Ganesh Sitaraman

Rescuing the Middle Class Republic

Air Date: May 22, 2017

Ganesh Sitaraman of Vanderbilt University Law School discusses his book “The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic.”

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When reading the Atlantic headline, “Can the country survive without a strong middle class?,” hearing media and politicians so frequently lament the decline of the middle class, I want to scream, because by any objective standard, the people haven’t been shrunken, but demolished. The middle class has been demolished. So, when I discovered Vanderbilt Law professor, Ganesh Sitaraman’s “The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic,” it was incumbent on me to invite him here. Elizabeth Warren Policy Advisor and Senior Counsel, Sitaraman argues that a sizeable middle class is a prerequisite for America’ constitutional system to operate. Our guest was also a research fellow at the Counter-Insurgency Training Center in Afghanistan, and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Ganesh, thank you for coming here today.

SITARAMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

HEFFNER: Tell our viewers the core crux of your thesis.

SITARAMAN: So, the basic argument of the book is that economic inequality and the shrinking middle class, is a threat to our constitutional system, a threat to our republic. And I know that might sound surprising. The constitution doesn’t say, middle class, in it. It doesn’t say, economic equality. It doesn’t say, economic inequality. Um, but our constitutional system was built on the assumption that America would have a big middle class, and not too much of a divide between rich and poor. And the reason was at the time of the founding, America was surprisingly equal. When the Americans in the late 18th century, looked out across the world, what they saw was how different the new republic was, from Europe. Unlike Europe, there was no feudalism in America. There was no hereditary aristocracy in America. And even the richest people in America, people like George Washington who had, uh, vast lands and uh, a big house, Mount Vernon’s a really nice, uh, nice, nice house that he has, uh, people like that were just nothing compared to the dukes and duchesses of England, who had these gigantic marble palaces.

And so, here in America, there was a lot of agricultural work, there were artisanal workers, and there was vast land available to the west, so that people could move west, set up, and become independent farmers themselves, and so that was the level of equality that really was an assumption and a foundation on which our constitutional system was built.

HEFFNER: That was the prerequisite in terms of there not being an aristocracy, there being a f-, fundamental creed, or acceptance of uh, commonality, among the Jeffersons and Madisons and Washingtons. They didn’t view themselves as aristocrats. But I think, revisionist history and, and maybe the way we lionize them, and the capitalistic system, and I want you to get into the history here, has reverted them to not being those common Americans.

SITARAMAN: So, so one of the things that’s hard for us today, is where we really set the base line, of how we think about the founders. And we often think about how un-democratic the founding era seems compared to our time. And it is undemocratic in a bunch of ways. Uh, you know, women, African Americans, lots of others were not full members of the political community at this time period. Um, but what’s astonishing and radical, is how democratic they were for their own time. And the real comparison I think, and I argue in the book, is what America was like compared to all the societies that came before. And so, from the ancient Greeks, all the way through, until the American founders, almost everyone was very worried in designing a government, about the divide between rich and poor. And they just knew that inequality was inevitable in society.

There would be a rich that would try to oppress the poor, and then there would be the poor who would try to confiscate the wealth of the rich. And the result would be strife, violence, and revolution. And so the way out of this problem was to build economic class right into the structure of government. So in England, you have the House of Lords for the wealthy, the House of Commons for everybody else. In ancient Rome, there’s a Patrician Senate for the wealthy, there’s a Tribune of the Plebs, of the plebeians, for the poor and for everybody else. And the idea here is that each economic class had a stake in governing, but also a check on the other, and that’s what would create stability. And that’s a surprising difference from our Constitution. We don’t have a Tribune of the Plebs. We don’t have a House of Lords, limited only to the wealthy. Uh, and that’s a big change, and it was a radical change, with our Constitution. And the reason why we have that, is because we didn’t have the degree of economic inequality that societies that came before us did.

HEFFNER: When I said, in the introduction, that I think any idea of equity, or economic equity has been demolished, I really mean it in so far as the general public thinks you have to be a lord to be a judge, to be a senator, to have any influence on what was a democratic process. And you’re saying, imbedded into those other constitutions was a kind of contract with socio-economic statuses, disparate statuses. But the way that our Constitution has been operating of late, you could say a decade, you could say three decades, you could say a half century, is to deny the common person, the American, a voice in the political process.

