There can be no real political democracy unless there is something approaching an economic democracy.This is an old idea, a problem that has been discussed and debated since the 5th century BC. Some ancient states dealt with great inequality by writing measures to protect the poor into their constitutions, most famously the Tribune of the Plebs in Rome. Ganesh Sitaraman writes of these arrangements,
We can think of these as class-warfare constitutions: Each class has a share in governing, and a check on the other. Those checks prevent oligarchy on the one hand and a tyranny founded on populist demagogy on the other.These questions were debated at the American constitutional convention, where there were proposals to limit the Senate to the wealthy and the House of Representatives to those of lesser means. But in the end they were not adopted. Sitaraman:
What is surprising about the design of our Constitution is that it isn’t a class warfare constitution. Our Constitution doesn’t mandate that only the wealthy can become senators, and we don’t have a tribune of the plebs. Our founding charter doesn’t have structural checks and balances between economic classes: not between rich and poor, and certainly not between corporate interests and ordinary workers. . . .Americans were not interested in such measures because they believed that they lived in a uniquely equal society:
And it wasn’t an oversight. The founding generation knew how to write class-warfare constitutions — they even debated such proposals during the summer of 1787. But they ultimately chose a framework for government that didn’t pit class against class. Part of the reason was practical. James Madison’s notes from the secret debates at the Philadelphia Convention show that the delegates had a hard time agreeing on how they would design such a class-based system. But part of the reason was political: They knew the American people wouldn’t agree to that kind of government.
Unlike Europe, America wasn’t bogged down by the legacy of feudalism, nor did it have a hereditary aristocracy. Noah Webster, best known for his dictionary, commented that there were “small inequalities of property,” a fact that distinguished America from Europe and the rest of the world. Equality of property, he believed, was crucial for sustaining a republic. During the Constitutional Convention, South Carolinan Charles Pinckney said America had “a greater equality than is to be found among the people of any other country.” As long as the new nation could expand west, he thought, it would be possible to have a citizenry of independent yeoman farmers. In a community with economic equality, there was simply no need for constitutional structures to manage the clash between the wealthy and everyone else.All of this raises the question: is the level of inequality we have now incompatible with our constitutional arrangements? Is Donald Trump the plebeian-rousing demagogue our Founders feared? Or could some leftist with Bernie Sanders' platform but much better hair fill the role?
Is anger over inequality undermining our nation?
I worry that it is. The political effect of this anger was concealed for a long time by its division between left and right populisms. Since the angry populists have never held a dominant majority, and since they are split between two parties, they have not been able to take power. Until Trump, who took advantage of the Republican elite's weakness to seize control of the party, and then took advantage of the extreme dislike between the two parties to keep establishment Republicans loyal to him and thus win the election. I am not sure how much of a long-term threat this sort of politics poses. So far Trump's term in office has not seen much radicalism; the most radical idea he has advocated, dismantling Obamacare, is the position of mainstream Republicans. Is it inevitable that in power, any American radical will be moderated by the system? I don't know.
One of my sons asked me recently if I thought America had moved beyond the danger of Fascism. I said no. I followed that up by saying that I did not fear a simple Fascism of ethnic grievance, which can rally many Americans but not enough to take power. I said that to succeed in America a would-be dictator would have to combine ethno-nationalism with technocratic government; he would have to accomplish things that our Democracy has struggled with. This would work best if it included somethings dear to the left, like national health care and a massive infrastructure/jobs program, and others appealing to the right, such as maybe a re-invigorated elitist educational system, programs to promote marriage and childbearing, and strong support for the police.
I would never say that Democracy is completely safe. It helps us that we have deep habits in this direction born from long experience with it, but if Democracy fails to deal with our problems we will eventual discard it in favor of something that seems more promising.