CRF Blog

Goodbye to All That Democracy

by Bill Hayes

In Goodbye to All That Democracy for the American Prospect, Zephyr Teachout reviews The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic by Ganesh Sitaraman.

Just how unequal are we? For generations, the American middle class was the majority of Americans — no more, as of 2015. The top 1 percent owns more than 30 percent of America’s wealth. The poorest half owns just 2.5 percent. Wall Street bonuses alone are twice the amount of all the combined earnings of minimum-wage workers in this country. We are grotesquely, bizarrely, grossly unequal — unequal in cash, health care, schooling, and access to clean air and water. Unequal in our access to power. And we are becoming more unequal by the year: Since Ronald Reagan became president, the income of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans has doubled.

Sitaraman posits that we simply don’t have the right kind of constitution to withstand this degree of inequality. He argues that there are two kinds of constitutional structures: Class Warfare Constitutions and Middle-Class Constitutions. Class Warfare Constitutions — like those of ancient Rome, England, and Florence — assume inequality. These constitutions were designed with an eye to channeling a natural antagonism between the very rich and the poor into nonviolent mechanisms for negotiation. Both rich and poor accept these channels as conditions for the freedom from violence and instability that threaten the rich, and the freedom from despotism and arbitrary power that threaten the poor. Some used devices like class-specific representative chambers to give different classes political clout; some used devices like lotteries to ensure that even the poor get a voice. [more]