A Scholar of Democracy Gets a 2020 Lab for His Ideas

WASHINGTON — American democracy has been thoroughly eulogized in recent years, written of with grief and nostalgia in numerous best-selling books. Law professor Ganesh Sitaraman has also taken up the subject, but his has a more aspirational title: “The Great Democracy.”

“I’m particularly excited to talk about this book because I’ve been thinking about it for 20 years,” Mr. Sitaraman said at an event celebrating the book in Washington last month. “Which I know seems crazy because I don’t look that old.”

Mr. Sitaraman is, in fact, not that old. He is 37, which is old enough to run for president. Like his close friend and Harvard classmate Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., is doing.

“The Great Democracy” makes the case for expansive democratic reform — it’s a time for transformation, Mr. Sitaraman writes, not a return to some old normal. And the ideas in the book are getting decent airtime on the 2020 campaign trail. Mr. Buttigieg is wrestling with the notion of democratic reform through his own campaign; and Mr. Sitaraman now serves as a senior adviser to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a mentor since Harvard Law School.

“It’s pretty unusual for political scientists to have impact in the real world,” said Steven Levitsky, who would know: He is one, and he wrote “How Democracies Die.”

But Mr. Sitaraman, technically a legal scholar and not a political scientist, is in a unique position, as his friends and colleagues note — though no one will say whether having the personal cellphone numbers of two rival candidates, one a peer (Mr. Sitaraman was Mr. Buttigieg’s groomsman) and one a mentor (Ms. Warren was his boss), is as awkward as it seems, especially as they wrestle over the country’s future direction.

The Democratic Party’s 2020 tug of war between the merits of centrism and progressivism is one that Mr. Sitaraman and Mr. Buttigieg have been preparing for since their days in college. And their early conversations offer a glimpse of how the young Mr. Buttigieg answered the ideological questions now confronting his presidential campaign.

Kenneth Townsend, 38, a longtime friend of Mr. Sitaraman, recalled the summer of 2004 when Mr. Sitaraman invited him to join the Democratic Renaissance Project, a reading group he and Mr. Buttigieg were starting, with a focus on reviving American progressivism.

Over the next decade, their group of friends went on to convene in graduate school dorms, pubs and conference centers to discuss what they saw as a crisis on the American left. The group’s ambitions were evident early on: “We were a group of 22-year-olds trying to change the world,” Mr. Townsend said.

Mr. Sitaraman had been excited about the prospect of a member of their cohort running for office to champion some of the progressive ideals they discussed over the years. “He was interested in brainstorming what a trajectory might look like of how I could go back to Mississippi and run for office,” Mr. Townsend said.

But watching the Bush era unfold, Mr. Townsend was wary of the idea. “Someone who was not really prepared to be president had found himself the president,” he said. “It seemed pretentious to say that at 21 or 22 years old, you could put yourself forward as someone who is going to run for office. There was a sense you had to earn your way.”

Of course, a decade-plus later, it’s Mr. Buttigieg who has put himself forward. And with his campaign, the conversations that the Democratic Renaissance Project nurtured have found fertile ground on the 2020 trail: Do the country’s political problems demand moderate or radical change? Should partisan polarization be met with centrist compromises from the left?

Before these questions confronted the electorate, they weighed on members of the Democratic Renaissance Project in late-night conversations. “We were skeptical about what government was able to accomplish when co-opted by free market liberalism,” said Previn Warren, a member of the group who is also a close friend of Mr. Buttigieg and serves as a senior legal counsel to the campaign. Questions of inexperience troubled some members of the group; so did the notion of how politicking might dilute a person’s progressive ideals.

“We wanted to be and stay idealists,” said Shadi Hamid, a group member who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But politics has its own logic.”

The group met monthly at first and later annually. Mr. Buttigieg once Skyped in from Afghanistan, where he was deployed. Their assigned readings focused on policy and politics, including some of the subjects featured in Mr. Sitaraman’s new book.

Many of the reforms described in “The Great Democracy” have been features of Ms. Warren’s campaign — ending the filibuster, breaking up monopolies. Others have been taken up by Mr. Buttigieg, like restructuring the Supreme Court and implementing a national service program.

But since October, voters and pundits have noted Mr. Buttigieg’s move toward the centrist lane of the 2020 race. And Mr. Sitaraman’s call for “hardball” progressive politics points to the gulf between Mr. Buttigieg’s approach and the more progressive wing of the party.

“Ganesh is a structural thinker in the same way Warren is,” said Morgan Ricks, a law professor at Vanderbilt whose “near-daily conversations” with the author are credited as a source of inspiration for Mr. Sitaraman’s book. “Warren uses that phrase all the time,” he said, of “structural change,” adding that “tinkering around with the current order isn’t going to cut it.”

Mr. Sitaraman served as policy director for Senator Warren’s 2012 run for the Senate and briefly as senior counsel in her Senate office. Now, as an informal adviser, he has played a key role in her presidential run.

At the January book event, two audience members giggled about the acknowledgments section in Mr. Sitaraman’s book. “He credited both Pete and Liz Warren,” a young woman whispered to her friend. “I mean, I’m sure it’s genuine. But it’s still funny.” Mr. Buttigieg gets the first mention, before any credit is given to Mr. Sitaraman’s preferred candidate and Harvard Law School mentor.

The members of the Democratic Renaissance Project came of age in the shadow of Sept. 11. In college, they watched the United States invade Iraq. But for some, it was John Kerry’s loss in 2004 that solidified their sense of political crisis.

“The election results forced us to take a step back, because instead of plotting how we were going to find interesting roles in the administration we had to do some soul-searching,” Mr. Townsend said. “That’s where Ganesh’s vision for the D.R.P. came in, and it’s been a blueprint for his own life.”

The 2020 campaign, a petri dish of progressive ideas, has made their decade of conversations on Democratic renaissance feel less theoretical — for Mr. Sitaraman and Mr. Buttigieg in particular.

“Ganesh, Peter and I were steeped in thinkers focused on harnessing public institutions to solve big problems,” said Mr. Warren. “We’re finally seeing the fruits of that.”

At last month’s book event, Mr. Sitaraman faced a room of readers anxious to connect his theories to their own political reality. Several asked about American democracy’s survival prospects. Mr. Sitaraman emphasized the need for both ideas and leaders who know how to execute them.

“We’re in Washington D.C.,” he said. “That world is different and has its own logic to it and you have to have people who know how to maneuver that.”