SITARAMAN: So there has been a lot of changes throughout our history in, in how this has happened. Um, I think in, you know, in the recent years, what we’ve seen, is rising economic inequality. Um, and with that, also rising political inequality. And the way economic inequality influences politics is through a wide variety of channels. Uh, the one that gets the most, uh, discussion, is probably campaign contributions and campaign finance reform. And so we see candidates having to spend all their time, in some cases hours a day, four or five hours a day recommended to them by their parties, to dial for dollars, uh, is what they call it. And it’s just calling people and asking them for money. And it turns out when you do that, you spend a lot of time talking to very, very wealthy people, and hearing about what their concerns are, and not hearing about the concerns of ordinary constituents in your district.

That fundamentally skews your views on what policies are important, what things should be at the top of your agenda, and skews your views on what the right answers are to those policy challenges, and how to address the big things facing our country. So, that’s just one little piece.

HEFFNER: Right.

SITARAMAN: Campaign finance reform, but then we get to lobbying, and we get to a wide variety of other things too, so this is a serious problem…

HEFFNER: It’s emblematic of the most serious concern, right? It’s emblematic of the crisis that you identify in the book. So when was the last time a president was not dialing for those dollars.

SITARAMAN: There was always money in politics on some level, right? There’s always been… Influence, and,

HEFFNER: Money.

SITARAMAN: Yeah, there’s always been some uh, money in politics. I think the question is, how pervasive is it in the system, and how much does it affect all the different aspects of the system? And so, one part is just the campaign finance part. But, I think in some ways, that’s not even the most pernicious, though it is deeply pernicious. That’s one part of it. There’s another part, which is lobbying. You know, if you spend all your time raising money, it turns out you’re not spending a lot of time considering issues in congress. And so what happens? You have to rely on others. And Congress people have very small staffs, uh, often very junior staff people work in their offices, and so they need expertise. And whom do they rely on? They rely on lobbyists, who know a lot, come from the industries. But it turns out lobbyists aren’t fair and balanced in, in the kind of approach and advice that they’re giving. They have a perspective and so that influences members’ views as well.

Uh we have a system now, where we have think tanks that are often, you know, funded by interests as well. And so that shapes the kind of informational environment around, around uh, policy making. And so there’s a whole set of structures that create this very, damaging political system, in the sense that people hear only a certain set of perspectives, uh, and I think that’s a real problem from the perspective of economic policy and general policy making.

HEFFNER: How do you deal with the reality of the American experience today, which is, that if you scaled the interests of the farmers, and the laborers of the 18th century that, given the, the quantity of, of people here, those stakeholders are representing the interests of real people, which is true of lobbying. So what, what is the reverse side of that, in terms of how the Constitution either exacerbates, or can help stop the inequality?

SITARAMAN: Well, so first let’s go back a little bit in, in the history. And, and I think the most instructive moment in our history is the Gilded Age, and the Progressive Era, so late 19th century, early 20th century. And, this is an era where the economic foundations of our constitutional system, what we talked about at the beginning, about the founding period, uh, fundamentally change. Industrialization, the closing of the frontier, the shift from agricultural work and artisanal work, to wage labor in factories, these are massive shifts to the economic system, and they really put a lot of pressure on our constitutional system. And people recognize this at the time, and they try to take action, in order to save the republic. And so the way they do this is twofold. The first thing that they do, is they say, we have to reshape our economy, so that our economy creates a better distribution of wealth in the first place.

And so this is the era in which people invented anti-trust law, to break up big concentrations of power. They invented public utilities regulation, because when there were natural monopolies, they realized, we need to insure universal access at regulated rates. This is the era in which we passed a Constitutional Amendment to create income taxes, so people who earn more, uh, and have a greater ability to pay, would actually end up paying more.

HEFFNER: And, and that was fulfilling a promise of the founders who believed in progressive taxation, or at least some of them.

