What's the Real Divide in U.S. Society?
David Blankenhorn, Deseret News, 11/13/2015
Listening to many Democrats, I get the impression that the country's main division is between the super-rich and the rest of us. … Listening to many Republicans, I get the impression that the country's main division is between the federal government and the rest of us. … These theories leave me cold. … As best I can tell, the country's true main division is between the 30 percent who are thriving an the rest who are falling behind.
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Subjects: By IAV Leaders and Staff, Polarization
More by: David Blankenhorn
Listening to many Democrats, I get the impression that the country's main division is between the super-rich and the rest of us. The "Occupy Wall Street" movement famously claimed that the "1 percent" is ruining life for the 99 percent, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has embraced the "1 percent" mantra as the centerpiece of his surprisingly vibrant bid for the presidency. In the most recent Democratic presidential debate, Sanders missed no opportunity to declare that "all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent" and that nothing can fix the "major crises" of the day "unless millions of people begin to stand up to the billionaire class." It's a theory.
Listening to many Republicans, I get the impression that the country's main division is between the federal government and the rest of us. Are you worried about your next paycheck? Or your retirement savings? Or forest fires? Is the plumbing in your bathroom giving you trouble? Do you need some new socks? Listening to this week's Republican presidential debate, I learned that there is no grievance under heaven that can't be blamed on big government and no solution to anything that isn't premised on cutting taxes and getting rid of big government. It's a theory.
These theories leave me cold. Yes, government can be stupid and inefficient, and yes, I'm as dismayed as the next person by rising inequality and the antics of some of our super-rich. But in truth, compared to most rich countries, America is lightly taxed and lightly regulated, and most Americans, given a choice between hating rich people and trying to become one, choose the latter. As political strategies, lambasting the federal government and lambasting billionaires are like garlic. Garlic adds flavor, but who wants or needs a diet consisting entirely of garlic?
As best I can tell, the country's true main division is between the 30 percent who are thriving and the rest who are falling behind. Those of us in the 30 percent have four-year college degrees. Most of us enjoy stable, reasonably satisfying family lives – most of us marry, few of our children are born to unmarried mothers, and most of our children grow up living with both parents. We typically earn enough to avoid chronic financial insecurity, build assets over time, and save a bit for the future. We're usually members of groups and networks – from extended families to civic, religious, and professional associations – that connect us to others and enrich our lives.
Those of us in the 70 percent lack these advantages. Our education is non-elite. Our family lives are often fragmented, chaotic and painful. We typically have jobs, not careers, often with pay that's not enough and bosses we don't trust. Our social mobility is either static or downward. Our networks, especially if we're male, are often thin to non-existent, unless we count things like hanging out in bars and playing fantasy sports.
We probably once thought that we'd be solid members of the American middle class, but that's becoming increasingly doubtful for us and probably also for our children. Each year, the social, psychological and financial gaps between us and the 30 percent grow larger. A recent study by two Princeton researchers suggests that disproportionate numbers of us are killing ourselves – either directly, through suicide, or indirectly, though drug and alcohol abuse. We are the new American majority.
How can we turn things around for this new, hard-hit majority? I doubt that vilifying the rich, or even raising their taxes, will be enough. Nor is it likely vilifying big government, or even dismantling huge chunks of it, will be enough.
My colleagues David and Amber Lapp, researchers who've spent several years getting to know people in their 20s from this new American majority, choose words like "alienation" to describe what they're seeing. They link this alienation to a bad economy, with crummy jobs and poor benefits, and also to a bad culture, with fragmented families, thinned-out networks and weakening pro-social norms. In their writing, they especially explore what it means to lose trust – in your father, your lover, your employer, the system, your capacity to influence your own future. They say of this new majority, "When trust breaks down, meaning breaks down."
Here, I suspect, we get to the heart of the matter. We humans are made for meaning and for intimate relationships, and yet for the new American majority, those life-affirming prizes seem to be less frequently attained and rarer for society to give. I'm not sure what, exactly, we can do to change course. But surely we must try.
David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.
This article originally appeared here.