The American Interest
Essays & Longer Thoughts
Published on April 22, 2014
Inequality Today The Left-Liberal Narrative

Liberals see most of our ills resulting from our straying from the righteous path set forth for us by leaders like FDR and LBJ. Their impassioned narrative has deep roots in American society.

The debate over inequality keeps heating up. Just as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century drew enraptured hosannas from liberal inequality hawks like Paul Krugman, conservatives fired back by pointing to a rash of studies that many scholars believe demonstrates a causal relationship between the spread of single parent families and economic inequality, with children of two-parent households enjoying higher income as kids and then going on to do better as adults.

It’s easy to focus on the differences between the liberal and conservative inequality narratives, but the similarities between them are in some ways more revealing. If there is one overarching trend in American life today, it is that Americans are less optimistic than we have usually been. Most people seem to agree today that American society is in trouble. Wave after wave of rapid change—economic, social, cultural, demographic—sweeps across the country, and everywhere we look, Americans can see even the most basic and important elements of our national life under threat.

But if we are (mostly) united in pessimism, we are divided, even polarized in the way we identify our troubles and prescribe cures, and the national debate over inequality is shaped by a deeper struggle over why, exactly, this country is headed downhill and about what we should do about it. Both on the left and the right, attitudes toward the inequality debate often reflect peoples’ views over the political consequences of the debate as much as their intellectual convictions over the causes and cures of economic inequality. For Democrats, growing economic inequality is an issue that unites the disparate elements of the blue coalition behind a common narrative and summons the faithful to a defense of the blue social model. For Republicans, the issue is more of a hot potato, and the GOP would probably rather see the whole issue drop off the national agenda.

For most liberals, inequality is both a leading symptom of our national decline and an important talking point for the defense of what’s left of the blue social model. For blue model liberals, the last generation is best understood as a Grim Slide. In the days of FDR and LBJ, Americans knew the right way to live and to govern themselves. A strong federal government used Keynesian economics and enlightened, progressive views on social policy to reshape American life. The inevitable and eternal greed of corporations and the rich was curbed; Americans learned the right lessons of the wicked 1920s in which inequality ran riot and plutocrats flourished, only to see the false prosperity of those years vanish in the Depression. As long as those important lessons were remembered, a progressive tax code, pro-union legislation, income redistribution and tight regulation of financial corporations made America a good and decent country. The middle class flourished, prosperity was shared, recessions were mild, and life was good.

The liberal narrative then takes a gloomier turn. As the memory of the Depression faded, corporations and the rich got greedy, and ordinary Americans got careless and lazy. A well funded right wing attack machine undermined public confidence in the great reforms that made America a decent place to live—and, alas, they were aided by conscious and unconscious racists who resented the way that reform and redistribution opened doors of opportunity to African Americans and others previously excluded. Clever corporations hired lawyers and I-bankers to find loopholes in existing laws, even as well paid lobbyists stuffed envelopes full of campaign contributions into lawmakers’ pockets to gradually chip away at the laws that helped the middle class and stabilized the American economy.

It got worse and worse. Motivated by unrestrained greed, corporations shipped millions of well paying middle class American jobs overseas, exploiting the desperate poverty around the world to erode middle class protections and living standards here in the US. As financial markets became less regulated, the rich and the well connected reaped huge gains, while ordinary Americans were fleeced by unscrupulous ‘banksters’. CEOs made huge salaries for firing workers, closing plants, and putting corporate assets into the hands of ruthless speculators. Our financial markets became casinos; our factories fell into ruin. As the protections of the New Deal and Great Society were dismantled, the evils of the 1920s and even the 1890s returned.

Now, the liberal narrative has it, America is at a turning point. It is 1929 again: heedless plutocrats party as the financial casino edges toward catastrophic collapse. Worse, the few remaining restraints on the power of big money are fading away; Republican apparatchiks on the Supreme Court are chipping away at the last, weak campaign finance restrictions. Right wing demagogues exploit public concern over healthy and positive social change (the acceptance of homosexuality, women having the freedom to start families without male breadwinners, immigration, abortion on demand, a changing racial demographic) to deflect public attention from the economic roots of our problems.

This is a powerful narrative that ties a number of important and disturbing trends together and combines a strong story line with a clear demarcation of good and evil. It highlights some very real and genuinely disturbing developments and appears at least to offer an easily comprehensible program of political action. For many Democratic activists, this narrative represents their deep convictions, and using this narrative to move the national political debate is something they passionately support. For many smart Democratic political operatives, promoting this general story line is the best way to build and solidify a Democratic majority. There is something in it for some of the party’s major constituencies (labor, feminists, African Americans, Hispanics and government workers, for example), and as long as the proposed measures to address these issues are carefully crafted (or vaguely described) they are unlikely to scare off the wealthy donors from Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley who provide much needed funding for political campaigns.

