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Divided We Fall

The Founders knew that economic inequality would destroy America's democracy. So why can't the Constitution save us?

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

It only took a week after Donald Trump’s inauguration before Democrats and the media began to warn that our democracy faces a grave and potentially fatal threat. On the second weekend of Trump’s presidency, when customs officials began enforcing his hastily imposed ban on travel from Muslim nations, Senator Cory Booker dashed out to Dulles Airport and told a crowd of protesters that the American rule of law was under assault. “I believe it’s a constitutional crisis,” Booker declared. Two days later, when Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to enforce the ban, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer practically had the question, “Are we on the verge of a constitutional crisis?” on auto-repeat. And when Trump blasted the “so-called judge” who overturned the travel ban, Senator Richard Blumenthal wasted no time in predicting the worst: “We’re careening, literally, toward a constitutional crisis.”

We weren’t. The ban may have been illegal, and deeply un-American, but its issuance alone didn’t present an existential threat to the republic. Lawyers sprang into action, and federal judges halted the ban’s enforcement. Even the president’s tweeted response indicated that the Constitution was still in working order: “SEE YOU IN COURT.”

The alarm over the travel ban reflected the wider fear that many Americans have felt ever since Trump was elected. Indeed, the mere fact of his victory struck many on the left as nothing short of a national emergency—a threat to the very nature of American democracy. But in their vigilance, many politicians and pundits are missing a deeper and more profound peril. We aren’t “careening” toward a constitutional crisis, as Senator Blumenthal feared. We’ve been sinking into one for years—and the Constitution isn’t designed to get us out of it.

Long before Trump came along, America was already mired in a constitutional crisis—one that crept up on us gradually, as historical transformations always do. The reason is simple: Our Constitution wasn’t built for a country with massive economic inequality and deeply entrenched political divisions. The three times in our history when the republic has faced a threat to its very existence—the Civil War, the Gilded Age through the Great Depression, and the present moment—the crisis arose because America had evolved in ways the Founders could only dimly imagine. In each instance, the social conditions of the country no longer matched the Constitution.

Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the crisis we now face. It is written, in fact, into the very fabric of our society. And the only way we’ll avert the disintegration of our political system—as Lincoln and the abolitionists did in their day, and the Roosevelts and the progressives did in theirs—is first to understand its origins.

If you ask many Americans today, they’ll tell you exactly who the Founding Fathers were: a pack of rich white men who rigged the Constitution to serve their own financial and political interests. Sure, they talked like radical egalitarians. But they also denied women the vote, slapped a specific numeric value on the political worth of slaves, and enshrined human bondage as wholly compatible with a democracy founded on “unalienable rights.”

That’s true enough. But it’s easy to forget, at the historical distance that separates us from the eighteenth century, that America in its founding era was, in the relative terms of the time, the most economically equal place on Earth. Unlike their revolutionary counterparts in France, the Founders didn’t have to account for—or break from—centuries of entrenched wealth and property. There was no hereditary nobility in America. No property rules that concentrated wealth. No history of feudalism. Instead, there were vast lands to the West, which meant that any white man could work his way into the middle class. Even William Manning, one of America’s first great champions of “the many” versus “the few,” acknowledged in 1799, “We are on an equality as to property [compared] to what they are in the old countries.”

The Founders shaped their new republic around its economic parity. Nothing short of “equality of property,” declared Noah Webster, could ensure the social stability and national solidarity that any constitutional system needs to function properly. This, Webster added, was “the very soul of a republic.” Our Constitution, in short, was literally founded on an egalitarian distribution of wealth. Without property being “pretty equally divided,” the anti-federalist Samuel Bryan warned during ratification, “the nature of the government is changed, and an aristocracy, monarchy, or despotism will rise on its ruin.”

For most of the world’s constitutional history, property had been anything but “pretty equally divided.” Political systems were often created to accommodate economic inequality, and to ward off catastrophic clashes between the rich and poor; social stability was achieved, at least theoretically, by giving each class a share in governance. Think, for instance, of Britain’s House of Lords (for the rich) and House of Commons (for the masses) or Rome’s tribune of the plebs, which allowed poor citizens to veto the decisions of the patrician senators.

