We are at the beginning of a new era in American politics — one whose defining features have yet to be determined. This is the premise of Ganesh Sitaraman’s new book, The Great Democracy. The Vanderbilt Law professor and former advisor to Senator Elizabeth Warren calls for big reforms to usher in a new era of political and economic democracy. In this interview, Sitaraman talks to Forge editor Brian Kettenring about the demise of neoliberalism and the urgency of fighting for — and winning — a more democratic political and economic order.

Can you say a little bit about what drove you to write The Great Democracy?

We’re at a crossroads today, one that doesn’t come around very frequently. After forty years, the neoliberal paradigm is no longer the governing paradigm. In other words, the neoliberal era has come to an end, and the question we have to answer is what comes next? What paradigm will define the era after neoliberalism? I wrote the book because I wanted to present what I think is at stake in this moment and how we can go forward. 

What's the main thesis of the book?

The book really has three arguments. The first is that we’ve lived in a neoliberal era for the last forty years and that era has come to an end. The second argument is that what happens right now, in this moment, will likely define the next era of politics and there are different options vying for dominance right now – the three most prominent being a reformed neoliberalism, nationalist oligarchy, which you can think of as Trumpism, and the great democracy. The third argument is about what it means to have a democracy. Usually, people think about voting rules and elections or maybe they go further and discuss constitutional norms and institutions. But the reality is that democracy requires much more of societies – it requires low levels of economic inequality, it requires a high degree of social solidarity, and it requires responsiveness of the government to the people. Right now we’re missing all three in America. To be a great democracy, we need to achieve these preconditions of democracy. And the book both makes that argument and offers the policy agenda for how to do it. 

I appreciated your account of neoliberalism. The term (neoliberalism) has grown in usage in the U.S. Is there anything that distinguishes your account from others? 

I’ve really tried to synthesize the different narratives about neoliberalism, so while there are minor differences of emphasis here and there, I think it’s pretty well in line with the major interpretations of the history of this era. Probably the biggest difference is that because I focus on what defined this era, rather than on neoliberalism itself as a word or ideology per se, I show how there was an American foreign policy consensus during this period that connects liberal internationalists and neoconservatives. This point is somewhat less emphasized in other accounts of neoliberalism, which focus more on economic policy.

Clearly one important feature of your book is that it brings economic democracy into the conversation alongside political democracy. Can you say more about your reasons for doing that, what the political hurdles are to fusing the two, and future strategy along these lines?

Teddy Roosevelt once said that there can be no such thing as a political democracy without something approaching an economic democracy. And I think that’s right, for the simple reason that one way or another, economic power turns into political power. What that means is that a society with vast economic inequality is one that will have political inequality too. This is something that political philosophers have understood since the ancient Greeks, but it needs more attention. 

The political hurdles are significant. Think about it this way: if you were wealthy, and, as a result, politically powerful, why would you allow for reforms that would reduce your political and economic power? You wouldn’t! And that’s basically the challenge. The question is what to do about it, and I think it requires a mix of strategies. You have to have movements outside of government pushing to make change. You have to have leaders inside government who want to make change and – and this is important – have the political and technical skills to achieve change. And you have to be persistent. There aren’t quick wins or a one-and-done. Most of the time, change takes a long period of time. 

Can you share a little bit about what you see as the most important aspects of your proposals for economic democracy?

There are a lot of proposals in that section of the book! It goes from antitrust and tax policy to health care and labor policy and everything in between. But let me focus on a couple of themes. First, when there are some people or entities that are so politically and economically powerful that they can dominate society, that’s a real problem for democracy. What that means is that we need to think about ways to break up concentrations of economic power. Antitrust policies like breaking up big companies, anti-monopoly policies like public provision of goods and services or regulation of monopolies as utilities are part of that. So are tax policies that ensure that the wealthy pay a greater share than they are today. Second, we need to lift up people who aren’t as economically powerful. Labor policy, wages, health care, all fit in this category – but so do goals that cut across policy areas, for example, ensuring a degree of geographic equality, rather than having a few superstar cities that are leaving everyone else behind.

In your chapter on the politics of achieving a Great Democracy, you point to themes that others have drawn out - thinking here of folks like Sabeel Rahman and Nancy MacLean about the importance of focusing on the rules, not just the rulers. What's most important for our readers to understand about what you propose here?

Our political culture, particularly around campaigns, tends to personalize everything and give us the feeling that one person can change everything. But that’s not actually true. There aren’t singular saviors in constitutional democracies precisely because we’re democracies, not dictatorships. Individual leaders are undoubtedly very important, but it takes many elected officials, not one, to make change. It takes bureaucrats to implement it. It takes movement leaders to bring pressure to bear in politics, and movement participants to mobilize for change. It takes ideas on what to do and why. And ultimately, it’s all of that – and more probably – that lead to getting a change in the rules. The rules are important because the rules determine who has power – economic power, social power, political power. But it’s also important to note that rules themselves aren’t enough. You can have rules on the books, but powerful people can try to evade them or ignore them. So we really need both rules and rulers. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time. I think the biggest mistake is in thinking that a single person or a single rule change is a magic bullet. The world is too complex for that.

I want to end by exploring your thesis of reaching a new political equilibrium. This seems a crucial question for progressive strategy. Can you elaborate on your theory of equilibrium? 

Let’s start with a big concern these days among a lot of political commentators. They worry that we’re stuck in an endless battle between right and left and they worry that this polarization means any hardball tactics on the left that respond to hardball tactics on the right will just lead to a tit-for-tat war that will continue forever. That is certainly possible. But it is also possible that one side just wins the battle outright and that we aren’t in a war between polarized factions anymore. That’s actually what has happened throughout history over and over again. In American history you can go back to the conflict in the 1790s between the Federalists and Jeffersonians. This conflict doesn’t go on forever. Jefferson wins and wins again and his successors win, and we end up with a Jeffersonian era. The same thing happens in the Age of Jackson. I argue in the book that the neoliberal era is like this too. Remember that the Democrats in this era were neoliberal too, not just the Republicans. My argument in the book is that we’re in one of these moments when what is up for grabs is what set of principles and ideas will define the equilibrium of the next era. Now, if you were to ask me what the best argument against a new equilibrium is – and the best argument for an ending tit-for-tat battle – I think the answer is the fusion of economic and political power. There are a lot of wealthy and powerful people who don’t want a new progressive equilibrium and they might fight hard to try to prevent that from becoming a stable equilibrium. So again, the path forward isn’t one-and-done, it will be an ongoing struggle that will require continual revitalization, even after there are victories.


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jordi comas (not verified)May 12, 2020 - 14:00"is no longer the governing paradigm." BAsed on what? With Trump trying to end the ACA again (for the 53rd time) and charter schools alive and well in PA, with the effort to end the postal service and use the shock doctrine, it looks like neo-liberalism is alive and kicking.
May 12, 2020 - 14:00
jordi comas (not verified)May 12, 2020 - 14:18Is "Great Democracy" a long way around saying democratic socialism? Do we even need to bother with such a discussion about terms? What would actually be different about either the outcomes or process of enacting the Great Democracy or a DSA vision?
May 12, 2020 - 14:18
Anonymous (not verified)May 12, 2020 - 14:45"Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective." Uncle Max Weber
May 12, 2020 - 14:45