With a new book, Ganesh Sitaraman is primed to be key contender for role of Democratic Party's chief ideologue
Astonishing as Ganesh Sitaraman’s proximity to two of the most prominent political figures in the US (Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg) at this time is, a review of what he has done in his 37 years makes this moment seem a natural progression
Astonishing as Ganesh Sitaraman’s proximity to two of the most prominent political figures in the US (Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg) at this time is, a review of what he has done in his 37 years makes this moment seem a natural progression.
His latest book, The Great Democracy: How to Fix Our Politics, Unrig the Economy, and Unite America, positions Ganesh Sitaraman as a key contender for the position of chief ideologue of the Democratic Party.
To read Sitaraman is to let down your guard and to buy into his vision. To evaluate his ideas, one has to put in both intellectual and emotional effort, because one wants to believe him, and believe in him, so badly.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Ganesh Sitaraman, the son of Indian immigrants to the US, became close friends with a young man named Pete Buttigieg. Later, on his very first day at Harvard Law, Sitaraman would be inspired by a certain Professor Elizabeth Warren and her class on contracts, and go on to be mentored by her.
Twelve years later, his bestie and his mentor would go toe-to-toe to become the Presidential candidate for the Democratic party. In the very first leg of the contest, in the state of Iowa, Pete would emerge the winner, and Warren would beat national favourite Joe Biden to third place.
Astonishing as Sitaraman’s proximity to two of the most prominent political figures in the United States at this time is, a review of what he has done in his 37 years makes this moment seem a natural progression.
As an undergraduate, in 2003, he had already published his first book: an edited volume titled Invisible Citizens: Youth Politics after September 11. His first assignment after finishing his JD at Harvard Law in 2008 was to become the first civilian academic researcher at the Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan. His research there led to his first solo book, The Counterinsurgent’s Constitution: Law in the Age of Small Wars. As reviewed by Isha Mehmood in the NYU Journal of International Law and Politics, this was ‘the first book to connect counterinsurgency strategy and the laws of war’, recognising that the ‘most difficult questions that arise in a conflict and post-conflict situation are legal issues’ to do with targeting of insurgents, reconciliation, and transitional justice.
If counterinsurgency and small wars are the defining, even paradigmatic facet of foreign policy for the US, the defining economic fact of our time is the meteoric rise in inequality ushered in by several decades of neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, liberalisation, and austerity. So of course Sitaraman’s next book was The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic. This book would make the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2017.
What Sitaraman wrote about next is of a piece with these trends. Having covered foreign policy and economics, we would expect him to turn to the most big-ticket problem in domestic policy in the United States. Sure enough, Sitaraman explores the question of the role of government in today’s society, at a time when neoliberalism’s forced retreat of government from public life has failed the vast majority of the population spectacularly.
Sitaraman’s argument, along with coauthor Anne L. Alstott, is to expand The Public Option, a ‘government-provided good or service, that’s available to anyone, comes at a reasonable price, and … coexists with private market options’. Citing public libraries, swimming pools, basketball courts, and schools as examples, Sitaraman states that public options abound already, and are successful; as a test case for expansion, he recommends a public option for broadband internet, especially in the rural United States, where 24 percent of Americans lack access to high-speed Internet, and are subsequently locked out of vital portions of the economy, as well as services like telemedicine.
The Public Option was published in 2019, but Sitaraman was not done yet. In the very same year, his next book, an opus that offers an alternative for the entire political system in the US and in other parts of the world, was also published. Titled The Great Democracy: How to Fix Our Politics, Unrig the Economy, and Unite America, the book positions Sitaraman as a key contender for the position of chief ideologue of the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, as Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for the Presidential nomination reaches its defining point, Sitaraman, who has served as a senior policy advisor and a counsel to the Senator, continues to work with her, including participating in door-to-door campaigns.
The Great Democracy argues for a new road ahead for the Democratic Party
In Sitaraman’s telling, the defining feature of the politics of the US (and, to a lesser extent, the UK), has not been the battle between Republicans and Democrats, Tories and Liberals, Left and Right. Instead, the past three decades have been a victory for the neoliberalism ushered in by Tory PM Margaret Thatcher and Republican Ronald Reagan.
As Sitaraman points out, the Labour Party’s planned cuts to public spending in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis were ‘deeper and tougher’ than Thatcher herself; and Obamacare, the signature legislation of the Democratic President Obama’s years in office was based on a market-based model developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and adopted by Obama’s 2012 rival for the presidency, Mitt Romney.
However, this emphasis on neoliberalism has ravaged the people of the United States. Far from growing at a healthy pace, real incomes have declined for 90 percent of the population in the thirty years between 1979 and 2008. Inequality has dramatically increased in the same period, with racial divides increasing: the wage gap between black and white men increased (from 22 percent to 31 percent) and that between black and white women saw an even steeper rise (from 6 percent to 19 percent).
Finally, neoliberalism has seen a dangerous rise in monopolies, with two-thirds of all industries becoming more concentrated between 1997 and 2012 according to an Economist study. Monopolies are known to be disastrous for both consumers and the economy at large.