Our Constitution, by contrast, made no such accommodations to economic inequality. There are no wealth requirements for U.S. senators, and no cap on wealth for admission to the House. In fact, there are no provisions in our constitutional structure—not one—that account for differences in economic class. This represented an extraordinary transformation in the way countries govern themselves. Instead of drafting a constitution to resolve divisions created by wealth and poverty, the Founders asserted that all men were created equal, and established a government that depended on all men remaining economic equals.

The Founders understood full well that if severe economic inequality emerged, their democratic experiment would collapse. The rich would gradually take over the government, passing laws to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else. When America’s wealthy began to “plunder the poor,” a Virginia politician warned in 1814, it would be “slow and legal.” Sooner or later, the masses would respond—but not through a violent uprising. Instead, they would turn to a figure who would know how to manipulate their resentments. Of “those men who have overturned the liberty of republics,” Alexander Hamilton observed in The Federalist Papers, “the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

But in preindustrial America, the onset of mass inequality—and the social and political divisions that grow from it—was only a distant possibility. In a society with relative equality, the only “checks and balances” needed were between three separate—and equal—branches of government. “The Founding Fathers devised a scheme to deal with conflict,” the political scientist Louis Hartz once observed, “that could only survive in a land of solidarity.”

“Solidarity,” of course, is also a relative term, and a fragile foundation on which to build a national government. Throughout the nineteenth century, as the regional divide over slavery grew, some Americans came to believe that the only solution was to alter the Constitution to account for the increasingly deep fractures—to find an American equivalent of the Lords and Commons. In the buildup to the Civil War, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina proposed splitting the presidency in two: one president from the North, one from the South. The co-presidents would have to agree before any law could take effect. “Nothing short of this,” he warned, “could restore harmony and tranquility to the union.”

The Civil War, our greatest constitutional crisis, stemmed directly from the Founders’ failure to create a framework for forging solidarity out of division. And in the decades after the war’s brutal resolution, sweeping economic changes would lead to a second crisis—rooted in another stark social divide—at the turn of the twentieth century. With industrialization, urbanization, the closing of the frontier, and the shift from artisanal and agricultural work to wage labor in factories, the Constitution once again strained at its seams.

James Madison, for one, had foreseen that the republic would confront such challenges. In 1788, he estimated that America had 25 years before the population density across the entire country would match that of the Eastern states. By 1829, thanks to westward expansion, he’d revised his estimate: Within a century, Madison thought, the mass of Americans would be “reduced by a competition for employment to wages which would afford them the bare necessities of life.” As the “proportion being without property” increased, the system would have to be overhauled for representative democracy to survive. “The institutions and laws of the country must be adapted,” Madison wrote, “and it will require for the task all the wisdom of the wisest patriots.”

When the Industrial Age plunged America into its second constitutional crisis, wise patriots answered Madison’s call. From the 1890s to the 1930s, populists, progressives, and New Dealers alleviated the strain on our system by passing a combination of new laws and constitutional amendments. Anti-trust measures broke up the concentration of economic power. Working hours were regulated, and labor unions offset the power of employers. The Constitution was amended to establish a progressive income tax, helping redistribute superconcentrated wealth. The people’s voting power was expanded by requiring the direct election of U.S. senators, permitting citizens to float ballot initiatives to change laws by popular vote, and extending the franchise to women. These reforms were all designed to realign economic and political power—to give a fair measure of it back to the people. Only then could the Constitution work again as intended.

By the 1960s, the progressive patriots had largely succeeded. This was the age of the Great Compression: The gross domestic product soared, wages rose, and the middle class boomed. Not since the founding era had America seen such economic equality. At the same time, progressives took aim at social divisions, ending Jim Crow segregation and beginning to ensure equal rights for women, gays, and lesbians, and the disabled. As the 1970s dawned, the great American experiment faced a new challenge: Could the republic sustain an equal economy and an inclusive social community?

