To live in the era of President Donald Trump is to witness, sometimes on a daily basis, wide-ranging and unprecedented assaults on basic constitutional norms. But if Ganesh Sitaraman, the author of The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, is right, the greatest threat to our democracy may be the tax cut that the Republican Congress passed and Trump signed at the close of 2017. In Sitaraman’s view, “the number one threat to American constitutional government is the collapse of the middle class.”
The tax bill, cynically sold as a break for working families, will hasten that collapse. By 2027, according to the Tax Policy Center, 90 percent of its benefits will accrue to the richest 20 percent of Americans. It drastically cuts the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, and according to an April 2018 Congressional Budget Office report, it is likely to increase the federal deficit by $1.8 trillion over the next ten years, forcing reductions in safety-net programs such as Social Security. All of this ensures that the already unconscionable gulf between rich and poor in the US will grow even wider. Gary Cohn, Trump’s economic adviser until his recent resignation, told CNBC that “the most excited group out there are big CEOs, about our tax plan”—and for good reason.
The middle class is notoriously difficult to define, and Sitaraman does not attempt a specific definition. He describes it as including those who “aren’t extremely rich or extremely poor,” which isn’t extremely helpful. But his argument rests not on defining the middle class by income, education, or cultural norms, but on the difference between a community in which there is “relative economic equality” and one characterized by a large gulf between rich and poor: “A large middle class means that most members fall somewhere in the middle.”
Many have lamented the increasing wealth gap in this country; it was the principal theme of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Others have argued that more equitable societies are happier and healthier.1 But Sitaraman makes the persuasive case that reducing the gap between rich and poor is not just an issue of equity, morality, fairness, or utility but of the very survival of our constitutional republic.
Political theorists since the Greeks have worried about how to mediate conflicts between the haves and the have-nots. Aristotle argued that if the rich govern, they will hoard their wealth and oppress the poor, and that if the poor rule, they will confiscate and redistribute the property of the rich. In his view, therefore, a stable political community required a strong middle class. Without it, the polity will be “a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship in states than this.”
In the same vein, James Harrington, a seventeenth-century British political theorist, posited that a republican form of government requires a relatively equal distribution of wealth—what he termed a “commonwealth.” Harrington warned that when a select few control a disproportionate share of a society’s property, they will use their economic power to gain political strength and transform the political system into an aristocracy. Montesquieu agreed, and attributed the fall of Rome to the concentration of economic power in a small number of citizens through unchecked inheritance practices.
Some political systems have sought to address the inevitable tension between rich and poor by building in class-based checks and balances. The Roman tribune, chosen by lottery to insulate the office from the influence of the wealthy, spoke for the common people. The House of Lords reserved a place for the propertied elite in British governance, while the House of Commons was open to a much wider cross-section of British society. John Adams favored a similar structure for the US Congress, but his view was rejected. Instead, the framers constructed what Sitaraman calls a “middle-class Constitution”: it does not use the structure of government to mediate class conflict, and as a result it is even more reliant on an equitable distribution of wealth to avoid the rifts that Aristotle, Harrington, and Montesquieu foresaw.
At the time of the founding, circumstances favored such an approach, because the United States was, with the stark exception of slavery, a relatively equitable place. The frontier made property broadly available—again, as long as you were white. In 1774, the top one percent of earners received 8.5 percent of the nation’s total income. By contrast, in 2012, the top one percent garnered 19.3 percent of total income.
The United States was exceptional in this regard. Alexis de Tocqueville begins Democracy in America (1835) by contending that America’s most important feature was its “equality of conditions.” Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, whose 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution are among the first authoritative sources on our founding document, claimed that there is an “intimate connexion” between the “general equality of the apportionment of property among the mass of a nation, and the popular form of government.” And in an 1820 speech, Daniel Webster maintained that “the freest government…would not be long acceptable, if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property in few hands, and to render the great mass of the population dependent and pennyless.” The “natural influence” of inequality, Webster warned, would lead either to “despotism” on the part of the wealthy or “unrestrained popular violence” by the poor.
But equitable distribution of property, to the extent that it once existed in the early United States, did not last. In the late nineteenth century, the closing of the frontier, the spread of industrialization, and the rise of corporations led to the rapacious accumulation of vast fortunes that marked the Gilded Age. As a result, in 1895, Supreme Court Justice Henry Brown told the Yale Law School class precisely the opposite of what de Tocqueville had observed sixty years earlier: “Probably in no country in the world is the influence of wealth more potent than in this, and in no period of our history has it been more powerful than now.” At that time, the top 6 percent of Americans owned 66 percent of the nation’s wealth.
