Anne Applebaum: It’s also true that Americans have always accepted a degree of inequality, inequality of outcomes. What seems to have changed in recent years, or at least in people’s perception of it, is something that the governor alluded to, which is that there seems to be growing inequality of starting place. That there’s…as long as there was a sense that okay, some people are rich, some people are poor, but at least I have a chance. I can pull myself from my bootstraps, I can work hard, I can found a company, I can create something—my children’s lives will be better than my life. As long as people had that sense, and also as long as they had the sense that they were participating in a bigger project, you know. That the words of the Gettysburg Address you know, and the Constitution’s, those are words that belong to all of us. We don’t share everything, we have different lifestyles, but we all are part of a system, and we can grow with it.
When people had that sense, when there was economic growth, when they felt there was upward mobility, then people tolerate inequality of some kind. Inequality is a part of the human condition and people accept it. But it’s when that begins to stop when people feel that there isn’t a chance, when the starting point isn’t fair for everybody. And when there isn’t a chance that it will be fair or it isn’t getting more fair. This is when people begin to object. And this is the point that we’re coming to now.
Roger Berkowitz: I think Anne is right. We tolerate inequality when there’s reasons for it, and when it doesn’t have extraordinarily harmful circumstances. I think inequality today is doing two things that it didn’t do at all times in American history.
One…you know, the starting point argument I think is something that’s been around for a long time but it’s gotten worse. That people are starting at a… The social mobility that the governor talked about is at lowest than it’s been in a long time.
But the other is, and this is what Anne was just talking about, is the loss of a common sense of belonging to a single nation or a single project. I mean two books that came out a couple years ago, one from someone on the left and from someone on the right… Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which really is about how the richest ZIP codes in America and the poorest ZIP codes in America just completely have a different language, have a different way of living, don’t talk about the country in the same way and don’t experience the country in the same way. And they don’t interact anymore. And he says that’s new, that’s not the way it was before. And then George Packer’s book The Unwinding about the unwinding of a common idea of an American dream. I think these two books, in different ways but in a similar way, talk about the loss of a common hopeful project that allows inequality to be justified.
And I just want to say one thing. You quoted de Tocqueville, right, on the equality of conditions. And I just want to remind us that when de Tocqueville’s talking about the rise of the equality of conditions and the equality of conditions in America, he’s talking about a 700-year story which he tells, right. Which goes from the fact we had a landed aristocracy, to the clergy. And the advantage of the clergy is that it was open to everybody. And then to the rise of jurists. Again, open to everybody. The equality of condition that he’s talking about is not actually economic equality. He says one of the things that you note what about America is there’s not misery like there was in Europe. But there’s inequality. But what he says is the equality of condition is the equality of everyone feeling that they’re equal as equal souls, as equal in a democracy.
Appelbaum: And equal before the law.
Berkowitz: And equal before the law, which is why he says that the overriding core of the spirit of American democracy. Right, democracy for him is dangerous, right. Because what democracy does is it takes away the intermediate institutions of aristocracy, which protected people from the tyranny of government. And he says democracy is happening. It’s a providential fact and it’s gonna happen in Europe and it’s gonna happen in America. Equality is happening. Our worry is how to protect ourselves from the danger of equality.
And his answer says the reason America was special and the reason he went to America is because of what he calls the dogma of popular sovereignty. The dogma of sovereignty of the people. And he says it rises up out of the townships. It’s that engagement in politics, that engagement that we think we can come together and do things together and control our world.
Derek Shearer: And let me just tell you, if you look at the rights of women over the last thirty or forty years in America… I mean in the 70s my own wife couldn’t get a credit card, couldn’t get insur— We have dramatically through our women’s movement increased the rights of women. We have dramatically, starting with the civil rights movement, finally realize what the Civil War was all about. And increased realized rights for African Americans. We have dramatically expanded rights for gay people. We have a much more egalitarian society than we’ve ever had in American history.
Now, that’s part of the problem. Because it is a messy process. It seems divisive to some people. We now have a diverse nation. And I would argue diversity is a strength. But there are people in the society…various levels, not just all wealthy people, who find this social change—and it’s happened fairly quickly—very threatening. It is not the America they thought—if we go back to oh, the wonderful cohesive America of the 50s. Yeah, when black people couldn’t vote. Latinos mowed your lawn. You know.
Sean Wilentz: And women couldn’t get a credit card.
Shearer: Women couldn’t get a credit card. They stayed at home. That was a great time? Not for most of those other people. So I think…my view. I think the country’s way way better. We still have problems. But I don’t think it’s in some…existential crisis.
Randall Kennedy: Before we get to the race question. And the race question obviously intersects and overlaps with other questions in American life. The race question, the gender question, the class question. But we began with the class question, and I want to go back to that.
I agree that in many respects America is…you know, there have been many advances in terms of social equality on various fronts. But before we get to that, I think it’s striking how often when we talk about inequality in America there’s the focus on the 1%.
