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Varieties of Leftism

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Varieties of Leftism

Two Democrats look to the future of the country. May 25, 2017
Politics and law

The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st century Will be Better Than You Think, by Ruy Teixeira (St. Martin’s, 256 pp., $26.99)

The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic, by Ganesh Sitaraman (Knopf, 423 pp., $28.00)

Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton sent most of the political/intellectual world into a tizzy. Ruy Teixeira is the unusual liberal who sees Trump as merely a passing phenomenon in a world destined to be ruled, as in H.G. Wells’s technocratic vision, by upper-middle-class professionals and experts. Ganesh Sitaraman looks more deeply and sees that the middle-class social basis for American constitutionalism is in peril. Their books are written from strikingly dissimilar but nonetheless left-wing sensibilities. Teixeira is almost Panglossian in his optimism, while Sitaraman bases his structural pessimism on a extraordinarily original take on America’s constitutional order. Yet starting from different temperamental poles, they come to similar—and conventionally liberal—solutions for America’s problems.

Teixeira and Sitaraman are both Fellows at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic advocacy group founded by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, John Podesta. Both are writers of substance. But while Teixeira’s book reads like it was written in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton presidency, Sitaraman seems to have hitched his star to an Elizabeth Warren candidacy in 2020.

Teixeira is best known for co-authoring The Emerging Democratic Majority with John Judis. That 2004 book argued that emerging demographic trends, namely the growth of the Hispanic and black population, as well as the retention of significant numbers of white working-class voters, were likely to deliver the White House to the Democrats on a regular basis henceforth. The thesis of perpetual one-party rule seemed to have been borne out by Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, but in 2016 Judis parted ways with Teixeira—and with received liberal wisdom—by anticipating a populist white working-class defection from the Democrats. Teixeira, however, expected that the growth of upper-middle-class support for the Democrats would be enough to win a third term for the Obama coalition.

Despite the apparent bump in the road represented by Trump’s victory, Teixeira sees only bright skies ahead for an American society dominated by single women, academics, and minorities. “What is correct,” he argues, “is that progress has slowed down, not that it has stopped or reversed.” The Left, he summarizes, does best in good times, worst in tough times. This thesis, which is Teixeira’s overarching statement about American politics, seems contradicted, however, by the central role he assigns to the wisdom of FDR and the New Deal in the formation of the Democrat coalition.

Teixeira has little to say about Trump, but he expects that the Democrats will take the White House in 2024. Back in power, they’ll bring back prosperity by restoring Obama’s supposed “middle-out” economics, through Keynesian socialization of investment.

A Harvard Law School graduate who worked as policy director for Warren’s 2012 senatorial campaign, Sitaraman is now a professor at Vanderbilt Law School. In 2012, he wrote The Counterinsurgent’s Constitution: Law in the Age of Small Wars, which won the Palmer Prize for books on civil liberties.

The first, and by far the best, third of The Crisis of the Middle Class is devoted to the classical underpinnings of American constitutionalism. Prior to 1787, innovations in accountable government were confined to what Sitaraman describes as “class war constitutions,” designed to constrain the predatory tendencies of both aristocrats and the common folk. Societies divided by class, religion, and/or geography required a strongly authoritative—if not authoritarian—government to keep conflicts in check. In Rome, the patricians and plebeians were set off against each other by various constraining mechanisms; in England, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Crown, Commons, and Lords were set off against one another in a sometimes fragile equipoise.

The American Constitution represented a dramatic break with prior efforts at governance. Aristotle argued that the “best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class.” But it wasn’t until the 17th century, when the English political philosopher James Harrington wrote The Commonwealth of Oceana, that a compelling argument based on economic equality was made for a new type of political structure.  In lines that influenced the American Founding Fathers, Harrington wrote that “Equality of estates causeth equality of power, and equality of power is the liberty of not only the commonwealth but of everyman.” In the 18th century, the Scottish philosopher David Hume, an important influence on the Federalist papers, carried Harrington’s argument forward. He argued that the middle classes were the most stable basis for government: they were neither louche like the Lords nor consumed by the daily struggle for bread like the peasantry. The middle class, marked by prudence and thrift, were the ones, Hume argued, most amenable to reason and self-government. 

Building on Harrington and Hume, and the colonists’ tradition of British common law, the Constitution ratified in 1788 propounded a short and remarkably straightforward set of rules of governance for the new nation. The Constitution, Sitaraman argues effectively, established a society in which property was widely if not always evenly distributed, but it did not pit the owners of property against the workers in intractable opposition. The Constitution was meant to serve and represent the broad middle ranks of society.

The great danger to the Constitution was the rise of an oligarchy able to convert its wealth into political power and vice versa. Madison, the Constitution's primary author, warned that, eventually, “the proportion being without property” would increase, and create a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling class. At that point, Madison intuited, “the institutions and laws of the country must be adapted, and it will require for the task all the wisdom of the wisest patriots.” Madison’s foreboding applies well to California today where, formalities aside, the state is run, notes Joel Kotkin, by the plutocrats of Silicon Valley, who’ve accumulated vast wealth even while employing relatively few Americans.

Neither Sitaraman nor Teixeira mentions Silicon Valley or the oligarchs who rule the once-Golden State. Nor do these two authors see the dangers to democracy posed by the administrative state. Instead, despite admirably heterodox tendencies, they insist that a neo-New Deal state and its attendant bureaucracies are more than adequate to confront our challenges. Their faith in government as a means to spread the greatest happiness to the greatest number is charming, but experience leads us to doubt their premises.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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