Given all this, according to Sitaraman, something has to give; and that something cannot be the incremental change and ‘politics of the possible’ of the Obama era: it has to be led by the candidates being termed the ‘real change’ candidates in the Democratic primary, namely Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
An argument against ‘Technocratic Ideology’ — and Incrementalism
Sitaraman sees new trends in governance and the world of international development as part of a ‘technoratic ideology’ that believes the problems in the world are ‘technical problems that require technical solutions’. For Sitaraman, this leads to an endless tweaking of what is, in essence, a broken system. The signature example he provides is the Dodd-Frank legislation after the last financial crisis, which only offered ‘highly technical changes’ rather than the dramatic restructuring that may have been called for instead.
An extension of this idea, for Sitaraman, is to play ‘hardball’ politics. Believing that neoliberalism has failed and is on its last legs, he sees this as a defining moment, where two options are emerging. The first is an authoritarian, nationalist oligarchy, the kind seen in Russia and Hungary among other nations, and represented by the Trumpian Republican Party, where politicians ‘exploit racial and cultural divides to motivate their base while pushing economic policies that enrich themselves and their friends’. The alternative, which Sitaraman calls ‘the great democracy’, calls for radically increasing equality and access to opportunities and resources through bold reforms.
The features of this great democracy include creating avenues for civic engagement, including a new national service program Sitaraman christens the ‘patriot corps’, where people get debt-free college education in lieu of serving the nation in a variety of civic capacities for four years. Next, it requires the breaking up of big economic monopolies, including the tech monopolies.
Additionally, he calls for undoing the influence of ‘lobbyists, interest groups, and wealthy donors’ in the political arena. Finally, he calls for the defense of democracy from nationalist oligarchies abroad — governments like China that are successfully combining political and economic power in ways that erode the ability of the US and other democracies to compete for both economic and political clout.
Seductive optimism, but questions abound
In an interview he gave to Vanderbilt University (where he teaches) in the winter of 2014, Sitaraman declared his intention to continue to juggle his academic and political roles. ‘I’m interested in bridging the world of ideas and the world of practice — to bring some of each to the other. If you work in the world of ideas, you can engage the hard questions, and that gives you the perspective to create better policy. When you work in government and politics, you gain a deep understanding of real-world constraints and where you can make progress. The hope is that you can do better in each arena because you understand the other’.
This is the optimistic view of the result of mixing ideas and practice, and reading it one is filled with both hope and admiration. There is a comfort in believing a mind as capacious and energetic as his is looking after our problems; there is a seduction in his optimism and his eloquent persuasiveness.
But many persuaders thrive on selling the upsides, to the extent that the downsides are not even mentioned. To read Sitaraman is to let down your guard and to buy into his vision. To evaluate his ideas, one has to put in both intellectual and emotional effort, because one wants to believe him, and believe in him, so badly.
The downside of mixing the world of ideas with the world of practice is that the world of practice necessarily involves selling ideas, and the selling of ideas inevitably distorts them. While one would love to see Sitaraman as a polymath who can offer solutions across a range of issues, taking a step back reveals him to be a consummate political animal, with a lawyerly ability to aggressively argue one side of the case. As such, it is better to read him as one would read Senator Elizabeth Warren herself, or other politicians who are trying to sell their plan.
The downside of attempting bold changes is that there are many structural features aligned against them. Take Dodd-Frank itself, for example. Far from moving towards a radical reform of the financial sector, significant parts of the act were repealed in 2018 with bipartisan support, in spite of the opposition of figures like Senator Warren. This is because Dodd-Frank threatened the holiest of holy principles under capitalism, profit maximisation.
In selling his vision, Sitaraman chooses not to address the forces arrayed against it. I can see why he feels the need to avoid mentioning adversaries. After all, the bold changes Sitaraman proposes suffer from the chicken-and-egg problem: in order for them to be possible, someone like Senator Warren needs to be President. For Senator Warren to become President, vast swathes of people have to believe this kind of change is possible.
But the fact is that many of Sitaraman’s policy proposals will require extensive government financing, at a time when the neoliberal order’s military excesses have created terrific burdens on the US exchequer. Many of these ideas are likely to be dead in the water, with no way of becoming law. And elites will fight back tooth and nail to prevent any candidate from taking power away from them, and they have many, many levers to do so.
In short, a message of hope alone is insufficient. Obama did not choose incrementalism because he preferred it; it seemed to be the only way forward.
Sitaraman recalls the New Deal as the last time this kind of change came to be, but only glancingly mentions how much the New Deal was the result of a pitched crisis. Much as I want to believe in bold change, my sense is that it will not come to be without a world of pain. Challenging as the past three decades have been for the vast majority of Americans, things will have to get much harder for the loosening of elite control and the possibility of something truly revolutionary.
And even those revolutionary gains are likely to not address deeper inequities, just as the New Deal itself failed African Americans until they took to organising and forcing Roosevelt’s hand on legislations like the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). This is why Sitaraman’s dismissal of identity politics — as a mere return to tribalism in search of a sense of community denied by the individualist, neoliberal economy — is disheartening. It is not a longing for community that is drawing people together. It is anger, disappointment, and suffering, and the realisation that if you won’t protect your interests, no one will.
At the end of the day, bold change cannot be left in the hands of even the latest messiahs — represented by Warren and Sanders — or their acolytes. Sitaraman is astute in identifying that this may be a crucial time, when the land is disordered and discontented enough for real change to be possible, but the people of the country will need vigilance, cussedness, and a street-fighting quality to achieve their aims.
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