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.