Can the Country Survive Without a Strong Middle Class?

In a powerful new book, the legal scholar Ganesh Sitaraman argues that America’s government will fall apart as inequality deepens.

George Washington watches from his desk as a delegate signs the Constitution.
Bettman / Getty

The U.S. Constitution, it is fair to say, is normally thought of as a political document. It lays out the American system of government and the relationships among the various institutions.

But in a powerful new book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, the Vanderbilt legal scholar Ganesh Sitaraman argues that the Constitution doesn’t merely require a particular political system but also a particular economic one, one characterized by a strong middle class and relatively mild inequality. A strong middle class, Sitaraman writes, inspires a sense of shared purpose and shared fate, without which the system of government will fall apart.

I spoke with Sitaraman about his book last week at The Atlantic’s offices in Washington, D.C. A transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity, follows.

Rebecca J. Rosen: Your new book, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, is premised on the idea that the American Constitution is what you call a middle-class constitution. What does that mean?

Ganesh Sitaraman: The idea of the middle-class constitution is that it’s a constitutional system that requires and is conditioned on the assumption that there is a large middle class, and no big differences between rich and poor in a society.

Prior to the American Constitution, most countries and most people who thought about designing governments were very concerned about the problem of inequality, and the fear was that, in a society that was deeply unequal, the rich would oppress the poor and the poor would revolt and confiscate the wealth of the rich.

The answer to this problem, the way to create stability out of what would have been revolution and strife, was to build economic class right into the structure of government. In England, you have the House of Lords for the wealthy, the House of Commons for everyone else. Our Constitution isn’t like that. We don’t have a House of Lords, we don’t have a House of Commons, we don’t have a tribune of the plebs like they had in ancient Rome.

At the time, people debated having a wealth requirement for entry into the Senate, but that didn’t happen. That would have been a common thing in the generations and centuries prior to the creation of the U.S. Constitution. So there’s actually a radical change in our Constitution that we don’t build economic class directly into these institutions. The purpose of the Senate, with its longer terms, is to allow representatives to deliberate in the longer-term interest of the republic, and that’s the goal of the Senate.

What we have is a constitutional system that doesn’t build class in at all, and the reason why is that America was shockingly equal at the time in ways that seem really surprising to us today.

Rosen: Of course, the point here isn’t only that class is ignored, or left out of the Constitution, but that the Constitution actually relies on a kind of equal society in order to function. Could you explain the premise there?

Sitaraman: That’s exactly right. The idea is that the Constitution relies on a relatively equal society for it to work. In societies that are deeply unequal, the way you prevent strife between rich and poor is you build class right into the structure of government—the House of Lords, House of Commons idea. Everyone has a share in government, but they also have a check on each other.

In a country that doesn’t have a lot of inequality by wealth, you don’t need that kind of check. There’s no extreme wealth, there’s no extreme poverty, so you don’t expect there to be strife, to be instability based on wealth. And so there’s no need to put in some sort of check like that into the Constitution.

That’s how our Constitution works. The reason why it works this way is that when the founders looked around, they thought America was uniquely equal in the history of the world. And I know that seems crazy to say, but when you think about it, it makes sense. If you imagine in the late 18th century, America is a sparsely populated area, just on the coast of the Atlantic, with some small towns and cities, and lots of agrarian lands, and it’s really at the edge of the world, because the center is western Europe. It’s London, it’s Paris, and when Americans look across the ocean at those countries, what they see is how different it is. They see that there’s a hereditary aristocracy, something that doesn’t exist in America. There’s feudalism, which doesn’t exist in America. There’s extreme wealth, there’s extreme poverty, neither of which really exists in America. As a result they don’t need to design a House of Lords and a House of Commons, they don’t need a tribune of the plebs in order to make their constitution work.

Rosen: Of course, there was slavery at the time—and it was built directly into the Constitution.

Sitaraman: We have to distinguish between two separate things. The first is what I’m calling the tradition of the middle-class Constitution, and the idea here is that to have a republic, you have to have relative economic equality, and that’s within the political community. But there’s another question which is, who is in the political community? And that’s a question that’s been fiercely debated over our history, fiercely contested over our history.

