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Joseph Fishkin and William E. Forbath

Mar 31, 2022

The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution

Reconstructing the Economic Foundations of American Democracy

Harvard University Press 2022

Oligarchy is a threat to the American republic. When too much economic and political power is concentrated in too few hands, we risk losing the “republican form of government” the Constitution requires. Today, courts enforce the constitution as if it had almost nothing to say about this threat. The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution: Reconstructing the Economic Foundations of American Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2022) is a bold call to reclaim an American tradition that argues the constitution imposes a duty on government to fight oligarchy and ensure broadly shared wealth. In this revolutionary retelling of constitutional history, Dr. Joseph Fishkin and Dr. William Forbath show that a commitment to prevent oligarchy once stood at the center of a robust tradition in American political and constitutional thought.

Dr. Fishkin and Dr. Forbath argue that “The constitutional order does rest and depend on a political-economic order. That political-economic order does not maintain itself. It requires action (as well as forbearance from action) from each part of the government. The content of what is required changes radically over time in a dynamic way in response to changes in the economy and in politics. But we believe the basic principles of the democracy-of-opportunity tradition remain affirmative constitutional obligations of government today: to prevent an oligarchy from emerging and amassing too much power; to preserve a broad and open middle class as a counterweight against oligarchy and a bulwark of democratic life; and to include everyone, not just those privileged by race or sex, in a democracy of op- portunity that is broad enough to unite us all.”

Dr. Fishkin and Dr. Forbath demonstrate that reformers, legislators, and even judges working in this “democracy-of-opportunity” tradition understood that the Constitution imposes a duty on legislatures to thwart oligarchy and promote a broad distribution of wealth and political power. These ideas led Jacksonians to fight special economic privileges for the few, Populists to try to break up monopoly power, and Progressives to fight for the constitutional right to form a union. During Reconstruction, Radical Republicans argued in this tradition that racial equality required breaking up the oligarchy of the Slave Power and distributing wealth and opportunity to former slaves and their descendants. President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers built their politics around this tradition, winning the fight against the “economic royalists” and “industrial despots.”

The book argues that our current understanding of what counts as a constitutional argument is anachronistic and limiting. In fact, the authors argue that “advocates of the democracy-of-opportunity tradition and their opponents throughout the long period from the founding through the New Deal disagreed about many things, but they agreed that part of arguing about the Constitution is making claims about what it requires of our political economy. “

This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose doctoral work focused on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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Miranda Melcher

Miranda Melcher (Ph.D., Defense Studies, Kings College, London) studies post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with deep analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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