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Entrenchment: Wealth, Power, and the Constitution of Democratic Societies, Paul Starr

Reviewed by James A. Morone

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When crude sex talk rocked Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, one of my New Hampshire neighbors painted a big sign that pleaded, “REMEMBER THE SUPREME COURT: Vote Trump.” Paul Starr would see in that sign a cry for political entrenchment, and in this splendid book, he explores entrenchment’s allure, its perils, and its unexpected limits.

There are two kinds of politics, explains Starr. Ordinary politics involves push and pull around a fixed set of rules. Entrenchment defines the rules. There is no greater temptation in public life, he writes, “than the opportunity to get one’s own way, decisively and for good” (p. xi). Entrenched rules bias normal politics, define societies, and channel future choices. But entrenchment politics are also intricate and perilous. Winners sometimes miscalculate, construct “institutional traps,” or find their own rules boomeranging back to their disadvantage.

The central theme of the book—and Starr’s real passion—lies in the rise and fall (and rise again) of entrenched economic inequality. As he puts it at the start, “democracy is untenable when private wealth and power are overwhelmingly concentrated in a few hands” (p. xiv). The book sketches out a kind of dialectic between oligarchs bending Western regimes to buttress their power and democrats struggling to entrench a more egalitarian order.

Entrenchment presents finely wrought historical chapters that illustrate and complicate the story. European aristocrats entrenched themselves by requiring ancestral lands to pass to a single heir (through entail and primogeniture). Popular government eventually smashed the old rules using all kinds of hammers—from revolution (in the United States and France) to the imperatives of mass military mobilization (Germany). But the liberal constitutions faced their own contradictions—such as racial slavery or rising wealth.

The American Constitution entrenched republican government, slavery, and—for a time—the dominion of plantation oligarchs (12 of the first 16 presidents owned slaves). However, a long series of miscalculations brought down the slaver’s regime. Take just one: their preferred party, the Democrats, protected slavery by professing states’ rights. Then, Democrats grabbed Texas, attacked Mexico, seized onto Manifest Destiny, and thrust an irresistible question before the nation that states’ rights could not answer: would the new lands be slave or free? The question led to the Civil War and the destruction of slavery—but not, Starr, reminds us, of white supremacy. The war’s aftermath featured yet another entrenchment gone awry. Congress wrote the Fourteenth Amendment to grant former slaves the equal protection of the laws; the courts stripped those rights from black Americans and proffered them to corporations.

After tracing the rise and partial fall of social welfare entrenchment in the twentieth century, Starr confronts the parlous present and what he calls “oligarchy as populism.” This is no sudden shock to republican norms and rules. Rather, as Starr shows, the recrudescence of gilded age inequality over the past 40 years leads wealth to entrench its power in alliance with right-wing populists clinging to their declining status.

The half-missing piece is race. Starr is so deft at sketching this theme, I wish he had made more of it. After all, oligarchy as populism entrenched itself in the South for almost a century, and, starting in the 1970s, right-wing counterrevolutionaries found traction with white voters by racializing the welfare state in both the United States and Europe. The new populism has deep roots in whiteness as well as inequality. Entrenchment powerfully sketches the consequences.

Entrenchment stands in the grand narrative tradition of Barrington Moore, Ira Katznelson, and, well, Paul Starr. It takes a simple idea, reveals its complexities, explores it across history, and ends with a stark warning for our own time.

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