These disparities, however, prompted the Progressive era, and ultimately the New Deal, in which Congress and state legislatures adopted a variety of reforms designed to rein in the power of big business and the wealthy. In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified, overruling an 1895 Supreme Court decision invalidating the income tax, and clearing the way for progressive taxation. The Seventeenth Amendment soon followed, providing for direct election of senators, a reform designed to make the Senate more responsive to the people and not the exclusive province of the rich and powerful. At the time, it was said that it was “harder for a poor man to enter the United States Senate than for a rich man to enter Heaven.” The Progressive era also saw the nation’s first campaign finance laws, which sought to constrain the political influence of the wealthy. Sitaraman calls these reforms “a sea change in the American political system.” The New Deal subsequently introduced price controls, wage and workday regulations, and other protections of workers and consumers from exploitation by big business.
In part because of these reforms, America after World War II entered a period in which prosperity was shared fairly widely, and the middle class grew. In 1928, for example, the top 10 percent of earners took home 46 percent of the nation’s income, not including capital gains. From 1951 to 1982, however, the top 10 percent’s share never hit 33 percent. Government subsidies supported home buying for all and college education for millions of veterans. The poverty rate dropped markedly, reaching a low of 11 percent in 1973. Following a major agreement in 1950 between auto workers and General Motors, businesses began providing pensions and health insurance for their employees. And the income tax during this period was truly progressive: the top marginal tax rate was 88 percent in 1942, 91 percent from 1951 to 1963, and remained above 70 percent until 1981. Under Trump’s tax cut, by contrast, the top rate will drop to 37 percent.
Since the late 1970s, income and wealth disparities have once again grown dramatically. In 2017, the richest 10 percent of Americans owned 77 percent of the nation’s wealth, a higher proportion even than in the Gilded Age. Today, the twenty richest Americans have more wealth between them than the bottom half of the US population—some 152 million people. In 1979, CEOs of America’s most successful businesses earned, on average, about thirty times as much as their workers. By 2013, they earned almost three hundred times as much. And in the thirty-year period from 1979 to 2008, the top 10 percent of Americans received 100 percent of the benefits from growth in income, while the incomes of the bottom 90 percent fell.
These differences in income and wealth have infected our political system in many ways. Politicians are more dependent than ever on campaign contributions. They are forced to spend much of every day seeking donations from wealthy supporters, and therefore have to be more attentive to the interests of big donors than of ordinary constituents. Businesses have devoted ever-greater resources to lobbying, for which they vastly outspend consumer advocacy groups. The Chamber of Commerce’s lobbying budget for 2012, for example, was $207 million, while the lobbying budget of Public Citizen, the leading consumer watchdog group, was just $3 million. And as for the poor making it into Congress, the median net worth of members in 2013 was more than $1 million, while the median net worth of American households was just $56,335.
These developments corrode people’s trust in the political system, and even in each other. “Similarity enhances trust, reciprocity, and understanding between people,” Sitaraman writes. By the same token, inequality prompts
an erosion of trust as people become more dissimilar, interact less, and begin to see themselves as different from others in society. In political terms, the elites soon begin to believe they are more capable of governing society. This kind of thinking is inherently at odds with republican government, which is rooted directly in the right of the people to govern themselves.
As the gap between rich and poor widens, the political system becomes vulnerable to the sort of class conflict that now divides us. And those divisions, Sitaraman contends, undermine the very possibility of a constitutional democracy.
There can be little question that we are a deeply divided society. But what can be done about it? Here Sitaraman is less clear. He does not propose any adjustment in our constitutional structure, but instead advances a series of familiar policy prescriptions for supporting the middle class and making the economy—and thus the polity—less dominated by concentrations of wealth. He favors aggressive antitrust enforcement and regulation of private businesses that serve the general public. He calls for dedicating more public resources to education, still the best means of building the middle class. And he favors strengthening labor unions, as they have historically played a critical part in extending the benefits of the economy to a wider swath of the public.
These are all sensible and laudable goals, but at the moment it is difficult to see how we might achieve them. Sitaraman predicts that it will take a coalition of “new populists” and Republican “progressive conservatives,” but doesn’t specify who these groups are, much less give a reason to believe that they will lead us in a positive direction. Populism and the Republicans thus far have given us only Donald Trump.