I view the shame of American…you know, political economy as the bottom, not the top. I mean, you used the word misery. The United States of America is a wealthy country. Yet a quarter of youngsters in America are in poverty. I mean, impoverishment in America brings social misery. And there is not nearly enough attention paid to that.
Even the cur— I admire Barack Obama. I’m a supporter, I admire him. Barack Obama when he’s talking about redistributing income in the United States does not talk about the poor. They talk to politicians. All of the politicians talk about the middle class. They do not tal— Sometimes they make a mistake and talk about the poor. But the question of poverty and what that means in America…denied, obscured… That, it seems to me, if we’re talking about political economy, is where our attention should be paid.
Now, obviously everybody’s going to be implicated in that. But it seems to me that the question of the impoverished…for a for a moment it got attention in the 1960s. For a moment. But now, the problem of the impoverished does not get nearly the attention that it should get in the United States.
Berkowitz: Let’s add to the impoverished—I know you care about this too—the imprisoned. I mean, which is an enormous… I mean, we have a higher population of imprisoned population in our country than any industrialized country in the world. And the absence of dealing with either poverty or the imprisoned population—I think they go together—I think shows an inability to think about that misery. People don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think there’s a good solution for it, for a lot of people. I’m not sure.
Jeb Bush: So here’s an example of the world not coming to an end. There is a convergence on the left and right about changing sentencing guidelines. And in Washington— This is happening state by state. In Washington, if it wasn’t always “I win, you lose,” you could have—there’s a majority of Republicans in Congress that would call for a thorough review of the sentencing guidel—the federal laws. And the president has expressed support.
But instead of engaging, which is the duty of the President in this particular case, he’s using executive authority to try to solve this problem on the margins rather than deal with the core issue. I mean, that’s what we have to get back to, is regular order ways where when there is agreement, you pause and you take a deep breath and say, “Oh my god. There’s a left-right convergence. Let’s deal with it.”
Now, that happens…to your point, that happens at the local level more often than not. It certainly happens in state capitals. It’s not happening in Washington, and it creates this deep disaffection.
The other point I want to make is if we took all of Warren Buffett’s money…and there’s a ton of it. You know, 50 billion or whatever he’s worth. And the FBI came in expropriated every asset that he owned. All of ’em. It wouldn’t change someone who was born in poverty today. And so the conversation needs to get far deeper than saying like, the guy—I don’t even know who know he was there…the left wing guy that basically said effectively the rich guy is the reason why people are poor.
Well, maybe not. Maybe it’s because there’s an inequality of education in America. And there are people protecting the status quo to make sure the economic interests of the adults are taken care of first rather than kids in poverty gaining a quality education. Maybe it’s the inability to access the first job. Which is true. And we’re creating functional obsolescence for a whole lot of people that don’t have skills. You look at the automation that’s taking place today. It is not a joke to say if you’re born poor in America today, if there’s not a change in the path that you’re on, that you’ll never get a job.
And so, these are issues that the political system historically in our country has been able to pause, make adjustments, create the capacity for people to deal with the current challenges. And we’re not doing that now, and we’re doing it at our peril.
Kennedy: I want to go back to your… You mentioned the very first clip. And I think you’re right when you talk about…when you put front and center the race question. So I want to say something about the race question and I want to link it with a number of the personalities that have been mentioned.
So, there are three people who’ve been mentioned a bunch of times already. Lincoln, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Jefferson. All three of them spoke a lot, and thought a lot, about the race question. All three of them were profoundly pessimistic. All three of them thought that the United States of America would never be a multiracial society.
Lincoln through most of his life was very interested in colonization, because he said over and over again nope, we’re not going to have a society in America where white people and black people get along as neighbors and are going to be on an equal footing.
Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, his chapter The Three Races of America, profoundly pessimistic. Said no, we’re not going to see racial democracy in America.
Jefferson, too. Again, another person interested in colonization.
So. You know, these three very smart people, thoroughly pessimistic. Now, there is another tradition in American race thinking. There’s an optimistic tradition. The great optimist of the 19th century was a former slave, the great Frederick Douglass. The great optimist of the 20th century was Martin Luther King Jr.
In our century in terms of the race question, the most influential optimist is the current president of the United States, Barack Obama. [indicating Bush] Now I know that you and Barack Obama have your differences. But. But, one thing that you actually both agree on is that there is a— You know, he deeply believes that despite the history of the United States, and despite the current problems that confront us, and the problems are deep—we still live in a pigmentocracy in the United States in which the darker you are in the United States, the more you are at risk of the bad things happening to you, I don’t care if it’s incarceration, premature death, unemployment, what have you. But even in the midst of all that, Barack Obama believes that we shall overcome. And I believe that, too. But we are being really put to a tough test, and unfortunately there are people who think we shall not overcome. And unfortunately it’s not as if we can sneer at them and think that they’re just you know, being ridiculous. Unfortunately the pessimists have reason to be pessimistic.
Democracy Today in the USA event page