During the Cold War the United States fought to defend its political system against the threat of Communism. But times have changed. Does the US now have to defend its republic and its democracy against the threat of a new Gilded Age, of oligarchs — and the dangerous consequences of deep income inequality?
Vanderbilt law professor and former Senate staffer Ganesh Sitaraman argues that, in a political system like that of the US, which was designed to be class-blind, widening the economic divide can actually bring down the system. He tells WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman in this week's podcast that political democracy cannot survive amid economic inequality.
Sitaraman explains how the founding generation thought about the role of the middle class in keeping democracy healthy. He says the constitutional system devised by the founders, while devoid of overt checks and balances on class, had enough flexibility to help counter inequality — until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The excesses of the Gilded Age gave rise to the Progressive Era as a corrective.
He further argues that the period after the Great Depression of the 1930s led to additional government actions and programs that helped to temper further economic disparity, and as a result reflected the true benefits of workers, government, and business acting collectively. He contrasts all of this to what’s going on today, and argues that economics, more than anything else, explains the US’s current political dysfunction.
Ganesh Sitaraman is the author of The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic (Knopf, March 14, 2017).