SITARAMAN: The, at least some of them, and who believed it was important to make sure that you didn’t pass on wealth to the next generation in ways that would be concentrated, because that looked like the creation of a hereditary aristocracy. And so, Jefferson, for example, is very concerned about this, and uh, and, and in Virginia, worked to get rid of the law called the entail, which is a way you distribute property to your children, and uh he said, this laid the axe to the pseudo –aristocracy that was emerging in America, getting rid of this kind of property passing on to your, to your heirs, um, and so that was one side of the story in the Progressive Era though, it’s the economic side. The second thing though, that they did, is they knew that economic power would inevitably influence policy making, and so they tried to make politics more democratic. And so this was the era in which we pushed for campaign finance regulations the Progressive Era, and there was a Constitutional Amendment in this era too, to have the direct election of senators by the people, instead of the selection of senators by state legislators, and in some places, there was just rampant bribery going on in the state legislatures to see who would be a senator.

And so the progressives cut that, uh, out of the process through a Constitutional Amendment. Uh, so that was, that’s what we did a century ago when we were faced with many of these similar concerns. And I think that’s in a ways a model for today that we have to address both the economic side of the problem, and also the political process side.

HEFFNER: Within the current system, there is a crisis that’s the inequity. How can the Constitution protect us further from the crisis?

SITARAMAN: Well, so the first challenge that we have, is that our constitutional system was designed for a country without great economic inequality. So, in the old modes of constitutions, what I call class warfare constitutions in the book, you’d have something like the Tribune of the Plebs, and the Senate, so that there was a check on the rich and the poor. We don’t have anything like that. We don’t have, built into our Constitution, these kind of inherent checking mechanisms, with respect to wealth or class power, uh, and the reason why that’s important, is because what it tells us today, is that our Constitution itself doesn’t have a self correcting mechanism that can save us from this problem. And in fact, what Madison and a lot of the other founders thought, was that one day, America might have economic inequality, might have a serious problem, and it would be up to, what Madison called the ‘wise patriots’ of that generation, to find ways to revise the laws and institutions of the country.

And so, that’s what I think, what happened in the Progressive Era, and um, what it is, is, it means that it’s incumbent on us to think about policy actions that we can take, to think about constitutional interpretation, constitution amendments, in ways that fulfill the structure and spirit of our republic, of our original constitutional system. Um, but our Constitution itself, at a structural level, doesn’t have something built into it, to help us solve this problem. We have to do it. And, you know, one of the exciting things that I found in doing the research for the, for this book is, how throughout our history, people thought that it was up to them to fulfill the Constitution’s obligations, and to fill the Constitution’s purposes, uh, and that people advocated, whether it was son the floor of congress, uh, or on Main Street, or whether it was in the White House, they advocated for policies that would try to rebuild the middle class on constitutional grounds, and,

HEFFNER: Right, that, what you were saying, that interpretation is a vital piece of this.

SITARAMAN: It’s a vital piece of it on the interpretative side, but it’s also how, what all we believe it important. So, so one of the, one of the important things, I mentioned anti-trust law, people talking about anti-trust, didn’t just say, this is good for the economy. They said, this is necessary for us to have a republic, for us to have a representative democracy. And when they were in the streets advocating for it, when they were in the halls of congress advocating for it, they did so in constitutional terms, because the Constitution is something that all of us are a part of. It’s not just something that, you know, nine justices get to talk about. We all get to talk about the Constitution, because it’s about who we are as a people.

HEFFNER: So, from that perspective, how do you remodel, or provide an alternative, an alternative version of strict constructionism, constitutionalism, that achieves these goals.

SITARAMAN: Well I think the…

HEFFNER: That…

SITARAMAN: I think, I think the Constitution, you know, when you read the constitution, it has a lot in it that aligns exactly with the kinds of things that I, that I’ve been talking about. You know, we have an Equal Protection Clause, uh, that was, uh, part of the, was part of the 14th Amendment, uh, passed after eh civil war, uh, that says that we have to have equal treatment, of, of different kinds of people and different groups, and that’s a really important provision. Uh, you know, when you think about the First Amendment, uh, the, and, and campaign finance regulation, you know, we can’t forget, these, a bunch of the cases, Citizens United and others, are five-four decisions. Uh, that means four extremely smart, well, well read jurists actually thought it went the other way. These are you know, on a, on a hairline. This is not a surprising, uh, uh, uh, it wouldn’t be surprising for these cases to go the other direction. So I think there’s a highly plausible set of constitutional interpretations that are completely in the mainstream. Um, and we just happened to, to fall on one side of the line instead of the other.