This narrative has deep roots in American history and culture. Besides the specific points of critique and analysis that draw on 19th and 20th century political struggles that still evoke strong public memories and loyalties, the liberal inequality narrative looks further back to the oldest and most important American literary genre: the Jeremiad. Going back to colonial times, Americans have been deeply influenced by the idea that the special blessings and enormous prosperity we enjoy are the gifts of Almighty God, but the gifts are not free and unconditional. Like the ancient Hebrews, we are in a covenantal relationship with a jealous God. If we do the right thing, and behave in the appropriate ways, the blessings will flow. But if we turn away from the one true God and the demands of true morality, the God who once blessed us will smite and afflict us until we return to the right path.

The prophet Jeremiah, who warned the ancient Hebrews that their sins were bringing on the Babylonian conquest and the first exile of the Jewish people from the Promised Land, was the great model for the discourse that bears his name. America’s first public intellectuals, the preachers of Puritan New England, made the Jeremiad a mainstay of their written and spoken work, reflecting their deep conviction that the history of New England reflected God’s dealing with this newly called and chosen people. To this day, the Jeremiad remains the most important genre of intellectual discourse in the United States. Both secular and religious Americans tend to believe that our great prosperity and freedom are gifts that we must continue to earn, and intellectuals and politicians ground calls for reform and change in this deeply rooted vision of a covenanted nation.

For both left and right wing Americans, history is a moral process. Bad things and good things don’t happen to us at random; if things are going badly, this is not a sign that reality is sometimes disappointing. We don’t, as a people, lie down in the face of failure and frustration and practice the arts of resignation and anger management. We deeply believe that if we are behaving correctly, good things will happen to us, and when bad things happen, we look for what we’ve done wrong.

For more than 200 years, American politicians have relied on the power of Jeremiads to energize political coalitions, and the genre has lost none of its power to move Americans of all parties and political persuasions. FDR evoked this tradition in his famous 1936 speech in Madison Square Garden:

Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair!

The golden calf, of course, is a reference to the idol that the ancient Hebrews made for themselves while Moses was speaking with God at Mount Sinai; it is the archetypal act of covenant-breaking, and FDR is making a powerful argument here that the moral failures of his Republican predecessors were the direct cause of the suffering of the Depression. With famous antecedents like this, it is not particularly surprising that the economic upheavals and turmoil of the last generation have launched more Jeremiads than Helen of Troy launched ships; America’s public intellectuals (including the present author) are drawn irresistibly to this ever-popular genre.

Conservatives engage with the liberal inequality Jeremiad in two major ways. Some attack the premise and argue that inequality today isn’t as bad as the breast-beating, garment-rending prophets of doom would have it. Libertarians and laissez-faire economic conservatives are drawn to this debunking approach. Social conservatives offer a competing Jeremiad; yes, they say, it is true that contemporary America is going to Hell in a hand basket, but the liberals have picked the wrong sins. Both approaches raise some interesting and non-insignificant points and I’ll be looking at the attempts to construct a conservative counter-narrative on the question of inequality in a subsequent post and then try to see what the state of the inequality debate actually tells us about the state of the nation and about what we could actually do that might make things go better.

  • Jim__L

    If we’re being punished for our apostasies from the faith of FDR and LBJ, how does the Left explain all of the blessings America enjoyed before we had reached their exalted state of “progress”?

    To be a Leftist, you have to ignore a lot of history.

    • Corlyss

      Yeah. One of my favorite areas the left omits is who actually was the party of slavery and Jim Crow. It has convinced entire generations of blacks that Republicans were and are still prosecuting some kind of race war against them. That used to be called a Blood Libel in other contexts but Republicans shrug it off as politics as usual. It’s not.

      • Meekrob

        Thank you for perfectly illustrating Jim’s point.

  • Marty Keller

    If we look at the long wave of human evolution, we might discern that the epoch we are in could be called “the individuation project,” where individual dignity replaces tribal identity. The formal start of this project was the Italian Renaissance. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution represent the first formal polity dedicated to supporting the individuation project in a world still dominated by tribal consciousness.

    That project is far from complete, nor is its success predetermined, in spite of the wealth that was created when the individual was liberated from tribal conformity demands. The blue social model has become the home of the tribal counter-reformation, with its attacks on free markets and non-conforming individualism.

    When conservatives finally get this, when we boldly champion the individuation project against the tribal retrenchment, perhaps then we can rally the best of the American spirit and reinvent ourselves yet again as “the last best hope of mankind.”

