Witt: ‘Middle class’ Constitution in danger

In a 2017 book titled “The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution,” author Ganesh Sitaraman, associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University, contends the U.S. Constitution is a document designed as a safeguard for America’s middle class — and its purpose is being aborted.

Sitaraman shows links between our Constitution and forms of government that existed for periods as long ago as ancient Greece and Rome, and that when those forms of government, which were characterized by the rule by a vast number of citizens, gave way to more autocratic forms, they eventually failed.

But the development of a “middle class” Constitution did not originate with the founders of the American republic. They had much history to draw on, not only from the ancients, but more recently (in their time) the forms of government which were prevalent in Europe, and especially in England.

The writers of the Constitution — and virtually everyone they represented — were adamant the form of government in the flowering U.S. would not follow that of England. After all, they had concluded a war to rid themselves of English rule.

The author, however, cites an Englishman as one whose writings exerted a great deal of influence on our founders.

James Harrington, in the 17th Century, posited a republican form of government — what he called a commonwealth — could not exist without relatively equal distribution of wealth.

And America was situated to allow such wealth distribution to flourish.

With vast land areas yet to be conquered — much to the dismay of the Native Americans already inhabiting those areas — it was easy for newcomers to America, and those who had failed at other enterprises, to move westward and find opportunity to start anew with new land and new options.

But then a confluence of events changed all that.

By the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, options for moving into new territories greatly diminished. Land was becoming less available or was being gobbled up by enterprises like the railroads, mining interests and oil entrepreneurs.

Additionally, the courts, which had after the Civil War been largely settling law to protect the middle class, turned laissez faire as developing corporations became more and more powerful and, through outright skulduggery in many cases, bought their ways into the halls of Congress and the courts. Teapot Dome comes immediately to mind.

In the early 1900s, many powerful voices rang out warning of the dangers to democracy of concentrating wealth, including Teddy Roosevelt, President Rutherford B. Hayes and William Jennings Bryan.

Studies have concluded that, by the early 1890s, the top 6 percent of Americans owned two-thirds of all wealth in the country.

Before the Great Depression of 1929, it has been estimated the top 0.1 percent of the American population earned what the bottom 42 percent did.

By 2016, the top 1 percent of the population owned 38.6 percent of the country’s wealth, and the top 5 percent owned 65.1 percent.

It has been suggested the gap in wealth distribution has not been as great as it is now since the Depression and the gap may have contributed to that period of sorrow.

Our Supreme Court continues its commerce bias, despite some periods of fallback, with perhaps the most egregious decision in modern history, Citizens United, where corporations can exert almost unfettered influence on government through campaign spending.

With substantial financial contributions flowing into Congress, and the courts increasingly peopled by those with a decided bent toward business, the middle class Constitution is in danger, perhaps as never before.

Chuck Witt is a retired architect and a lifelong resident of Winchester. He can be reached at chuck740@bellsouth.net.