Theorists largely agree there is a strong connection between politics and economics. The economics of inequality have long drawn similarities to the democratic idea of political equality. Robert Dahl believed an emphasis on economic democracy was necessary to move beyond polyarchy. C. B. MacPherson also found the economic inequalities found in Western Democracies inconsistent with its ideals of political equality. Aristotle even recognized the economic dimensions within the political constitutions of Greek City-States. He defined democracy not as the rule of the many but the rule of the poor, while oligarchy was the rule of the rich. It is unclear how he might have explained modern representative democracies where the middle class plays a prominent role.
The classic work from James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship, uses econometrics to understand the reactions of authoritarian regimes to demands for democratization. They argue the demand for political and economic equality begins as a single voice, but the process of democratization decouples these distinct requests for equality. Leaders offer political rights as an alternative to a more radical economic revolution. Yet their theory is largely abstract. There is a disconnect from the historical experience and their econometric model.
Moreover, many theorists believe in the link between political and economic freedom. Francis Fukuyama is among the theorists who believe democracy is incomplete without a commitment to liberalism. Yet the meaning of this term is not always clear. Many scholars have defined it simply as the presence of fundamental human rights. Others extend it to include constitutionalism and the rule of law. But it has also included an economic theory which emphasizes the role of capitalism, markets and free enterprise. Writing in his classic work, The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama linked economic liberalism to political liberalism. But it felt a little sloppy. The ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was primarily economic. The political dimension was secondary. Fukuyama’s efforts to flip the political and economic dimensions required him to retain this connection.
Ganesh Sitaraman begins his work The Great Democracy with an account of Neoliberalism. Fukuyama’s early work, including The End of History, was largely written within the intellectual tradition of Neoliberalism. It is worth reading this book for the first two chapters alone. His grasp of the origins of Neoliberalism are extensive. He places the tradition within a historical context and begins to frame politics within larger intellectual contexts. Moreover, he sees the political context as global. Neoliberalism permeated beyond the United States into Europe, Latin America and even China. From the late seventies until the Great Recession there was an implicit acceptance that government was an obstacle for economic growth. Efforts were made to deregulate the economy, reduce taxes and reduce government services.
Today it remains unclear how the political mood has been transformed. As early as 2004, Cas Mudde had identified a “Populist Zeitgeist.” Sitaraman feels the populist mood is an outgrowth of Neoliberalism. It is true that contemporary populism has emerged from the political right but there is a distinction between the approach and policies evident in the political agendas of Donald Trump when compared to a libertarian like Paul Ryan. But Sitaraman places the political mood within a social context. Neoliberalism emphasized a demarcation between private enterprise and the public bureaucracy. The centralization of efforts under the umbrella of the public lacked the dynamism of private enterprise where individuals had the freedom to pursue their ideas with little interference. Neoliberalism believed the public good was best served through individual efforts.
But Sitaraman struggles to understand the political transition from the Neoliberal ideology to something new. It is easy to define the new political mood as populist or even right-wing populism. But Sitaraman believes the populism of Trump is simply an extension of the neoliberal worldview. As politics has elevated the business ethic, the meaning and purpose of civic activity has become irrelevant. In its place has emerged new social identities based on race, ethnicity and culture which have replaced our sense of community. It is intriguing how Sitaraman’s leftist political vision aligns with the conservative ideas of scholar Patrick Deneen. Yet he diverges in his portrayal of populism as the natural conclusion of the Neoliberal mindset rather than an ideological competitor.
It is helpful to consider how each new political zeitgeist retains some elements of its predecessor. The change in the political winds both builds upon its predecessors while it reacts to their failures. Neoliberalism emerged to justify social status amidst efforts to eliminate legal distinctions between race and gender. But capitalism is not racist. Yet it may amplify discrimination when social structures and institutions perpetuate prejudices. Many prejudices have begun to soften over time. Consequently, traditional minorities have gradually found greater economic success. This has flipped the original meaning of neoliberalism. As more white males face economic uncertainties and challenges, the neoliberal ideology places the blame upon them. Traditional minorities knew they faced serious challenges like racism or sexism to achieve economic gains. But white males have been told they are privileged so their economic failure is more difficult to explain away. It becomes necessary to reject neoliberalism to preserve their sense of dignity. And populism has emerged as a political ideology which justifies their social experience.
The first few chapters of The Great Democracy are breathtaking for its explanation of Neoliberalism and placement within a historical context. But as the book goes on it focuses on a laundry list of reforms for the American political system. Many of these reforms are focused on economic programs meant to establish greater economic equality. It does not make sense for me to critique or endorse any of these proposals here. My larger criticism is that no single idea is substantially developed nor is there an intention to offer a single policy proposal. Sitaraman envisions a Great Democracy where multiple programs are necessary to align political and economic equality. Ultimately, he believes economic equality is not simply a question for democracy. It is a question of democracy. Political equality remains incomplete when economic resources remain in the hands of a wealthy elite. In the end, his book will leave both conservative and liberal readers with a difficult challenge. Where does the line belong between public policy and political process?
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