HEFFNER: But it’s also the losing end of a rhetorical battle, right, the public’s consciousness, um, and awareness is that there are constitutionalists, who are the conservatives, and they are the guardians of this document. And you’re saying, no, they can’t possibly be the guardians of this document if we’re not operating a thriving middle class, if it doesn’t exist anymore. So, I’m saying in the public discourse, where this battle plays out, how, how do those four jurists who were on the dissenting side, make a case for, for themselves, beyond an individual decision? You know, and I guess by proximity, those who are aligned with them in the political process?

SITARAMAN: So, so I think one of the, the challenges today, is, it’s, it’s, as you said, often conservatives talk about the founding, and talk about the Constitution, uh, and they seem to talk less about economic inequality, and the collapse of the middle class. Liberals, progressives, often talk a lot, care a lot about economic inequality and the collapse of the middle class, uh, but don’t have as much to say about the founders and, and the Constitution, uh, and I think this is a mistake on both sides. Uh, I think there is a, a strong argument, and this is the case I push in the book, that we can’t think about inequality without thinking about our traditions and our history because it’s a threat to our basic system of government. And if you really care about the Constitution, you can’t ignore the fact that inequality is a serious thing that’s happening now, and is a problem in our own constitutional tradition. Um, so I think both sides have, have made some mistakes in thinking about this, uh, and in omitting these other, uh, you know, the perspective of the other in, in a way.

Um, but the bigger point here is that, you know, the Constitution is something, I don’t think, that is owned by conservatives or liberals, or lawyers, um, or justices on the Supreme Court. The constitution is something that we all take a part in, and that we all share in. Um, and that’s a really important part of it. It’s a founding document of our country, and it constitutes us as a people, as a, as a community.

HEFFNER: What are some of those potential vehicles for, um, for people, activists to take ownership of their Constitution again?

SITARAMAN: So I, I’ll give you first the kind of big picture of the three categories of things that we could do. So, the real problem that we have is there’s this mismatch between the economic conditions that are the foundation for our political system, and our political system, our Constitution. So, one answer to this is, we could just embrace our changed economic conditions, inequality, the collapse of the middle class, and say, that’s fine. What, what would that mean? Uh, I don’t think this is the right way to go, but let me tell you what that would mean. What that would mean is, we may have to create a new Tribune of the Plebs, uh, in order to check the power of the wealthy within, within government. I think this is an unlikely scenario to say the least, um, and I think it’s probably undesirable. I don’t think we want to give up, um, on being a middle class nation, a place where everybody has uh, opportunity to make it. Uh, but that would be one option. Uh, a second option, which is the one that most people who talk about campaign finance reform focus on, is really separating wealth from policy making, and trying to divide these two areas, so you don’t get undue influence from the wealthiest people, big corporations and so on, in the policy process.

I think this is an, a great ambition and a really important one. But I don’t think it can solve our problems. And the reason why, is because money will always find a way to influence the process through one from or another. If you block some of the campaign contributions, it will move to lobbying, if you try to block the lobbying, it’ll move to think tanks or information or candidate recruitment, or education, or something else. Um, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do things in this area. You know, the fact that we have anti-bribery laws, and we still have campaign contributions, doesn’t mean we should get rid of anti-bribery laws. Uh, it’s good that we still have these. We, we, block certain kinds of channels of influence. So then the third option is that we can actually reform our economy and our political system to rebuild the middle class and make our system more democratic.

And I think that’s really where we need to focus, and so there’s a lot of things we can think about here, but I think, you know, the story from the progressives is really the right framework. We need to think about restructuring our economy in ways that work for everybody upfront. You know, one scholar calls this predistribution instead of redistribution. We should make sure the economy works for everyone in the starting point. That would be things like anti-trust, supporting small businesses, that kind of thing. Uh, and then the other side, is we need to work on our political system. And I think that there’s a lot that we could do there. Uh, you know, we have a bunch of um, rules that don’t really make much sense if we really want to encourage democratic participation. We vote on Tuesdays, which is a work day. Kids have to go to school, and people are busy, instead of on weekends, or over a period of multiple weeks, to give people flexibility to do that. There are a lot of changes like that, that we could do to make our political system more democratic, and then more representative of the people.

