bank Wars of the 1790s-1820s to the New Deal of the 1930s-40s when an economic constitutional order was created to address class inequality. Chapter three, “The Emergence of the Plutocracy,” interprets the history of Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, the Civil War, industrialization, and populism as a constitutional battle between relative economic equality and inequality in American society. By the time of the Progressive and New Deal eras, the subject of chapter four, constitutional and governmental solutions had been found to address economic inequality in the United States: the federal income tax, the direct election of Senators, campaign finance laws, new federal agencies, social support programs, and other reforms that created a progressive democracy where the government would advocate for consumers against corporations in the promotion of economic equality. After World War II marginalized groups enter the mainstream for equal political and economic opportunity and the federal government continued to expand to point where it wanted to wage a war on poverty.
Part three, “The Crisis of Middle-Class Constitutionalism,” surveys the contemporary predicament of an eroding middle class in America. Inequality creates a sense among elites that only they are capable of ruling society and do their best to secure their privileges by preventing reform and economic policies that would promote equality. In chapter five Sitaraman documents how elites and corporations have used the court system, especially with respect to the First Amendment, to protect their interests. With the middle class diminished, the future will consist of either the rich oppressing the poor or the poor revolting against the rich.
Chapter six, “The Future of the Middle-Class Constitution,” argues for rebuilding the middle class as opposed to trying to sever economics from politics or adopt features of a “class warfare constitution.” The specific proposals he offers are taxing the rich, providing social support for the poor and middle class, government regulation of finance and public utilities, and revitalizing labor as a political movement. Given his interpretation of the constitutional, political, and economic history of the United States, Sitaraman’s policy recommendations should could to no surprise as being categorized as progressive.
Unfortunately, these proposals fail to address the two fundamental economic shifts that has caused the decline of the American middle class in the past fifty years: globalization and technology. Although raising taxes on the rich and regulating finance would help the middle class and the poor, these policy recommendations do little with respect to the two great drivers for economic inequality. Instead of the typical laundry list of progressive reforms, policies like tariffs, which Sitaraman writes about in the first chapter, would seem to be more beneficial to promoting the middle class than pursuing a policy of free trade. Invoking anti-trust laws to break up the technology monopolies would be another way to prevent Silicon billionaires from influencing the government (it’s telling that that companies like Apple or Facebook spend more money on lobbying than research today). Even if one may be skeptical of Sitaraman’s interpretation of American history, his last chapter of policy recommendations are underwhelming because they are so typical.
Nevertheless, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution contributes to our conversation about what ails American today and correctly identifies the decline of the middle class as the problem for us to address. Regardless of whether one agrees with his interpretation of American history, Sitaraman does a service in understanding constitutional history as intertwined with economic interests in promoting a middle-class republic. And although his solutions offer nothing new, he does devise proposals that address the eroding middle class. Ultimately, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution shows that economic inequality, as well as equality, is as much determined by our Constitution as by social, cultural, and economic factors.