Why has so little been done about social and economic inequality? There are multiple hypotheses. The commitment to freedom, after all, means that within the capacious boundaries of the law, no one should prevent anyone else from thinking, saying, or doing whatever they like. That sensibility helps explain not only skyrocketing salaries and lower taxes but also how a mendacious serial swindler could become president of the United States, incite a mob to sack the nation’s Capitol, and (at least so far) pay no price for it. If freedom now trumps every other value, then solidarity and social obligation are for suckers. If only a lucky few can feast in our less regulated economic environment today, so much the better for them. If others are starving, say neoliberals, they should become entrepreneurs and get rich.
The problem, of course, is that the ideology of self-help is no more tied to reality now than it was during the first Gilded Age. Millions of Americans work more than one minimum-wage job or try to stay afloat as “independent contractors” in the gig economy, while others cruise ahead. False as its promise has proved for most Americans, neoliberal ideology has seeped into every part of our culture. The top 1 percent, those at the pinnacle of our economic pyramid, attract so much attention and criticism from progressives that less has been said about the top 10 percent, the segment of professionals and denizens of the new “knowledge economy” whose household income is more than $212,110 a year. Such upper-class Americans (who often consider themselves merely upper-middle-class) once voted Republican. Recently they have become, along with nonwhite voters, the backbone of the Democratic Party. Since the New Deal coalition fractured during the 1970s, the party now depends on a different set of voters.
This is a global phenomenon. Thomas Piketty, Amory Gethin, and Clara Martínez-Toledano at the World Inequality Lab (WIL) in Paris have studied voting across fifty democracies since 1948. The evidence in Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities (Harvard, $39.95, 656 pp.) shows that, whereas less well-educated voters in blue-collar and low-skilled service jobs voted consistently for social-democratic parties in the postwar period, they have now gravitated to conservative parties. Parties on the Left now rely on a core of highly educated voters who work in the knowledge economy. The standard explanation for that phenomenon in the United States has stressed cultural backlash against racial unrest, the counterculture, and feminism. But the shift of less-educated voters toward conservative parties in Europe predates by decades the mass immigration of non-Europeans often cited as its cause. The class-based party cleavages of the twentieth century, in short, have been replaced by “multi-elite party systems.” Conservative parties represent high-income and low-educated voters; liberal parties “have become the parties of higher-educated voters.”
In the spring of 1787, Madison argued in “Vices of the Political System of the United States” that democracies can fracture along multiple lines, of which class is only one. Among other factors, Madison also identified religion, region, occupation, culture, and the irrational attachment of some voters to individual leaders. The WIL group’s evidence confirms Madison’s analysis. Class is now one among other divisions, including “collective beliefs” concerning tradition, cosmopolitanism, authoritarianism, and the adequacy of neoliberal reliance on market mechanisms. In a recent working paper, “Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right,” Piketty argues that left parties have abandoned redistributionist programs thanks to near unanimity on the adequacy of capitalism. Moderate left parties’ acceptance of neoliberal ideas has made cultural conflicts more prominent, especially the resentment felt by the less educated toward the more educated.
By adopting the cosmopolitan worldview that, thanks to our education, seems to us self-evidently correct, we members of the college-educated elite have distanced ourselves from the cultures of those who lack not only tertiary education but also the privileges such education brings. Forgetting the advantages that the well-educated usually enjoy growing up, including intact families that prioritize schooling and instill self-discipline, we have consciously or unconsciously embraced the idea of meritocracy. Our preferred politicians, from schoolteacher McGovern and engineer Carter to technocrats Michael Dukakis, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and Obama, hold not only bachelor’s but also graduate degrees from the nation’s most selective universities. Culturally, these people inhabit a different world from the rough-and-ready cowboys Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—even if they were only fake cowboys—and the celebrity wheeler-dealer Donald Trump, even though he was only a bankrupt con man. Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham noted evidence of increasingly “polarized cultural conflict” in the United States as early as 1970. The battle lines have since become much more deeply entrenched. As Carlos Lozada showed in his exhaustive study of the books published during Trump’s presidency, What Were We Thinking (Simon & Schuster, $17, 272 pp.), four years of listening to the president’s unhinged harangues only intensified progressives’ bewilderment over his election. Four years of listening to Trump’s critics belittle his voters as ignorant dupes or racists only intensified their resentment.
