Language aside, Walt Whitman’s complaints about mid-nineteenth century America have striking contemporary resonances. “Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States,” he wrote in the late 1860s. “In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician’s serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician’s serpent, remaining today sole master of the field.” Yet if Whitman was bothered by the overweening influence of business and society’s obsession with money-making, he nonetheless felt it necessary to emphasize that democracy in America had distinctly economic preconditions. “The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort—a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth,” he wrote. “[Democracy] asks for men and women with occupations, well-off, owners of houses and acres, and with cash in the bank—and with some cravings for literature, too; and must have them, and hastens to make them.”
Whitman’s vision of a democracy of property-owners appeals to an understanding of citizenship that deserves more prominence than it currently enjoys. The idea that liberalism’s “gravitation-hold” will be “general comfort” and “a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth” is not a crude wish for material comforts alone. (Whitman also writes that “a great moral and religious civilization” is “the only justification of a great material one.”) Rather, it’s an expression of the belief that civic life is impossible among people who don’t share broadly in work, property-ownership, and material comforts. “General homesteads” are a requirement not only for economic equality, but for a broad distribution of political power.
Recent legal scholarship has uncovered a promising tradition of constitutional interpretation that aligns with this theory. In their work on the “Anti-Oligarchy Constitution,” William Forbath and Joseph Fishkin have shown that it was common during the nineteenth (and early twentieth) century to argue that the Constitution’s promise of equal citizenship is hollowed out by severe inequality and the corresponding concentrations of power. Of course, we still worry about the relationship between equal citizenship and economic equality, but as Fishkin and Forbath point out, “we have lost the crucial idea that these are constitutional principles,” fit to guide both constitutional interpretation and constitutional reform movements. They add the intriguing observation that, while progressives have largely detached their thinking about economic equality from their constitutional thinking, others have not. Indeed, the “the best place to look” for “an affirmative argument about the demands the Constitution makes on political economy and the opportunity structure” is on the libertarian right. This interpretive mode, they argue, gets a lot of things wrong, but it understands the crucial point that “the Constitution really can be understood to make substantive demands on our political economy.”
This observation may suggest reasons why the right’s economic vision has proved at once so potent and so disastrous. Consider first the predominant language that liberals have used, over the last few decades, to talk about inequality, wages, mobility, and the welfare state. We hear a lot about fairness, about the expansion of economic opportunity, and about creating a broad middle class. This is fine, so far as it goes, and the economic program aligned with it is both fairer and superior for achieving economic growth. That makes the popularity of the right’s economic message all the more striking. But when you think about that message, a clear difference emerges. There is less talk about fairness and the middle class, and more talk of the free entrepreneur, the taxpayer liberated from paying too much, the independent creator of wealth. This is key to its political potency: it offers not only a vision of the economy, but of the citizen—strong, free, and independent. The disastrous consequences of right-wing economic policies can, in turn, be partly explained by the fact that this vision of the citizen is misleading and wrong.
The response to this mistaken portrait of the citizen is not only to point out the dismal record of conservative economic policies, but to push back on the understanding of the citizen contained within them. It’s all well and good to defend a higher minimum wage, or universal healthcare, or expanded Social Security on the basis of fairness. But we can give a fuller, more compelling account of their importance by showing how they protect equal democratic citizenship from the threat of oligarchy. Conservative economic rhetoric promises freedom but delivers inequality. It praises independence while abetting a takeover of politics by the wealthy. There are better ways of thinking through these issues, and they’re neither novel nor foreign—in fact, they’re available in vocabularies and traditions we already have.