    • qet

      It is not this simple. People are realizing that in their process of realizing individual freedom of choice, thought and motion, they do not wish to entirely abandon communal/group identities. It is not necessary for us to view the individual and the group as logical contraries. The words “tribe” and “tribal” come across as pejorative. We are supposed to have evolved away from that. All people long to be part of something greater than themselves but individuation shrinks them down instead of lifting them up. The kind of cynical opportunistic identity-group politics that prevails in Blue America should not be confused with the positive and indeed necessary community/group/nation/family etc. identifications of all individuals.

      • Marty Keller

        Well, yes, but the key factor is freedom and choice. Tribal culture and consciousness do not allow for individual choice–and today’s left wing orthodoxies precisely seek to crush the choice to dissent from the tribal belief system. Free individuals choose how to participate in the general polity, creating the controlled chaos that so freaks out the tribal mind. But the founders wisely realized that a nation of free individuals constantly wrestling with societal problems from the perspective of individual rather than collective sovereignty was an advance from the norm. Today’s liberals prefer to return to collective tyranny and enforce norms; they seek to manipulate the “long[ing] to be part of something greater” to dictate what that something greater must be. Further, the community/group/nation/family identity of which you write arises individually; once the individual matures to his/her fullest potential this identity perforce expands far beyond its original object. Thus a system promoting individual freedom also promotes the possibility of a much more powerful group identity–powerful because it lends the maturity of the individual to the creation of a newer society via choice rather than coercion. I prefer Lincoln to Lenin.

  • Anthony

    I’ll say one thing for Professor Mead. In spite of his right wing views, he certainly understands the basic contours of how someone like me thinks.

    I would only add that liberals like me are angry that countries like Germany, which have combined an egalitarian social model with a strong work ethic, have done much better than America over the last ten years. At the very least this disproves the American libertarian view ( which we are force fed by the limitless resources of GOP friendly billionaires) that extreme inequality and the absence of a social safety net are the only way to create prosperity.

    • stanbrown

      The absence of a social safety net?! Governments in America spend over 21,000 for every person living below the poverty line. Obama says the number is climbing to 25 grand in a few years. This is over and above the income these people earn — reported, unreported, and illegal. Plus charity from all manner of churches and private entities.

      • stanbrown

        There are more Democrat friendly billionaires than GOP. The super rich give to Democrats.

        • Xenophon

          lol. I’m going to want to see some credible evidence of that

          • stanbrown

            Seriously?! Get a clue. 60% of the richest 20 Americans are Dems. 75% of the members of the richest families. A majority of those making over 200k voted for Obama. Almost every one of the 25 richest (counties, zip codes, congressional districts) went to Obama. Republicans get an overwhelming percentage of middle class voters and the white working class voters. Dems get the very poor, the very rich, and minorities.

          • Xenophon

            As it stands, everything that you have stated above is an assertion. Without evidence, they remain assertions.

          • illegalsout

            One would have to WANT to not know in order to have missed the reams of evidence backing up stanbrown’s “assertions”. No one can be THAT lazy.

          • Xenophon

            Assume for a moment that my view of politics differs from yours. My filter for information would would highlight different things than yours. What you say to be “reams of evidence” would not carry the same weight to me unless it is backed up by actual facts. Your claim that I am willfully ignorant doesn’t hunt unless you can actually show that my viewpoint is wrong

          • Tom Servo

            Come on – it took me less than 30 seconds of searching on my own to find the stats he was referencing. Just because you have a “filter” shouldn’t mean that everyone else has to do extra work to make up for your ignorance and basic laziness.

            Here’s what I found in 30 seconds (put this in a search engine and you can find the source, too, lazy man)

            “Ultra-Wealthy:

            While Democrats lose support as income increases, there seems to be a tipping point where the ultra-wealthy begin leaning Democratic. The most famous example would be the entertainment industry, where star-studded events have become a significant part of Democratic culture.

            But this phenomenon is not limited to Hollywood. A review of the 20 richest Americans, as listed by Forbes Magazine, found that 60 percent affiliate with the Democratic Party, including the top three individuals: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison. Among the riches families, the Democratic advantage rises even higher, to 75 percent.”

          • Meekrob

            That’s going to leave a mark.

    • aez

      Anthony–what would you say is missing from the leviathanesque social safety net we already have, that inspires you to pretend it doesn’t exist? It entraps many, though it also helps some (and a great many government jobs depend on it, which is another trap)…do you object to parts of it? Or why are you willing to appear as though you believe it doesn’t exist?

    • Jim__L

      If you believe that Professor Mead is far to the right of you, that’s probably a realistic assessment. But that doesn’t at all imply that he is “right wing”.