This time, however, our leaders failed us. Instead of promoting policies to continue broad-based economic growth, they passed tax breaks for the wealthy and gutted regulations that protected workers and consumers. Rather than work toward social harmony, they took advantage of growing economic anxieties and used dog-whistle politics to stir racial resentments. And if you couldn’t blame “those people” for your problems, you could always blame the government, which Ronald Reagan so memorably cast in his first inaugural address as “not the solution,” but “the problem.”

As much as liberals would like to chalk up this disastrous state of affairs to white racism, or pin it to the rise of reactionary conservatism, Democrats have done their part to contribute to the crisis. For decades, many Democrats have gone along with economic reforms that aided the rich, and they have increasingly demonized working-class whites as ignoramuses, contributing to a destructive tit for tat that only keeps escalating.

By neglecting the economic conditions necessary to sustain our republic, we’ve fueled a slow-burning constitutional crisis. As a battery of studies over the past decade have shown, the rich now dominate our system of governance. They participate more at every stage of the political process—from meeting candidates, to donating to their campaigns, to voting and running for office. Some scholars argue that the majority’s views now have zero impact on public policy; all is dictated by the interests of wealthy elites. It’s no wonder that trust in government has sunk to all-time lows.

Just as the Founders feared, our sense of national solidarity could not survive the rise of economic inequality. We have divided ourselves geographically, with liberals amassing in urban areas and blue states, and conservatives in rural and red. We get our news from sources that reflect our partisan assumptions, and we make our political decisions based on fundamentally incompatible ways of looking at democracy. We may be governed by a single Constitution, but we are becoming, for all intents and purposes, two countries.

The terrifying thing is that all these transformations—economic, political, and social—make reform even more difficult to achieve. As the wealthy rig the system in their favor, it gets harder to tax the rich, bust up monopolies, help working families, and reduce the influence of money in our politics. As social divisions become more entrenched, it becomes easier to keep everyone divided through fearmongering and scapegoating. To function properly, the Constitution requires equality and solidarity—and once those are gone, it contains no mechanism to restore them.

It would be nice to think that our current crisis could be solved by getting rid of President Trump. But if he were driven from office and forced into exile at Mar-a-Lago, the conditions that created the crisis would still be with us. There’s no quick fix to a problem that has been half a century in the making.

Thanks to the Constitution’s checks and balances, a president alone can’t fix the republic any more than he can destroy it. Only a new surge of progressive patriotism, modeled on the one that took hold a century ago, can save our democracy. Like the wise patriots of the Gilded Age, the progressive patriots of the twenty-first century will have to rebuild the bedrock of economic opportunity, stone by stone: a fair tax system, tougher financial regulations, more investments in education and infrastructure. The foundations of participatory democracy must also be rebuilt, by liberalizing election laws and enabling more Americans to vote. Only then can we hope to rediscover a sense of common purpose that the Founding Fathers knew was a prerequisite for their experiment to succeed.

It sounds impossible, of course. Donald Trump’s in the White House. Anti-government, trickle-down conservatives dominate Congress, the courts, and most state legislatures. How can we even dream about reversing such entrenched inequality, or of healing our seemingly bottomless social rifts?

Our hope rests partly in our history. Hard as it is to believe, we have been here before. We’ve stared into a dark future in which the Constitution no longer functions, in which democracy is replaced by oligarchy or tyranny. But wise patriots found a way to adapt. It took more than one election, one candidate, one party. A crisis decades in the making will take decades to resolve.

Our greatest hope, ironically, rests in the very ferocity of our political climate. Trump wasn’t elected because conservative voters are unaware that America is in a mortal crisis. A socialist like Bernie Sanders didn’t almost upend the Democratic establishment because liberals felt that everything was fine under President Obama. The American people might not think of what we’re experiencing as a “constitutional crisis,” but they understand what their leaders have failed to recognize: The system does not work anymore. Something radical has to happen. This knowledge, above all, is one thing that the citizens of our deeply divided country still have in common.