Democratic presidents, while in office if not before or after, have shown no greater interest in the economic condition of struggling Americans than have Republicans. Millions, especially but not exclusively in the heartland, have watched their middle-class lives—and those they envisioned for their families—vanish along with the well-paying jobs that, between the Depression and the oil crisis, secured that status. Republicans tell voters that cultural elites are to blame for their situation; Democrats give them little reason to disagree. If an unstoppable “force of nature” reshaped our economy, as neoliberals have claimed for half a century, and if one party loudly endorses American traditions of patriotism, self-reliance, Evangelical Christianity, and white male supremacy while the other party makes fun of all that, then the choice for many voters will be clear.
Calhoun, Gaonkar, and Taylor borrow terminology from David Goodhart, who contrasts “somewheres,” whose lives are rooted in particular—and often decaying—places, with “anywheres,” whose cosmopolitan experiences and preferences shape their very different sensibilities. Joan C. Williams has been pointing out for decades, most recently in White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press, $22.99, 192 pp.), that those who provide service work and “care work” for the young, the old, the sick, and wealthy midlife professionals are understandably tired of elites’ condescension. Unctuous expressions of gratitude do not make up for long hours and lousy pay. Preserving your self-respect is hard when the entire culture undervalues your work while overvaluing those who, as John Adams put it, do nothing but push money around.
Wealthy Americans once voted Republican because they preferred low taxes and an unregulated economy. Evidently, despite their redistributionist rhetoric, so do most Democrats, whose tepid reforms offer “somewheres” little of economic value while supplying them with a steady stream of scorn. For that reason, Alan Abramowitz has argued, promises of economic redistribution might not persuade less skilled manual workers and service workers to return to the Democratic Party. We won’t know unless the party at last delivers FDR’s Second Bill of Rights or Rustin’s Freedom Budget. Even before Trump was elected, Larry M. Bartels and Christopher H. Achen provided evidence in Democracy for Realists (Princeton, $29.95, 408 pp.) that most people vote not on “issues” but on their personal situations, which have not improved for decades, and on their social identities, defined for millions of Americans by educational elites’ disdain.
Few Americans at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder even bother to vote, as Jan-Werner Müller points out in Democracy Rules (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 256 pp.). We are witnessing what Müller terms a “double secession” of the rich, who have escaped the world of public services for private enclaves, and the poor, who understandably feel excluded and ignored. The failure of Democrats and Republicans to take seriously the problem of intergenerational poverty helps explain why. Perhaps the answer, as E. J. Dionne Jr. and Miles Rapoport argue in 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting (The New Press, $23.24, 224 pp.), is to follow the two dozen nations where citizens are required to vote, or to follow states such as Oregon, which have instituted citizen-led initiatives to foster participation. Sadly, neither party seems interested in reforms to address the disengagement that plagues U.S. politics.
Beyond neoliberals’ upward channeling of profits from labor to capital and the role of tertiary education in distancing a new elite of cosmopolitans from other Americans, two more factors help explain our current condition.
The media landscape has been transformed by technology, by the blurring of reality through disinformation, and by the paradoxical consolidation of the sources providing information. Everyone understands how the internet has created echo chambers in which Americans find their own perspectives confirmed, amplified by passion, and intensified by endless repetition. When the “primary criterion of truth” is what “those on my side believe,” Calhoun, Gaonkar, and Taylor write, partisanship becomes “almost epistemological.” Trump’s lies were central to his presidency, delighting his loyalists while outraging everyone else. The 24/7 news cycle of our political entertainment complex requires ever more sensational stories, or at least ever-renewed outrage at the other side’s perfidy. Before the 1949 Fairness Doctrine was killed by Reagan in 1987 and the libertarians at WIRED magazine succeeded in making the digital world a new Wild West, nearly every community had its own local newspaper focused on local concerns. Most mid-century big-city newspapers either aspired to “objective” news coverage or had a competing newspaper to balance their perspective. Because most local papers have shrunk or vanished, many Americans now know less about community issues that really matter to their lives. Filling that vacuum, Müller argues, are obsessions with the largely symbolic, highly charged issues of the culture wars.