The Atlantic

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.
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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

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