In White Working Class, Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, maintains that if we are going to find a way forward, the privileged among us—whom she calls the “professional-managerial-elite”—need to respect the concerns of the working class. She agrees with Sitaraman that the divide between the professional and working classes has jeopardized our democracy. She attributes much of the division to the professional class’s dismissive attitudes toward the working class, so her book, much like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) and Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (2016), seeks to foster a more sympathetic understanding of the working class.
One of the difficulties with such efforts is that they necessarily employ broad generalizations that are difficult to verify. Williams defines the “working class” as those earning more than the bottom 30 percent of Americans and less than the top 20 percent, as well as those with incomes in the top 20 percent but who lack a college degree. Using these parameters, the “working class” comprises at least half the population, or over 150 million people.
It is not self-evident, however, that this is a group with a common viewpoint. By Williams’s own terms, the “working class” ranges from billionaires who didn’t graduate from college, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, to families scraping by on $41,000, to individuals earning as much as $132,000. By relying on income as well as educational criteria, Williams seeks to capture the multivalent features of class in America, but this category seems far too expansive. In addition to a handful of billionaires, it would encompass a great many college professors, government lawyers, artists, journalists, and other modestly paid but highly educated professionals. It likely includes as many Democrats as Republicans, as many socialists as libertarians. And despite the book’s title, the working class includes a sizable proportion of people of color. Is it possible to make meaningful generalizations about such a diverse group? And how would one test whether they are correct?
Still, generalize we do. All efforts to discuss class involve unavoidably overbroad stereotypes. Williams is certainly right that “working class” has developed a certain cultural meaning in America, and that among liberal elites in particular the generalizations can be unfairly dismissive. Williams notes that two thirds of Americans do not have a college degree, in part because a college degree is less obviously worthwhile for many in the working class. And she points out that while some in the white working class hold racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant views, so, too, do many in the professional classes.
Williams’s principal point—that the privileged are too condescending toward the working class—is surely correct. Her book will help some professionals think twice about their attitudes and assumptions toward those who have less money or especially less education. But in an increasingly divided world, in which the rich and the working class do not live together, go to school together, or socialize together, such attempts to foster understanding across chasms are necessarily limited. We need to narrow the chasms themselves.
Sitaraman, I imagine, would maintain that the attitudes Williams seeks to correct are themselves a manifestation of the growing gap between rich and poor. As the gap grows, the wealthy are increasingly inclined to see their interests as different from, and more deserving than, the interests of those who have less. At the same time, those who have less are likely to become more resentful of those with more. These attitudes get filled out with cultural stories that “justify” each class’s respective resentments. The distrust flows in both directions, as Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” chant “lock her up.” Sometimes it feels like a downward spiral from which there is no escape.
One of the unintended lessons of Sitaraman’s history of class in America, however, is that while our Constitution does not build in explicit measures to reduce class conflict, it has facilitated fairly substantial systemic corrections—without major violence or revolution. The excesses of the Gilded Age led to the Progressive Era; the deprivations of the Depression ushered in the New Deal. The oppression of Jim Crow led to Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights laws of the 1960s and 1970s. We may well be due for another course correction. And it requires not so much a constitutional amendment as popular recognition that a more equitable distribution of wealth is essential.
The Trump presidency could well prove an important turning point in this regard. He has already done vast damage to America’s values and international standing.2 But Trump’s more lasting influence may lie in the countermovements he has unwittingly inspired. He came to office with a majority voting against him, and his approval rating, which started out at historic lows, has fallen since. He has shown no ability to appeal beyond his base. And he has the potential to unite progressives, liberals, moderates, and even conservatives against him. Some of his harshest and most perceptive critics are Republicans, including David Brooks, David Frum, and Michael Gerson—the latter two former speechwriters for George W. Bush. Stories about the dysfunction of his administration were already widespread before the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury.3 So if there is a correction in our future, we may, ironically, have Trump to thank for it.
But Sitaraman’s book also demonstrates that the system is not self-correcting; it requires concerted political action. “The resistance” will have to move beyond the criticisms that have united so many thus far and articulate an affirmative vision of a better America for all, one that seeks to heal the divisions that have riven the nation. Sitaraman’s and Williams’s books both urge us in that direction. Williams effectively debunks some of the misunderstandings that class divisions have sown. And Sitaraman makes a convincing case that we all have a fundamental stake in a more equitable society, not just because it is more fair or more likely to promote happiness, but because the future of our democracy depends on it.
See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (Bloomsbury, 2009). ↩
See James Mann, “Damage Bigly,” The New York Review, January 18, 2018. ↩
Henry Holt, 2018; see Michael Tomasky’s review in these pages, February 22, 2018. ↩