There’s a second tradition that we call the tradition of inclusion, which over time has fought to expand the community to include minorities, to include women. The challenge for anyone who’s interested in continuing both of these traditions is, how do they work together? I think the key thing is, when you expand the political community, you have to make sure that every member of the political community then has the opportunity to join the middle class, or else you can't maintain the structure of the republic and the preconditions for having a republic. So that’s how I see these two things fitting together.

Rosen: You talk a lot about a British philosopher James Harrington and how his ideas influenced the founders. For people not familiar with him, who was he? What was his impact?

Sitaraman: James Harrington is one of the most important political philosophers that no one’s ever heard of. In the 17th century in England, James Harrington writes a book called The Commonwealth of Oceana, and it’s a pivotal book, extremely important in the history of political thought. What Harrington argues is that the balance of power in politics in any society will inevitably mirror the balance of property in society, and he talks a lot about property. We can think about that as wealth, because at the time, most wealth was property.

What Harrington noticed in his own country, England, was that there had been a serious shift. The king had tried to play the nobles off of the people and had allowed a number of people to own greater property than they had before, and this created a rising middle class in England. Soon enough, the middle class wondered, why can’t we have a stake in governing? And this resulted in revolution and ultimately the civil wars in England leading to the ascent of Oliver Cromwell to lead England in the middle of the 17th century. What Harrington does is he explains this by saying that power has to follow property.

Many of the American founders had read Harrington, and his views were well known in the time period. In fact, more so than being known, they were just believed by everyone. Everyone embraced them, in some cases without even necessarily knowing their source, although throughout the founders’ writings they list Harrington as one of the great political thinkers who can comment on what it means to create a republic. So when the founders look around and they think about the equality that they see, their muse, if you will, their intellectual fountain, is Harrington, who suggests that, if you have an equal society, it is possible to have what he called a commonwealth, or a republic. And in an unequal society, the only possible government you could have would be some sort of aristocracy or monarchy.

Rosen: You have some data that shows how much flatter society was at the time. But change was coming, and you quote Tocqueville who warned “friends of democracy” about the inequality that could come from manufacturing, which would take off over the course of the next century. Could you take us through the history from that revolutionary period through industrialization and how that changed us forever?

Sitaraman: Starting in the early republic, even as early as the 1820s and 1830s, commerce is increasing, and by the late 19th century, industrialization has reached full force. We see a massive shift in the nature of the economy—the urbanization, the closing of the frontier, the shift from artisanal work and agricultural work to wage work within factories. These are all huge changes in the economy, and they put serious pressure on the economic foundations of the Constitution.

The assumption of our original Constitution was that society would be relatively equal, and this was because most workers would either be artisanal workers or would be agricultural, and there were vast lands available to the west, which meant that any white man—it was limited to white men at the time—could be yeomen farmers and independent economically.

What happens by the end of the 19th century is that these economic changes create huge pressure on our constitutional system. There’s increased inequality, and economic power is turning into political power. There’s a feeling among people during the Gilded Age that the robber barons and plutocrats are now running the government for themselves instead of running it for the people, and that this is a threat to the republic, a threat to the constitutional system. The response that starts really in full force in the populist era of the late 19th century and moves into the Progressive Era is to try to combat both economic power and to prevent economic power from turning into political power.

People in this time period do a lot of extraordinary things. They invent antitrust laws to try to break up concentrations of economic power. They pass a constitutional amendment to create an income tax so that people who are wealthier and have a greater ability to pay will pay more. And then, to prevent economic power from turning into political power, they passed the first campaign-finance regulations and they passed a constitutional amendment to require the direct election of U.S. senators. These factors, these actions, both economic and political, were designed to create what Teddy Roosevelt called an economic democracy that was necessary as a precondition for political democracy. The battles over the Constitution, the economic battles over the Constitution, continue through the Progressive Era and into the New Deal.

