There's a growing sense among some scholars who make a living studying American government that the biggest danger to the Constitution is not limited to Donald Trump — it's also endangered by America's widening economic inequality.
Vanderbilt law professor Ganesh Sitaraman, for instance, recently wrote that the American Constitution wasn't built for a country with so much wealth concentrated so heavily at the very top. That wealth inequality, he said, invariably leads to oligarchs and populist demagogues that the Constitution isn't equipped to address.
"From the ancient Greeks to the American founders, statesmen and political philosophers were obsessed with the problem of economic inequality," he said in a New York Times piece earlier this year. "Unequal societies were subject to constant strife — even revolution. The rich would tyrannize the poor, and the poor would revolt against the rich."
But our Founding Fathers intentionally wrote a Constitution that wasn't based on class warfare as so many European and older countries' constitutions were — House of Lords versus House of Commons in England, for instance, to balance interests of the elite versus the commoners.
Instead, the U.S. created a system where anyone, regardless of social or economic status, could serve in the House or the Senate. It was assumed back in 1787 that would work just fine since equality was among America's greatest strengths and it was assumed it would always be.
That indeed worked just fine for most of the first 200 years. In 1976 the richest 1 percent of Americans earned about 8.5 percent of the national income. Today, Sitaraman noted, that 1 percent takes home about 20 percent of the nation's income.
Why does that cause a constitutional problem? Because the very rich gain a huge advantage over the rest — campaign contributions, heavy and expensive lobbying, interest group influence over lawmakers and regulators. As the country becomes an oligarchy of the rich, people revolt, which essentially was what resulted in the election of Trump, who cleverly pandered his way into office.
There was another time, roughly a century ago, when economic inequality threatened the country. At the turn of the 20th century, a time historically known as the Gilded Age, the people finally revolted against the oligarchs of their day by replacing politicians with reformers who promised to turn things around by passing legislation to dismantle the inequalities. Progressive income taxes were enacted. Banking, railroad, insurance and other regulations became law. Labor unions were encouraged to help workers gain more power in their workplaces. The Progressive movement did indeed reduce the inequities.
But this time the revolt is not only failing to attack the nation's inequalities, the election of Trump and his appointment of oligarchs in key policy positions are making it worse. The gap between the rich and poor will continue to grow.
Trump talks a good game. He pushed all the right buttons during the campaign. Do away with trade agreements so that corporations and jobs will come back to America. Repeal regulations that hamstring businesses. Get rid of environmental rules that curtail growth. Cut taxes on business, corporations and the rich so the economy can grow. It all sounded so good to so many Americans who have long felt left out of the country's sluggish economic recovery following George W. Bush's Great Recession.
Yet, what are we really getting? The list is long. It includes a sabotaged health care system that will wind up costing low-income Americans their premium subsidies, which will undoubtedly leave them once again without coverage. A tax plan that benefits the already rich, but does little to help the working people even with increased standard deductions. Instead of the promised infrastructure initiative, there are plans to fund increased defense spending by cutting back programs that mainly benefit rural America's infrastructure needs. Even the administration's immigration programs are hindering farmers who are forced to rely on migrant labor to make their businesses work.
No, Donald Trump is not going to reduce the gap between the rich and poor. He lied about that, too.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel
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