Income inequality in the United States is on the rise. The rich are
getting better at passing their advantages on to their kids. Lifestyle and
values gaps are widening between the educated and uneducated. The big
issue [as the new Democrat-controlled Congress begins its 2007 legislative
agenda] is: Will Americans demand new policies to reverse these trends to
redistribute wealth, to provide greater economic security? Is the country
about to see a mass populist movement?
Nobody was smarter on this subject than Seymour Martin
Lipset, the eminent sociologist who died at 84 on New Year's Eve. Lipset
had been a socialist in the hothouse atmosphere of City College during the
1940s, and though he later became a moderate Democrat, he continued to
wonder, with some regret, why America never had a serious socialist
movement, why America never adopted a European-style welfare state.
Lipset was aware of the structural and demographic answers to such
questions. For example, racially diverse nations tend to have lower levels
of social support than homogeneous ones. People don't feel as bound
together when they are divided on ethnic lines and are less likely to
embrace mutual support programs. You can have diversity or a big welfare
state. It's hard to have both.
But as he studied these matters, Lipset moved away from structural or
demographic explanations (too many counterexamples). He drifted, as
Sombart had before him, to values.
America never had a feudal past, so nobody has a sense of social
place or class-consciousness, Lipset observed. Meanwhile, Americans
have inherited from their Puritan forebears a sense that they have a
spiritual obligation to rise and succeed.
Achievement vs Equality in American History
Two great themes run through American history, Lipset wrote in his 1963
book The First New Nation: achievement and equality. These
are often in tension, because when you leave unequally endowed people
free to achieve, you get unequal results.
Though Lipset never quite put it this way, the clear message from his
writings is that when achievement and equality clash in America,
achievement wins. Or to be more precise, the achievement ethos
reshapes the definition of equality. When Americans use the word
"equality," they really mean "fair opportunity." When Americans use the
word "freedom," they really mean "opportunity."
Lipset was relentlessly empirical, and rested his conclusions on data as
well as history and philosophy. He found that Americans have for centuries
embraced individualistic, meritocratic, antistatist values, even at times
when income inequality was greater than it is today.
Large majorities of Americans have always believed that individuals
are responsible for their own success, Lipset reported, while people
in other countries are much more likely to point to forces beyond
individual control. Sixty-five percent of Americans believe hard work
is the key to success; only 12 percent think luck plays a major role.
Individual Responsibility Valued Over Responsibility of the State
In his American Exceptionalism (1996), Lipset pointed out that
78 percent of Americans endorse the view that "the strength of the
United States today is mostly based on the success of American business."
Fewer than a third of all Americans believe the state has a responsibility
to reduce income disparities, compared with 82 percent of Italians. Over
70 percent of Americans believe "individuals should take more
responsibility for providing for themselves" whereas most Japanese believe
"the state should take more responsibility to ensure everyone is provided
America, he concluded, is an outlier, an exceptional
nation. And though his patriotism pervaded his writing, he emphasized that
American exceptionalism is "a double-edged sword."
Political movements that run afoul of these individualistic,
achievement-oriented values rarely prosper. The Democratic Party is
now divided between moderates who emphasize individual responsibility
and education to ameliorate inequality and progressive populists, who
advocate an activist state that will protect people from forces beyond
their control. Given the deep forces in American history, the centrists
will almost certainly win out.
Indeed, the most amazing thing about the past week [the first week of
the new Democrat-controlled Congress following the 2006 elections] is how
modest the Democratic agenda has been. Democrats have been out of power in
Congress for 12 years. They finally get a chance to legislate and they
push through a series of small proposals that are little pebbles compared
to the vast economic problems they described during the campaign.
They grasp the realities Marty Lipset described. They understand that
in the face of inequality, Americans have usually opted for policies
that offer more opportunity, not those emphasizing security or
redistribution. American domestic policy is drifting leftward, but
there are sharp limits on how far it will go.