Rosen: You argue that the middle of the 20th century is a pivotal period. What happens in the middle of the 20th century, and how does it shape our idea of government and what its role is?

Sitaraman: After World War II, something changes. In this period, post-World War II, the idea that economic equality is necessary for our constitutional system falls out of the consciousness of most people.

I think it happens for three reasons. The first is that we experience a huge economic boom. This is a period that economists call the Great Compression. GDP goes up, median wages go up, we build America’s middle class during this period. And there are a lot of things that contributed to this. Many of them are policy things. First, we regulated the financial industry through the Securities and Exchange Commission, Glass-Steagall during the Great Depression. We also invested a lot in the kinds of things that would build a strong middle class. We sent a generation to college through the GI bill. We invested in infrastructure, which created jobs. We invested in research and development, which created the foundation for future jobs and future businesses. We also encouraged homeownership, and in addition to all of that, we also undertook policies that would help the people who were worst-off in society: Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start. Together, these things meant that we created a society that was more equal economically than we had seen in generations.

The second thing that happened during this period is that constitutional debates over the economy waned, because the New Dealers won the fight over the Constitution. Debates about economic policy now just moved into regulatory terms. There was no question that the Constitution empowered the federal government to be able to regulate and operate within the economy.

The third big factor is the Cold War. Prior to World War II, most generations of Americans were very familiar with the experience of aristocracies. The founders left a monarchy and aristocracies in Europe and rebelled against them to create the United States. Generations of immigrants fled those same aristocracies and monarchies in Europe to come to the United States, a republic. They knew the difference between a republic and an aristocracy, and it was very clear to them that there was a stark difference. After World War II, the contrast is now between capitalism and communism, not between republics and aristocracies. As a result, the egalitarian tradition in America wanes because of the fear of communism.

Rosen: The fear becomes more about the government doing too much and less about it not doing enough.

Sitaraman: The fear in that period switches from a fear over aristocrats, oligarchs, and plutocrats to a fear of becoming too much like the Soviet Union and too much like the communists.

Rosen: What do you see as the consequences of that?

Sitaraman: Well, what happened, I think, is that we first had a period of about 30 years where things went really well. We had a growing middle class, an expanding middle class; in fact, it was in this period that we first made serious efforts to make our country more inclusive. But then, just at that moment, we started turning in a different direction and undermining many of the policies that had actually built the middle class. So over the last generation, we’ve significantly reduced taxes on the wealthy, we’ve abandoned a serious antitrust policy, we’ve started investing less in the things that create a broad middle class—education, infrastructure, research. And the result of all of this was the stagnating middle class that we’ve seen, that everybody’s experienced in this country, increased debt, and then eventually the greatest financial crash in two generations.

Rosen: Why does having a strong middle class matter?

Sitaraman: One of the important things about having a large middle class for society is that there’s a sense of everyone being part of the shared project. No one’s so different from each other when there’s a large middle class. People don’t have different economic interests, and as a result, they often don't have very different social interests. People send their kids to the same public schools, they live in the same neighborhoods, they shop in the same places, they play on the same sports teams. As a result, everyone feels like they’re part of the same community.

When the middle class starts to crumble, people increasingly see themselves as different from others. They sort themselves by wealth, by education level, and the result is that there’s an increasing fracturing of society, a loss of the solidarity that comes with having a large middle class. And that can be very destructive to a republic, because part of what makes our system work well is that we have a shared sense of who we are as a people, and that we see each other as part of a shared project that’s called America.

Rosen: But even during that mid-20th-century period when the middle class was growing the most, the country wasn’t exactly a picture of social harmony. This is the same period when the fights over redlining and school segregation were at their most intense. What evidence is there that a strong middle class can surmount racial divides?

