There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of the author Ganesh Sitaraman. He might very well become a household name before long. One observer has stated that Sitaraman seems positioned to become the “chief ideologue of the Democratic Party.” He is the son of immigrant parents from India. He was an Eagle Scout. He made his way to Harvard, where he became good friends with Pete Buttigieg. Sitaraman, Buttigieg and a few other friends put together a reading group, dubbed the “American Renaissance Project.” Members had decided it was time to revive American progressivism. Also while at Harvard, Sitaraman was a student in the law class taught by Elizabeth Warren. She became his mentor and is now his political colleague. Sitaraman has stayed close to both.
He is an inveterate and enthusiastic scholar-activist. A professor at Vanderbilt, Sitaraman is also a participant on the board of The Great Democracy Initiative. Housed at the Roosevelt Institute, this effort focuses on generating and disseminating policies that can nurture a more egalitarian society. His voice conveys an urgent message worthy of the attention.
“The Great Democracy” came out just last year. Given the seismic events that have overtaken the country since, Sitaraman’s volume contains no mention of the coronavirus. There’s no reference to the murder of George Floyd, the energized Black Lives Matter movement or the deepening widespread economic crisis sparked by the proliferation and politicization of the pandemic. Nonetheless, it is a very relevant work.
In a radio interview in April, Sitaraman said that the coronavirus has amplified the present transformative moment. Contemporary history seems to be on speed drive. Various expressions of outrage, uncertainty and instability permeating society have the potential to fling open the door to all manner of progressive democratic possibilities. Of course, other, less desirable outcomes loom as well. Sitaraman’s measured insights are most helpful in discerning the churning amalgam of prospective scenarios.
The disruptive era of neoliberalism has run its course. It was ushered in on the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Along with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, the two were representative of a vociferous and ruthless argument advocating drastically reduced government intervention and regulation at all levels of business and society. Emphasis was on the responsibility of individuals to take initiative to look after private situations and personal needs. Systemic and institutional checks on the power of corporations were loosened, precipitating obscene concentrations of wealth and power, rampant inequities and gross diminutions of average workers’ rights. It was a profoundly conservative and reactionary ideology, exacerbating already existing instances of injustice. It stoked resentment. It resulted in marginalization for many citizens. Sitaraman says, “The goal of neoliberalism was largely economic: ensure free enterprise and prevent price regulation. ...
“The central question of our time is what comes next. The transition between eras is never sharp, and the collapse of the old regime often contains within it the seeds of the new. Neoliberalism has left us with a social crisis, a breakdown of community values and solidarity. And it has left us with a political and economic crisis in which both arenas are rigged to work for the wealthy and well connected rather than the general public.” His thesis provides a crisp analysis of this morass and fresh proposals for a needed resurgence of progressive politics that could revitalize the nation.
Trump and his abysmal administration epitomize what Sitaraman calls “nationalist oligarchy.” This egregious political strain has been performed effectively by Trump and company. With audacity, mendacity and arrogance, they ply their frenetic and febrile version of ersatz patriotism to their receptive “base.” The base finds Trump appealing and entertaining. They find his moronic mélange of lies and twisted facts palatable. To others, he plays to their fear and anxiety, or their bigotry or sexism. This deluded base constitutes a significant part of the country’s citizenry — a frightening reality that should be cause for greater concern than Trump himself. Eventually, hopefully, he will soon be gone from the Oval Office. His base will still be here, confused, choleric and many of them well-armed. Surely something to ponder.
In the labyrinth of a nationalist oligarchy, the rich enhance their opulent financial advantages without much concern for the masses. With the power of money often comes corrupt political power benefitting a select few. In addition to Trumpism, variants of nationalist oligarchy can be seen around the world, in places like Russia, Brazil, China, Belarus and Hungary. Such trends are abetted by technological innovations, which increase the threat of unwanted surveillance. “This mass collection of personal data threatens individual privacy from corporate and government intrusion, increases the risks of hacks and identity theft, and enables companies and governments to engage in population control, behavior modification, and psychological experimentation,” Sitaraman reports.
Writing last year in The Guardian, Sitaraman asserted that an already proven strategy can guide a campaign to make authentic democracy manifest in our land. “Even though it’s been gathering dust for decades, this Gilded Age and Progressive Era playbook is the essential starting point for reform today. We must reinvigorate antitrust laws and create a more competitive economy. This means breaking up big tech, big pharma, big banks — and restructuring and empowering antitrust agencies so they are empowered to act with courage and vigor.”
Sitaraman has no illusions about the onerous task posed by a democratic crusade to restructure politics and economy to make them responsive to the needs of all, not the privileged minority. Economic democracy goes hand-in-hand with political democracy. Vast disparities in the distribution of wealth are toxic to democratic aspirations. Finding the wellsprings of vibrant human solidarity will require a consistent and informed effort. That effort must confront and transcend the fissures that have fostered class divisions and racial antagonisms. He writes, “Today, the greatest threat to the persistence of democracy is nationalist oligarchy, both at home and abroad. The stakes of this challenge are about the struggle for global power and influence, but also the very character of our country. Crony capitalism and authoritarianism already threaten to undermine democracy from within. Nationalist oligarchies abroad seek the power to redefine world affairs and the leverage to dictate domestic ones.”
An honest openness to racial, gender and class issues, a renewal of organized labor’s prowess and an engaged creative imagination will be essential to the critical work of salvaging the promise of genuine democracy for our collective future. Sitaraman’s offering is a good start.
Read more in the Aug. 26 - Sept. 1, 2020 issue.