HEFFNER: I think a lot of folks watching will ask, how, how now? Under the current circumstances, and in the Trump era..

SITARAMAN: Yeah. It’s a great question, and I know there’s a lot of people who are both, um, afraid and concerned, and also really energized um, on both sides, uh, about these issues. Uh, and, and one thing that I think gives me hope about making change now, is, you know, having been through the 2016 election, uh, what was so striking was how, whether you were a Bernie Sanders supporter, or a Donald Trump supporter, there was a lot of consensus that the political and economic system is broken, and that it’s not working. And Bernie Sanders said we needed a revolution to address it. Donald Trump was going to shake everything up, uh, to address it. And people responded to that, because at a deep level, despite all our divides, we understand that something is really not working in our, in our political and economic system right now.

So, how do we actually do it? Throughout our history, the way we’ve done this in the past, is that people mobilized, and they got active, and they didn’t do it just at one march, or on one election day, or voting for one candidate. Uh, there’s no one person who can save us from this fate of inequality. This is a trajectory we’ve been on for decades no. The answer is, repeatedly, over a long period of time, getting active, protesting, you know, talking to your congressmen and senators, running for office, pushing the people in office, once they’re in office, to do the things that they committed to. That’s what actually gets change to happen. It requires both people in office who want to make change, but it requires all of us to force them to make the change too.

HEFFNER: Right. I think that’s what Bernie Sanders was saying, in part, before he declared his candidacy on this show, right here, and I think this question of democracy and despair or dysfunction continues, uh, despite his efforts. We see that that antiestablishment fervor materialized in that way, support for Sanders and, and Trump, and their individual candidacies. And, there’s not a collective measure of keeping accountable those promises. In fact, Trump goes ahead and appoints a cabinet of billionaires. You know that the Constitution is our, is our creed, and that’s the embodiment of the, of the American experience. So if there’s a, an instinct tot rebel against the oligarchic reality of state legislatures, and the US Senate, uh, an institution that houses more millionaires, just as the Trump cabinet houses billionaires, why aren’t folks wanting to take it in the direction of a Constitutional Amendment.

SITARAMAN: So, I think there has been some talk of that. Um, you know, when you look at Citizens United, there are uh, proposals in Congress to amend the constitution to overturn Citizens United, and in fact to go even further back, and overturn Buckley against Valeo, which is the case which says, money is speech, not just, corporations are people. Uh, and so there are proposals to do that. Um, I think one of the challenges is that, a lot of people out there think, and I think, think, rightly so, that we can make a lot of change without going to a Constitutional Amendment. It’s very hard t get a constitutional amendment through. Uh, it takes, there’s just a lot of steps to it. it’s difficult to accomplish. Um, but there are things that we can do, short of that, in terms of legislation, uh, in terms of uh, executive actions, that could move our country forward in a significant way.

And you see energy all around the country around these things, so, a lot of cities, uh, and even states, are pushing forward on increasing minimum wages. Uh, that’s a thing that people are doing out there. You don’t need a Constitutional Amendment to do that, and it can make a lot of progress, and so, I think there are places where people are working to address some of these big challenges, um, because there are real ways we can do that, short of amending the Constitution. Uh, should we amend the Constitution to address campaign finance? I think we should. Um, but uh, you know, that would be a very very hard process. Uh, you know, the way, the way… the way the process works.

HEFFNER: Right. So there is no mechanism for, you know, a referendum in the way that, uh, countries in the EU, if they wanted to eject themselves from that compact, they could…

SITARAMAN: Well, or even our states…

HEFFNER: Right.

SITARAMAN: You know a lot of states have initiative and referenda, which is an invention of the Progressive Era.

HEFFNER: Right.

SITARAMAN: Again, to try to get power back to the people, uh, from the corrupt state legislatures.

HEFFNER: But at the national level, you, you look at what constitutes our bodies of congress and, you know, you realize that, like you’re suggesting, you do have to roll up your sleeves and do it on a, on a county, district basis, in order to have a level impact. Ganesh. Thank you for being here.

SITARAMAN: Thanks so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion in to the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook, @OpenMindTV for updates on future programing.