Sitaraman: I think throughout our history, you see big divergences between the tradition of inclusion and the tradition of the middle class. In some cases, they overlap. The Reconstruction Republicans fought very strongly for both racial equality and economic opportunity for the freed slaves. In some cases, they diverged; the Jacksonians were interested in economic opportunity but not in racial equality at all. These two things don’t necessarily have to go together. I think the most interesting moments in our history, though, are when there were people who understood that these two things had to go together, and in fact tried to build movements around them. The Civil Rights Era is a good example of that. We often forget that when Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, the March on Washington was the March for Jobs and Freedom. It’s economic and political. At the end of his life, he focused heavily on the poor people’s movement, again, focusing on economic opportunity.

The same thing was true even in the Populist Era. There was a movement, small and short-lived but a serious movement, to try to build a biracial coalition, blacks and whites, in the South, of working-class people, to try to push against the economic elites, who their leaders said were oppressing both races. That project ended in part because of force and fraud and violence, but partly also because of racism. There was a divide-and-conquer strategy that the elites used to try to break the power of the working class that was trying to have economic reforms that would help both African Americans and whites in the South. So I think what we need is to think about how important a middle class is not just for one group or another but for everyone, because in fact the economic concerns, the economic insecurity that we face today is shared by people across all racial groups, gender, and any other kind of identity.

Rosen: In your book you say that thinking of the Constitution as requiring a certain economic order is not a new idea but a very old one. What has this looked like historically and what would it mean for today?

Sitaraman: One of the most exciting things about writing this book is discovering how often throughout our history people talked about the Constitution in economic terms. Throughout our history there was a deep sense that to have a republic, to have our Constitution work, we had to have economic equality, and that the Constitution in fact relied on this and in some cases even required action from political leaders to fulfill this economic equality.

You see this in a wide variety of time periods. In Reconstruction, in the Jacksonian Era, the populists, the progressives, the New Dealers. Throughout our history, there is a strong tradition of people who believe this. We’ve largely forgotten this tradition, and I think our constitutional debates are impoverished because of it.

Today with economic inequality the important topic that it is, I think the time is ripe for people to go back and think about, and be inspired by, the people who have come before us over many many generations, who saw that the Constitution required thinking seriously about economic inequality. And there’s lots of places we could think about this in our Constitution today. To take a simple example, a case like Citizens United uses the First Amendment in order to stop efforts, it seems, to make our political and economic system more equal by enabling corporations and wealthy people to have outsized power over the political process. We could think about a wide variety of constitutional provisions differently if we took this seriously—the Equal Protection Clause, the First Amendment, the 13th Amendment, which was seen by the Reconstruction Republicans as not just ending slavery but also empowering Congress to create economic opportunity for people who were struggling economically.

Rosen: It’s clear from your book that you see today’s extreme inequality as a threat not only to our economic well-being but to or ability to self-govern. Can you explain how this threat is playing out and may play out in the decades ahead?

Sitaraman: Even going back to the ancients there was a fear that economic power would turn into political power and undermine the republic. That’s an oligarchy. The way this happens is through two pathways. First, the wealthy start believing that they’re better than everybody else, that they’re more virtuous, that they deserve to govern. The second thing that happens is that the wealthy now have different interests than everybody else. The things that are good for them aren’t actually in the common good, so when they do govern, they start pursuing policies that improve their well-being and wealth at the expense of everyone else. This creates a vicious cycle, because you now have the wealthy creating a system that allows them to keep more wealth and earn more wealth, and that wealth in turn allows them to continue to take over the political system, and the cycle perpetuates. This is what’s so challenging and so terrifying about what one commentator’s called the “doom loop of oligarchy”: once you start down this path, it’s very hard to get out of it.

The problem with the vicious cycle that leads to oligarchy is that people are smart, and they see it happening, and they know, and they feel that the system is rigged against them. And in that context, people revolt against the system. This doesn’t happen through some sort of mass uprising. What the people do is they look for a leader, they look for someone who will help them overthrow the oligarchy. There’s a great Broadway star that you may have heard of, his name is Alexander Hamilton, and he was very worried that the main threat to the liberty of republics would be that some leader would pay what he calls “obsequious court to the people” and then become a demagogue and eventually a tyrant. The threat for unequal republics is on the one hand oligarchy and then on the other hand tyranny. That is a pretty unfortunate fate in either direction.