      Anyway, if you’d like to read some of VM’s old articles on the Blue Model, you’ll see that he is more interested in reforming or evolving Blue than ending it. The current iteration of Blue has outlived its ability to solve this country’s problems, and has itself become a serious problem to be overcome.

    • Tom

      Germany’s heading for a demographic crash pretty soon, and basically got its economic growth due to being the biggest economy in the Eurozone.

  • qet

    I can’t speak for all conservative-tilting persons, but for me as for many the problems of Blue America do not subsist in the mere changes themselves, the mere facts that more women raise children without the active presence of fathers, and that more immigrants flood into America in violation of our laws (even if you dislike the laws, you can hardly expect Cliven Bundy to observe them while exempting millions of others from observing them), but in the additional costs we are expected to bear to sustain these new facts. Blue America not only encourages but insists upon the facilitation of these changes via increased welfare payments. A social safety net is a good thing and most conservatives have long since accepted that, but Blue America has long since gone well beyond any reasonable conception of a safety net. The Blue Desiderata generate a marvelous feedback, where all of the new lifestyles championed by the Blue vanguard and made possible only by being paid for by the Blue Economic Model produce negative externalities (think of the data relating to kids from single parent homes, e.g.), additional costs that Blues then argue must also be funded by the State, and so on to infinity.
    I have a feeling that most Red State conservatives would not care much about single mothers or even massive illegal immigration if they were not asked to pay for all of that progress.

  • Anthony

    “LIberals see most of our ills resulting from our straying from the righteous path set forth for us by leaders like FDR and LBJ….” Upon reflection WRM…

  • Fred

    Stagflation, the highest crime rates in the twentieth century, quantum decline in standardized test scores, quantum increases in divorce, unwanted pregnancy, and STDs, international power so decayed that a bunch of stone age savages could hold Americans hostage in their own embassy for 444 days, highest rates of drug abuse and addiction in the twentieth century, multi-generational dependence on government dole, gee who wouldn’t want to go back to the 1960s and 1970s? Other than Soviet communism I know of no other political program that failed as spectacularly as American liberalism had by 1980. The fact that anyone old enough to remember 1979-80 or literate enough to read about it can still be a liberal is a testament to the human capacity for ideological blindness.

  • JC

    The problem of harkening back to a Jeremiad to support the Liberal cause is it ignores the equal doom prophesied by falling morals, lack of responsibility etc.You can’t berate so called conservative greed without an equal fulmination of the poor having babies without two parents living in wedlock and earning their daily bread as best they may. Any reasonable prophet would insist on at least those things to go with a hand up from the tax payers.

    There’s no particular need to be moralistic about these things, just make sure the message comes through loud and clear that simple things like love, marriage and faithfulness will automatically reduce inequality and poverty
    Thats the personal side covered, now the State needs to do its bit by making those three simple things attractive again.

    JC

  • Corlyss

    It is unfortunate that this analysis was published without the similar conservative analysis as a companion. It may be days or weeks before the other one appears here.

  • Pait

    As an opening shot this piece has conceded the liberal argument. It is an interesting strategy, from the point where this piece ended the anti-liberal argument cannot get into a worse position. Looking forward to the attempts to construct a conservative counter-narrative, but judging from the comments below I’m not very hopeful it will be a rational one.

  • Ian Deal

    Inequality is a red herring. What difference does it make how much more Bill Gates has than me or the poorest people in America? After five years of a progressive president, we have sufficient evidence to show that his liberal policies are not working. And their failure if most evident in the lack of progress for the poor, especially young, black males. So, let’s change the subject. Inequality has always been the justification of the marxist to confiscate other people’s property. The president and his leftist minions sow jealousy and envy into the wind in hopes of reaping electoral victories.
    The real history of America has always been about progress both for the individual and the country. Through hard work, we can improve our lot in life and provide a better future for our children. Many of us start out poor and dramatically improve our situations over the course of our lives. The cumulative effect of this is a growing country. Democrats used to represent people who worked for others and republicans used to represent job creators. Both groups were necessary and both groups’ interests were vital to the nation. With the decline of farm and blue collar jobs, the democratic party has stitched together numerous constituencies that have little in common. The Keystone Pipeline shows the cracks in the coalition as does charter schools. In both instances, democrats are turning their backs on the people they are supposed to represent in order to protect the interests of larger contributors.
    The democrats can only survive the next two election cycles by distracting voters from Obamacare, Syria, Ukraine, China, unemployment, the lackluster recovery, rising energy prices, etc. They hope the focus on inequality works. Mead’s piece just adds credence to the effort.